Macedonian Vampire in India"
DJ Clawson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Rating: strong PG-13
Only with permission
Characters: Aristotle, Feliks, Larry Merlin, Janette, Qa'ra
Warnings: Slash (non-explicit), Het (somewhat explicit) Rampant cursing, vampires acting like vampires, rather frank discussion of vampire sexuality, excessive violence
Betas: Walt Doherty, Judith Cataldo
Chapter 1 - Prologue
326 BCE Athens
"Aristotle," Theophrastus called, emerging from the workshop of the Lyceum, Aristotle' slave Phokon not far behind him. "The day is very hot and you have been out since the morning lecture."
Aristotle did not stop pacing. "Two facts of which I am aware. Thank you, Theophrastus." He did not say it harshly, though even if he did, his best student would not see it as so. Rather he was distracted, and uninterested in anyone else's medicinal concerns. He was no invalid. Not yet, anyway. Maybe he would go to Kos, and seek a remedy for his stomach troubles.
So they had distracted him. He sat on the lowest bench of the small amphitheater, the newest addition to his private school - private in the sense that it was not a school of Athens. Its grounds were just outside city lines, as he could not own land in Athens as a foreigner. It was nothing to the Academy in scope, but that did not stop it from being very popular, especially during his public lectures. And he had one this evening, not prepared. Sometimes they weren't, but he ought to at least devote some time to it before speaking the words. Aristotle accepted watery wine from Phokon. It really was much cooler in the shade. "Was I meant to have some appointments today? I confess I've forgotten them."
"No, Master," Phokon said, "but you have not rested."
"I am not tired." It was not a lie. His body was more animated when his mind was. "A student asked a question today and I could not answer it without wandering into blasphemy."
"A wise decision," Theophrastus said. The anti-Macedonian faction in Athens was looking for a reason to bring Aristotle up on any kind of charges, and expel the influential foreigner from the city - or worse. "May I ask what the question was?"
"You have already asked. The question is, will I answer?" He stroked his beard. Definitely too long, but it made him feel as if he had more hair as it disappeared from the top of his head. Some of it even still had color. "Does a rock have a soul?"
His student was unusually quick to answer such a metaphysical question. "Of course not."
"It is has form. It is made of matter. Why not a soul?"
"You have explained this before. A rock has no perceptions, therefore no mind, and therefore no essence. All living things have essence."
"Quite right. And a piece of marble?"
Theophrastus blanched. "A marble has the same qualities as a rock in terms of whether it has life. It has no perceptions and requires no nourishment. It is an object, matter in a shape and nothing more. It may just be a slightly different shape from a rock."
"A logical conclusion." Aristotle stood again, to Phokon's displeasure. "Now, would you say that the goddess Athena who sits in the Parthenon has no soul?"
Now the answer was not so quick on Theophrastus' lips. Not a native of Athens, he still had a healthy respect for their religion - or at least how seriously the citizens could take it. "You cannot say a goddess has no soul."
"The very opposite, in fact. Divinity is essence without matter. But we are not talking of divinity. We are talking a of a statue, made of marble, and covered in paint. With all we have established about the condition of inanimate objects - specifically, in this case, stone ones - how could we then say that the statue of Athena, the most revered stonework of Athens to which people pay daily homage, is nothing more than a collection of matter, lacking all essence, and since essence indicates divinity, one could then say that a plant, which has both matter and essence, is more divine than Athena Parthenos. I believe its sculptor would take offense to that, no? Fortunately for us, Phidias has passed on and therefore not here to question us about this very logical conclusion."
Theophrastus could not answer. It was Phokon, himself very learned for a slave, who said, "But the gods take human form. So gods can have both matter and essence as they please. Could we not then say they could become stone, too?"
"To save ourselves from a charge of impiety, yes. But it would not be true. If a goddess was to become stone, said goddess would cease to think. No mind, no essence. No essence, no soul. One could even go as far as to say that a goddess would be repelled by the idea of becoming inanimate, whereas humans are doomed to this fate, and become nothing more than a skull and bones."
"The statue is a representation of Athena. Surely we cannot expect her to be here in form all the time, however much she blesses this city," Theophrastus answered. "The statue is a device to inspire us and offer us a way to give sacrifices without requiring the presence of an actual goddess. Otherwise we would have no way to worship."
"That has yet to be proven," Aristotle said, pacing again, while Phokon helplessly tried to follow him with a fan. "But yes, it provides man with inspiration. It stimulates the imagination by its form. But does it have a soul? No. One could then go as far as to say it has no divine qualities whatsoever, and we could save money by worshipping uncut stone. It would be cheaper than these statues."
"Athena would not be pleased, I imagine." Thankfully Theophrastus was not of Athens, or he would be even less pleased with the conversation. Instead, the Pythagorean spent his time on plants and animals - the natural world as he could see it. Other students looked down on him for his perceived simplicity, at which point Aristotle would scold them for attempting to use only their minds for philosophy, and ignoring their other senses. Theophrastus used all five in his work. "The statue, inanimate or not, also serves to glorify and satisfy the goddess."
"That we can never know. Only assume, though it is a logical conclusion. If a man came and painted my house to show his appreciation for my existence, I would be pleased with him, if perhaps a little confused the first time he did it. Even more so if he did a good job. But, to those few who say that Athena in some way lurks within that painted stone, we cannot say, 'it has no soul.' Pure heresy, they would say."
"Then no one shall say such things," Phokon said, in his way to not displease his master. He was very good at it. "In this you are limited, Master, but all things have limitations."
"All except divinity," Aristotle said, smiling at Phokon in amusement and to assure his slave and friend he was not upset - not at Phokon. He was displeased with being restricted in thought and speech. "And the mind has no limitations."
"How can this be so? We are all limited in some capacity of thought. There are wise people and foolish people," Theophrastus said.
"Whether someone is capable of using it is another story, but the mind itself is not bound by the physical limitations of matter. Since it has no organ, it has no matter - but it does have essence. It has a soul - it is a soul, the divine form, essence without matter. It cannot be wounded or stopped or killed, though I have not precisely worked out yet what happens to it when we die. I will learn that, perhaps, when I do so myself. Experience is the ultimate tutor. But, this I can say - the mind and soul, the essence of all living things that have perception - is immaterial, so it must be immortal."
"You mean to say we will never die. Or part of us will not."
He shrugged. "Again. I have not the experience to say. As long as I walk this earth, I have both matter and essence, and therefore I have a soul."
"I lost a bet."
It was not the first time Alexander Green said it and it would not be the last. The vampire in front of him stuttered, then said, "So Aristotle - "
"You need to speak to him?"
"Leave a message on his machine."
"Okay." The vampire nodded and left. The only question that remained was whether he would make it all the way across the room and still hold in his laughter.
"Motherfucker," Alex sneered, and finished his glass of wine. He wouldn't have come, but he'd put it off too long. The current state of his hair - bleached and dyed bright pink, with matching eyebrows - was five days old. Twenty-five days to go. Too long never to get out of the house. He glared at Amanda. "Stop giggling."
"You didn't have to come."
"It's your Conversion Day. Plus I had to get out of the house. I can either get the jokes there or I can get the jokes here. There's really no difference except here I might have a chance to punch someone. So, you know." He raised his empty glass and clinked it with Amanda's. "Happy Conversion Day." It was not easy being Aristotle's son, but at the moment it just happened to be a bit worse.
Jimmy was the first to ask, "So what would he have to do if you won?"
"Shave his beard and keep it that way for a month."
"That's not half as bad."
"It is to him. He's got this whole thing about how the beard represents manhood and the wisdom of age. Also, I've seen him without it, and it's really funny." But Alex didn't win the bet. He thought he was better than a twenty-four hundred year old vampire at Pac Man, having spent most of his childhood obsessively playing it, but he was wrong. And now he had the hair (and eyebrows, that bastard) to show for it. Alex looked at his watch. "Twenty-five days and two hours to go."
"And then you're just gonna shave it?"
"No. Dye it black. Shaved head is worse." He added, "Not that much worse."
Fortunately they moved upstairs, to the VIP room, which was vampires- only, and Alex only took ribbings from people he knew and who knew not to mess with Aristotle's child beyond a friendly jibe. At six years old, Alex was still the youngest vampire in Los Angeles, but sooner or later some newly-turned runaway would make their way to Janette DuCharme's haven and Alex wouldn't be on the bottom rung anymore. But tonight was about Amanda Rogan, who had now been a vampire more years than a human - an important milestone in her eternity. While Alex couldn't imagine celebrating without his master, Amanda was in a considerably different situation, and they all felt (but never said outright) that it was better for Michael to hide in Paris and let Amanda live her own life under Janette's supervision. She could date Jimmy as she pleased, and she was saving up for her own place. She had a lot to celebrate.
Most of the crowd was young, under two hundred. The West Coast was the sort of place for fledglings to pass through, unmolested by their elders. European fledglings all had stories of being pushed around by the old aristocracy of the vampire world. They came to Las Vegas to party and Los Angeles to lay low after what they'd done in Vegas.
That was where Aristotle was at the moment - cleaning up a particularly messy disaster in Vegas. Usually Constantine could manage his own city just fine, so when he actually called Aristotle, something had to be up. Aristotle wasn't planning to be gone long (and Vegas was not so far away) and Alex had plans, so they went in separate directions, if only for a few days. Alex was rather proud that it was the second day and he had yet to freak out.
"Hey Alex - "
"I lost a bet."
"Wow. You've really perfected that stare-of-death."
"I've had a lot of reason to practice," he growled, passing the eight- year-old vampire before he had a chance to say anything else. Alex looked at his watch. Twenty-four days, twenty-three hours to go.
For all the flack Constantine got for being a flashy, irresponsible, disrespectful vampire, what he did, he did quite well. One of those things was get rid of bodies. Granted, the desert immediately outside Vegas provided a lot of opportunities, but it took some dedication to drive out there in the dead of night with just a shovel and a corpse, or a soon-to-be corpse. Very few city Elders would lower themselves to do that, but Constantine rarely handed the dirty work off to his thralls.
This time he did enlist the help of one person, though he said 'just for the company.' Aristotle the Ancient didn't have to do any digging, as promised, and sat on the hood of the car as Constantine made a speedy grave for an unfortunate security guard. "You know once I actually dug a grave and found another body. Randomly, I swear."
Aristotle looked in both directions, and found nothing but desert and brush. "I'm a little surprised, but not that much."
"I didn't call you out here to do this, but it needed getting done, if you know what I mean. He was starting to stink up my villa."
"I understand. Was this a killing rampage guy?"
"No, just a Resistor who saw it. And he was not someone who would be an appealing fledgling. Unfortunate for him." He pulled body out of the trunk and tossed it in the grave. "G-d I love Vegas. I don't know how I could live anywhere else."
"You could get better at hypnotizing people."
"Too much work," said the vampire who was shoveling sand back into a fresh grave. It was quick work for someone of his strength and speed - at over six hundred years old, Constantine was no weakling - and he distributed the dirt in the general area to cover up the grave-shape before returning to the car. It was cool in the desert at night, but neither of them felt it except when the wind was strong.
Constantine, true to his style, drove a Ferrari. "Thanks for coming out here with me. I know it's not what we planned, but aren't you sort of the master of changing plans?"
"I believe that's why you called me out here."
"Not so much this time. Yes, there's always a little paperwork to do, but I suppose you're not my secretary."
"Really? So nice of you to notice."
Constantine had a good-natured grin. Rambunctious as a fledgling and rambunctious as a New World Elder, Aristotle still found him to be insatiably harmless in his own way. He put up a good show, but he was usually pulling his punches, unbeknownst to the audience. The most irresponsible Elder in the New World (and possibly the old one) had a thorough, responsible character hiding behind his freewheeling demeanor. "So, how is everything?"
Constantine knew better than to ask about Aristotle's mysterious 3- year disappearance, from which the vampire world was still recovering. People could try, but no one could really do his job with such efficiency. Everyone had the right to leave society if they needed to, especially someone like Aristotle - the hapless would-be American vampire with no position of power, even locally. That he was much more than that was only the business of people old enough to know it. "And how's your fledgling?"
"Fine." He tapped the link. "Drunk."
Constantine laughed. He'd been brought across in a haste, but in the old way by a Mamluk noble, so he understood the nature of the traditional link between vampire master and child, however diluted his own link was. It was something that escaped most modern vampires, and was too much work to bring back into fashion, in the opinion of most Ancients. "You leave a kid home alone, he's going to throw a party."
"It's not in my house. He's not that irresponsible, to think that I'm not looking." He squirmed. "Even if I might have said I wouldn't."
"You're just being a responsible parent. And I know you don't take me seriously when I say something like that - "
"Not many people would."
"You're not many people." Constantine finally turned onto a real road, even if it was a dirt one. It wasn't just sand. "I had a fledgling once. Someone I really cared about. Not just someone I brought across."
Most vampires Constantine's age had created other vampires, by accident or intentionally, some in the dozens. So this came as some surprise, that it was just one that Constantine brought across the traditional way. "Should I ask a follow-up question?"
"We disagreed about ... things." Constantine actually looked uncomfortable, rare for his cool and calm demeanor. "He went on his own after forty years. The last I heard, he was mixed up in the Counterrevolution in France. The one with the guillotines. And then he died." At any distance, Constantine would have felt his death. "But you seem like a more responsible authority figure. Are a more responsible authority figure."
Constantine's villa was not far from the strip, but faced out into the desert. He also had a suite in the casino he owned, and permanent reservations in several others, but it wasn't as convenient for guests. Las Vegas was too brightly-lit for flying at night, at least within range of the casinos. Further out you could be as gaudy or sedate in your home design as you wanted to be. Constantine even had an infinity pool, of all the wasteful things to have in a desert. He said the water was mainly recycled, not accounting for evaporation. Constantine may have been a lowly Crusader who swore off wealth for Jerusalem in life, but he had no intention of living that way for eternity. Like his master, he lived like a noble. He even had a full- time live-in thrall for the housekeeping, who served them wine upon their return. It was late in the night, the time to relax before daylight, an instinct that came naturally even if one had no intention of sleeping.
"Where is Larry?" Aristotle hadn't seen Larry Merlin since his arrival. The hacker was busy with the security systems for the casino in question, the one with the disastrous poker tournament.
"Shacked up in the hotel. He's done with the tournament stuff, so I put him on something else."
"I hope you didn't phrase it that way." Larry was barely ninety years old, but there was no reason to talk to him like a fledgling. He was an invaluable member of the Community, more so than people four times his age.
"He practically offered. Apparently he doesn't get too many opportunities to look inside a casino security system."
Aristotle did not voice his concerns about Larry getting caught. It happened to every hacker sooner or later, but vampire hackers were particularly skilled at talking their way out of being arrested. The scrutiny worried Aristotle, but any kind of scrutiny always worried Aristotle. It was his job to worry about it.
He put in a call to Alex before his son went to sleep. The slurred voice on the other end of the line announced, "I dunno what to do. Seleucus is drunk."
"You gave him wine?"
"No, I feed - I fed him." He giggled. "He jus' fell off the branch. In the cage." Alex hiccupped. "I thin' my blood -
" - is loaded with alcohol, yes. What does he weigh? Nothing? Negative pounds?"
"Somethin' like that."
"Well, it's not like he can die of alcohol poisoning," Aristotle pointed out. This, like everything, Alex found hilarious. "Why don't you go to bed before you knock something expensive over?"
"I love you too, Dad." There were some beeps as Alex hit the wrong keys before finding the cancel button and ending the call.
Aristotle returned to the veranda, where Constantine had a smile on his face. "Kids, huh?"
Aristotle rolled his eyes and looked out at the desert, slowly turning blue as the sky began to lighten. "Yeah. Kids."
The dream with the pliers was the worst of them. The worst part was, Alex didn't remember what the pliers involved, just the approach of blood-spattered metal, and beyond that, only pain. Alex woke screaming, but as a human. It was the middle of the day, and the vampire was in retreat from the sun. Too afraid to go back to sleep, he forced his eyes open, fumbling for the bottle of blood on the bed stand. He nearly knocked over Seleucus' tank first, not waking the vampire chameleon, but he found the precious blood wine and guzzled it as fast as he could, and fell asleep clutching the bottle to his breast.
Alex woke at sundown still tense and unhappy, and very hungry. Even his fledgling lizard was sleeping in, so Alex went to the refrigerator and immediately pushed aside all the regular bottles for the small plastic jug in the back. The blood was cold and a few days old now, but it was still Ari's. Emotions faded with time and the heat of flowing blood, so it was hardly satisfying, but it was the best he could possibly do in Ari's absence. It even took the edge off his keen awareness that the demon in his nightmares was the same person who could provide relief from them. That was what Alex was really looking for. He was too tired at night when he woke during the day. He wanted to be numb for a little while from the paradigm and the memories of pain, caused by both the vampire and his loving master. He had to think about something else, and not dwell on it, but his motivation to get any work done was gone. He poured the remainder of Ari's blood into his mug and sunk into the couch in front of the TV. The channel- flipping was hypnotic, more fun than finding an actual show.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Alex looked down at his hand, where Seleucus was perched on his knuckles after climbing rather stealthily (he was a lizard) up on the couch. "How did you get out of your cage? Did I knock the brick over again?"
Seleucus did not acknowledge his question, or even move. Most chameleons were motionless most of the day, but Seleucus was a master of looking dead still.
"You don't want my blood. I'm all moody." He finished the mug, down to a few drops, and tilted it sideways. "Here. But don't tell him I gave you his blood. He doesn't give it out to anybody." He watched Seleucus greedily finish up the last of the blood. "I guess you're not just anybody. You rate, General."
He didn't need to call Ari. Ari called him. They didn't need to say why. "Hey kid."
"Hey." He picked Seleucus out the mug and put him on his shirt, where the chameleon would perch for hours. "How's Vegas? Wild and crazy? Champagne and dead hookers everywhere?"
"He would never let anyone know this, but Constantine actually has a really quiet place."
"I guess you shouldn't take your work home with you."
"Speaking of work," Ari said, "it looks like I might have a reason to be here a few more days. Do you want to -"
Ari chuckled. "You should let me finish my sentences, but okay." Even though it wouldn't make the slightest difference, he added, "Vegas is not what you think it is. Certainly not now, with everyone laying low." Of course, Ari could be in Antarctica and Alex would still go. They both knew that. "Actually it's more of a hacking job."
"I'll try to control my boredom," Alex said.
Twenty minutes later he was ringing the doorbell at Tetsuo's penthouse in downtown LA. Jimmy answered the door. "Oh. Hey."
"Hey." Alex had the plastic carrying case in one hand and a bottle of blood in the other. "I need a favor. A lizard-sitting favor."
"I don't know. Tetsuo isn't home yet."
"Amanda said no. Apparently they freak Janette out. And no pets at the club. Health code violation." He put on his pleading face. "All you have to do is keep the cage out of the sun and fill his dish once a day. Or you can feed him yourself. He might actually pay attention to you if you do that, but he mostly just sits on his branch. He's really into his branch."
Jimmy sighed. "Fine. But I have to call Tetsuo first." Jimmy Diesei, grunge rocker and professional DJ from Seattle, was a rather obedient fledgling to his Japanese master. He had a lot to be grateful for - Tetsuo took him in after turning him, at great inconvenience and personal expense to himself, and never mistreated him, even when Jimmy probably deserved it. Alex finally came inside, putting down the plastic tank, bottle, and a sheet with feeding instructions on the kitchen counter while Jimmy called his master and spoke in hasty Japanese, or that was the way it always sounded to Alex. "He says it's okay," was the result of the call, and he tapped on the plastic. The chameleon showed no interest in this foreign vampire. "So this is Severus?"
"Seleucus. Severus Snape is the Harry Potter guy."
"One of Alexander the Great's generals." He took a sponge out of his pocket and tore it into little pieces. "If you dip these in the blood, he'll suck on them. It's his only trick. And keep a brick on the tank, because he will get through that hatch and raid whatever bottles you have left open. And he's not really supposed to have alcohol, so don't feed him when you're drunk. As I learned last night."
"Last night was pretty crazy." And Jimmy was still wearing the same clothes, indicating he had just arrived home for the night. Alex actually checked with Amanda to see if Jimmy wasn't still at the club. Jimmy had always been rather mellow, but while in some kind of a relationship, he was actually happy. Not very grunge, but it wasn't 1992, either, even if Jimmy still occasionally dressed like it was. "Vodka really isn't so bad. There's a word I'm looking for to describe it."
"Medicinal. It tastes like bad cough syrup."
He shook his head. "I don't remember what cough syrup tastes like anymore." Jimmy was a few years shy of his third decade as a vampire. In a century their age differences wouldn't matter, but fledglings developed at exponential paces, so he was further into the darkness and away from his human life than Alex. He never talked about it, except maybe to mention his life in a band and the crappy jobs he worked to pay the bills. He never mentioned names of his band mates, some of whom were dead of overdosing and one who had returned to college and was now a banker or something. Jimmy had no contact with any of them after being brought across, like everyone else. Almost everyone else. If Jimmy didn't know Amanda was still in contact with her baby brother (now a congressman), it wasn't Alex's place to mention it. "But it was kinda ... medicinal. The blood helped. So where are you going?"
He nodded to Alex's hair. "Like that?"
"The bet stands. And it's a work trip, anyway."
"Everything with Aristotle is a work trip. Wait, why am I surprised?"
"Yeah, his idea of a vacation is four uninterrupted days of Worlds of Warcraft. So, thanks for this. Otherwise I would have had to smuggle him through security in my jacket. I owe you one." He looked at his watch. "I have a plane to catch. Any questions, chameleon-related or otherwise?"
"A million you can't answer, even if you do owe me."
He shrugged. "Story of my life."
Alex's flight was only an hour. He spent more time in both airports, full of desperate and tired humans, but he had no problem keeping control. Waiting on the other end, past security, was Ari. That occupied his thoughts for the length of the trip, despite the book in his lap.
"Hey, kid," was the entirety of Ari's greeting before Alex hugged him fiercely, burying his face in Ari's neck. "I missed you, too. What's with the wool cap? This is the desert."
"You made me dye my hair pink."
"That'll teach you to bet against me, at least over an arcade game." He gave him a friendly swipe before they proceeded to the taxi area. "Did I ever tell you about Otabek?"
"Now I may considered a bit of an obsessive weirdo, but Otabek probably beats me, or would if more people knew about him." There was a normal yellow cab waiting for them, not a limo, and Ari waved to the driver before climbing in. Alex didn't have much luggage, just his carry-on. It was an ordinary cab, littered with flyers for escort services where the girls would be genuinely surprised to be asked to escort you somewhere. Behind the glass was a typical fat cabbie with a five o'clock shadow and a heavy Slavic accent. "Where to?"
"Otabek, meet my son Alex." To which, Alex waved, because there was only a small slog between the plastic for someone to put money in. The filthy, broad-faced man smiled, his face like a bow when he did it. There was something vaguely Asiatic in his features, but it was mixed with northern blood. "Constantine's villa, if you would."
Otabek's ID boldly read OTABEK KULCHANOVSKY. From Alex's general sense of things, he was probably a few hundred years old. He was also fat and horribly attired in a Hawaiian shirt. "Alexander. This is a very good name."
"Thank you." There were few neutral questions with older vampires, but Otabek had a natural ease to his voice that made him very welcoming, so Alex asked, "Where are you from?"
"Lots of places. Now they call it Uzbekistan, Aristotle tells me." He laughed, or maybe it was a cough. The cab was non-smoking but Alex had a strong enough sense of smell to know Otabek smoked every chance he got. "I didn't know him, but I hear Alexander the Great conquered Uzbekistan. The first one. The Tsar Alexander, the second one, I did know. Not as a friend. But I had nothing to do with his death. You understand this?"
"I understand," Alex said, trying to decipher Aristotle's wicked grin. "I think my grandparents were Russian, or from somewhere in the area, on my father's side."
"Don't go. Your blood will freeze." It was not an indictment against Alex, just Otabek expressing his opinion. "I like Las Vegas. Blood doesn't freeze or boil. Just right. Your father told me all about you."
Alex glared at Ari. "He did?"
"Of course not!" Otabek laughed. "I could get the Chinese spies who come here to gamble as Japanese tourists to tell me nuclear secrets more easily than getting anything Aristotle doesn't want to give. Or maybe he has changed, but I don't think so. We don't change." He was a very fast driver, and they arrived at a luxury complex with the strip far in the distance, and Otabek slipped his card through the hole in the wall. "Give me a call if you need to get out."
"Thanks," Alex said. The meter wasn't on, and Ari didn't pay him anything, nor did Otabek seem to expect payment. Instead he just had a friendly goodbye and they got out onto the curb and Otabek sped away.
In answer to Alex's unasked question, Ari said, "He really likes to drive."
"He drives people around for free?"
"Just some vampires. Those who rate because they've helped him over the years, or they're Ancients. Or they're somebody's kid. Also his trunk fits like at least two bodies." He showed Alex down the rock path of the elaborate Zen garden to the main villa. "Larry Merlin is here. Staying in a hotel, actually. Once he got into the security systems to get rid of some of the tournament footage, he had to look around. Found some pretty interesting stuff."
He might have continued, but the door opened and Constantine welcomed them in. "Alex. Look at you. How you've grown," he said to Alex, even if it wasn't remotely true. In six years, Alex looked exactly the same. Except for his hair. "Aristotle told me about the bet. You don't have to wear that in the desert." He pulled off Alex's wool cap before Alex had a chance to resist, and though the Vegas Elder did crack a little smile, he had no further comment. "Come on in. I need someone to fix my computer. Aristotle hates it when I say that. Are you the same way?"
"I wouldn't say it," Alex answered, which amused Constantine. They had their own separate neo-Zen style hut, a mixture of countless influences, in Constantine's peaceful little complex. Alex was served by the live-in maid, and it was real quality stuff, which was about all that Aristotle would tolerate. "Do I finally get to hear what happened? Because it hasn't spread to LA yet."
"It will. Incorrectly, no doubt," Constantine said, and explained. "Wanting to get into poker, a master whom I will call vampire A decided to turn two online poker champions in some other state. When they realized they could hear the heartbeats of their fellow players, they entered the tournament circuit and started winning big."
"As most of us don't follow televised poker, nobody knew they were vampires," Aristotle explained. "Their master didn't tell me anything about them."
Constantine nodded. "So they're a year old when they come to Vegas for this nighttime poker tournament that's taped for television, as if security cameras aren't bad enough. Needless to say, the pressure of all the humans in the room and having to concentrate on the game got to one of them, Vampire C I'll say, because I think he was younger than his sibling. Not being able to leave the table because he thinks he has a winning hand - I think he did, but it didn't get so far as to win him anything - he bites down on his own hand. This attracts a little more attention than he thought it would. Vampire B's at another table, doesn't see it. Their master is actually at the slots, of all ways to waste his time.
"So the dealer expresses some concern at one of the players chomping down on his own wrist and sucking blood. Vampire C doesn't respond. Finally the guy next to him touches him on the shoulder. Wrong move, of course. Vampire C tackles him, goes for the jugular. Does it so fast that they would have to play it in slow-mo to catch what actually happened, because to everyone else it looked like he just attacked him in some bizarre manner. Vampire B is twenty feet away, realized the shit has fit the fan, and tries to cover up that his brother is making a meal of his fellow player by turning it into an actual fight, and bashing the poor guy in the face. Security arrives, as does their master, who still hasn't told me he's even in town or has two fledglings with him. It turns into an all-out brawl. Both fledglings frenzy. Their master is thinking damage control and pushes over the television camera, then gets on the poker table and tears out the security camera. Security tackles him, he breaks bones and goes for his fledglings, hoping to get them the fuck out of there before it gets any worse. It does, but not in the way he's expecting, which is that there's enough of a hubbub that people at the tables start grabbing chips while others are screaming. Now the hotel has a ton of security guards, but they call the police anyway, and I've got a line that contacts me if that happens, so I'm over there a couple seconds after I get the call that there's a particularly bloody fight going on at a casino. I walk in, look around, and call Larry, knowing I'm going to need him, then get two of my assistants to collect the fledglings and their master. Once they're out of the building, I keep the fighting going while remaining inconspicuous - which trust me, is difficult - and pull all the other security cameras out of their holes in the wall. Then the best thing is to just let the mortals go at it with each other while I do damage control.
"I call my crew. Fuck, I must have called everyone in the city with an thimble full of responsibility in them and start the stealing of camera equipment and the mass hypnosis, just to check that nobody saw any yellow eyes or fangs. The actual fight was over quickly and the whole area was sealed off, and we spent the night and most of the next day checking that everyone had been checked and hypnotized. The Enforcers arrive the next night, execute both fledglings, but spare their master, who in my opinion was the one responsible, but the Enforcers didn't really ask my opinion. One of them is good at hacking security systems, because we need to get what was recorded off the casino security system, but we need Larry and he arrives very late in the night and stays up about half the day, but he's not at his best during the day. Too young. I call Aristotle, as every vampire I called in probably has to go somewhere else. Oh, and I had to hypnotize a few local papers from running the story to include any mention of biting, then find out who ran the tournament and convince him not to air the footage, even for the news. The whole thing was a fucking mess, even for Vegas. Never bite in front of a television camera! Christ, rule number one." He shook his head. "I don't know how it's going to play out. Some things move too fast with the internet to blur out everything I want to blur out, so the damage it done, but it's minimalized. The only blogs we've found have been nutjobs or people making jokes about vampires."
"We've been lucky," Ari said. "And Larry got into the casino system and deleted the initial attack, looping in instead earlier material, then proceeding right to the mortal fight later. He doesn't get to hack casinos very often, so he took the opportunity to look at their new software. Incredible stuff."
"Bad stuff," Constantine said, showing concern. "Facial recognition software, heat sensors. Not to sophisticated yet, but unless there's a law that stops it, in twenty years, a vampire isn't going to be able to walk into a casino without some kind of scrambling device."
"Which is the current topic of conversation," Ari said. "We're pretty much the only ones in Vegas, as everyone else has fled or is laying low. Neat stuff. Scary, but neat."
Constantine did not look at amused at the concept of a new technology to threaten his lifestyle, but he put on a good face and bid them goodnight. There were covered walkways connecting all the buildings in his complex, so they were free to walk about in daylight, or Ari and Constantine were.
By now it was close to dawn, and Alex was tired from traveling. He answered a few basic questions about things in Los Angeles, then went to bed. There Ari gave him what he wanted. Asking was not required or necessary. He wanted Ari's blood for so many reasons. He was no longer an infant, constantly needing his master's blood for control, but it was soothing and it was the main reason he came to Vegas. Other fledglings his age didn't constantly want to feed from their masters, but their links were not strong, and the action of drinking directly from the neck while Ari stroked his hair such utter bliss. He didn't know how empty he felt until he drank and felt whole. Ari didn't take from him - he just gave and gave, and set a tired Alex down. "Good night."
Alex's voice was a little slurred. "You're staying up?"
That was fine. "Good night." Everything was fine, as Alex floated rather than drifted to sleep.
Alex woke in his usual state: hungry, and perhaps a little confused about his surroundings. He stumbled around the villa in a frantic search for food.
"Ah, the siren call of a hungry fledgling," Constantine said from the armchair. "Bumping into things. The fridge is to your left."
Alex snarled under his breath and grabbed the first unlabeled bottle he found in the fridge. The vampire demanded blood, even dead and chilled, and would not be quiet until it had it.
"I don't imagine you were any better," Aristotle said to Constantine. He was on the sofa, his computer on the table in front of him. "Good evening."
"Evening." Sated, Alex rubbed his eyes and took a seat next to his master, still a bit sleepy while the vampire processed the blood. Ari was still wearing the same clothing, a sign that he hadn't slept at all. He didn't look strained about it; sleeping just wasn't that necessary to him when he was busy. "What's up?"
"We're waiting to hear from Larry, who must be waking about now," Ari said. Larry Merlin was only 90 at most. He still needed to sleep the whole day. "I suppose we could hit the strip, if there's something you want to see."
"He's never been to Vegas?" Constantine was dressed differently, but as usual, in some enormously expensive suit, even if it was less flashy than his normal attire. "It's like a city made for vampires. All the monuments are here and they light them up for night."
"A casino shaped like a pyramid does not count as a monument," Ari defended. "And the sphinx is just tacky."
"No, the medieval castle is tacky. The sphinx is okay - and the closest I'll get to seeing it without stepping into Council territory. Which I do not want to do ever again."
Alex knew better than to ask what the 'again' was about. People didn't go to see the Council themselves unless they had to. No news was good news. "Well I haven't seen any of them. Even if they are tacky."
Ari nudged him. "Then get dressed." He was perhaps indicating that boxers and a T-shirt were not appropriate attire, even in Vegas.
Alex changed into something decent, only to find Ari dressed in the attire that made him even more unassuming than he normally was. In a Hawaiian shirt, khaki kulats with matching vest, sandals and even the white brimmed hat, he looked like every other grandparent here to spend their pension fund. He completely accepted Alex's laughter and just said, "At least my hair is only gray."
Constantine had Elder business, and would meet them later. There were no pressing, Code-breaking emergencies, so they had some time before meeting Larry. And the pyramid hotel was the real thing - except it was black. It dwarfed the sphinx, which up close was rather tacky, but they were both overshadowed by the gigantic hotels on either side. "So which casino does Constantine own?" Alex said as they walked along the strip, lit up to rival Times Square, but with fewer drugs and more prostitution, and the same amount of unsuspecting tourists.
"He prefers people not to know. It's not one of the major ones," Ari said. "And it's a tremendous amount of paperwork to hide him behind this entire board people who only exist on paper. Casino owners are high-profile figures, at least to the Nevada gaming board. Someone else actually owns it. I've been trying to talk him into giving it up, but I think it's a matter of pride. Vegas is his Jerusalem. Or Constantinople. Whichever was more important to him in life." They passed a poster for the Camelot hotel medieval themed male strip show - 'see the knights without their armor.' "He has a good sense of humor about these things. Also, in his own words, he wasn't a very good knight himself."
"I imagine stripping off a suit of plate armor during a show would be kinda problematic," Alex said, then shook his head. "Ow. Imagery."
"Of a hysterical woman getting beaned by a gauntlet? That is pretty funny."
"So telling you to stay out of my head is just completely pointless, right?"
"Pretty much." They stopped in front of the Bellagio to see the fountains go up. "Ah, timed eruptions. Like Old Faithful without all the magic of natural causes."
"Also I heard real geysers smell bad."
"That is true."
They were both a little distracted by people walking along the strip. Hunting here would almost be too easy, with so many attractive and inebriated mortals and an easy way to ditch their bodies. One couldn't help but hear their excited heartbeats, over-stimulated by the lights and noises of Vegas. Ari looked calm and neutral as possible, but Alex was shoving down the vampire. He could see the allure of Vegas to a vampire. Yes, definitely.
"Stop drooling," Ari said, and practically had to drag him into the Borgata. This place was no Reno. Endless rows of slots and tables made quite a lot of noise even without the mortals swarming around them. These mortals were not all sexy and well-dressed, or cheering each other on like in movies. They were mostly fat tourists who were desperately concentrating on their games, as if that would improve the odds by a single percentage. Ari was more interested in the elevators. "Larry's waiting."
The elevator was actually sort of calming, once the mortals got off on the lower floors. The steel separated them from the noise and heartbeats. Alex generally spent a good deal of time around mortals for a vampire and was used to their presence, but he hadn't felt the hunter in him since they left Guatemala. Maybe after nearly a year, that part of the vampire was finally recovering. It was healthy to have a little desire to hunt, even if current circumstances made it impossible.
Larry Merlin was in an executive suite, of course, which had a sign to not make up the room. The cleaning lady would have been shocked to find so many computers, or at least screens, laid out across the dining table. "Welcome to Vegas, Alex." He sat down at the computer station after only getting up to let them in. "Help yourself to whatever's in the fridge. Ignore all the food. It came that way." The perpetual tick and dark circles under his eyes were present, just part of his vampire self and not an indicator of his actual nervous state. He actually seemed a little excited, though it was difficult to detect. Ari went for the fridge while Alex took a seat at Larry's multiple monitor setup. "Welcome to the Borgata," the hacker vampire said, and clicked on a window, bringing up the camera over a blackjack table on the main floor. "If it was just security cameras, it wouldn't be that interesting. I can watch people in hotels from the floor. But this - this is incredible." He typed and brought up a different screen, of the same table, but now with dozens of calculations following the action in some yet-incomprehensible way. "They're working on facial recognition software. Not to identify faces yet - they're not that good."
"The best developers for that are in China," Ari said, returning from the kitchen area, "working for the CCP."
"See, I thought at first, it as facial recognition to catch repeat offenders. But the program isn't interested in identifying faces. It watches ticks, eye contact, things like that."
"Things that cheaters do," Alex guessed.
"I don't think it's as simple as that. I think they're actually trying to gain an advantage by learning gamblers' psychological habits - more than they already do - and predict their moves. Not that it matters much in blackjack or the slots, but it opens up a world of tracking possibilities. And then here's this." He opened a file folder. "It doesn't look like much. I couldn't figure out what it was because it wasn't an active program, but it's heat sensing software."
Ari poured wine for all three of them. "Incredibly problematic, of course."
Vampires generally maintained a body heat close to the temperature of their environment, but it would never drop below freezing or go high above 120 degrees. Meaning, if the equipment was sensing heat spikes from the 98.6 body heats of the mortals in a room that was 70 degrees, it wouldn't see the vampires. "So we're invisible," Alex concluded. "Is that a problem?"
"Once they link it to the cameras, it is. The technology isn't sophisticated enough, but you can't watch a person and have no heat spike. Alarms will go off when we walk in the room. Serious stuff."
"If they can make it work," Ari said. "I've seen plenty of technology scares that threatened our existence. I don't have time to freak out over every one of them." He poured his own glass last and relaxed on the couch. "I'll write Hacker Quarterly, come up with some counter- measure to block the sensor."
"We don't have one," Alex said.
"No, but it gets people talking. Everyone wants to make their own way to cheat the system," Larry explained. "Charlie Stross's blog."
"Good place for technological conspiracy theories," Ari said. "Build up a conversation on it with a few different accounts and either someone will come up with a way to fool the technology or the developers will abandon it, or both. That's how we convinced the auto industry to allow people to take the GPS system out of their cars. Had too many people freaked out about it and developing ways to ruin the whole GPS system."
"But you're fighting the advance of technology," Alex said in disbelief. It just didn't seem like something Ari would do. "The advance of society. We don't know what kind of useful programs these dangerous ones will lead to."
"If humanity really wanted this stuff, they would go for it," Larry defended. "Instead they get worked up about it and stop themselves. We barely need to get them going. They could overcome their fear of new things, but they don't. It doesn't matter if we throw the match on the tinderbox or some other lunatic does."
"We can't even convince them to invest in the progress they need," Ari added. "Where's all my cancer research money going? Stem cells are the answer. They come up with reasons, supposedly moral ones, to not see the chance of achievement and remain as they are." He finished his wine. "I legitimately believe that mortals choose not to believe in vampires. There's been enough evidence over the centuries that we exist. We're far from perfect, and there were millennia where we barely covered our existence up, just killed anyone who got in our way. At the end of the day, they want us to stay mythological. Some projection of their own psychological urges that they can't otherwise express."
"It's not rational, but it's humanity at work," Larry said.
"Now, that's not entirely fair," Alex said. "We don't do research into our existence. Our origins are still shrouded in myth when there's at least one person alive who undoubtedly knows the origin of vampires. We're perfectly human - nobody wants to think we're just a pathogenic mutation, even if it is the most logical conclusion."
Larry looked at Ari. "The kid's right."
Alex's master just smiled. "Well, I don't bring across just anyone."
They spent the rest of the night with an exclusive look into the working security systems of the Borgata. Larry made a copy of the actual system, but he was still monitoring all the daily activities for as long as he could stay in. The system was appropriately labyrinthine for a massive casino on the main strip of Vegas, but amazingly user-friendly. Ari decided to watch during the day, as Larry couldn't stay awake with any great awareness, and Alex was invited to stay with his master, even if it was only passed out on the couch. Ari was still in the same position twelve hours later when Alex woke and stumbled to him, and to the bottle of blood on the table. He poured himself a drink and Ari scratched him affectionately on the head. He looked tired.
"How long have you been up?" Alex looked around. Larry's door was still shut, so he was still sleeping.
"A few days. I'm not sure precisely. When I got here everyone was still in panic mode, and sooner or later Larry's going to either get noticed or get knocked out of this awesome system. It seems like a waste."
"There'll be some other casino security system to hack."
"True." Ari rubbed his beard. "I suppose you're trying to tell me to go to sleep."
"I wouldn't say it. Yet."
His master smiled. "Tell Larry to take you to a magic show. Not because he will. Just to get him going on modern magicians."
"Wasn't he a magician?"
"That's how he got his name. And he was a magician for a traveling carnival, so it was all about moxie and showmanship and pep and other words that apply to that era."
"What did his master think of that?"
"He doesn't know anything about her. She came to see the show, turned him, and disappeared. She left a note, but he's never found her."
"But he would feel her death."
"Yes, but it's possible he wouldn't know what he felt, especially if she died soon after he was turned. When I moved to the States, we really tried to find her, but nobody's ever heard of her or seen her. Some vampires are like that. They don't make it, or they don't want to make it. They don't know the damage they're capable of causing and their creations are just passing ships in the night. She might not even have known she turned him. And yet some of our strongest are made this way, if they can survive the first few years on their own and they have something to keep them going." If Ari knew her name, he wouldn't tell Alex without probing, and Alex wouldn't probe. It was Larry's business, not his. He already had access to enough privileged information just because he was Aristotle's son. "You're right, of course. We don't give mortals enough credit. We're just like them, not wanting to look into our own past or even our own bodies for answers."
"You would if you could. If the Council hadn't banned research."
"I could be more proactive, but I always play it safe with the Council. Lot of good that does me, of course." Though they hadn't heard from the Council since Alex's failed kidnapping. Egypt was silent on the matter and had no direct or indirect contact with Aristotle. Ari assured him this was quite normal; they were licking their wounds and they might be doing so for decades or centuries - or so he could only hope. "When I was young, I was very interested in the nature of the vampire, but Qum'ra discouraged me, I think because of our family history more than anything else. And once I lost him, I lost his protection, so I bided my time until I was strong enough to speak for myself. That took two thousand years. So the answer is, I'm working on it." He yawned, showing his fangs. "Okay, maybe I should sleep. Someone should stay in the room anyway, in case they try to make it up. We have some weird-looking wine."
Fortunately Larry took that moment to emerge, greeting them as he poured himself a drink. "Aristotle, you look - "
"You're going to say I look like hell, but you haven't seen me like hell," Ari said. "But okay, I've heard from enough people now. I should rest. Alex, keep an eye on Merlin over here. He's trouble." He ignored both of their looks, kissed his son on the cheek, and disappeared into the second bedroom. "My phone's on if you need me!" came his voice muffled by the heavy door, and then silence.
Larry finished his breakfast. "So who exactly took care of him before you came along?"
"He had a lot less to worry about before I came along," Alex answered. "So I'm supposed to ask you about Lance Burton."
Larry's eyes were livid, but fortunately not from the vampire. "That smarmy prick! He wouldn't know a magic show if it hit him in the face. People like him because he's nice when he's tricking people, but he's so smooth he doesn't even have to trick him them well." He shook his head. "If I could tour, if it would be possible for me to have a public persona, I would blow them away. Really stump them. But that's because of my vampiric speed for slight-of-hand - you would have to be watching very carefully to catch the trick. Though I do like to think I was good at my job when I was mortal. But the way he charms the audience ... bleh. He plays down to the tourists. That's why they like him. Penn and Teller, they're harsh. They have new tricks because it's all technology, special fluids on the cloths and magnets to make things fly, but they do it to really fool you. And they're not nice about it. It's not how I would do it, but it's very brave, and the Vegas audience doesn't require bravery. In my day, they didn't like your act they would throw shit at you - real shit from the stable - and then demand their money back."
"I guess that never happened to you."
Larry squirmed. "Only a few times. In the early days. I was a kid then. Sixteen. Seventeen. It took time to perfect the act." Larry was in his late twenties, maybe early thirties. There was something sleazy about him, as if he'd never washed the whole carny persona off when he joined the ranks of the immortals. Now in a nice suit, he just looked like a sleazy lawyer or a guy you would buy drugs from. "And it was hot. It was the dustbowl in the summer. None of this air conditioned, climate-controlled nonsense."
"Those were the good old days, huh?"
"Are you fucking kidding me? I would never go back to them! Hot all the time, half-starving, with no one but the carnival to support me and they would stab me in the back if they had to." But his voice gave away some of his nostalgia. "I heard you talking, by the way. About my master."
"Sorry. I was curious."
Since the maid service wasn't coming, Larry cleaned his own glass in the sink. "Aristotle's right. She's probably dead. But I suppose the more people know about her, the greater the chances I'll find her."
"Who was she?"
Larry sighed, a strangely calm action for the wiry vampire. "Her name - or the name she gave signed the note she left with - was Dora. She came to my show one night, and I thought I had her number with a quick look. A desperate, lonely woman eager for more than the entertainment of a carnival ride and a rabbit in a hat, though I could never consistently do the hat trick. The rabbits kept dying from the heat. When she approached me after the show I wasn't the least bit surprised. She was dressed like a housewife, but I didn't ask for an explanation. No ring, but a lot of wives sold their gold rings during the Depression, so that didn't mean anything. The only thing genuinely surprising was how mind-blowing the sex was. I didn't even notice she bit me. I must have passed out at some point, slept the whole day, and when they came to wake me for the evening show, I jumped the nearest person. Then I found the note. She didn't explain anything, just apologized for hurting me, but she said she'd already hurt enough people with her presence so it was best to leave me alone. And some other stuff, too personal for me to say now." Alex just nodded. "We were tight at the carnival - so tight that they gave me a few days to collect myself and deal with it. They gave me some money for the train and assured me that there had to be others like me. I mean, I knew about vampires, but only in the sense of legends. I didn't know what I really was until I met another vampire on a train, an African headed to Los Angeles. I never saw or heard from Dora again, and I did look." Larry tried to shrug it off. "She's probably gone. She was American, so she couldn't have gone far without someone noticing an American vampire wandering around. But Aristotle says some vampires are really good at hiding, and haven't been seen for thousands of years. Aristotle likes saying assuring things to fledglings."
"He's not doing it to be patronizing," Alex said. "You never know who's gonna turn out well and who's going to walk into the sun. He just gives everyone a chance."
"You know more about him than I do." He checked the computers again. "So I should probably get out while Aristotle's guarding the place. Get a real drink. Wine, wine, wine. I'm a Scotch man. You?"
Alex shrugged. "I remember I used to like gin and tonics, but I can't get the mixture with blood right."
"Trust me, it's never going to taste the way it used to. You have to find a new 'right' taste."
"Is that an invitation? Because I'm supposed to be on my best behavior."
Larry rolled his eyes. "Is there ever a time you're not supposed to be on your best behavior?"
"Ha! Vegas, you suck and I kick your ass!"
Larry tried to shush him, but Alex was beyond that. He was beating the slots and he was drunk. The two shouldn't have coincided, but they did. His reflexes were that good. Granted it took four hours at the same machine to learn how the wheels were situated, but his senses were built for tracking movement and responding, so it wasn't impossible for him to learn to hit the buttons at the exact moments to get three of a kind. He was learning! And he was also learning that no matter Larry said, whiskey was terrible. Vodka was a little better, the flavored type that was mainly chemical.
"Okay, kid. Time to stop winning."
"You don't get to call me kid. You're not old." Alex held his cup of coins to his chest. "You're like ... a speck ... blink. You're like a blink in the space of time for Ari." Alex looked down at the cup. "I want to get a finger trap."
The older vampire laughed and finished his drink. "This isn't a boardwalk amusement park. That's real money. You can buy more than a finger trap with it."
"I have money. I want a finger trap. No, wait, I'll just break it. I'm gonna get the mega comb!" He staggered off the stool, and Larry caught him. "It's longer than a regular comb."
"I'm sure for all the money in that there's someone in this town who will sell you a long comb. Just not in the casino itself."
"This casino sucks. No one's laughing and sexy and planning a heist. It's all underdressed old people." He pushed away from Larry, attempting to stand on his own as he steadied himself. "I live with Ari. Enough said?"
Larry was cracking up. "Enough said."
As they passed the roulette table, Alex dropped his bucket in the lap of an old woman. "Here, grandma. Keep the change." He didn't mean it to be derogatory, but the bucket was heavy and he wanted to get rid of it. "I'm not allowed to win big anyway. Too conspicuous." He didn't wait for her reply, stumbling to the all-night breakfast buffet before realizing he had no reason to go in there. "Yeah, I am a lush. What of it?" Larry hadn't asked but he answered anyway. He was so used to answering questions before they were asked, or Ari doing it to him. He had no connection with Larry to make him do that, but it was just second nature to guess.
"I think you did all right."
"You're just humoring me."
"Did Ari tell you to humor me?"
"No. Not everyone takes orders from Aristotle."
"He doesn't give orders. He gives polite suggestions." He swerved, and Larry caught him again. "I wanna see Lance Burton."
"Not a chance. I'm way too sober and you're way too drunk."
"I'll buy your drinks."
"You just gave away all your quarters."
"Ssssshh," he hissed. "Don't tell - I'm a rich vampire! But it's a secret. Can't tell ordinary people."
"I'm going to take back what I said about you not being a lush."
"And if I ask Larry," Ari said, nudging their host, who was passed out on the couch of the suite, "he'll confirm your story?"
Alex was still a little buzzed, so he grinned stupidly. "Yeah, he got really loaded and Lance Burton doesn't like it when you shout how the trick works. I mean he was cool about, didn't say anything, but the security guys were not cool about it. And we couldn't beat them up because then everyone would have known we were vampires."
"And we have to keep that secret."
"And that's why I had to stop winning even though I totally figured that slot machine out. I had a system."
"You had a system."
He raised his hands as if he was punching the buttons on the slot machine. "It's all about timing."
"I'm sure it is."
Alex ran a hand through his hair, which tipped his baseball cap off and onto the floor. "Where's Larry?"
"Oh." He wasn't so easy on his own feet. He wondered if Ari would keep him standing there for much longer. It was still dark out, but he had a great desire to lie down anyway. "Can I pass out?"
Ari looked amused. "You don't have to ask permission for that sort of thing."
"You're - you're not mad at me?"
"If getting thrown out of a Lance Burton performance for drunkenness is your worst crime in Vegas, you're doing well. Get some sleep, kid."
"I'm supposed to help with the computers."
"They'll be here tomorrow."
"Kay." He wasn't going to pass out, but the idea of not staying upright was increasingly appealing to him. "G'night."
He thought maybe Ari was holding back on him, but Ari usually didn't pretend to be amused when he wasn't. He was very obvious when he was disappointed. Alex decided not to strain his mind to think about it anymore and collapsed on the spare bed.
It was time to leave the Borgata system. They were in too long. Aristotle woke Larry out of his stupor before dawn to get his approval, and they logged out together. They would check out in the evening. Aristotle checked on Alex, sleeping soundly, and closed up the computers. The casinos was generally devoid of daylight, putting people in worlds of their own making, and because sunshine might implore people to venture outside instead of dropping their money at the tables. He wanted to try the slots, to see if he could find Alex's system in a particular slot machine, and he wasn't impeded by being drunk. It was hypnotic in a way, but the bells and whistles of the casino floor were too distracting to his vampire sense to let him be truly sucked in by the experience as easily as mortals. He truly had to concentrate on the spinning wheels to not be distracted. It took a few hours, but his eyes were wired to track their prey, in this case the placement of the 7's on the three different wheels. He wasn't looking at his watch, but he could sense the sun, and it was early afternoon when he officially found the right timing and began to beat the slots.
He normally ignored the mortals who did sit down next to him, but the man next to him was too well-dressed and too serious for three in the afternoon. Nor was he sipping a piña colada with a bendy straw and two umbrellas like Aristotle was. "Mr. DeMarco."
"Officer," he replied, not looking away from the glass. "I didn't know winning was cheating, though I know the casinos think that."
The man did the same - continue looking straight ahead and pumping nickels into his machine. They were both on camera, after all. "Agent Harris, DEA. We're aware that you have a relationship with Constantine Demir."
"Sorry, but he's not my type."
"But you have been a guest at his villa and have done accounting for his foundation."
"I work in estates. I've done a lot of accounting. And you're messing up my concentration." He was; it wasn't a lie. "And yes, I was a guest at his villa a few nights ago. He has a very nice place. Even a water- wasting infinity pool. He says it recycles but there's got to be some energy output there."
"There's a pending investigation of him and all of his assets by the department. As his accountant you could be considered an accessory."
"Unless I cut a deal with you?" Now Aristotle did turn, or more accurate just spin on his stool. "An appealing offer, but I don't have anything to give you, as Constantine's not involved in anything illegal, much less something to attract the attentions of a fine officer such as yourself. He doesn't like drugs and neither do I. I did hashish a few times in the 70's but I couldn't stand the smoke."
"Are you prepared to make a statement to that affect, and possibly perjure yourself?"
"I can testify that if Constantine is involved in drug trafficking, I have no knowledge to that effect and would be incredibly shocked and personally, very disappointed in him." He looked down at Harris as he discreetly flashed his badge. "Either you have a lot of information on me - which I'm sure you don't - or you hope to bully me into something, which you won't. And I suppose you would prefer you escort me out of the casino before you arrest me."
"We'd just like to take you down to the station for a few questions."
He focused on Harris' heartbeat. "These casinos have plenty of places for questioning suspicious characters. You're willing to request permission for a room to question me here."
"... request permission for a room to question you here ..."
Whatever this was about, all he knew was that Constantine would have a lot to answer for at the end of the day. Constantine probably wasn't sleeping, but calling him would be a mistake. Besides, he was interested in knowing what this was about and how it got as far as him. It wasn't supposed to.
The Borgata did, in fact, have a police-like interrogation room, with uncomfortable fluorescents and a lousy table. Agent Harris, upon request, more officially showed him his badge, but didn't read him his rights. The second officer was on his way.
Harris brought Aristotle coffee, and put his badge on the table, as if that was supposed to do something. Aristotle ignored the coffee. He wondered if he could ask for another piña colada and since it was a casino, actually get one. It would be the most ridiculous thing he ever pretended to drink during an interrogation.
"We know Constantine Demir is the real owner of the Palms, and has been for sixteen years," Harris said, very certain in his tone. "He has a controlling interest in a board of directors we can't find except on paper. All internationals. Constantine himself is a Turkish national, and bought the hotel right after he earned US citizenship. The man currently considered owner of the hotel is just there for public appearances."
Aristotle said nothing. He didn't want to contradict their story or reveal how much he knew about Constantine. He was much more interested in their source. "Since you're from the DEA, you might as well tell me what drug this is about."
"Forty pounds of heroin."
"Well I don't know how heavy heroin is, but I'm going to assume that that's a lot."
"That's the most recent shipment."
Aristotle raised an eyebrow. If Constantine was seriously involved in the drug trade in Vegas, especially through his own hotel, something would have showed up on his books. This was really between him and Feliks, but the agent didn't know that and Aristotle wasn't about to enlighten them. And Feliks would have said something - he didn't want any of his clients doing blatantly illegal business. It was bad for his image. More likely, the public owner of the Palms was doing something on the side and interested in framing Constantine. Last he checked, the owner of the Palms didn't know about Constantine, at least in the capacity agent Harris was describing, so there was a leak somewhere. Aristotle just had to find it. "Anything else?"
"As his accountant, you must have noticed some irregularities over the past few months - even for a casino."
"I'm not his accountant. I have done some accounting for his foundation, yes. And no, I did not see anything irregular that would alarm me." It needed the qualifier at the end, because the accounts were always irregular. Aristotle created six fake people to sit on a board with Constantine, and updated their profiles and Constantine's paperwork as necessary. They even paid taxes. "Who told you Constantine owns the Palms?"
Sometimes federal agents were hard to hypnotize; sometimes they were doormats. It was generally the latter if Aristotle was just asking for information, not to convince the officer he hadn't seen something. "Who told you about Constantine?"
"The owner," Harris replied, his voice a bit robotic and scared. His heartbeat was racing, and Aristotle was especially focused on it. "Vincent ... Scagnelli."
"Was this before or after you found heroin in the hotel?"
"We seized a shipment ... five miles beyond town limits."
"And you arrested Vincent?"
"Had to pull his passport. Court order..."
By the time the other agent arrived, he had most of what he wanted from Agent Harris. He convinced them to both give him a moment to think, and to leave the file on him behind when they did it. He wanted to see if he had to retire his DeMarco identity entirely or if he could keep some of it for overseas use. Fortunately, they had little on him that didn't relate to him dealing with Constantine and other people whose estates he was involved in, and had a rough estimate of his worth based on some of his holdings in American stocks and the land he owned in the American West. By his estimation he didn't have to kill DeMarco, just retire him for everything but a few crucial items not listed on the page. He read every word of the file, closed it, and let them back in. They proceeded to question him, but he honestly had nothing to offer him as a normal accountant, and could not explain yet why or how Scagnelli framed Constantine, or what they were going to do about it. When he felt they had enough to feel satisfied about it later, he hypnotized them into letting him leave.
He turned to the hotel suite and picked up Alex's phone. They said his phone wasn't being monitored, but the two agents couldn't be the only two on the case if it involved this level of drug trafficking, so Alex's cell was just safer.
Constantine sounded a little tired on the other end. Maybe he'd actually been sleeping. He still needed a few hours a day at least. "Hey."
"You've got problems with Scagnelli."
"I just got back from a conversation with two DEA agents. A long conversation about forty pounds of heroin that you've been selling at the Palms."
Constantine did not joke. He skipped right to the point. "Scagnelli was the one who brought up my name?"
"As the owner of the Palms, yes. Exposed the whole fake board I set up. They weren't planning on telling me that, but they did. They just won't remember that they did."
"Scagnelli knows me, but he doesn't know the board is fake. And he's not smart enough to figure it out. You're too good at paperwork and it intimidates him. Someone told him." He was awake now, that was sure. "Where is he now?"
"He was arrested, but released and put into protective custody. I don't know how hard it's going to be to get to him yet. They didn't know the details yet. Certainly not impossible."
"Nothing's impossible," was Constantine's attitude about most things, but was also true in this case. The logistics of it had to be worked out, but they would find him. "It had to be one of us."
"It didn't have to be, but that's the most likely option. Any suspects?"
"Someone who wants me out of Vegas, that's for sure. Probably a European, maybe someone who's spent a lot of time here but not a lot of success staking a claim in the Old World. I don't know a lot of New World vampires who would be remotely interested in my job."
"Again, I wouldn't rule out an American. Someone too young to know better. Anyway they don't want me to go anywhere for a few days, but I wouldn't want them tracing DeMarco to Los Angeles anyway. I have retire him, but it'll be on my own terms."
Constantine was so serious when he was doing Elder business. Very few people saw this side of him, but it made him a good Elder. Maybe the only person who could handle Vegas. "I'm really sorry for the inconvenience, Aristotle. I wouldn't have brought you here if I thought this was going to happen."
"Are you kidding? You would have called me immediately. I'd be on a plane right now. Now at least I'm already here."
"Thanks for looking on the bright side. I have to get on this - I'll call you when I have something on my end."
"Same." It was dusk, and Alex was stirring. Larry emerged first, finishing up the good wine. Aristotle filled him in. Larry wasn't implicated in any way, which meant he would skip town on the first bus out. He was already arranging the check-out when Alex stumbled out. It wasn't worth bothering him until he had satisfied the vampire with the blood in the fridge.
"Where's my phone?" he mumbled, and Aristotle took it out of his pocket. "Sorry, I was just looking for it. Good evening." He properly greeted his master and sat down next to him.
"My line might be monitored. There's an investigation against Constantine and they think I'm his accountant. DEA officers questioned me all afternoon about forty pounds of heroin."
"I thought Constantine was clean."
"He is. He's being framed. It'll be cleared up on the mortal end when we find the owner who's collared him, who's in protective custody, but it may take a few days."
"It's a shame the Star Trek Experience is closed."
"I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand I would get to sit in the captain's chair, but I also might have to watch two fat tourists in Klingon makeup get married."
"Because you didn't grow up on TNG," Alex said. "It was the only thing that got me through high school. But I'll live. You know, as much as my body is actually living right now."
Of course Alex was a good sport about it. They checked out of the hotel (and were charged for an additional night - not that it mattered to any of them) and Constantine, figuring he was being watched, put them up in his other villa, the one used for exclusive guests who wanted their own space and was some distance away, but far enough away from the strip that flying was fine. The drug bust did not make the news. No information was being released while they tried to make a case against Constantine, who was not a public figure. Obviously they didn't want to spook him too badly, as he could easily flee the country. The focus of Constantine's investigation was on finding Vincent Scagnelli, who might be able to tell him which vampire was setting up Constantine for a fall (on the other hand, he might not). It took him an evening to accept that he would have to sell his controlling interest in the Palms and lay low if he wanted to stay in Vegas at all, and he could only do that if he was cleared of all charges. His identity was wearing out. Even Elders had to move on.
Aristotle kept Alex in the loop, and his son was legitimately interested, but Alex wasn't really part of the business and had little desire to be. In Aristotle's mind this was a good thing; a fledgling ought to stay out of politics or anything smacking of it, and Alex seemed to agree. There wasn't much to do in Vegas as a vampire, as almost everyone was lying low somewhere else, but Alex didn't mind. The truth as they both knew it was that Alex wanted to be anywhere Aristotle was, and Vegas was not the worst of choices. Between the flamingo garden on the Strip, the shark reef at the Mandalay Bay, and the lion habitat at the MGM Grand, Aristotle could certainly find things to do with their free time when Aristotle wasn't trying to track down Constantine's Brutus. Alex was more than just humoring him; Aristotle's interest in animals was one of the few things entirely separate from the vampire world that made him happy.
By the end of the week, Constantine still hadn't been charged or even arrested, though the perpetually-parked cable truck across the street from his villa couldn't have been more obvious. Aristotle had to talk him out of turning himself in just to get into the station and find Scagnelli, who hopefully had not left the state. For legal reasons, it was unlikely, but he was definitely hidden. Since Larry hadn't been nailed as part of Constantine's group in the investigation, he fled town for his own safety.
It was Feliks, Constantine's actual accountant, who provided the answer, albeit via speakerphone from Toronto. "I put a trace on Vincent Scagnelli's credit cards. He used one at a grocery store about 10 miles from the strip about three hours ago. The only item of note in the area is the motel across the street. Rather seedy place, or so it looks from above. Can't entirely trust Google maps," he said. "And Constantine, as your lawyer, I would request that you don't kill him and give them an actual case against you."
"Thanks for the legal advice, but I can control myself." Constantine chuckled, but he was tense. The prospect of losing his Vegas identity was frustrating him. It wasn't so much being an Elder of a city so much as being the Elder of Vegas. "Thanks for everything. We'll be in touch."
"Yes, do call again, preferably with news that does not involve your prior or upcoming incarceration."
Constantine ended the call. It was still daylight; Feliks was two hours ahead of them in time zones. They were trapped until at least dusk. "Do you want to go?"
"As he fingered me, yes," Aristotle said. "He's under the misconception I'm your accountant."
"Good for Feliks."
"The DEA would have more trouble pursuing any case against Feliks. He has dual nationality with Canada and Britain. Aristotle DeMarco is at least a US citizen and he lives in the general area. But Scagnelli doesn't know that, which makes me even more convinced one of us set you up. Very carefully at that. You might not get much from Scagnelli."
"You don't have any enemies, do you?"
Aristotle shrugged. "None that would dare to touch me."
But Constantine was only 800 - a considerable age for a vampire, but basically on par with most of the European elite or their children. And he was much better at burning his bridges, one of the reasons he moved to the New World as soon as it became a good prospect, living initially in New York and then Los Angeles before Las Vegas was turned into a real city. Aristotle could think of a half dozen scrapes Constantine got out of in his first few centuries by fleeing to his master in the Ottoman Empire.
"It's so much easier when it's the mob trying to muscle me out," Constantine lamented as he poured them both glasses to be ready for the evening. One never played politics on an empty stomach, especially around mortals. He looked up as Alex emerged at first dark, looking for sustenance. They met in the guest villa for Aristotle because it was safer. "Hey, did Aristotle tell you the story of my desert burial?"
"No," Alex said, his voice uneven as he fought the hungry vampire before drinking. He swallowed and said in his normal voice, "He doesn't just talk about everyone all the time."
"Thank you," said Aristotle, even if it wasn't true.
It was the first time Constantine was amused since the call from Aristotle. "These mobsters, it's not like in the movies. Except maybe the movie Casino, which had some fuck-ups in it. This must have been the late eighties - 1988, I think. My identity was running out. Aristotle was on my back about it. So it just so happens, I get in an argument at a high stakes table, and next thing I know I'm being escorted out of the casino. Big deal, happens all the time, or did before I was city Elder. The next night, two guys jump me as I'm going to get the mail, put me in a trunk, and drive out into the desert. I know exactly what they're going to do, but if I'm going to kill them, it's not going to be until we're out of city limits.
"So we get out there and they give me the shovel, no explanations as to why I'm out there, but okay. I tell them I have a bad back and it'll take all night. These are two really beefy guys, so they're up to it, but they are pissed as shit when I hypnotize them into digging the grave for me. Ruins their gaudy silk suits. I get to watch from the hood of the car. Then they do the whole having me stand in front of the grave, and I say, 'Look, not in the face,' because a shot to the brain might actually put me out a few hours. They shoot me in the chest, I fall back, and they cover me up. I take a nap, dig myself out the next night. I honestly could not have faked my death better myself."
"He called me from a payphone," Aristotle said. "I have never heard him so happy about getting shot."
"And ruining a four-hundred dollar suit, which was a lot of money in those days, kid," Constantine said to Alex. "I missed out on my revenge. They weren't the brightest bulbs, to put it mildly, and the next murder wasn't such a clean break for them. They got transferred back to New York, one of them went witness protection, the other got whacked I believe. Then these corporations came in and cleaned up the strip. Made it kid-friendly."
"A real shame," Aristotle said, and turned to his son. "Feliks got a lead on the safe house for Scagnelli. Constantine and I are going to go out there and talk to him."
"Talk to him," Alex mimicked.
"Depending on how good his answers are, that's all it will probably be. Anyway, we should be back in a few hours. Definitely by the end of the night. I don't know about security yet."
"Otabek could do a sweep," Constantine said, "so I can be even deeper in debt to him. He knows every part of town. If Vinny's got a cross and a clove of garlic on the door we might rethink it."
Alex didn't look surprised at being left out. Constantine was trying to implicate as few people was possible. "Okay, but if you get in trouble, you should know I might have to fly because I'm not a great driver."
"Kid, this is Las Vegas," Constantine replied. "If you take a cab to a crime scene, he will not blink. Just slip him an extra twenty for his time."
After a reassuring call from Otabek about security, Constantine and Aristotle left to question Vincent Scagnelli. Poor guy, in way over his head. Alex almost felt bad for him, but threatening Ari by way of the DEA was a good way to get on Alex's shit list.
Predictably, there were eight hundred channels but nothing to watch. Alex dialed Amanda, and when she didn't pick up - he knew she was busy moving into her new place - he dialed Jimmy, hoping to get one of them that way. Jimmy answered, sounding a little sedate. "Hey. How's Vegas?"
"Not all it's cracked up to be. They keep insisting it's cooler when everyone's not totally in hiding or doing serious business."
"It probably is. It's definitely better than LA at the moment."
"What's wrong? Is Seleucus okay?"
While Alex was imagining some club-related disaster, Jimmy answered, "Yeah, he's fine. He ignores me but Tetsuo is like, totally into him. I had to show him a website proving anoles don't have to blink before he would give up his staring contest. I think Tetsuo thinks lizards are natural Zen masters or something, because they're so still."
"That or they're conserving body heat by not moving," Alex said. "What's up?"
Jimmy sighed. "So, Amanda moved out of the club and into her own place."
That should have been good news, so Alex just urged Jimmy to continue. "'Kay."
"It all goes fine, and like, a day later Michael shows up. And Amanda was really nice about it, but you know how it is."
Alex did understand. Jimmy would be, albeit temporarily, kicked to the curb if her master ever made an appearance. They all knew that from the start of the relationship. "I thought Michael was in exile."
"He's banned from the East Coast, not the West. He's just never come out here - until now. No warning, either. She was shocked. Janette talked to him I think, told him he'd better be on his best behavior, but that was it. Amanda's taken time off work and she asked me not to call her. So that's that." He didn't sound as satisfied as his words would indicate.
"He'll get bored eventually," Alex said, not being an authority on the matter himself, but just knowing roving vampires via Aristotle's description of their nature. "Or fuck something up and get thrown out again. Either way, it's not like it's forever."
But Alex could only comfort him so much. Jimmy was dumped not because of something he did, but because of Amanda's emotional and blood links to her master. Jimmy had to take their word on it, not being in love with his own master or just bound to him like Alex was to Ari. "Well, thanks for letting me know, so I don't have an uncomfortable conversation when I get back. And thanks again for taking care of Seleucus."
"It's cool. It's not like he's keeping me up at night."
Alex wished he had more to say to Jimmy about being dumped, but there was nothing he could explain to make it better. "I'll be back soon. Or I should be. The schedule's kinda flexible."
"Are you at least do something cool with your time?"
He looked at the TV. "I could lie."
"Okay, when you flash the ID, do it really quickly," Aristotle said. They were standing on the roof across from the hotel, where they had a good vantage point of the motel. They made a guess that Vincent Scagnelli was in the room the cop kept going in and out of. "I haven't played a DEA agent for awhile, so the ID cards might be an outdated style. Don't let them get a good look."
Constantine straightened his considerably cheaper suit than his normal wear. "I'm not planning on having a long conversation with the cops." It was hard to get the jacket correctly over the holster. "Is this gun even loaded?"
"I don't remember."
"Then why do I have one?"
"Because DEA field agents carry guns. Do you have to ask?"
"Well I'd just like to know if I'm firing a gun with no bullets."
"You're not firing a gun. Pointing, maybe. Firing, no. Let's not make this any worse than it already is."
"Hey, who's Elder ass is on the line here?"
"Do you know how much paperwork it's going to take me to kill off DeMarco?"
"You love paperwork," Constantine countered. "Don't deny it." When he saw the guard return with snacks from the vending machine, then hopped off the building and into the alleyway, then made their way across the street and up the steps to the second floor. There were two cops as guards, and it was important that both were inside to be hypnotized to leave. As usual with cops, it wasn't all that difficult, and Constantine was particularly talented at dealing with cops. "Officer Stanton. This is Officer Knight. We're here to talk to Scagnelli. And we need the room."
Aristotle let someone else do the hypnotizing for once, and watched Constantine convince the police officer to get his partner and leave for an hour, then removed their memories of who sent them away.
"Hey, what's going on?"
Scagnelli didn't have a chance. Constantine had him up against the wall with one hand around his neck, giving Aristotle ample time to find and disable Scagnelli's cell phone and unplug the phone. "Hey Vinny. Long time no see. I thought we could catch up."
"Don't bother screaming," Aristotle said, his voice calm. "These guys always make sure the adjoining rooms are empty and the cops are long gone."
"Who are you?"
"It's not important." Constantine dropped Scagnelli into the only chair. "Though you're the one naming names."
"Demir - "
"Shut it. When I want you to speak, I'll ask a question," Constantine hissed. "For the record, if you're going to frame someone, it shouldn't be the guy you know nothing about. You have no idea how fucking crazy he might be."
"They had to know. They asked," Scagnelli pleaded. "I couldn't hide you're the real owner of the hotel."
"You wouldn't have to if you weren't dealing. And I don't even care if it was in a parking lot of a Best Western or on the fucking floor near the dealer tables. I told you I wanted a clean ship. It's the only order I ever fucking gave you and you couldn't even follow it?"
"Look, I don't know what kind of operation you have going on - "
"My operation?" Constantine was furious, but was in control of the vampire. Impressive, really. "Letting someone else run my hotel and take all the credit? Hardly a scandal. Look, I know you just want to pin this on me, to get out of it. And honestly, I don't care about that."
Scagnelli's heart was beating faster now. "You don't?"
"No. That's not what you're going to say on the stand. My name is not going to fucking come up. The only thing I want from you, and the only reason you're not in a fucking shallow sand grave, is who told you about the board."
"The board. The board of directors, controlling interest, the fact that I own the fucking hotel! You could figure it out from the paperwork, but you're not smart enough. It's why I promoted you so far. So who told you?"
Scagnelli swallowed. "Mr. Demir, I don't know what you're talking about. I've always known."
Constantine looked at Aristotle. They both knew he wasn't lying. "Roll up your sleeve."
"I'm not using. Do I look like an idiot?"
"That's debatable. Roll up your sleeve."
Scagnelli looked at Aristotle, who's expression wasn't anymore forgiving, and unbuttoned his cuff and rolled up the shirt sleeve.
"I'm not going to kill you," Constantine said, pulling out a black hand towel. Black was the most forgiving of colors for blood. "I need you to get on the stand and take responsibility. But there's something I need to know first." He waited as Aristotle took his position behind the chair. "And don't squirm. It'll just make it worse." It would certainly make it bloodier, and they didn't want to make a mess.
Constantine called the vampire to the fore, and the terrifying beast that lurked beneath the smooth Elder emerged. Aristotle already had his hand over Scagnelli's mouth to muffle his scream as Constantine bite into the exposed vein. At his age he could drain a human very quickly, but that wasn't his goal. He withdrew long before Scagnelli was near the threshold of passing out from blood loss, and wrapped the towel around the wound to stop the blood flow. "He's been wiped."
"Give me the towel."
Constantine cleaned the wound and handed over the towel, taking over Aristotle's job of holding down a terrified Scagnelli. Aristotle sucked on the towel. The blood was still warm, even if there wasn't a lot of it for him to draw. It was still enough to get flashes of Scagnelli's memories, none of which involved anyone he recognized or vampires. "You're right."
"It's not just repressed. The memory's gone. You're dealing with someone old. Maybe ancient."
"Fuck!" Constantine, still smelling the blood, thrashed around the room, trying not to break anything as he went. "Let's just fucking do this and get out of here."
The Vegas Elder needed a minute to calm himself sufficiently to hypnotize the agitated Scagnelli, not just to forget the encounter but also to take directions that would have him confess and stop trying to frame his boss or the non-existent board. Aristotle would have done it if Constantine was any less good at it, but for someone only eight hundred years old, the Crusader was a master. He could have made Vincent Scagnelli permanently forget how to put on his pants in the morning if he wanted to. The process did take a long time, implanting so many new memories and removing old ones, but he was finished in time for the return of the officers, and without blinking Constantine had them both convinced they'd never left their posts. Scagnelli was sleeping and would wake up feeling excessively guilty about his drug- fueled greed and very talky about it.
Constantine was frustrated the whole flight home and went immediately for the booze, not even addressing Alex. "Fuck!"
Alex just looked to his master for explanation, and of course he provided. "Everything's fine, trial-wise. Constantine just has a very powerful enemy."
"Trying to muscle me out," the Elder growled, knocking back the wine. "I was here when this place was a fucking army station! Is Europe not big enough for them?" He continued cursing in a stream of languages, dead and alive.
Aristotle shrugged at his son's confused expression. There was nothing to explain about a dead end.
The next night, Constantine decided to deal with the bad news that he'd been targeted but the good news that the police undercover van was gone by taking his mind off it all the only way he knew how - a party. Granted it was a rather sedate one, and mostly involved his incredibly ornate, multi-piped hookah and a lot of hashish. The smoke still terrified Alex as much as he tried to hide it, but Aristotle and Constantine certainly didn't have any problem, and sat out on the deck looking at the desert. The only other guest was Otabek, who excused himself initially on account that he had a shift later, then agreed to a single puff. It made him a bit more jovial, but he was hardly the wasted sack of vampire that would describe either vampire on the porch.
"Your father, you know, is good friend," Otabek said. They were in the kitchen, so the others could definitely hear them, if they were bothering to listen. "To everyone. We used to travel together, in Russia."
"Really?" Alex glanced at his master, but didn't sense a response. "Doing what?"
"I was very young - fifty years, maybe, and he hired me as guide in Uzbek steppes, for him and Yengi."
"From Amdo, in Tibet. Is China now. Mixed parentage - Tibetan and Chinese Muslim. He and Aristotle, they pretended to be fortune tellers. Yengi was Uzbek mystic, Aristotle his translator. Very funny stuff."
Alex couldn't imagine Aristotle traveling around for the sake of fun. Not that he doubted Otabek's sincerely, but it spurred him on to walk over to the porch. "Master."
Aristotle picked his dropping head up, his expression serene and his brown eyes bloodshot. "Whatever it is, I didn't do it."
"Yengi? Yengi. Such a great name. The stuck-up European aristocrats loved it. They ate it up." He nudged a drowsy Constantine with the end of his pipe. "Yengi."
"Where is he? Is he still alive?"
"He's in Nepal, with the other refugees. I spoke to him ... sometime in the 90's. After Tiananmen Square. It was a big deal to the Tibetan exile community. Very sad."
"Were the Enforcers dicks? Told him he couldn't do anything?" the Vegas Elder asked.
"Yengi didn't have to ask. He wouldn't, anyway. For a vampire he's alarmingly peaceful. Gave up black magic a long time ago, if it ever worked."
"He never showed me. He'd sworn it off by then." Ari craned his head to look back up at Alex, which looked like a struggle. "Did Otabek tell you about him?"
"No, the twenty other vampires here did."
Ari squinted in legitimate confusion. "There's twenty other vampires here?"
Alex had to laugh. "Dude, you are so fucking high. Yes, it was Otabek."
"We went around ... this count in Transylvania ... we did prophecies for him. Nonsense stuff. All very vague. But this guy, his courtier, was totally onto us, and he pulled out a cross. I threw a guy at it and we ran. There were people there pretending to be vampires - mortals, trying to scare the count. So before this, the courtier looks at me and says to my face, 'Do vampires exist?'" He laughed, "So I said, 'Yes.' I didn't know he had a giant cross behind the tapestry! The fake vampire people were fine but we were freaking out!" He collapsed into giggles, rendering any further attempts at serious conversation useless.
Alex packed what little there was to pack for tomorrow's flight, as there was nothing further for Aristotle to do there, and played games on his laptop in bed as the hours grew late and then early. Finally Ari stumbled into his room, shrugging off his jacket and struggling out of his shoes before collapsing on Alex's bed.
"Your master used to have fun, you know," Ari said. "And not just by killing animated goblins. But that was back when fooling mortals was a game to pass the time, not a matter of exposure. When people believed in vampires, we could be vampires. Now they believe in science."
"You love science. You founded biology."
"True." It seemed a concept a little beyond Ari's currently diminished mental capabilities. "I never thought ... when I was mortal ... that there would be a reason not to have knowledge. Just that some people weren't capable of understanding it. Now I don't want anyone to know anything."
The sadness in Ari's voice was overwhelming, however unintentional. Maybe he didn't feel the weight of it himself because of his altered state, but Alex had to say something. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"I'm not upset," Ari said, and the link was especially hard to read. "I'm just stating facts."
Alex didn't make him say anything else. He kissed him on his bald head, and watched his master fall asleep.
Their return to Los Angeles was easy, flying into the night and it not being a long flight. Constantine was still anxious about the coup attempt, but there was nothing further Aristotle could help him with, not for the time being.
They made a brief stop at Tetsuo's penthouse to relieve Jimmy of his lizard-sitting duties. "Welcome back," he said, ushering them in. "Sorry the place is a mess right now." Meaning, somewhere, for some reason, a book was shelved improperly or a chair was facing the wrong direction. Jimmy's actual room was a slightly different matter, but the main rooms were Tetsuo's space. "How was Vegas?"
"I got thrown out of a magic show," Alex said. "Don't go with Larry Merlin. Or do, because it's amusing."
"I warned you," Ari said as Tetsuo entered from the other room, slightly more casual than he normally was, meaning his tie was off. "Tetsuo."
He seemed to be in an especially mellow mood. Maybe it was because they were there so late, which was rare. "Welcome back." He apologized for the sake being cold when he served it, and only Ari really partook. Alex couldn't develop a taste for it, though he did try.
Seleucus' tank was in the computer room. "Wow," Jimmy said as the chameleon jumped up the plastic wall and tried to stay there, only to slide back down and try again. "He is really excited to see you."
Chameleons were not known for their hyperactivity. "I guess he actually does know who I am." Alex took him out and let him suck on his pinkie finger, which Seleucus could barely get his jaw around. "I always wondered about that. On the one hand, I'm his master and all that. On the other, his brain is the size of a mini M&M. I don't know how sophisticated his recognition system is." Knowing chameleons weren't fast eaters, and Seleucus could hang on by his jaw all night, Alex just let him linger there. "So what's up?"
"Michael's still around?"
"Janette told me not to ask about it," Jimmy grumbled.
"Amanda will have to come back to work sooner or later, if Michael's mooching off her, just for the paycheck."
"Thanks for being so optimistic."
Alex put Seleucus in his cage and they returned to the living room, where Ari and Tetsuo were talking in Japanese. Whatever it was about, Ari would enlighten him, but Alex had a good guess. They said their goodbyes and returned at last to the house, only an hour before sunrise. Alex put Seleucus back in his tank and got ready for bed; Ari went to start up the computers that were closed down in his absence and check on his downloads.
Before he turned in, Alex decided to indulge his curiosity. "Did Tetsuo tell you about Amanda or did you already know?"
"A little of both. Your mind has really been on it."
"You're going to tell me not to interfere."
Ari looked up from the monitors. "There's nothing to interfere in. If the worst thing Michael is doing is using her couch as crash space, then you can sleep peacefully. And she's not unhappy - she loves him."
"I know." He understood it better than Jimmy did, but because he was Aristotle's son and understood the master/fledgling dynamic better. It didn't make him happy about it, but Ari would undoubtedly be against interfering in any way with anything. As her master, Michael had the right to do whatever he pleased to Amanda - even destroy her. A rarely enacted law in the New World, but it was still on the books.
"I'm trying to say that it's not a dire situation from which Amanda needs a daring rescue. Jimmy's just being dramatic. If Michael's here to do anyone harm, trust me, we will find out about it and kick his ass to the curb. Until then, it's none of our business."
"I mean it."
"I know you do." Ari always did.
Alex did not have to wait long to have his curiosity about Amanda satisfied. Just two days after their return, she appeared on the doorstep. "Hey."
"As much as it's nice to see you," she said with a shy smile, "I actually have to talk to Aristotle."
Most people didn't come by the house for any other reason. There was too much unsecured material for him to have guests. "Sure. He's in his office." It occurred to him that she'd never been in the actual house before, just picked him up, so he had to show her the way. "How are you?"
"Good." It sounded genuine, even if there was a little edge to her voice. "Look, Aristotle's just going to tell you, so - "
"Aristotle doesn't tell me what I don't need to know," he replied. "I'm not that involved in other people's business."
"Okay. I just need my passport updated, I think." She looked at him, obviously expecting the follow-up question.
Alex didn't ask it. "If you want you can tell me, and I won't tell anyone, but really, what you say to Ari is confidential."
They paused in the hallway. "I don't want to disappear. It's rude."
"Are you leaving tonight?"
"Then you have time to tell people whatever you want to tell them."
"Jimmy will be mad."
"That's Jimmy's problem." He added, "You could take it as a compliment. He cares when you leave, even if disappearing is what vampires do. And I'll care. But if you're happy, so be it."
He could not remember her looking so nervous as she pulled out her passport. "Thanks. It means a lot to me."
Any further conversation would just drive his curiosity. He unlocked and opened the door to Ari's office, then returned to own desk, where he buried his emotions in coding. The meeting didn't take very long - Ari was very succinct - and Alex spun around in his chair as she emerged. "Do you want a drink before you go?"
She was smart enough not to turn down an offer of Ari's wine. "Sure."
He didn't hear anything from his master via link or just noise from the office, nor did he expect anything. The house was very quiet; Ari was concentrated on catching up on things ignored during the Vegas stay, and Alex was involved in his security program, if it would ever work. He knew which bottle to pick, and poured for his guest as they sat in the kitchen together. It was the only room in the house that was immaculate, mainly because it wasn't used.
"So how was Vegas?"
He shrugged. "Really quiet, actually. Everyone was out of town."
"I heard about the poker tournament. At first I thought Constantine did it, but it seemed too stupid. He wouldn't be Elder for very long if he wasn't smart and he's been Elder of Vegas for 40 years."
"Yeah, he was pissed. We stayed at his place, actually. The one off the strip. You look out and see desert."
"I guess you guys rate."
"Well, Ari does, saving everyone's asses. I just wipe everyone's computers of malware. Also I think we went to every animal habitat that city has, and there's a bunch for a desert. And I saw a magic show."
"I was told not to. Because our eyes are too sophisticated at tracking. Slight-of-hand doesn't work on us, unless one of us does it."
"Yeah, it was pretty lame. Larry certainly thought so. Yelled at the stage until we got kicked out."
"He used to be a magician, right? As a mortal?"
"So he says. I don't really doubt him. He certainly knows a lot about how tricks are done." He sipped. It was one of Ari's best attempts, or at least the vintage Alex was allowed to serve to random friends. "So how's the new place?"
"Yeah, I haven't had a housewarming party. I was thinking about it, however lame housewarming parties are, but it's not really ready, or it wasn't before Michael showed up. I didn't know he was coming, obviously."
"So he's crashing at your place?"
"Michael's like a gypsy without the responsibility of the wagon. He's the gypsy that crashes on your couch. He won't admit it, but his master probably got tired of him loafing around Paris and told him to go do something. She's the only one with the authority to do that."
He didn't know who Michael's master was, or even that she was alive, but it wasn't appropriate to ask. "So he's not in trouble?"
"No, for once. It's nice." She smiled, but there was sadness on the edge of it. "It's tough on Jimmy, I know. I feel bad."
"I told him to just wait. You're not gonna spend the rest of your life with Michael. Nobody's that exclusive."
"You're not going to spend the rest of your life with Ari?"
"No. It feels like I want to now, but it won't last." He said it without any remorse. "Vampires - we need to move on, especially in relationships. Ari doesn't know anyone who was in a monogamous relationship for more than a hundred years, even people who were really in love. We need variety in the blood. I would say we're not human, in that regard, but mortals have shorter lifespans. I don't know if marriage would work if everyone lived to be 500 instead of eighty."
"And it usually doesn't last until they're eighty."
"Yeah." Alex did know her brother was married, but most congressmen were. People liked voting for family men. "Ari believes it has something to do with needing genetic variety, but it's never been seriously studied. It's the sort of thing the Council shuts down."
"How would they know?"
He waved his hands. "They have ways. Hell, I don't know. I just know that they do."
Amanda giggled. "So, I won't make you ask. We're taking a business trip. To Colombia." She added, "Don't tell Jimmy."
"Okay." He knew how to keep a confidence.
"And Michael will be over in the next few days, I guess. He wanted papers from Aristotle, but Aristotle said if he wanted them, he had to come get them himself. Or at least call."
"Yeah, he's like that."
She looked down at the remaining dregs in her wine glass. "When he comes, don't mention Jimmy."
"I don't generally have long conversations with Ari's clients, but can I ask why?"
"The reason you've guessed. He's jealous of the idea of a boyfriend."
"Jealous masters? Trust me, I know exactly what you mean."
Aristotle was not immune to Alex's increasing frustration over Amanda's situation. The truth was, Aristotle had far more ammunition against Michael, someone Alex had never met, than his son did. Aristotle had bailed Michael out of a number of screw-ups before Amanda Rogan entered his life, he watched Michael unintentionally destroy Amanda's various attempts at a stable, meaningful life for his own gain, and he was absolutely positive Michael had not learned his lesson from their cocaine-induced fight in New York and was in town mostly for financial reasons, those finances being Amanda's. Yes, Michael did love his daughter, but he couldn't shield her from his own impulses. As soon as the word "Colombia" was mentioned, all doubts Aristotle might have had about Michael's intent to go on the straight- and-narrow went up in a pile of smoke. Ex-drug dealers did not go to Colombia for the sights.
Plenty of vampires were involved in illegal businesses to make money or amuse themselves; being forced to live in secrecy on the outskirts of society leant itself to that. The problem was Michael did it recklessly, and never seemed to learn his lesson. Aristotle doubted he ever would. Vampires rarely changed their stripes. It was considerably harder for them than it was for mortals.
Alex's response, despite knowing fewer details than his master, was entirely appropriate. Amanda was his friend, and usually on the receiving end of the fallout from Michael's disasters. She wasn't blind or brainless, but she would let it happen, because Michael was her master and she loved him. Alex felt the protective need to step in, less fueled by lust (in the case of Jimmy) than his own thorough knowledge of what it was like to be controlled by an often difficult master. Aristotle didn't mean to be difficult, but he certainly was; they both knew that. He controlled Alex, tethering them together with the link, dragging him around on whatever crazy bailout/clean-up mission Aristotle's business required. He narrowed Alex's freedoms to almost nothing an ordinary fledgling would have, especially in the New World. That he did it all because he knew it was for the best didn't change that he did it. The little stability Alex had in his life involved his computer, his current home, his pet, and his friends, and now one of them was threatened. Alex's desire to protect what was his own and not Aristotle's creation was instinctual.
Aristotle's inaction frustrated his son. Aristotle felt he was enough of an authority figure in the New World already. Michael didn't like him, probably never would, and didn't have to answer to him unless he needed his help. He had to answer to the Enforcers like the rest of them, but Michael was exceptionally good at fleeing at the first sign of trouble to his haven in Paris, always avoiding their wrath.
This just happened to be a time when Michael did need Aristotle, and Amanda begged him to help her master with his passport and travel documents, things Aristotle could control. He said yes, of course. He wasn't going to refuse her and pre-punish Michael. It wasn't how he operated. Nonetheless he did not look forward to Michael's visit, and threw himself into his current paperwork to distract himself. Alex was tense and moody, and it was bleeding into Aristotle through the link, to the point where he was almost relieved to see Michael's face at last on his front steps. Alex, fortunately, was at the club.
"Hi. You know why I'm here."
Aristotle just nodded and left the door open for him. This was a business meeting, nothing more. He had thousands of them over the years with people he didn't like. His impartial treatment of clients was legendary. It was easy to slip into that mode, once he was at his desk in the office with the door shut securely behind them.
Michael rummaged through his pockets and produced his passport, driver's license, and an envelope of documents identifying him as Michael Jefferson. "Some of these, I don't know if they're still good. The driver's license especially. Didn't they change them?"
"In some states, yes." Michael's was from New York, and expired. It also listed an older birth date; Michael didn't look fifty and never would. Aristotle must have made it in the late eighties. "Do you drive?"
"I can drive, if that's what you mean." Some vampires couldn't, and simply refused to learn.
"I remember," Aristotle said, his voice neutral. "Are you intending to drive in the States or in another country in the near future?"
"Are you intending to drive a truck?"
"Maybe? I can't say for sure. Why?"
Aristotle made a note on his file for Michael. "It's just a few different notes on the license. Which I do have to make new, by the way. And then the passport has to match. I assume you want American citizenship."
"Are you leaving the States anytime soon?"
"I'm going to Colombia. Did Amanda tell you that?"
Aristotle didn't answer him directly. All meetings were confidential. "Have you been to Colombia before?"
"Do you need any other visas on your passport, aside from France?"
"Yes. Vietnam. And Afghanistan - but make that before 9/11."
Aristotle didn't comment, just made notes. "Anywhere else?"
"Only if you think it's necessary."
"You've been to the Bahamas. You have to have been. Everyone's been to the Bahamas." He put the stamp on almost every passport. That or another Caribbean island. "Check the dates on the stamps before you use the passport so you know when you went. What else?"
"Where do I go if I need cash in Colombia?"
Michael glared at him.
"I am serious. They have them there. They'll even let you use an American ATM card. Do you need an American bank account? Did you close your account in New York?"
"I never formally closed it, but it's empty. I don't know where the banking stuff is. I might have thrown it out."
Not that that was a surprise. "If the account still exists - and I'll bet it does - I can get you a new card and checking account, but I need a few days. Fill it with money before you leave the country."
"What about cash advances?"
"You have to pay those off. Your current identity has defaulted on too many of them for you to be approved for any credit card that will give you a significant line of credit. Either I make a whole different identity for you, or you come up with the money you need before you actually go to spend it. And the new identity will cost money anyway, so you're better off with the second option."
"I thought you could do anything."
He raised an eyebrow. "I prefer not to use my magical powers to conjure money from the sky too often. It doesn't encourage responsible spending."
"Fine," Michael grumbled. "I'll take my New York account's materials when they come in. Definitely the card. And I need a visa for Colombia. And you might want to add the neighboring countries. What do I need for a helicopter license?"
"I'm liberal about cars, but you really need to learn how to fly a helicopter before I will process the mountains of paperwork to get you a license. You could get yourself and everyone else with you killed in one of those things. They generally explode upon impact."
"They're really costly to rent."
He shrugged. "I stand by my policy. Take some lessons."
Michael relented. "Can I put this on my tab?"
"You don't have a lot of credit with me, either." Knowing the money would come from Amanda, he said, "Two hundred upon delivery. Should be sometime next week. What's your number?"
"Amanda's apartment." Michael wrote it down for him. "I should be there."
Aristotle had a distinct feeling he would.
As the case with other cities, Aristotle found himself in Janette's club a few times a month, where she let him have office hours so people wouldn't have to come to his home for small questions and requests. He really didn't mind, especially because he liked to keep an eye on the club, Alex's only vampire playground. Not that he didn't have full confidence in Janette, but nothing would stop him from worrying about his son.
When he ran into Amanda, who was back at work in the office section of the complex above the club, he didn't assault her questions, just smiled and said hello.
"Mr. Aristotle." She returned the smile. "How are you?"
"Good." He set his laptop down on the desk. "You?"
"Good. Can I get you anything?"
"No, I'm fine." He was pretty far from the bar; it was nice of her to ask, but she wasn't a waitress. "Alex isn't here tonight. He usually avoids the club tonight so he doesn't have to be my receptionist more than he already is."
"I haven't seen him around, but then again he's not the kind of guy to just hang out at the club every night. He's always got something important to do."
"He was like that when he was mortal. Very absorbed in different projects," Aristotle said, meaning it in a complimentary way. "It's not a good idea to spend eternity doing nothing."
"A lot of vampires spend their time doing nothing, if they can manage it," she said. It was certainly true of a lot of people taking refuge in the haven of the club. "You probably don't think much of them."
"Old people are supposed to look down on young people. It's the way of the world. But as to what people choose to do with their time, I'm keeping my mouth shut." He looked down at the bills Amanda placed on the table. "What's this?"
"I'm sure you know why I'm giving you two hundred bucks."
He did accept it, because it would have been insulting not to. "I suppose it's not worth pointing out that Michael should be paying his own expenses."
"He's in a bad spot and he's my master. You understand."
"I understand." He put the bills in his wallet. "If you'd like some completely unsolicited advice that comes out of nowhere, I would say that while your loyalty is admirable, you still can say if someone you know is planning on doing something stupid, especially if it would get him killed. And drugs are incredibly stupid."
She looked down, so she didn't have to face his stare. "I know. I think he knows, too."
"No reason not to remind him."
There was a hint of her old smile as she squirmed. "Thanks, Aristotle."
She left, taking her paperwork with her, and Aristotle returned to setting up his laptop. Instead of a customer, Janette was the first one to enter the office. "I take it you spoke to her."
"She offered me a drink. She's very polite."
Janette, taking her cues from him, was right to the point. "Michael is planning something."
He said nothing.
"I thought you should be aware, but of course you are already aware, which is why you're not saying anything."
He shrugged and continued typing. She wouldn't be offended.
"If it enters the club I will be involved. Otherwise, she can make her own choices." Janette was LaCroix's daughter; she knew what it was to be under a much more domineering master than Michael could ever dream of being. But she was raised a thousand years prior, when she needed LaCroix for protection and guidance. Amanda was more than capable of managing for herself. Janette was just establishing a baseline between two elders, that they understood the situation and wouldn't be surprised if something got worse, especially since neither of them intended to intervene at this time. Amanda didn't seem unhappy, just stressed. And she was back at work, which was a good sign. "Children can be so complicated."
"In all fairness, so can we."
The day after Michael swung by to pick up his passport and banking materials, he called Aristotle. In was mid-morning, a time when almost everyone in North America was asleep, so Aristotle actually picked up the main line instead of screening the call. "Hello?"
"It's me." Michael was to the point. "I can't find Feliks."
"He's only three hours ahead of us. He's probably still asleep." Feliks was younger than Michael, though not by much. "No, wait, he's away."
"Where is he?"
There was no reason not to tell him, he supposed. "India."
"India? What the hell is he doing there?"
Aristotle muted the television. "His master's from India. And besides, it's none of your business. If he wanted to be reached, he would have left his international cell on the machine."
"He can just disappear like that?"
When Michael called, Aristotle had been close to dozing off on the couch. He was still sleepy enough to find Michael's irritation amusing. "This might come as a shock to you, but some people like to disappear without warning for personal reasons. Or maybe it's been on his schedule for awhile - who knows? His schedule doesn't answer to anyone except, I imagine, his master. And I've met him, so I'm sure you're not him." He beat Michael to the next comment. "I will not track him down for you."
There was some resignation on Michael's end. "Can you track down another vampire who will give me a loan?"
"I'm not a bank. Or your private secretary." He yawned. "Michael, we all know you're going to Colombia to buy drugs. And we all don't support it and we're not going to give you money to do it. And even if you come back alive, Janette will kick you out of town and probably the West Coast. She doesn't want the attention drugs attract. There are ways to make money that don't involve helicopters, drug lords, or being hunted by the DEA. Life is not A Clear and Present Danger."
"It's a movie about drug smuggling. Harrison Ford beats some guys up. Rent it."
"I know you don't have much faith in my business prowess, but you can't judge me. You're supposed to be impartial."
"I was just offering some helpful career advice. You haven't heard me be judgmental yet."
"Look, I have to do this. If you don't want to know about it, don't ask questions. Just tell me where I can get some money. And no sarcastic answers."
"Then I have none. Good night, Michael." Meaning, he was sick of this conversation and going to sleep.
"Fuck you, Aristotle."
Aristotle decided after some contemplation not to let it raise his ire and hung up the phone, then turned the ringer off before he went to sleep.
Alex woke in a strange mood, an undefined tension in his body. It wasn't the vampire, who was just hungry. He finished the bottle on the bed stand down to the last few drops and poured them into Seleucus' tank through the wire top, and wandered out to check his email. Ari was in his office, of course, looking a little shabby but rested. Alex could usually tell if he'd slept or not. "Good evening."
"Evening," Alex replied, searching for better fare than day-old open blood wine. Ari always had something good around. Alex took the bottle off the desk and drank straight from it. "I feel weird. Do you feel weird?"
"Did you sleep well?"
"Yeah." Meaning, he didn't have any bad dreams. Or even ones he could remember. "I need to get out. Do you need me for anything?"
"Take out the trash when you leave?"
"You would think being powerful vampires, we would have someone for that."
"I do," Ari said. "You."
Alex rolled his eyes, but he did as he was told, and took the trash out to the street before flying to the skate park. Ari lived far enough away from downtown LA that the area was suburban and less lit than the city, and therefore easier to get around via the sky. It was early in the evening and the concrete park was busy with kids and a few professionals his age. He didn't know any vampires who skated, mainly because it was less thrilling to challenge the laws of gravity when you didn't have to obey them in the first place.
That was fine. He didn't need to be constantly surrounded by his own kind, especially with them all older than him and constant clubbers. They relieved their physical tension from not being able to hunt through dancing and sex, he got involved in extreme sports that would, if nothing else, paralyze the mortal version of him.
He was there for a few hours before Amanda appeared, sitting down on the stands. He picked up his board and joined her. "Hey."
"Hey." She smiled at him. "Why are you wearing a helmet?"
"That's your first question for me?"
"It's not like you need it. Though I guess if your brains got bashed in and you wound up in the hospital Aristotle would have to mess with the heads of the entire ER."
"True. Also, helmet laws. They're kind of serious about enforcing them." He removed his helmet, letting his hair be the mess it would be under there. "So how are you?"
"Okay." She nodded for emphasis. "I've been working crazy hours. I know Jimmy's avoiding the club because if he wasn't I would have seen him."
"Do you really expect otherwise?"
"No. It's better maybe. Michael's the jealous type." Amanda was trying to say something, but it wasn't easy for her. She looked down at her hands, and Alex waited. "Michael asked me to ask you for money."
"Me?" Alex didn't lord his millions around, but maybe the expensive computer equipment made it obvious. "Ari would lend you money."
"Aristotle would lend me money, not Michael. And I can't bring myself to lie to Aristotle - or you. Besides, he would totally know the moment I asked."
"And so would Feliks, if he wasn't in India or wherever he is. So I'm asking you. I didn't tell Michael you had a ton of money. He just figured you're Aristotle's kid and Aristotle's loaded so - "
" - so yeah, I must have a hell of an allowance." He would have been angrier if he didn't know how bad Amanda felt about the conversation. "I have a trust fund from my mortality. So if you needed money, I wouldn't say no. But you don't. Michael does, and you haven't told me why, so it probably means I won't like it."
"You have me all figured out, don't you?" Amanda had an edge to her voice. "Michael's in the middle of this thing and he needs money for this deal in Colombia and I can't possibly work hard or fast enough to make that much - "
"You don't have to provide for Michael."
"I do," she said. "What wouldn't you do for Aristotle?"
"He doesn't depend on me for things he should be able to do himself."
"Like it makes a difference? If he did need you, you would do anything for him. Even if it was some crazy, life-threatening thing nobody should be asked to do. Even if it meant your life or his, you wouldn't hesitate. Jimmy's not like that but you are."
Now it was Alex's turn to look away. There was no use denying any of it, but it didn't change on the facts on the ground. "How much does he need?"
"Four hundred thousand dollars."
"Four hundred thousand dollars?"
"Shhh!" She shushed him but his voice was raised. "You're making us sound like this is a drug deal."
"Well, is it?"
"Did Aristotle tell you?"
"No. Lucky guess. But I'm not wrong, am I?" He did keep his voice down. "Amanda, we're friends. You know I would do whatever was in my power to help you. But lending Michael drug money is not helping you. And even if I wanted to, I could never keep it from Ari. I can't keep anything from Ari."
Amanda sighed. "I know. I knew you would say no, but I promised I would ask."
"Just tell him I don't have the money. Or tell him whatever the hell you want. That I was a dick. That I will totally tell Ari if he dares to use you to ask me again. That you shouldn't have to do his dirty work and go to Colombia and get yourself killed."
"I can't say that to him. You can't ask me to say that to him."
"I can ask, as it seems to be the night of asking awkward questions. And for the record, as much as I love Ari in some unfathomable way, I have totally said shit to his face that he never should have forgiven me for, even if he deserved it."
"Yeah, well, my master's not Ari." She stood. "And I love him anyway."
"Thanks for your help," she said, now with sarcasm. "I'll call you when I need anything else."
He wanted to say more, but she was gone, and he knew not to chase.
Alex deposited his broken board in the umbrella bin by the door when he returned home. He could hear the television, and found Ari watching the national geographic channel. "Who are you rooting for this time? The lion or the gazelle?"
"It's always set up for the gazelle to lose. They never have programming on gazelles. The focus is always the lion. It's not fair. The gazelle is just as an integral part of the fragile ecosystem."
"Plus lions would be boring if they didn't have animals to gore," Alex said, taking the seat open for him. Being close to Ari always calmed him, and he wanted to be calm. "I need you to talk to Amanda. She won't listen to me."
"Bullshit. And don't say you don't know what this about because you weren't paying attention. You always know when I'm upset."
Ari turned off the television. "Smashing your skateboard on the sidewalk is a giveaway."
"Michael and Amanda are not us. There's no hundred-year apprenticeship where he teaches her all of the secrets of the bloodline. She can have a life without him at her age - and she does better when she's without him. And you promised that if Michael did anything illegal, you and Janette would drive him out of town."
"He hasn't done anything illegal by asking for money," his master responded. "And you're right - Amanda and Michael are different. She has the ability to refuse him. She may not want to, or choose not to, but it's within her capabilities."
"It's not that simple."
"Of course not. But I didn't give Michael money when he asked and you didn't give Amanda money when she asked because it was for their own good and we're not giving Michael money to buy cocaine or anything else they produce down there. Will I try to tell Michael how to be a responsible master? No. It's not my place and he won't listen. The same goes for Amanda, even if she wants to listen. I know you want to help, but you can't. You can only make the situation worse. And do you really want to do that?"
Alex wasn't satisfied with Ari's answer, but nor did he have his own to counter with. Not anything that could be applied to vampires. It alleviated nothing. His frustration was still there and so was his guilt, and so was Ari, looking at him with that intense stare of his. "Get out of my mind."
"I wasn't looking."
"Just let me think. Without ... knowing that you're there. Or could be there. Give me the night. That's all I want, and then I'll leave it alone. I promise."
It was deflating to Ari, when Alex pushed him away. But they wouldn't agree on this issue, and both of them knew it, so Ari would be the one to placate his son. "Okay."
"Thank you." Alex retreated to his room. He needed the distance. He believed his master, when he said he would give him some mental space, but it was just easier when he didn't have to face him, either. Alex would make it up to him soon - in the next few days, definitely. After he had some sleep, and maybe repaired his board, and got his mind off Amanda Rogan and a friend who was desperate and a situation he couldn't change. "What about you?" He tapped on the glass of the tank, but Seleucus only cocked his head, not moving any other muscles. "If I made you a bunch of playmates, would you torment each other, or just fight over branch space?" Seleucus, as always, was a towering pillar of silent wisdom, but he left a lot open to interpretation. "Fight over branch space, I bet. Even if I bought more branches. You'd fight over the one." He opened the lid and picked the chameleon up. "Don't deny it. You're a vampire and you're just as crazy as the rest of us."
What Seleucus was not crazy about was being held, and he wiggled until Alex let his tiny limbs go and he crawled up his arm and perched himself in the fabric of Alex's shirt. He looked completely content.
"Fine, maybe it's the human side of us that makes crazy. Thanks, General."
As usual, Seleucus had no reply.
As infrequently as it came, a request from Alex to stay out of his head - when he really meant it - was deadening to Aristotle. Not because he constantly needed to be in his fledgling's mind (though the link made it rather easy to do) but because it was a sign that Alex genuinely didn't trust him not to be there at all times. That breach of trust never occurred before Guatemala and Alex's imprisonment. Aristotle tried to console himself that his son was just getting older and more independent, and had a natural impulse to be free of the prevailing dominance of his master, but he couldn't make a convincing argument for it.
Of course it made him more curious than ever, and Aristotle spent the rest of the night with his mind pretty set on the request, though he did respect it and kept the link closed. He had no reason to be curious: he knew exactly what his son was thinking. Alex was upset at being unable to help Amanda. It was as simple as that.
Aristotle answered the phone, hoping to be distracted, but was disappointed instead by Tetsuo's insistent voice. "You must talk to Michael!" Tetsuo spoke in Japanese not out of some nationalist pride, though he had plenty of it, but because pronunciation came much easier to him. In public he spoke English, but if he could avoid it, he would. "You are the only one with the authority to do it."
"With all due respect, Janette is the Elder here."
Tetsuo paid very little attention to politics, but was rigid in his understanding of hierarchy in a very traditional sense, possibly a response to his lacking of a master and the desire for guidance. "You're older than her. I am guessing but I am also guessing I am not wrong."
He didn't confirm or deny. "It doesn't matter what I am. Janette is Elder of Los Angeles. She should resolve your dispute, whatever it is. It's not my business. I don't know why everyone thinks it is."
"You know my son is concerned."
"I'm guessing yes, but I'm also guessing that I'm not wrong," Aristotle replied. "If you want to bounce your dispute off me before you take it to Janette, fine. I'm more than willing to be of service. But it's only my opinion."
That Tetsuo would respect, and he calmed a bit. "Michael came to the office - a location I have never given him - and approached me for a loan at a very inopportune time. He was disrespectful to my mortal business partners and he was bitter in defeat, more so than usual. I gave him a loan once in New York, because I did not know him well and our children were friends and I wanted to encourage it, and he has never paid me back. When I mentioned this, he replied that I owed him, in some fashion, for letting my son run wild with his daughter. I asked for an apology on my son's behalf, and my own, and he said some things it would be bring me no honor to repeat. I had security escort him out." A very Tetsuo response; he always acted completely calm in front of his mortal companions, and in most other situations. It made Aristotle wonder what lurked beneath the surface. Tetsuo was no longer a fledgling and used to be a soldier. He could defend himself.
"How did he respond to that?"
"There were several of them and there were security cameras, as I reminded him in French. He left without incident. In that respect he was not foolish."
Aristotle sighed. "So what is your official complaint? Insulting your fledgling? Was there some minor Code violation in the office?"
"I would like to take him up on insulting myself and James, as I have no other recourse than a formal complaint." His honor system bristled at the societal barriers that prevented him from seeking his own vengeance. "I have a feeling Janette will say comforting things, but not actively pursue it."
"Because she's good at her job. This isn't serious and you know it. He asked for a loan; you refused. He got angry and yelled at you with the only dirt he had on you, which wasn't much. He probably did it deliberately. He knows you fairly well from New York, doesn't he?"
"We were not friends, but I had many conversations with him, because our children were friends and James was so young. I wished to speak to another parent." Tetsuo was the only one who called Jimmy by his real name. Vampires were generally addressed by how they were introduced, and even Tetsuo introduced him as Jimmy. Tetsuo was a young parent, barely more than a fledgling himself, and desperate to be responsible. In their first meeting, a few days after Jimmy was turned, Aristotle advised him to be gentle on the infant, who was badly shaken by the conversion process and all the events surrounding it. At the time, his survival as a vampire was not assured, and Aristotle laid out the basics: provide Jimmy with a stable home in a new location, walk him through everything very slowly, and not force on him anything unnecessary at first, like learning Japanese or forcing him to adapt to Tetsuo's culture. The ever-respectful Tetsuo, who had probably survived so long himself by being just that, followed his advice to a T, and Jimmy came into his own in New York and thrived in Los Angeles. Tetsuo was the very model of what a modern master should be, and Aristotle was proud of him, mentioning it on a few occasions. That Tetsuo was standing up for him now was not a huge surprise. The Japanese vampire liked Amanda, too. He was not blind to what was going on, though neither of them truly knew what went on behind the closed doors of Amanda's apartment. She did love her master dearly, and Aristotle suspected Michael loved her back to a certain extent. That made things much more complicated.
Aristotle laid it out for him. "You can tell Jimmy whatever you like about it, if you haven't already, but I would take the conversation as a warning. Jimmy should avoid a confrontation with Michael at all costs. If Michael perceives Jimmy's former relationship with Amanda as an attack on his fledgling, he might react violently to his presence. In that way, Michael paid you a favor by stopping by and yelling at you."
Tetsuo hesitated, and concluded, "Perhaps you are right."
"You didn't loan him money, which you weren't obligated to do and I wouldn't recommend your doing, so that angle's over. We all assume Michael's going to do something hideously illegal, but he hasn't yet. There's nothing to punish him for. Don't bring it to Janette, except if you have a situation where you can mention it in passing. No formal complaints. Janette's time is precious as it is. She'll be more receptive to you if you hold back until there is a real problem."
"I wouldn't want to burden her."
"Precisely. And as for your request to me, I don't have any authority over Michael. Technically yes, I'm his elder and he should listen to me, but he doesn't and my word isn't law. If it's any reassurance, I've spoken to Michael multiple times about his behavior, even recently. He's upset about this money thing; pushing him further while he's stressed will just draw further resistance. We wait until there's a serious problem, then act swiftly."
"That is your advice."
"That and to keep Jimmy away from Michael. Neither of them can afford a confrontation."
"I agree," Tetsuo said, practical as always. "Thank you, Aristotle. I may have been irrational for a moment. My apologies."
"You're a vampire. If you're only irrational for a moment, you have impressive control."
Tetsuo thanked him and hung up, leaving Aristotle to wonder how much control Tetsuo would have if something did happen to Jimmy.
Alex's first order of business for the following evening was apologizing to his master, only to be hampered by Ari being on the phone to a client. Alex waved and Ari returned the gesture, then went back to playing with his elephant toys while trying to explain why not to transport soil through airport customs. Alex retreated to the garage, to repair his backup skateboard, as the current one was a lost cause, smashed in half on the sidewalk in a fit of rage. Fortunately he had a spare that was missing a wheel, and mechanical busywork was a nice break from the electronic busywork that occupied most of his time. As a child he liked to build things, which resulted in many science fair blue ribbons and the accompanying requisite beating by the bully who'd flunked with his non-working papier-mâché volcano (how did you screw up a volcano? All it took was alka seltzer and water).
It wasn't long before Ari appeared. "Good evening."
"Hi." He stood, wiping the grease on his work jeans. "I'm sorry about last night."
Ari shook his head dismissively. "It was nothing. You have a right to your privacy." He grinned. "Sort of." He was eager for some peace offering between them, perhaps to placate some of Alex's concerns. "Tetsuo called last night. Michael approached him at his office for a loan. When he refused, Michael made all kinds of allegations about Jimmy's behavior, and Tetsuo had security escort him out. When he called me, it was because he wanted to file some kind of formal complaint and thought maybe I could handle it. The hazards of being an Ancient."
"Why didn't he go to Janette?"
"He knows I'm older than Janette and would be Elder if I wanted the job. He thought my voice might have more sway."
"You said no."
"I can't make Michael apologize to Tetsuo. I can't make Michael do anything, and I don't have the authority to do so until he does something illegal - as if I've ever stopped him before."
"Yeah, he knows your chemical weakness."
Ari growled. "He got lucky."
"So we're just going to sit and wait? Until he does something that gets Amanda killed?"
"We know he wants to go to Colombia, presumably to buy drugs, but doesn't have the money. He asked for a visa for Colombia and I gave it to him. He didn't ask for a visa on Amanda's passport and neither did she. A blond woman, probably in her twenties? She'll stick out like sore thumb where he's going. He's not intending to take her. She won't be in danger. The worst that happens is he dies in Colombia or does something that brings in the Enforcers, and she has to deal with the death of her master. Difficult, but it's not as if she's not intelligent enough to see it coming. And as for her money, if Michael is using it as a personal expense account, she's a hard worker and you know everyone in LA will be bending over backwards to get her back on her feet."
"Assuming he doesn't take her to Colombia."
"It's a sound assumption. He may view her as his meal ticket, but he loves her."
Alex grumbled, "Excuse me if I'm a little skeptical."
Alex was as eager to appease his master as Ari was to address his son's concerns. They abandoned their projects instead to play a Call of Duty mod, though Ari's offer of a wager over the game was immediately turned down, to his amusement. Alex's natural roots were coming in, and soon enough he would be able to snip off the pink ends, but until then he would just steam and take his frustration out with a digital AK-47. Ari made the mistake of going for the sniper rifle, and Alex got to him before he could find a good tower and gunned his master down in a pixilated stairway.
"You should have taken me up on the bet."
Balance was restored.
To Alex's delight, an invitation was not slow in coming to visit Amanda's apartment. Michael was in South America for an indeterminate but likely brief amount of time, and she didn't say it over the phone, but she was lonely without him. Never one to sit on her heels, Amanda organized the long-awaited housewarming party, fledglings only. It was Los Angeles, so there were plenty of people their age for her to invite.
"There's actually someone here younger than you," she said as she greeted him and accepted his gift. "She's one, I think. From Cincinnati of all places."
"The point is, I'm no longer the youngest."
"I thought it would put a smile on your face." She hugged him. "It's good to see you. Sorry about the whole thing at the park."
"There's nothing to be sorry about," he said, mimicking his master. "I got you something that wasn't wine or wine-displaying related. Figured no one else did."
She rolled her eyes. "The packages do have a distinctive shape." She ushered him in. The apartment wasn't luxury, but it had a lot of space for a single person and an occasional second. She did have an excellent sound system, as Amanda had a particular passion for music, though she preferred her generation's soothing fare over Jimmy's harsh grunge. There was drinking (mostly wine but a little vodka-spiced blood), there was music, and there were people chatting and probably in the spare rooms, biting. It was more important than sex (which often went with it), but it was also how they felt close to one another. Alex was notoriously off-limits, something his generation found a bizarrely medieval custom, but they knew better by now than to question it.
"Your roots are coming back," Jimmy said, sitting on the counter in the kitchen.
"Yeah, thank G-d. It's taking forever." Vampire hair grew slower than human hair. "So who's usurping my title of the new kid in town?"
"Her name's Sharon. She's blond - but not like Amanda. She's really blond, like she's Swedish or something." Jimmy's mood was considerably improved, even if his relationship with Amanda was still probably on the rocks. "You are what, six?"
"Seven, next week almost."
"You're almost to ten. Ten is a big deal. My master says, ten means you can make it on your own, if you had to. If there were extenuating circumstances."
"Ari says it has to do with strength of character, but most people don't agree with him on that." Alex shrugged. "But he's older than most people. So there's that. Anyway, cheers."
They clinked glasses. "Cheers."
"What are we celebrating?"
"Michael being gone."
"Other than that?"
"I'm not going to bother to pretend there's another reason."
"Fair enough." He nodded to one the guys he knew, a twenty-year-old named Andrew, who was followed by a blond, pale girl. "'sup?"
"Alex, meet Sharon. Sharon, Alex would be the guy to hook up with, as he's the second youngest, but his master says he's off-limits 'cuz he wants him all to himself."
"Sharon, nice to meet you." They shook hands. "Andrew, you're a douche."
"Hey, I'm just telling her the facts so it doesn't get all awkward later."
To Sharon's confused expression Alex said, "He's normally like this. We all put up with it because he has a beach house."
"We all put up with it because we're supposed to be nice to each other," Amanda said. "I'd say can I freshen your drinks but hell, I do that enough at work. Get your own."
It was a good enough party that Alex wasn't constantly checking his PDA, but enjoying himself instead. Buying back-up controllers for Amanda's new Wii was definitely the right choice, as the originals were smashed pretty quickly by angry vampires who didn't know their own strength. Her furniture held up pretty well, and nobody got drunk enough to become unhinged and start a fight, as happened so often when they got together. It was usually that or an orgy and the latter was just frustrating to Alex. He talked briefly to Sharon, who was definitely under a year old, but didn't offer any pieces of sage wisdom. He still got enough of those on a regular basis.
Around three the party cleared out. Early for vampires, but some of them had longer flights home and they never wanted to push sunrise. Amanda caught Alex in her bedroom, watching C-SPAN on the other TV. "Sorry. I admit it. I'm totally addicted and I completely blame Ari. I'll be out when this filibuster is done."
"That's the point of filibusters - that they don't finish," she said, sitting down on the edge of her bed. "Did Aristotle tell you about my brother?"
"Kind of in passing. Told me not to tell. Normally he doesn't, you know, share private information unless he has a reason." He took another swig from his bottle. "He's pretty good at coming up with a reason, I admit. He's like an old person with nobody to talk to. Then he finds someone and goes on about stuff."
"Yeah, but I bet he has really interesting stuff to say." She looked up as Jimmy entered. "Have people left? I should get up, but I had all that spiced vodka or whatever it was. That's what the dishwasher's for, I guess."
"Yeah, it's pretty cleared out. Hey, is your brother on?"
Alex looked up at Amanda, who shrugged. "It came out. Sometimes I feel like an old person with no one to talk to around you guys. Look - third row! It's Stevie!" She sounded as if she was referring to a little boy and not an aging congressman refilling his glass of water. She shook her head. "He's gotten so gray. It does make him look distinguished, I guess. And he's not bald, like Dad was."
"Hair genes are from your mother's side," Alex said. "He'll have the same hair as your maternal grandfather."
"Smart ass," Jimmy said, taking a seat next to Amanda. "Good party. Sorry about the controller."
"It's okay. You were not the only person to smash one."
"Ari and I go through them like crazy," Alex said, his eyes fixated on the screen. When the camera cut to the floor, he could see Steve Sutherland in the corner, mostly absorbed in his notes. "I should make one with a steel frame. See if it holds up to the abuse we can do. And it was a good party."
There was movement in the doorway to the apartment. With the music off, they could all hear it. Ever the good host, Amanda jumped up to see to her guest while the guys stayed still. They would have stayed in that position, watching C-SPAN without paying serious attention to it, had they not heard her shout. "Michael!"
"Oh shit, Dad's home," Jimmy said, but there wasn't that much humor in his voice when Amanda and Michael started talking in a very animated French. "Out the window?"
But Amanda had her window essentially bricked up with books, having no use for a dangerous bedroom window. "No, just be cool." He shut off the television and they quietly tried to move out, but the second Jimmy entered the hallway, he was pushed up against the wall by one very angry vampire.
Alex had never met or seen Michael before, but he didn't' look exceptional. Like most European vampires, Michael was in his thirties, with sandy blond hair and a strong build, probably in good health when he was brought across nearly three hundred years before. He had the look of a soldier, but he still had handsome, unblemished features that would be far less jarring when he was smiling and not growling. Alex supposed he might have succeeded in slipping out altogether if that was his goal, as Michael only had eyes for Jimmy, who was no match for someone over twenty times his age. But he didn't run. He stayed next to Amanda when she pulled her master off Jimmy. "Michael, stop! He's just a guest!"
His European accent, when speaking English, was entirely suppressed. "I'm gone two nights - "
"You were supposed to be gone two weeks!"
"I had some problems in customs," he said, not taking his eyes off a similarly-growling Jimmy. "Tetsuo never learned to watch over you."
"I'm a guest," Jimmy hissed through his fangs. "Amanda can invite whoever she wants. She's an adult!"
"She's my daughter and I told you to keep your filthy claws off her!"
"Michael," Amanda pleaded, distressed but unwilling to further engage her master physically, "nothing happened. It was a party. Alex was here the whole time."
"Yeah, I was here," Alex said.
"Who the hell are you?"
"Alex." There was no reason to hide it. "Aristotle's son."
"Then get the fuck out of my house and go back to your nerd king master."
"It's not your house," Jimmy said, even under obviously bodily threat. "It's Amanda's."
"No. If she won't stand up for herself because you're the manipulative son of a bitch who brought her across, I will," Jimmy said, his eyes red with anger. "All you do is walk all over her life and take advantage of whatever she makes for herself. Even if I never see her again I would be able to deal with it, provided she wasn't with you."
The punch was a little expected; they all sensed it coming from the tension in the room, but Jimmy was not fast enough to duck or strong enough to not be hurled across the room. Amanda screamed and Alex did the only thing he could think of to do, which was jump on Michael's back to hold him from further assaulting Jimmy. Michael was still stronger, and grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him over, smashing him into the floor. With Alex temporarily out of the fight, Michael had time to grab an iron poker from the fireplace and advanced on Jimmy, his intentions obvious. It wouldn't kill even a fledgling like Jimmy, since it was made of iron and not wood, but it would hurt.
"Michael, don't," Amanda pleaded, flying to get between him and Jimmy. "It's not his fault."
"I told you to stay away from him!"
"We're not dating! We broke up when you came to LA. He was just here for the party." She grabbed his arm as he raised it. "If you hurt him, Tetsuo will come after you."
"I can deal with that fledgling's fucking samurai honor. What about my honor? What about my whore of a daughter?"
"I'm the whore," she said. "Leave him alone."
"No!" Jimmy chose that moment to sit up, his body recovering from the breaks of being thrown across the room. "Amanda, you're not a whore, and you don't have to pretend to be one. Not for him or anyone else. I don't care if he is your master. He's still a jealous asshole who doesn't appreciate you."
Amanda was caught between the two sides; Alex watched as he got himself up with the help of the table. His broken bones were still re- knitting. Nothing she could say would placate them both, so she focused on Michael, the winner in any physical contest. "Don't listen to him. He doesn't know what you mean to me or he wouldn't say -"
"He doesn't know his place," Michael said, his growl downright bestial, his eyes glowing golden. Jimmy howled and launched himself at Michael, but he never had a chance. Michael brought the iron poker right down on Jimmy's collarbone, the shattering of bone audible. He staggered, and in those precious seconds Michael swung to his legs and broke them both. When Amanda made a move Michael shoved her away, and by the time she was back, he had beaten Jimmy beyond the fledgling's ability to move. A single blow to the head and he lost consciousness.
Aristotle was coming. He must be, with the alarms going off in Alex's head, but he couldn't wait, not even for Aristotle. He flew himself into Michael and knocked him over, and the poker fell to the freshly- polished wooden floor, scratching it. With Michael on his back, Alex, who was too angry to talk, held him down to the best of his abilities, if only to control him while Amanda could get help. With his arms pinned, Michael struck as the vampire, the only way it knew how - by biting Alex, his fangs going deep into the flesh of his shoulder. Alex's world darkened but didn't disappear as the vampire in him howled, his body flailing helplessly. The sensation of Michael drawing from him was not just pain, but something deeper and more uncomfortable. It was not Ari, even at his worst, and Alex didn't like it. He couldn't think other than to get away, to hurt the person who was touching him on the inside until he would stop, to make him die. He never wanted someone to die so badly, and he was lost in that until someone pulled him off. Amanda, of course. He tried to stand, but faltered as his knees went out from under him. The world was spinning and his shoulder still hurt, even if the wound was already closing. He felt sick, but there was nothing to vomit. He grabbed the kitchen chair, but it was no use, and just toppled with him. On the floor, he hissed at Amanda's touch; he didn't want to be touched again by anyone but Ari. Where was Ari? Why wasn't he here? Everything else could go away - the sooner the better. He curled into a ball, awaiting the next attack, and he could barely translate the French Amanda was speaking to her master. She was pleading with him, begging him to leave while he still could. She said outright that if Tetsuo didn't kill him for this, Aristotle would. Michael said something back, calling her a whore, and pointing out neither fledgling was hurt beyond recovery. Jimmy wasn't even bleeding, except some blood he spit up. Michael wasn't stupid, or so he said.
Alex tuned the conversation out. He wanted Ari. He didn't want to hurt anymore and Ari could make that happen. He was too weak even to retrieve his phone and call him, as if that was needed. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, Ari was there. It was the only reason he opened them. Amanda was screaming again and Ari had the poker in his hand one moment, then it was gone again, buried deep in Michael's chest.
"Call Tetsuo," Ari said calmly to Amanda, his voice blasting in Alex's airs. There was one person Alex could never and would never tune out. He wanted him and Ari was there. "Come on, kid." He had his wrist bite open to entice Alex out of his stupor, Alex followed the siren call of Ari's blood and was lost in it as bit down on the offered wrist. "There. Just relax and drink." He pulled him close, and Alex didn't have the energy to fight and wouldn't have if he could manage it. This was the kind of touch he wanted, as Ari stroked his back. His voice was thick, as if slathered in something when he said, "Sleep."
Throughout the evening, Aristotle checked in on the party, and was not disappointed. Alex was not only behaving himself but seemed to be relaxed, more so than he had been since their return from Vegas. It was good for him to be with his peers, especially ones he hadn't seen in awhile but worried about. Aristotle smiled and left his son alone, turning to his work. He was in the middle of a conference call when Alex's alarm spiked, and he ended the call as abruptly as possible and without bothering with any pretext. It wasn't clear that his son needed him when he left the house, but by the time he got to the car, he was definitely needed. He abandoned the car and flew the rest of the way, calculating that it would be faster, even with the way that he drove. Michael was hurting his son; all other details were irrelevant. Directions were not needed. He could always tell where Alex was, down to the last foot.
Michael and Amanda were the only ones standing in her apartment. Jimmy was motionless and unconscious, but not visibly bleeding, though his body was bent in a precarious position, indicating extensive internal damage. He wouldn't die from that. Alex wasn't bleeding or badly drained, but the emotional stress was enough to get Aristotle's blood up. Whatever argument Michael had for him, Aristotle didn't want to hear it. The obvious weapon in the room, one that conveniently would incapacitate but not kill Michael, who was old enough to not bleed to death, was what he grabbed. The French vampire barely had three words out before he had a poker in his chest, well clear of the heart. Amanda ran to his side as he went down - her instincts, of course, to tend to her master. He barely got it out that Tetsuo should be called, something he couldn't manage at the moment because it meant abandoning Alex for a moment longer than he had to. Tetsuo wouldn't feel Jimmy's pain, only his death, and Jimmy wasn't by all appearances going to die. He had to be notified.
That cleared away, Aristotle knelt by his son, who'd been bitten and considerably drained, and was in shock. It was not the loss of blood by the feeling of violation that Alex's mind couldn't take. When Alex had enough of Aristotle's blood for him to have a solid hold on his son's mind, he put him to sleep, hopefully for the rest of the evening so he would just sleep through the day. His mind needed the rest only sleep could provide.
With Alex no longer blasting his emotions through the link, Aristotle calmed himself. He couldn't feed Jimmy, someone else's son, and he couldn't calm Amanda. He had no link with her. His major decision was whether to kill Michael in that very room and be done with it or hold off.
Amanda came to him, in tears and not oblivious to his intentions. "Please don't kill him. He was provoked. He doesn't deserve to die."
That was arguable. Even without combing Alex's memories for the events prior to his arrival, he guessed there was some argument that caused Michael to beat Jimmy into a pulp and bite Alex. That wasn't so much part of his consideration as whether he could justify Michael's death. Definitely, though he would get a lot of heat for it. Michael could pass by with a punishment for breaking Jimmy's bones, but he violated Alex, far less painful than broken bones but far more personal. According to the Code, he damaged Aristotle's property in an unacceptable way. If Aristotle killed him now, he wouldn't face serious punishment for it. Still, he didn't know if Michael had powerful friends. Michael's master could lodge a complaint. It could get complicated.
And he could always kill him later.
Satisfied with this answer, he shoved the vampire into submission and said in his normal voice, "Tetsuo?"
"On his way." Her relief visible, she wiped her tears and retrieved the blood from the fridge, mostly still in hospital bags, giving one to Aristotle and another to Michael, who was awake enough to drink but not much else. Jimmy had a head wound and was unresponsive, but time and Tetsuo's blood would remedy that. A vampire could almost always recover from a bloodless beating, as long as the head wasn't accidentally severed or the heart destroyed. "I didn't mean - he was supposed to be in Colombia - "
"I know." He didn't know or care about the specifics of why Michael was here, but it was a good idea to comfort Amanda. "I'm not going to kill him. Not now. Tetsuo might try, but I can talk him out of it." The latter he wasn't so sure of, but Tetsuo would lose in a fight anyway. "When Michael heals, tell him that he can't leave Los Angeles. I'm going to lodge a complaint with Janette and he'll have to sit for a tribunal and answer for his actions. If he leaves the area, it will become an Enforcer concern. Otherwise, it won't." Even Michael was afraid of the Enforcers. Aristotle added, "Tribunals generally do not execute people."
Tetsuo would be there soon, but Aristotle stayed anyway. He checked on Alex, still sound asleep, and looked for other physical marks, but didn't find any aside from some fading bruises. His clothing wasn't torn except around the collar. The only major wound was the bite, now healed and invisible.
Since he couldn't help Jimmy, he turned to Michael. The sun was coming up soon and he couldn't leave Amanda to care for him, with the severity of his wound. As frustrated as it made Aristotle, it was best if he dealt with it. "Get the blood ready," he commanded, though not very harshly, to Amanda as he braced his foot against Michael's stomach. "This is going to hurt," he said with a tiny joy in his heart to the other vampire, and tore out the poker, taking a good deal of blood and some chunks of flesh with it. Michael was on a wood floor, so the blood wouldn't go anywhere and his body would reabsorb it. He didn't lose conscious, so he responded to Amanda's offer of blood and sucked on the bags, one after another. When his wound began to close, Aristotle turned away, uninterested now that Michael would live. The wound would close over and the bleeding would stop, which was key. The internal damage would take time to heal, but let the asshole suffer. Aristotle wasn't about to offer up his blood.
Michael couldn't be moved, which was unfortunate. Aristotle's next in what seemed like a series of unending tasks that kept his full attention away from Alex was to keep Tetsuo from flying off the handle and decapitating Michael as soon as he arrived, the vampire fully in control of him. There was no polite Japanese businessman at the door, just a vengeful vampire with no sympathy for his elder on the floor with a chest wound. Aristotle grabbed him in time. "I'll take care of it. Jimmy needs you more now."
He was not wrong. Jimmy was incapacitated to the point where the vampire was absent, not responding to the smell of Tetsuo's blood. His master had to fall back on feeding him through an open wound, letting a trickle flow through their joined hands, which was all Jimmy's body would manually take. Amanda was making sure her master was consuming blood, Tetsuo was attempting to feed Jimmy, and Alex was asleep on the floor, with Aristotle watching over it all. He'd averted as much disaster as possible - no one was dead or beyond healing - but he didn't feel any satisfaction from it. He wasn't sure he would force a Tribunal on Michael: it was something he said to get Amanda to make sure Michael didn't skip town. It was likely, but not a certainty.
Shortly before dawn, Jimmy's vampire finally responded, and he feed furiously from his master's neck without ever really regaining consciousness. Reluctant to leave Alex, Aristotle retrieved his car, loaded him into the passenger seat, and offered Tetsuo a ride. After feeding his son, Tetsuo was too weak to fly him home, not even after downing two bottles of uncut blood from Amanda's fridge. Barely containing his rage at the situation, Tetsuo was a man of exceptionally few words, but he did accept the offer. He would not take shelter in Amanda's apartment, of all places.
"This will be handled properly, when everyone is healed," Aristotle said to Amanda, not wanting to tell her everything was going to be fine. He had a feeling that it wasn't.
After dropping off Tetsuo and Jimmy at the penthouse, Aristotle raced against the rising sun to get home, breaking records on the car even for him, but neither of them burned. He carried Alex in his arms, changed his shirt, removed his shoes, and put him in his own bed. Seleucus seemed particularly agitated - was he just hungry or could he sense his master's distress? - so Aristotle put fresh blood in the feeder, which satisfied the chameleon, who drank and promptly went to sleep curled up on his favorite branch.
Alex would not wake, even if Aristotle prodded him, with the sun now above the horizon. Aristotle sat on the bed beside him, not satisfied enough to leave his presence, even if it was Alex's room and not his. He dug into the link and replayed Alex's memories of the evening, not perfectly clear but a bit like watching a blurry movie on a worn VHS tape, but he had more than the gist of it. It was the disaster Alex, Tetsuo, and even Michael really predicted, in one way or another. Warnings he ignored or dismissed, because it wasn't his place to act until someone acted first. In post, it was a senseless policy, the logic outweighed by the damage it caused. Alex had never been bitten by anyone else except the Enforcers, and that was only once and while he was in a drugged sleep. He didn't know what it felt like; he wasn't prepared, as if there was a way to prepare him. When he woke, he would be confused and angry, mostly at his master - Aristotle already knew that. He was bracing himself for it when the phone rang.
It was Janette. It had to be someone old to be calling at this hour. "So tell me what happened."
He recited the litany of events as he knew them and Alex knew them. "I told Amanda to tell Michael I was lodging a formal complaint so he wouldn't skip town."
"Well, are you? Tribunals aren't easy to set up."
He sighed, and leaned against the wall, Alex slumbering inches from him. "I need to think it over. Michael was way out of line, but I can't make a decision right now. I'm still too angry."
"You're too smart to make decisions while angry, and you deserve credit for that," Janette said. "You are lucky you didn't kill Michael. Elaine never would have forgiven you."
"Elaine?" Michael always got sanctuary in Paris, Elaine's territory, no matter what the crime and who was hunting him. And his master was female, but he never said who it was. Since he so rarely used Aristotle's services, Aristotle had never asked ... "Elaine's his master?"
"It makes sense when you think about it, no? Just because she doesn't put it up in neon lights in every club doesn't mean there's no connection."
"And it explains a lot." He knew Elaine had children, only one of whom was brought across the old way, he remembered. That girl was dead now. She was not very public about whom she brought across unless she wanted to be, and to be honest, he wasn't that familiar with the situation in Europe, not having been there in decades. After the War of Independence, he spent more and more time America before officially moving there in the fifties. "I didn't know. I had no idea."
"She had many opportunities to make it known, I'm sure. She had her reasons for choosing not to."
He rubbed his forehead. None of this was making it easier. "He shouldn't avoid punishment entirely, but maybe she can administer it. I don't know - I have to think."
"You need to sleep, Aristotle." Janette was usually not so forward with him. He must have really sounded bad. "No one is going anywhere until sundown. And they're children - they'll sleep the whole day and then some maybe. Take advantage of the opportunity."
He could not and would not argue with her for so many reasons, the main one being that he was, now that he acknowledged it, truly exhausted. "Okay. I'll call you when there's an update. No formal charges yet, but don't let Michael leave the city if you can manage it."
"That can be arranged. Good night, Aristotle."
"Good night." Nothing would be good about it, and it wasn't night, but there was some relief when he hung up the phone. Instead of properly preparing for bed, he merely kicked off his shoes and repositioned himself next to Alex. In the physical closeness and quiet link he found peace, and quickly after that, sleep.
Aristotle screened his calls, not finding a single message more important than staying on the bed long after he had rested as much as his body would let him. Alex woke at dusk, sucking greedily from the offered vein before doing anything else. This did not restore him. If anything he was embarrassed by it, and angrily turned over so his back was to his master.
"I didn't kill Michael," Aristotle said, "but I came close."
Alex didn't respond.
"He has to stay in Los Angeles and maybe face a tribunal. I can bring serious charges against him and so can Tetsuo, but Elaine will ask us to be lenient."
"And you will," Alex said. "You'll do whatever's appropriate. Not what's right."
"Killing someone because you don't like them isn't right." Aristotle wanted to move closer, but there was too much anger radiating from Alex - not all of it directed at him, but it didn't have a lot of other places to go. "He should be punished but not killed for what he did to you. I want to kill him, but it isn't right. There are codes of conduct - "
"You should have said something."
"It wouldn't have prevented anything. Alex, I wish it didn't happen - "
"I asked you to say something and you didn't." Alex turned his head and looked over his shoulder. "I asked you - I fucking begged you - to step in for Amanda and you said no. So we had to do it."
"There are rules between a master and his child - "
"So an unjust law should be followed? I thought you were the one who didn't drink the hemlock," Alex seethed. "Did you ever think what it would be like if someone - anyone - stood up for you, when you were a fledgling?"
"No one would be stupid enough to do that."
"Even if they were."
"It wouldn't have worked. It wouldn't have changed anything. Qum'ra never listened to anyone."
"But how would you have felt," Alex said, his stare very penetrating, "knowing someone cared enough about you to put himself on the line and tell your master he was treating you like shit?"
Under any other circumstance, Aristotle would have countered Alex on Qum'ra's behalf, saying he had no right to slander his grandsire. His instincts still went there, because Qum'ra made him and made him love him. But instead he did as he was told, and went through many painful memories, looking for someone who spoke on his behalf in front of anyone, much less Qum'ra. There were those who were sympathetic, perhaps, but they didn't disagree. Not openly. He was so utterly alone those first few decades, even when he was surrounded by vampires.
Alex couldn't read his mind, but he was a good guesser. "I thought so." He turned away from him again, putting up a wall of silence that made it clear he wanted to be left alone.
Aristotle couldn't force his presence on him any longer. He could barely stomach anything, but the vampire was always hungry and demanded sustenance, which he joylessly swallowed in the kitchen. The first call came of course from Tetsuo. Aristotle just let him rant for a little bit before actually saying anything significant. "We have to decide what charges to bring against him for the Tribunal. That part's obvious. That's more difficult is the punishment we request. Which hopefully he'll agree to anyway, and not make us all sit through a trial he knows he'll lose."
Tetsuo attempted to calm himself. "I am assuming if he could be killed, you would have done it already."
"Yes. I can still make a good argument for execution and win, but his master will step in and plead for mercy and we'll have to listen. His master is Elaine."
"Does she not understand justice? James was nearly killed!"
"And Elaine wants justice for her son. She doesn't want him killed. Both of our children don't have lasting damage. We don't have a strong enough case for execution." He took a different tack. "What does Jimmy want?"
"He's still resting, but I know he wants Michael out of Amanda's life. This is not something we can request, is it?"
"No, a master has total control of his fledgling. If we ordered Michael away, he could ask Amanda to come with him and she would go," Aristotle said. "Michael knows he's in a tight spot. He'll offer something to placate us. We just don't know what it is yet."
"We shouldn't have to wait on him!"
Tetsuo had a point, but Aristotle didn't have an answer. He did know that Jimmy had been quite badly hurt, and probably wouldn't be on his feet for another day at best. Tetsuo was letting himself be drained to heal him. "Michael can't go anyway, and everyone needs time to heal and think. Then we can sort this out. Not before."
Tetsuo did sound tired, even though it was very early evening. "I want to know if he calls you."
"And I will speak to Janette. Thank you." He did not waste words, and ended the call himself. Aristotle was grateful for it. He could think of multiple punishments appropriate to the situation - most of them physical - but none of them would teach Michael a lesson. He was too stubborn, too set in his ways at his age. If he was ever going to learn good sense it was going to happen during his mortal lifetime, when he was still malleable. Making him hurt the way he hurt their children would bring them emotional satisfaction, but that was fleeting.
He sat at the kitchen counter, rearranging the wooden elephants into a twisting caravan and remained there until Alex came downstairs and poured himself breakfast. He was still rattled by last night, but he was trying not to show it. "Who was on the phone?" It was not a question he would normally ask.
"Tetsuo. Jimmy's still healing. He wanted to know our options."
"We can't really get some kind of like, court-ordered separation for Amanda, right?"
"It's not like that."
"Ari, please. I know an abusive relationship when I see one. I used to sit in a room full of people in bad relationships they couldn't get out of. Or didn't want to get of. Or really couldn't, because it was their mother and they couldn't abandon them."
"Michael does love her."
"Sure, but he still hurts her, whether he knows it or not. Abusers don't know they're being abusive. They have some mental justification in their mind, like the victim has one to explain why they're still in the relationship. It's basic psychology. Didn't you invent psychology?"
"I'll give others credit for that. Biology is all mine." Seeing there was an opening, he said, "You were right. I should have said something. I'm set in my ways, but that's not an excuse. If anything, I should have said something because you asked me too, and I'm sorry."
Alex's mood was softening, as the anger dissipated and the pain of last night's encounter returned to the surface. They retired to the den to watch the TNG marathon keyed up on the DVR, but it was just background noise. Alex was not able to concentrate and neither was Aristotle.
"Did it always feel like that?" Alex asked at last, knowing Aristotle would sense what he was referring to. Being bitten and drained by a foreign vampire was a violation in a way human terms couldn't define. Alex knew Aristotle was fair game as a fledgling; Qum'ra offered his son's blood to whomever showed an interest in tasting the famous philosopher.
"I convinced myself that I could get used to it, but I couldn't. It never got better." His body felt cold. He forced specific instances out of his mind. Why did the most terrible ones always surface first? "I do remember someone who spoke for me - not against Qum'ra but after his death, when I was on that bogus trial for killing my master and they refused to let me submit evidence in my defense. It was the Spartan, Tiberius. He was barely more than a fledgling himself and they just ignored him, but he tried. After the trial, I had a night to rest before I was put in a coffin to suffer from eternal hunger, and he offered to help me end my life and avoid the sentence. It was the logical choice, because a few days later I would be wishing for death and it would just go on and on and I would be incapable of acting on it. But something in me refused to die, and he said he respected that. I never found out why he stood up for me. He wouldn't say."
"Is this the Tiberius who died at Magna and asked you to spread his ashes over his shield and cast them into the wind?"
"Yes. The memories I have of the battle are from his blood. He wanted a dignified death and he wanted to be remembered. It was the only way I knew to return the favor and I was glad to do it, even if it meant carrying those awful memories for thousands of years."
"Because he stood up for you."
"Yes. I'm sure Amanda will feel the same about you. Both of you. Especially years from now, when we all have perspective." He put his arm around him, and Alex didn't shy away from the physical contact this time. Alex would never admit it, but he needed it. "You know I don't let people drink from you to keep you all to myself. It's to protect you. If you can't reciprocate, it isn't always pleasant. Usually your friends are just too drunk to notice what they're doing to each other."
"How do you know? We don't invite you."
"You really think things have changed so much? Kids are kids. My generation was capable of a wild night on the town, when allowed. Masterless fledglings could go, and some older vampires would join in." He shook his head. "It was a bad scene. At the best ones, someone would usually die."
"A vampire. The mortal would always die."
Alex's mind was focused on trying to imagine an orgy in the ancient vampire world, and Aristotle would rather have him wonder than share his own memories of the few events he was invited to - or rented to. Alex shouldn't have to suffer, especially not vicariously through his master's memories. "I should never have let him hurt you. I should have come faster."
"You made it across town pretty fast," Alex said.
"I should have seen it coming. I rely on my status to protect you, but Michael really is that stupid." He kissed him on the head. "I should have protected you and I'm sorry."
"It's okay." It was Alex's version of accepting the apology and that was fine. He was still hurting, but his anger was gone. He had been through worse, at the hands of his own master after all, and he would bounce back.
Aristotle put his work aside for the evening and devoted it to their current project, building a refrigerated rotating feeder for Seleucus' tank to keep him fed over several days without the blood spoiling or congealing. It was the only thing they could build for him that he showed any interest in when they were finished; he didn't take well to the remote-controlled, lizard-sized car or the Lego reconstruction of the Roman Forum. Refrigerators were complex machines, especially in a smaller size. The work distracted both of them, which put Alex in a better mood, even if Seleucus just sat on his shoulder and regarded him as if the chameleon was king and his master was a mere vassal. "You've got it backwards, buddy. Even though I technically do all this work for you and you do nothing in return. Just so we're clear on the pecking order here while I build this complex machinery purely for your behalf."
"Fledglings are a lot of work," Aristotle said with a chuckle.
It was only an hour before dawn when a call came in that he knew from the caller ID he had to answer. "Hello." Normally he would be more personal in his greeting, but he wasn't sure who was actually on the line. He looked at Alex, who was dozing on the couch, and moved into his office.
It was Amanda, not her master. "How's Alex?"
"He'll be fine. He just needs time."
"And Jimmy? I haven't had it in me to call. Tetsuo will just pick up and demand to speak to Michael."
"Jimmy's recovering. Maybe tomorrow night he'll be answering his cell." Aristotle knew it was off. Alex tried calling earlier.
"I feel really bad about not calling him, but I know you're both pissed, and really, it's not a good time to speak to Michael."
He sighed. "It seems it's never a good time to speak to Michael."
"That's why I'm calling you. Michael's acting weird. Not jealous angry - just angry. He drank everything in the house during the day and sent me to the club to pick up more when I woke up." There was a tremor in her voice that was concerning.
"Where is he now?"
"He went out. He knows he can't leave. He said he was going hunting. I tried to talk him out of it - really tried - but he was really agitated. He said he was starving so badly it hurt, and this was after I saw him down two quarts of the uncut stuff. Janette says it's okay if he destroys the bodies, but she wasn't happy about it."
So why are you calling me? But he didn't say it, not outright. "Did he say anything about last night?"
"Yeah, the standard stuff, the angry curses and I know that he knows that it got out of hand, and he's going to have to answer for it. He said he spoke to Elaine, but it was while I was sleeping, and he didn't say what he said. He's really hard to talk to." She added, "I'm worried about him. I think he might do something ... I don't know, crazy. Not stupid, just crazy. And I won't be able to stop him."
There were panicky fledglings, and then there was Amanda. She was very intelligent and good assessing situations, even if this one involved more deep-seated emotions than a conversation about her career. Aristotle took that into consideration; otherwise, he wouldn't have given a shit about Michael's sufferings. "What did he say to you that would indicate that?"
"He says he's hungrier than he's ever been before. He's been the vampire the whole night, practically. And I don't think he slept at all during the day. He doesn't look like he did. He just broke some furniture in the kitchen, and got really mad when I asked why. He didn't strike me - he hasn't even touched me, which is weird - but he was furious," Amanda said. "I can't describe it, but I know something is wrong. Off. Unless I'm wrong and he comes home and he's fine. But if he's out there and he frenzies - "
"The Enforcers will come in and clean up any mess he makes. Elaine and Marius are friends. Unless he's completely unreasonable, they'll go easy on him. Let him know that he has no reason to be completely unreasonable. I'm not going to assemble a Tribunal to have him put to death. If I wanted him dead, I would have done it last night."
She wasn't pleased with the mention of it, but she tried to hide it. "I know. I think he knows, but I'll remind him. But if he doesn't calm down, I don't know what he's going to do, if someone tries to talk to him. I know you're not the right person to ask this, but you're the only one I know who might be able to help me. Please, Mr. Aristotle. I'll owe you a thousand favors. I'll pay you whatever you want."
"I don't need money." And she probably didn't have it. That wasn't the issue. There were other vampires Michael's age in Los Angeles, but few that were older, and none that were significantly older except Janette and himself, and Janette shouldn't be saddled with keeping every vampire from hurting himself. "He has to be back by sunrise. When he comes home, if he's still acting up, call me. I can't promise anything, but I don't want to see anyone else hurt from this." And by that he meant Amanda. If Michael wanted to throw himself into the sun, so much the better. But there was Elaine to consider - he would be currying a serious favor from her for rescuing her son. And from Alex for protecting Amanda, if that was the situation.
"Thank you, Mr. Aristotle."
"No promises. But call anyway."
The phone conversation ended there but his worries didn't. She couldn't put her fears into words, but the tone of her voice told him her instincts were firing, and vampires had very good instincts.
He checked on Alex, who was drinking a steady amount of blood wine and consumed by the DVR's offerings, and returned to the study, where he dialed Elaine's private line. When she answered, she was obviously awake. She was old enough to be capable of it, even though it was midday in France, and it was not as if she was oblivious to the events of Los Angeles. "I know the story. What do you have to add to it?"
He went over Amanda's call, the only real development of the night. Her response was sympathetic - to him. "And she puts it on you, of course. The hazard of living among youth. How very insensitive of her."
"She meant well. I know Amanda, and I believe it. She's just trying to do what's best for everyone, which is impossible. She thinks Michael needs someone stronger than himself to take care of him."
"Any other candidates in the New World?"
"None that I want to have involved in this." It was so sensitive a matter, especially with Alex involved.
"Hmm, so you went me to get on a plane."
"I couldn't ask it of you."
"But you could imply it."
He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, leaning back in the desk chair. "I don't know what to do. Everything I've done so far is wrong, in the opinion of one person or another. Alex wanted me to intervene with Michael and his treatment of Amanda, and I refused, and look where that lead. I didn't kill Michael because Amanda asked me not to, which upset Tetsuo. I don't even want to punish him, because he won't learn his lesson. I know him too well."
She said, "I will not contradict you on that. But he must be punished, of course, for your sake and Alexander and Tetsuo's feelings. And his son - I apologize, I don't know him."
"James. Everyone calls him Jimmy."
"Yes, Amanda's boyfriend. He's how old?"
"Almost fifteen. He wasn't alone in standing up for her. Alex was just as adamant."
"Unity among fledglings is usually to be praised, but there are always exceptions," she said. "I will come. My secretary will send you the flight information when we have it. I'll try to make it tonight."
He sighed in relief. "Thank you."
"I know you've been lenient on Michael, even if you didn't know he was my son. Let me express my appreciation."
Aristotle actually smiled. "Just come."
Elaine didn't dally on the phone, not if she was going to be on the first flight out in the evening. It would take her a full day to get to Los Angeles, if not more. The weight off his shoulders, Aristotle felt lighter as he returned to the den, where a drunken Alex was not asleep enough not to pick his head up at the presence of his master. "Hi."
"That was Elaine. She's coming to LA, to get Michael under control."
The wine-soaked brain of Alex Green was slow to do the equations. "Is that good?"
Alex nodded, and stumbled to his feet. Aristotle caught him as he nearly went over, and helped him walk upstairs.
"No," Alex mumbled at the turn towards his room. "I want to sleep with you."
Aristotle had no intention of sleeping yet. He had too much on his mind, but he would never refuse that request. "Okay." He put Alex on his bed, in the master bedroom, where his fledgling promptly fell asleep, his body still slightly askew. Aristotle straightened him out and pulled the covers over him, then moved to the chaise to wait for the call.
It came barely half an hour before sunrise. "Michael's back," Amanda said, "and he is not okay."
Flying, Aristotle arrived just in time for sunrise. A bleary-eyed Amanda let him in and took the water barrel of blood from him and fit it into her fridge. She was struggling to stay awake long enough to establish that this was not going to turn into a brawl.
Michael was on the couch in the living room, rubbing his hands raw as he attempted to contain his nervous energy. His expression was of someone who knew they were in trouble, and the barely-suppressed rage was evidence in his voice. "You are the last person I want to fucking see right now."
"You're not at the top of my list, either." Aristotle felt bad enough, abandoning Alex with only a note, but if his hunch was right, this visit was justified, even if it meant being trapped in the cramped apartment.
The younger vampire looked down, more anxious than indignant. Something inside him was bothering him more than Aristotle's presence. He was shivering, his skin was unusually pale, and for someone who was better fed than most vampires, he looked as though he hadn't eaten in months. The blood of his victims - several of them, from the smell - was unrepentantly all over his clothing.
"We're not going to fight," Michael announced. "Amanda, you can go to sleep." There was actually concern in his voice. Aristotle was right in assuming that he did care for his fledgling more than was made obvious by his actions.
Amanda kissed Michael on the cheek and retreated to the bedroom, but Aristotle stopped her in the tiny hallway. "Did he bite you?"
"Did you bite him? Has there been any blood exchange between the two of you since the fight?" he whispered.
"Good." He didn't say why he was so concerned. "You can sleep. He can't do anything to harm me. He's not capable of it."
"I heard that!" Michael shouted, but Amanda did disappear into her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
So. There he was. Until recently, Michael was not significant enough to him to consider him an enemy. If he hadn't bitten Alex, Aristotle still wouldn't. That changed everything, but so did Michael's current condition.
There were heavy drapes over the few windows that weren't blocked by furniture. Light was not a concern. Michael was old enough to be awake during the day, but it was unusual for him. "Did you sleep at all yesterday?" was Aristotle's first question.
"No," Michael said. "And I don't need you to fucking baby-sit me."
"I assure you, that's not why I'm here." Aristotle moved slowly, so as not to startle the younger vampire. "When you bit Alex, did he bite you back?"
Michael glared at him. "You know he didn't. You know everything that happened, don't you? Does he know how often you're in his head?"
"That's horrible. I would never do that to a child," Michael said. "And you all think I'm the bad parent, ruining Amanda's life. I love her. I don't spy on her. I don't control her. Compared to you I'm a saint."
It hurt because it was true, but Aristotle had other concerns. "Are you hungry now?"
"Yes!" The vampire came alive, Michael's eyes glowing red in anger. "You know that. Why did you come, Grandpa? To watch me suffer?"
Among other things, Aristotle thought. "I need to taste your blood."
"It doesn't have to be direct contract. You can just pour it into a container." He towered over him. "Or I can take it by force, and make you felt what Alex felt. And he didn't like it."
Michael was sufficiently cowed, at least into cutting his wrist open and squeezing a mouthful of blood into a tumbler. He watched every movement as Aristotle drank it all, keeping it in his mouth as long as possible before swallowing it. Some of Michael's memories were in the blood, but that was not what he was looking for.
"Michael," he said, with considerably more patience than before, "listen very carefully to me. That hunger? The one that feels like your stomach is being punched?" Michael's expression was an unintentional affirmation. "That's going to get worse, no matter how much you drink and from what. It's going to drive the vampire insane. You'll be lucky if you make to nightfall and don't throw yourself out the window and into direct sunlight looking for food after you've drained your daughter, me, and everyone available in the apartment complex." He looked at his watch. "Elaine can help you, but she won't be here until tonight at the earliest. You won't make it that long."
"How do you know?"
"Because I've been poisoned before, when I was lucky enough that my master was still alive to save me."
"Vampires don't get sick."
"It's different from illness. It's very rare. I would say you could call Elaine to confirm it, but she's airborne right now, trying to get here in time to save you."
Michael swallowed. "Is there something you can do?"
"It's not pleasant."
"I hurt your son. You have no reason to want me alive so badly."
"I'm not doing this for you. I'm doing this for Amanda and Elaine." And for Alex, of course. He wasn't sure how his son would live with himself, knowing he'd killed someone by accidentally poisoning them.
Alex woke alone. It didn't make him happy, but at least the bed smelled of Ari. He growled and buried himself in the covers for a bit longer. He tapped the link and got nothing, except that his master wasn't at home. Strange, but not exceptional. When he finally did get out of bed, there was a note on the dresser. He grabbed it as he went to feed Seleucus, who could get very silently but effectively snippy if he didn't eat early enough. Alex had breakfast as he read the note, and was fortunately between sips before finishing it, or he might have choked. Ari was at Amanda's for the day, and he would explain everything when Alex got there. He ended the note with, Don't tell anyone. The last word was underlined.
"I'll never get a break, will I?" Alex said to Seleucus as he changed, grabbed his board, and flew most of the way to Amanda's place. For the second time in three days, he was pushed up against a wall in Amanda's cramped entrance hallway, this time by the owner herself.
"How could you?" Her eyes were red, not from the vampire, but from her tears. "How could you be so cruel?"
"What the fuck?"
"You're killing him!" She was older than him, and still stronger than him, so she really had him up against that wall. "You and your stupid, stupid ... I don't know what!"
"I don't know what, either," he said, very conscious that she had him about a foot off the ground at this point. "Amanda, calm down."
"She's understandably upset," Ari said, staggering into the hallway from the bathroom. "Amanda, put him down. It's not going to help."
"No! He did this!"
"He doesn't know what he did."
"I really don't." And he was legitimately confused. Amanda was a wreck, and so was Ari, who had a black jacket on, the one he used when he knew he was going to get bloody. He was weak on his feet, leaning against the wall, and the second Amanda released Alex, he ran to him. "What's going on?"
Ari embraced him, but said to Amanda, "Can you please call Janette for more blood? And preferably a few bottles of wine. Something decent."
She did listen to him, and went to her room, leaving them relatively alone. That was when Alex heard a moan, and for the first time stepped into the living room, and saw Michael on the floor. He was chained to the radiator, his upper half covered in blood and curled up on the floor. His neck was still bleeding, the wound open beyond a normal span for healing.
"When he bit you," Ari said, a hand on his shoulder, "what were you thinking?"
"You know what I was thinking."
"Tell me anyway."
Alex didn't want to return to that memory, but he could not refuse an order. "I wanted you to come and save me."
"You were angry."
"Not at you!" Alex was suddenly very self-conscious, a growing feeling in the pit of his stomach. "I was angry at Michael, yes. Before and during. I couldn't stop him. I wasn't strong enough. I couldn't even fight back."
Ari sighed. "You did fight back. Your blood fought back, and you poisoned him," he said. "It was slow-acting. Amanda called me before dawn and I came. I've been draining him and building him back up with human blood to stall its spread until Elaine gets here. Her flight left Paris last night."
Michael wasn't even feeding properly - he was too tired. He was sipping blood from a bottle through a straw. He hadn't reacted to Alex's presence at all.
"You didn't know you were doing it," Ari said, immediately supportive despite his own weakness.
"You didn't tell me I could."
"I didn't know that you could. I've never had a fledgling live as long as you. I don't know what Qum'ra did to keep me from poisoning people unintentionally. He had a control over it he wouldn't teach me. Maybe if he had lived longer ..." He was trying to comfort Alex through the link, to keep him from panicking. They both knew that. "There's nothing you can do for him now."
"I can help drain him. It's my poison." The words burned his throat. "I did this. I have to fix it."
"You can't. You physically can't. You aren't strong enough to drain him."
"I can help."
"No!" Ari's voice spiked, and he lowered it. "No, you're not touching him. You're my son so it's my responsibility and if he's stayed alive this long, he'll probably make it. If you want to help, pick up the blood from Janette's." He added, "She doesn't know and I'm not going to tell her. I'm not going to tell anyone, other than Elaine, and Elaine will understand."
"Amanda - "
"Amanda will understand. Elaine will explain it." In this he was strangely confident. "Can you get me whatever's left in the fridge?"
"Of course." Alex was being selfish - it was Ari who was weak and needed support, doing all the hard work to undo the damage Alex had done. He poured the remains of a large jug into a glass for Ari, and was sent out to pick up the order at Janette's. It was a relief to get out of the apartment and away from Amanda, so furious at him and so correct in being so. Miklos gave him the supplies and did not ask questions, and he returned to the apartment.
Ari was draining Michael again, who was screaming, but Amanda had soundproofed the walls before moving in. The act, however medicinal, was still rather intimate in an uncomfortable way, and even Amanda didn't want to watch her master seethe and possibly turn to ashes if Ari took too much. They hid in the only other room, the bedroom. Amanda had a glass of wine in her hands and was more upset than angry, and no longer openly angry at him.
"I didn't know I could do it," Alex said, looking down and not at her. "If I did, I would have tried to control it. It's just some ancient thing Ari can do, but never does. It's a secret of the bloodline." He played with his hands. "I'm sorry."
"Aristotle says it wasn't your fault."
"Yeah, I guess he feels that way. I don't. It doesn't really matter what we think, does it? We're just stupid kids."
"He doesn't really have to do this," Amanda said. "Two days ago he was going to kill Michael, and now he's making himself sick to save him."
"Ari doesn't want anyone to die. Not even people he really hates, and he doesn't hate Michael. Trust me, I can tell when he hates someone. Michael's not in the running." He looked up at the retching sound. "I should go to him, make sure he's okay."
He went to pat her on the back, but Amanda shied from his touch. Her rejection of his presence was as terrible as he thought it would be. He was the cursed one, the son of a tainted bloodline that hurt whatever it touched. All he could do was be there for his master, who couldn't hold down so much of Michael's poisoned blood and washed his mouth out with Janette's best blood wine. Michael was unconscious again, so there was some relief from that. Ari could barely stand, and had to be helped to the couch. For some reason it was mostly torn up, perhaps from earlier fight. "I'm okay." It was a lie, but that was all right. "Michael knows about Constantine."
"The drug ... thing. There's two Serbians trying to muscle in on the New World Elders by making them move on. With drug scandals." He was not as articulate as he normally was. "Michael's working for them. His blood told me. I wasn't looking but ... it's a lot of blood."
"I guess that's ... good. In the long run. Mystery solved."
Ari nodded, but didn't otherwise respond. He nearly toppled from exhaustion, but Alex caught him. "Thank you."
"Maybe you should lie down."
"Wake me in half an hour or when Michael gets up. Whatever happens first."
Ari had only a short chance to rest before he had to drain an increasingly-incoherent Michael again. The real relief came when Amanda picked up Elaine at the airport. The Parisian Elder expressed no hostility to Alex, who was bracing himself for it, and focused on her dying son. Ari forced himself awake and they talked in quick medieval Latin, a cue for Amanda and Alex to make themselves scarce again. There was a strange companionship in that; Amanda abandoned her anger at Alex out of sheer emotional exhaustion, and was falling asleep with her head on his shoulder when Ari appeared in the doorway.
"Amanda, if you want to say anything to your master, you should do it now."
She nodded and moved silently into the main room. Ari took her spot on the bed, shoring up his own inner resources for the coming battle. "She'll live, even if Michael doesn't. She's old enough."
"She'll hate me."
"You like her, don't you?" Ari actually smiled, and Alex actually blushed, as if this was a normal evening. "I know she's with Michael. And Jimmy. But things change. Wait a few hundred years, see how things play out."
"Got a smile out of you," Ari said. "Now I have to go drain Michael for all he's worth. Fortunately for me it's not much."
"Dipping into the blood wine?"
"I think I deserve it," his master replied and left. Amanda returned, and shut the door behind her, collapsing on the bed. She turned on the stereo of all things, perhaps to drown out the noises from the living room. Instead of playing one of Jimmy's techno mixes, she changed it to 60's music.
"I should call Jimmy. I know he's worried," she said. "Elaine said I can't."
"This whole poison thing, we keep it very close to the chest, obviously." Alex felt she deserved an explanation. "There was a time when the vampire world came together to find and execute every member of the bloodline, descendents of both the brothers who were poisoned by a curse. All of Ari's brothers and sisters were killed. He only survived because they decided it would be worse for him to lock him up for eternity in a stone tomb."
"He was there for seventy years. The tomb was abandoned when their armies retreated, and bandits broke into it to loot it and broke open the coffins. Ari and three others escaped. They were all in on different charges, but they didn't ask each other about it. One walked into the sun, another disappeared. The third became a Councilman. Ari's the last descendent of his bloodline - or he was, before I came along."
"When was this?"
"I'm not supposed to say Ari's age. You know that. So don't tell him I told you, but it was over two thousand years ago."
She was too tired to be surprised. "He doesn't seem that old."
"Yeah, he does that intentionally. He doesn't want the attention. He would rather people underestimate him. And he doesn't want to be an Elder. He doesn't like positions of power."
"Is he really Aristotle?"
"I can't answer that. I have to take that to my grave, if someone puts my ashes in a grave." He cringed as Michael's screams were audible over the music, however loud it was. "Ari says when he came out of the tomb, after seventy years of unending hunger, he wasn't quite right. He's not sure he really recovered from it. For the most part, unless he's been forced or felt some obligation, he's avoided vampire society or telling anyone about himself. He was on the Council for a little while, before Elaine's time, but he hated it. He retired as soon as he could."
"I didn't know he was a Councilman."
"Yeah, well, he's good at hiding things, if you hadn't noticed."
She rolled her eyes. "That I know. I suppose the rest of the stuff is super secret?"
"Uh, yes." Because he saw the opening, he took it. "I didn't mean to hurt Michael - not in any permanent way. I just wanted to stop him from hurting Jimmy. I had no idea what I could do and I'm sorry."
"Why are you apologizing to me?"
"Because I don't think Michael's in any position to hear it and it hurt you, too. I didn't want to hurt you. That's why we confronted Michael in the first place - to help you. Or that's what we thought we were doing. Ari told me to stay out of your relationship with Michael because he was your master, but I didn't listen. There was no way Jimmy was going to understand, but I should have."
She swallowed. "I know Michael is bad for me, even if he doesn't mean it. But he's my master. I don't care if he seduced me - I loved him before he was my master and I still do. I just ... maybe I need to learn to say no to his crazier ideas. If I could do it without hurting his feelings ..."
"I know. He makes it hard to say no."
"Even when he ruins my life. Which is often." They were sitting on the bed, leaning against the headboard, and she put her head on his shoulder. "I don't want him to die. I don't know what I'll do without him."
"If it helps, the only two people on earth who can save him are in the next room."
He held her as she shivered, more on instinct rather than an actual link to her master's pain, which she was no doubt imagining. Alex only picked his head up as the door opened. It was Ari. "He's cured."
Amanda leapt up, and would have flown into the living room if Ari didn't stand in her way. "His blood is clean, but Elaine is still feeding him. She needs more time."
It took all of her willpower to back away and obey Ari's command, however calmly he said it. He couldn't stay standing any longer, and sunk onto the bed beside his son. "He's going to have a long recovery, but he will recover."
Alex had never seen someone else tackler his master to hug him, tears in her eyes. "Thank you, Aristotle."
"I would say anytime," he said, a little wink to Alex, "but I really don't want to have to do that again."
Michael slept for days, waking only to feed from his master, with no awareness of anything else. No one knew Elaine was in town except Janette, who knew when to keep quiet. She supplied Amanda with all the blood she required without asking a single question.
Ari used all of his authoritative muscle to assure Tetsuo that the situation was being handled, and he should not ask any questions. Tetsuo and Jimmy were no doubt irritated that they were being left out, Jimmy being the victim, but they both knew not to question Aristotle's rarely-used authority. With Elaine in control of the situation, Ari and Alex retreated to their home.
Alex did not say anything. He knew he didn't have to, nor did he really want Ari to bring up the subject. He wasn't sure how to deal with it yet, another thing to separate him from the rest of his peers, and most vampires on the planet. He was as deadly as an Ancient, perhaps more so because he didn't know how to control it and Ari admitted he wasn't entirely sure how to teach him. Ari learned how to poison people when he was much older, well into his seventies. It was one of Qum'ra's last lessons. In a way it was just another secret for Alex to bear, but it weighed him down more than the others, which were mostly about Ari. He felt heavy, with guilt and other emotions he couldn't process. Sadness. Fear. The sense that he would, like Ari, be alone in his journey through eternity.
"You're not going to be alone," Ari assured him, speaking out of the blue. Alex was just entirely accustomed to it. "You can control it, and the curse isn't the only reason I was alone when I met you. Too many things, one after another ... but you know that." He didn't seem eager to bring the topic up, either, but did it out of a sense of duty. "I gave you eternal life, eternal youth, perfect health, an escape from an undeserved, premature death ... but there was going to be a price, beyond our endless thirst for human blood. Something has to balance the universe. Otherwise we would be some sort of demigods. Instead our flaws keep us human."
"Amanda will hate me."
"She doesn't hate you."
"But she won't trust me. Because she knows."
"She won't," Ari replied, confident. "The secret is too dangerous for Michael to know, and Amanda would just tell him. Elaine is going to alter both of their memories, to protect us. I didn't even ask - she offered."
Alex processed this as he rested his head beside Ari's, finally getting the time to be close with his master, denied to him by the events of the past few days. "It's not right."
"It's to protect them as much as us. But even if it wasn't, I would have asked for it. I could deal with Michael knowing, because no one would believe him over me, but I will do anything to protect you. You know that."
Alex nodded, but he wasn't happy about it. Ari stroked his hair, the link working its usual magic to undo the knots of tension he'd worked himself into since the fight with Michael. Alex could feel, for the first time in many days, that things might be all right.
When Aristotle said Michael's recovery would take time, he was quite serious, and his estimation proved sound.
Most vampires would recover from anything but a severed limb within a few days at most, and much less if they were old or their master was around. Jimmy was back on his feet in two days, and fully healthy at three, but Michael wasn't well enough to communicate for days. It was going on a week before Elaine ventured out of Amanda's apartment to sit down with Aristotle and discuss her plans. She wanted to take Michael back to Paris to recuperate, and Amanda wanted to go with her. Before they could do that, Tetsuo still had his standing request for an apology on behalf of himself and his son. Elaine was still keeping her presence under wraps with Janette's help, and Janette was a good friend and more than happy to accommodate her elder.
Aristotle served his best wine. The link between them, formed four years ago, was so faint he wouldn't have felt it if they weren't a few feet apart, but it was there. Her emotions were obvious anyway: concern for his son and her granddaughter overrode anything else. "Alexander seems tense," she said as Alex retreated after greeting her. "You assured him I'm not taking it personally?"
"He knows." He set the glasses down on the kitchen table and pulled the cork out with his fang. "Something in him will never get past the guilt, which is good in a way. It'll keep him from doing it again." He poured and sat down next to her. "It was my fault. I don't really know about how the poison works, or what my master did to me to control it until I was older, and I mean seventy years older. He didn't teach me specifics unless he had to. It was one of the few things that could embarrass him." He sighed. "If there's anyone on earth who knows how the poison works, they've been keeping that secret for thousands of years. Alex is solely my responsibility. I have to figure out how to teach him to control it. And I have to keep him away from other vampires until I succeed."
"You said he's not infectious."
"No, it has to be a pretty severe situation to trigger the poison. Maybe it's linked to the adrenaline gland." He was sure the vampire was, but this was not the time for his medical theories on the vampire. She was here about her son, even though Alex had already apologized, and she said it wasn't necessary. Even a tribunal would rule that: Alex was provoked and his body defended itself. If anything it meant that Michael would escape further punishment for his crimes because no one had the heart to pursue it anymore. He was punished enough. "How is Michael?"
"Physically exhausted, but it's nothing he won't recover from. He's starting to get well enough to get frustrated by it. He's not used to healing so slowly. He's immune now, isn't he?"
"To Alex? Probably. I wouldn't stake my eternity on it."
"If he knew that, he'd find it useful. He doesn't."
"What does he think?"
"He's not sure, entirely. He knows all of the events of the fight as they happened, and after that he went hunting, got sick, and it's hazy. His memories weren't hard to alter because he was in such a weakened state when you explained things to him. Amanda was a bit more complicated."
He had no qualms about having Amanda's memories altered. If she knew their family secret, anyone could get it from her blood. She had no idea how to block invasive vampire minds. "What does she think?"
"The same, except she remembers you helping her keep him alive and Alex helping you. That he was poisoned and that it came from Alex is gone, along with a number of things he told her - about you, I would note - while he was trying to comfort her."
"He admitted what she already knew, that you have to be at least two thousand years old. That you're from a family that was almost wiped out and you escaped on a technicality because of this ability to poison. She asked if you were really Aristotle and he refused to answer. Said he would take it to his grave."
Aristotle smiled. "Good kid."
"You are one paranoid old man."
"So I'm told. Thank you. Normally I'm against messing with the minds of fledglings, but there's always an exception."
"You saved Michael. That wasn't easy, especially with how you felt about him."
"No one deserves to die," he said. "Though there are always exceptions. If Amanda hadn't pulled me off him, he would have been one."
"She has a great deal of sense for her age. Janette said she would be sorry to lose her."
"I didn't say but she knew. If Michael goes - and Michael must go, we all agree on that - then Amanda will follow. Especially while Michael is sick. She may not stay long, but one must be prepared." She smiled for him. "I know you're concerned. She will be under my care in France."
"And you are talented with fledglings."
"I remember a young British officer who was lost without his Indian master."
"I think I can take some credit for Feliks," Aristotle said. "I need to get Alex out of Los Angeles, if only for a few months. Tetsuo will probably take Jimmy to Japan, get him out from under. And time, as always, will heal all wounds." He sipped his wine. "A foolish mortal saying, built on a limited understanding of time."
"If you keep talking like that, people will keep asking questions about the philosopher," Elaine said. "Did you speak to Constantine?"
"About the Serbian brothers? Yes. I assume he'll take the appropriate measures. I'd rather not be involved in it."
"Prudent as always. Is there anything else I can do for you while I'm here?"
"For me? No, I'm quite all right."
Even though she knew it to be a lie, Elaine took his word for it.
When Alex finally saw Jimmy, he looked well. He looked identical to before the fight, but of course he would always look that way. The only thing that could change about him was his hairstyle.
"Tetsuo wants to go to Osaka," Jimmy said. They stood on the roof of the building for Tetsuo's penthouse. Roof access was an important thing for a vampire in a tall building to have. The lights of downtown LA at night gave a blue glow to the sky. "He says he has business but I know it's just an excuse."
"Amanda won't be here, and I don't know if I'll be here, so clearly, you are bereft of social opportunities, as you have no other friends, and will just be bored shitless."
"Fuck you." Jimmy had plenty of friends, and he responded without any real malice. "It's harder to mope about someone when you're trying to figure out a fucking subway map. Have you ever seen a Japanese subway map?"
"I've been on the T."
"The T? You really call it that?"
Alex shrugged. "We really call it that. I should ask Ari if we can go to Japan sometime, study robotics or something. I've really gone as far as I can go without an engineering degree."
"Japan is not all anime and robots."
"Yeah, I hear it has subways and vampires. Was Tetsuo a samurai?"
"You mean, was he from a samurai family? No. Trust me, if he was, you would know. He would have all the swords up on his wall and the family crest on his briefcase and all that stuff. He's peasant stock. That's why his father sent him to war - the Meiji Empire pushed this idea that suddenly everybody could be a samurai if they were willing to die for their country in some G-dforsaken part of Russia. Even gave them swords for show. Crappy ones, mostly. Tetsuo says his broke the first time he tried to use it." Jimmy looked out instead of at Alex. "Am I supposed to be thrilled about Amanda going to Paris?"
"Thrilled? No. Nobody's thrilled. But she's going and it's not bad for her. Elaine is really cool. She'll take care of her. All you have to do is not get staked in Japan and you'll see Amanda whenever she's back in the States."
"And I suppose you know how Aristotle fucked up Michael so bad he's still walking with a cane?"
Alex shrugged. "I cannot confirm or deny that Ari had anything to do with it."
Alex said nothing, but he did smile.
"Michael came to apologize last night. He was a mess, but damn, did he apologize. Had a whole speech memorized. Plus even Tetsuo has problems with beating up a cripple. Not very honorable."
"I thought you said he wasn't a samurai."
"I didn't say he didn't want to be one."
Ironically, having an infirm master gave Amanda more time on her own, now that Elaine was the caretaker of her son. In the few days before leaving for France, she reveled in it, visiting Tetsuo's penthouse on several occasions and even once staying the night. They gathered there for the celebration of Alex's seventh Conversation Day.
"Nice hair," was Jimmy's first comment when Alex entered. His hair was very short but entirely black. His month was up, and he was allowed to trim off the pink ends. "So what's next?"
"Me never betting against Ari," Alex said. "Especially if it involves video games. Also, miniature golf. He's really good at it."
"Are there any dork activities you don't do together?"
"Yeah, we don't listen to music named after the gunk on an old shower curtain." Alex watched as Jimmy's eyes went livid at the insult to his beloved grunge.
He accepted a drink from Amanda, who said, "Be good."
"It's my vampire birthday. I can do what I want." Not that he had any intention of disobeying her. "Finally, the big ... seven."
"Ten is a good one," Amanda said.
"Ten is awesome," Jimmy added. "I guess vampires like zeros on the ends of their numbers the same as everybody else. So when's Ari going to let you go from your indentured servitude?"
"A hundred. When's Tetsuo going to kick you out for being a lazy bum?"
Amanda interrupted, "Should I even bother to ask you guys to stop?"
"When we start to mean it, but that'll never happen," Alex said. "Older vampires are so testy. You can't say anything to them, even if you don't mean it."
"Can you say things to Aristotle?"
"Yeah, but he just gets really depressed and then I have to apologize to get him out of his funk. So it's generally not worth it."
"I wanted to invite your lizard," Jimmy said, "but he still freaks Amanda out for some reason."
"Uh, because he's a lizard."
Alex just smiled reassuringly. "Seleucus is spending my Conversion Day celebrating by pulling his stunt of spending the entire night in the exact same position. He does it every night, but tonight maybe he's doing it extra-festively."
"You couldn't have gotten a cute hamster or something?"
"Hamsters bite. Anoles have no teeth. Also the saleswoman was very aggressive." He tapped his glass against hers. "So when are we going to get hammered?"
Most of the end of the party was fuzzy, but involved breaking the Guitar Hero plastic guitar accessory and Ari arriving in time to drive him and Amanda home, because they were too drunk to fly and Tetsuo's car was in storage. Alex was happy; he was seven, he was smashed, and he had everything he wanted, if only for the evening. There was no need for gifts, as material items were the last thing he could ask for. He had everything.
"Happy Conversion Day," Ari said as he helped him into bed. Ari didn't need to be there; he had him the other 364 days of the year. And that they were all going their separate ways made it more poignant to celebrate together. Still, Alex was not ready to declare any chapter of his life over. He was too used to being surprised.
He woke the following night to find Ari already absent from the bed. Not a huge surprise there, but he also wasn't in the kitchen or the office. Alex stumbled around with breakfast in a mug before he found him, wearing pajamas and seated on a pillow in the basement, his back against the wall. "I didn't know you meditated." Ari even had a string of prayer beads, which Alex had seen before but always thought were just for show.
"You are looking at someone who could pass his geshe exams drunk and blindfolded. And it involves a lot of visual debating."
"I mean, you're not a Buddhist. You just like debating."
Ari smiled. "True. But meditation is very useful for vampires. Not for inner peace - I never got it to work right. I only know one person who can tame the vampire through meditating, and he admits he can only do it for short periods of time. A few hours, maybe."
"This is Yengi?"
"No, Yengi's a mystic. There's another one about his age, Dorje, who lives in Sikkim in India. He has a small monastery and he sleeps by meditating all day. His students just think he's some kind of master who's beyond eating and drinking. Which he is - I've seen him go weeks without blood and be fine. Of course, three hundred years of practice will do that to you."
Alex finished his breakfast and sat down on the folding table, the only available seat. "So why do you meditate?"
"It's actually very useful for vampires, if you want to remember something clearly but without the emotions that would come from just remembering it. And at my age especially, things get stuffed away in dark corners and are hard to call up. Humans would just forget, but vampires remember, but it doesn't mean it's on the tip of your tongue. In the technique Dorje taught me, you're in a state where you can find the memory you're looking for, but the emotions that come with it just fly overhead. You let them pass over you. It's powerful stuff - I don't do it very often."
"Have you ever used it on your memories of Abaish-katal?"
"Yes. Total failure." Ari frowned; it was a source of frustration to him, now that he knew Abaish hypnotized into learning something and then forgetting it until some unspecified thing would trigger it. "I went two thousand years before I even remembered that he made me forget some of our conversation. I thought my memories of him were just fine until a few years ago. Maybe it's age - my mind is naturally starting to break down his barriers. But I can't get through them manually."
"So what are you looking for?"
On this, Ari's voice grew more serious. "If I could poison people when I was young, I would have. There were enough people who drained me and left me for dead, all with Qum'ra's permission. He must have done something to me to prevent it. I just wouldn't have noticed at the time. He didn't teach me the truth about the poison until I was into my seventies."
Alex understood. "But these aren't pleasant memories."
"No. It's better to look at them in an altered state. You're less encumbered by your emotions and you can see clearer." He looked up at Alex, his eyes intense. "When I go under, really do it, I could be out for a few days. It depends how long it takes to find what I'm looking for."
"So is there like a safeword to get you out of it?"
"No. I think you could stake me and I wouldn't notice." He grimaced. "I might notice. But don't stake me."
"Unless I have to."
"Unless you really, really have to. If the building is on fire, just pick me up and dump me in the car and drive off. Don't worry about it."
"Wow, you are being really reassuring."
Ari rolled his eyes. "Just don't stake me."
That morning Aristotle kissed his son before he fell asleep, turned the phone to vacation settings, and retreated to his setup in the basement. The day before was just practice. During the day, the vampire was sleepier and more pliant, and he could fall into a trance faster. In the early days of his studies under Dorje Rinpoché, sometimes the vampire would manifest in some altered form, but he could never quite communicate with it, and would spend hours chasing that phantom before giving up. The vampire was a part of him, a vehicle to the preservation of his physical form and his mental state, but it was erratically protective of any perceived threats, and Enlightenment was apparently a very threatening concept to the primal vampire.
He didn't dive into his memories, either pleasant or painful. He went instead into a peaceful place, existing only in himself, but strategically designed by prior practice. So rarely visited, it was almost like coming home, especially because he designed it like the Lyceum in Athens, or at least his favorite walking path. His cushion beneath him, long gone, became a stone stump from a broken column, smoothed from years of use.
The real world is just as illusory as this one you create, Dorje Rinpoché taught him. You can be lost in either. The vampire ties us to both.
He wouldn't be lost. He had a purpose driving him here, and the pleasant surroundings couldn't undo the unpleasant task. Aristotle opened his eyes, and all he imagined was there, down to the birds crowing and the sounds of the ocean, closer than it had actually been to him in Athens. This was not a representation of a real place as an amalgamation of different ones. To his left were the hills of Mieza. To his right was the Aegean coast. In the center, the stone stadium, only partially constructed, of his Lyceum. And to his immediate right was his guide, clothed in white, his massive forehead imposing but his expression welcoming. Aside from Qum'ra, there was only one other person who Aristotle had ever called "Master" and meant it. Plato was alive now, if only in his memories.
"Where shall we begin, O Aristotle?"
"The most logical place," he said. "A fair and rational assumption."
"An auspicious start."
Was it anything like Plato, or were his memories too distorted to produce a clearer image? "Since I am an older generation, closer to my master and his poison, we can assume, safely, that I was capable of poisoning people at Alex's age, perhaps also unintentionally, as he is capable of that."
"An assumption rather than a fact, but a solid one. Abilities degrade through the generations is the foundation of your assumption - which is, I should mention, itself a theory."
"A theory with great basis for legitimacy, but yes, a theory. So, if I was capable of poisoning people who partook of my blood, as a great many people did, we can draw the further conclusion that if I never did, it was either one circumstance or the other. The first circumstance being, of course, that I never did it unintentionally, by happenstance, whatever hatred I had for my enemies and jailors. I cannot dismiss it as an impossibility, but it is not likely."
"So you say."
Aristotle got up and walked across the stone garden of the gymnasia. "The second and more likely circumstance is that Qum'ra had some way of controlling me so that even the most passionate hatred in me could not produce the poison that would have destroyed my attackers." He looked out to the ocean, a wonderful mix of blue and green in the sun. "To test this theory we require an individual circumstance to apply it to."
Plato, the gatekeeper to memory, said, "What would you like?"
"The most extreme example - or one of them - would cause my body's most extreme response. If it failed to do so, we must look then for Qum'ra's influences on the scene." A host of options appeared before him, none of them formed, but people of a more ethereal quality. Sometimes he had faces and no names, and others it was the reverse. But did he really want to go there? This is for Alex. "The orgy at Akoris."
"Might I suggest a less taxing example?"
He grinned. "Were you this sensitive to my concerns or do I simply project a compassionate nature on to you, Master Plato?"
The philosopher's response was to call up memories - Aristotle's mortal memories, of course - playing on the ethereal screen in place of the menacing vampires he encountered as a fledgling.
"No, I cannot be distracted," Aristotle said. "How long was I in Akoris?"
"Your memory is not perfect in this regard."
If his vampire memory was not perfect, it was because of his injuries in Egypt. "Before the orgy, how long was I there?"
"The night before, then. No, I remember now, I wasn't told ahead. The night of - at dusk."
He stepped forward and into the darkened chambers. It was blurry from the poor light of the solitary lamp, being lit fresh by Qum'ra. With his black robes and beard, he was almost a part of the shadows around him. "Wake up."
Aristotle was already awake, or the younger one was, or else this memory would not exist. Aristotle watched on as his younger self fed from his master. All of the detachment he had managed to get this far was not enough to stymie all the emotions of a lost era. He did love his master, if only for those moments when he drank from him, when the link between them made everything perfect. But that link was severed, and the Qum'ra in front of him was just a phantom.
"He didn't always feed me," he told Plato because it was good to talk to someone, "but I loved it when he did. Even if I was angry at him, and I would hate myself for it later, everything would be all right. Just for that moment. It was the only part of my life that was bearable." He watched the intimacy of contact that was so far gone from anything in his life now, other than Alex. "He's not going to tell me, but the Nubian will tell me later - he sold me for forty gold darics. The Nubian said it to lift my spirits, and remind me I was worth something, but by then I was too far gone in my misery. I barely heard him." He knew what he was going to see. He turned into the hallway and sped ahead in the memory, to when his master delivered him. Most gatherings involved drinking from a live human, but a vampire would last longer and taste better. It wasn't done because it was agony for the vampire who had to serve as the buffet, but for forty gold darics, Qum'ra had no such scruples.
Aristotle stepped into the memory of that horrible room, with the lonely slab in the middle and the carpets and pillows on the floor around it. Everything was a little too clear - his best memory was of the ceiling. "There has to be something here, in this scene."
"This is only a theory."
"I would have killed them all if I could have. I don't remember ever feeling so much despair." He let the memory play, even if he couldn't watch the vampiric rape directly, and had to look away. "I didn't even fight back. What could Qum'ra have possibly said to me to make me so docile? He must have hypnotized me. But how would it have held, out of his presence? I didn't see him for hours. I can't hypnotize Alex like that."
"What is the trigger for the poison?" Plato asked. He wasn't capable of independent thought so much as being a visualization of the logic process in Aristotle's head. Tibetan Buddhists weren't so exacting in their visualizations, but Greeks were.
"Anger. To call it up, I have to put myself into a state - it's like meditative calm, but the opposite." He looked back at the slab. "I don't remember any anger." He remembered everything else - physical and mental agony, fear, desperation, and pockets of relief when they left him alone or fed him. And the joy at seeing his master's face again, the entire transaction forgotten for just a moment of relief. "I remember everything but anger. I never fought back. I never wished ill on my enemies. I just felt sorry for myself. There was no fight because there was no will for it." He turned away. "I'm done here. Key up that vampire who castrated me."
"As you will recall she was not a fan of your writing."
"Yes, and I never insulted a woman because of her gender again. She was incredibly proficient at cutting out misogyny - with a sickle. I think Qum'ra actually felt bad for me. He insisted he didn't know what she was going to do when he handed me over." He looked back at the new chamber, Greek in architecture, and much larger. The fledgling Aristotle was in the corner, sitting in his own blood, and Qum'ra put a hand on his shoulder. "Rewind."
"Your terminology is changing."
"So am I. Rewind."
He heard her rant backwards, going over the details of the problematic nature of his literature on women while he howled in pain, then Qum'ra returned instead of departing. Aristotle and Plato went back as far as dusk, when Qum'ra again chose to feed him as much as the young Aristotle wanted to drink. His master usually wasn't so giving, letting Aristotle scrounge on his own after his first few years, but tonight was different. "He's using the link to hypnotize me."
"A worthy theory."
"If I was fully hypnotized, I would see it immediately. My mind would fight it. He's only suppressing one emotion. In our hundred years together I never noticed he was doing it." He was done here, especially because the pool of blood was nearing his toes. "Time to test the theory."
They went back over dozens of painful incidents of the early years after Aristotle's conversion, and the story was always the same. Before handing his fledgling to anyone, Qum'ra fed him. The only exception was Qa'ra's visit, but Aristotle couldn't poison Qa'ra. He wasn't strong enough.
"I didn't learn to control the poison myself until I was told about it - and that was in my seventies. I don't know if Alex can learn this early." He hesitated. "I don't know if it will give him too much power."
"It is a distinct possibility."
"But hypnotize him before he goes out each night? I can't do that."
"If you have eliminated one choice, you have only the other remaining."
"I'm sure. It's only a theory!" But the memories could offer him nothing else, not for the moment. He changed the scene, as easily as Plato did. He liked to end in the sandy room, the single light from the sun just above the dome shining through the hole in the ceiling like a beam at perfect noon, making the golden sarcophagus glitter. Aristotle had only seen it once, but as a vampire, so it was perfect, not faded like his mortal memories. He never made it to the tomb after Alexander's death. It was not fully constructed before Aristotle was brought across.
"You've been noting quite a plethora of literature debating the location of this tomb," Plato said. "Babylon or Alexandria? Or somewhere more obscure?"
"Does it matter? The gold was melted down by Ptolemy IX for coin, his armor taken by Caligula, and finally Emperor Septimius Severus had the decency to close the place. The glass must have shattered from the pressure. Everything of worth besides the bones was stolen at one point or another." He ran his hand across the façade carved in the gold lid, a hunting scene and a symbol of the Macedonian kingship, and arms of Persepolis, Alexander's greatest conquest. Qum'ra took him to see the tomb before they left for the east, for their journey around the world. He was taunting when he spoke of Aristotle's legendary student, but some kind of compassion must have driven him, because it was quite of out of character for Qum'ra to focus on Aristotle's mortal life. What was he thinking? "I'll never be able to ask him."
"Do you think he would tell you?"
"No, of course not." Qum'ra was not given to public introspection. Aristotle laughed at the very notion. "Maybe there was something he wanted to know about me, by bringing me here. He certainly knew my every thought." He rested his head on the sarcophagus. "Master, you had so much more to teach me! I didn't appreciate you."
"I suspect you didn't appreciate me, either," Plato said with a chuckle. "Enough people thought that of you, running out on the Academy when I changed my will."
"I said Speusippus would be a terrible scholarch and time proved me right."
"But he was my nephew, with the right to inherit my land."
Aristotle growled. He couldn't argue with Plato, even a fake one. Plato made a poor but logical decision. Aristotle couldn't inherit the Academy because he wasn't a citizen. Xenocrates didn't want the position. He'd been over it a thousand times as a mortal and ten thousand as a vampire, and the facts never changed. The fact that he missed Plato's funeral out of bitterness never changed. The fact that he regretted it never changed.
"Why are you here, O Aristotle?" Plato said. "Qum'ra cannot provide you with any more wisdom. Nor can Prince Alexandros."
"But my mind always can. My soul is unlimited."
"It is also capable of delusion. The purpose of meditation is to achieve a state where the mind is capable of destroying elusion," Plato replied. "You believed that with the right amount of information, illusions would disappear.
"I still believe that."
"And how much information do you require this time, or are you simply mourning the loss of your student a little longer?"
Aristotle shook his fist at Plato. "Next time I do this, I'm making you less smarmy."
"You would never limit the intelligence of any emanation of Plato."
"No, but I can change that tone of yours." He finally let go of the sarcophagus and let the tomb fall away. "Goodbye, Master Plato."
"Is it irrelevant to point out you don't have to project your sentiments on a manifestation of your own will and not a living person?"
"Don't ruin the moment." And Plato disappeared, as did everything else. He was a vampire; there was comfort in darkness. There was no false light, no painful memories. But there were no answers in nothingness, either, and he preferred the world of experience. He ascended, or descended depending on how one looked at it, and woke to a chilly basement and a hungry vampire.
Alex was waiting for him on the stairs. "Hey!" He muted his enthusiasm in embarrassment as he stood. "How are you?"
"Hungry." He wasn't sure he could walk if he didn't have food first. He flew to the kitchen, finished the open bottle and started a new one. "How long was I out?"
Aristotle gave his son a playful swat before sitting down. "You seem to have managed on your own."
"It was a little quiet around here." There was tension in Alex, but it was melting away with his master's presence and apparent good health. "I got Seleucus' refrigerated feeder working. So far, anyway. It might die any moment."
"That I answered? Amanda called from Paris. She's still settling in but she says Elaine is cool, and Michael's doing better. Oh, and the wine there is amazing."
"Janette's stock is good, but it can't compare." There was still some wine left in the bottle he opened for Elaine, and pulled it out of the fridge to share with his son. "Now this is good."
Alex accepted the offer and sat down with him. "I didn't drink so much alcohol when I was mortal."
"You didn't drink blood, either."
Alex was perceptive. "So it was that bad, huh?"
"Not bad. Just difficult." He carefully sipped the remainders, letting Alex have the lion's share. "My master didn't teach me how to poison people until I was in my seventies. I don't know why he waited - there's a couple theories but I can't verify any of them - but what he did to me to keep me from poisoning people by accident ... I don't want ? to do to you." When he said it, it was the decision made by his words. Before then it was still question. "The only other option as I see it is to teach you the poisoning technique, because that's the only way to learn how to control it yourself. I just don't know if you're old enough to learn. And it's not a pleasant experience." He managed a grin. "And the power might go to your head."
Alex could grasp the severity of the situation. "I just don't want to hurt anyone else."
"I don't think you will, unless you try. But you can't ignore your instincts, either." The images of his lessons from Qum'ra danced in his head. He could use mice instead of mortals, but it would still be terrible. "I need more time to think it over. We should go somewhere. Where do you want to go?"
He laughed. "I knew you would say that. The answer is still no."
"How about I tour and you just say somewhere in the area? You must have friends in that part of Europe."
"You can't enter the Parthenon anyway. You're too young and it's too holy."
"Thousands of people must see it every day. It's just a tourist site now."
"Not to me," he said a bit more firmly. "Want to go to DC? They have a lot of Grecian-style monuments."
"So you can see C-SPAN live?"
"There are other reasons to go to DC. Also, no vampires. And I have had a distinct desire to get away from other vampires for awhile."
Alex eventually agreed to Washington D.C. more because he couldn't think of anything else in the States, and Ari was not eager to leave the country. Alex was seven, officially older than any of Aristotle's other children, and he'd survived the poison that destroyed all of them. From there, they'd moved into unknown territory. Alex realized now he was naïve to think that he would continue on as a normal fledgling, slowly growing in power and resistance to the things that could kill him but otherwise not changing much. The very worst was over, but challenges remained, and Ari was unsure how to guide him. But what parent was a parent until they actually had a child? Ari just took to over-thinking things, a hazard of having one of the most comprehensive intellects in history. In some cases it worked in his favor, in others it could be stifling. They could both use some air, and fresh sites and sounds.
Vampires were mostly banned from D.C., as the Powers That Be wanted to keep vampires out of view of politicians, even if some of them wielded considerable political influence. When asked, Ari said he had no plans to see Amanda's brother unless she made the request, but he would ask. He kept the contact limited.
Per Alex's request, they stayed at the Watergate, which Ari assured him, 'was just a normal hotel, dork,' but that was as far as he would go to deride Alex's appreciation for American history. Ari was a fan of the American democracy, and even donated ten tons of lead for bullets to the Revolutionary Army after meeting Ben Franklin in France.
After visiting a few monuments, they parted ways. Amanda did call with a request to have Ari see her brother, and Alex wanted to go to the Smithsonian exhibits Ari had seen a dozen times already. But anything was a pleasant distraction from the circumstances weighing down on them both.
"I love you, too," Steven Sutherland said into the phone. "Good night." With a sad smile, the congressman closed the phone and handed it back to Aristotle. He accepted the whiskey Aristotle offered from the room's private bar, but sipped rather than guzzled it. "Thank you."
Aristotle sensed the mortal's tension, his heartbeat making it obvious. Nothing in his comprehensive façade of harmlessness could make Steven comfortable in is presence. It was understandable - the circumstances under which they met contained more blood than the politician had ever seen or would ever see in his lifetime. "You're welcome. She does miss you. She watches you on C-SPAN sometimes with my son."
"I didn't know you had a son."
"He's only seven." He added, "In our years. Combined he's thirty-one. We've been living in the same city, so they're friends."
"But he's not the guy she was dating."
"No, that's Jimmy. He's older. Fifteen almost." He translated that over again. "He was twenty-three when he was turned. Closer to her age. Nice kid. Also Alex's friend. He used to be in a band. Now he writes music on the computer."
"And Amanda ... she was working in a nightclub?"
"In administration. The stuff everyone needs and no one wants to do, and she is excellent at it. These clubs pay taxes and have less drugs and underage drinking than the average for a nightclub. The owner doesn't tolerate anything that would bring the police."
"Can you tell? I mean, if I go into a club ..."
"I don't think it would be very good for your political career."
Steven actually smiled, albeit nervously. "Could I tell the difference?"
"Here's a hint: If you think it's one of our clubs, it isn't. It's a Goth bar."
The congressman chuckled. He was older and had more jowls to shake when he laughed than Aristotle remembered, but they hadn't actually met in twenty years, shortly after Steven was elected. Amanda wanted to congratulate him in person and Aristotle was her escort.
"So how is she, really? She sounds happy, but I think that's just from talking to me."
"She was doing well in California, but Michael rolled into town and got her into a mess. We all tried to protect her, but at the end of the day he's her master and it's her call as to whether she goes along with his stupid idea. You don't get between a master and their child. It's a sacred custom." He didn't want to say 'Code' in front of a mortal. "There was a fight - Amanda wasn't in it - and Michael was thrown out of the country again. This time she followed him and she's in Paris, with her grandmother. Michael's master. A very old and powerful woman. Also a very sensible one. I would trust her with my life. She promised to take care of Amanda, take her under her wing and all that, and I know she'll keep her promise. Children need guidance and she's very good at providing it."
"Amanda is sixty."
"Until Amanda is a hundred - by our reckoning - she's still a child. A very sensible one, I have to say, but it can't hurt to have someone looking out for her. People prey on the young. Turn them into pawns in their political games. Not really in America so much, but it happens." He said firmly, "It's not going to happen to Amanda."
"You sound so sure."
"She's got a good head on her shoulders for someone her age. She has potential to be a sensible member of society, and we need more sensible people. And she was the first friend my son made, so I have a weakness for making sure she's okay."
The congressman took his second sip the ice clinking in the glass. "I can't completely trust you."
"You shouldn't. I am a vampire," Aristotle said. "But not a very political one. I don't care for politics, our kind or your kind. I do care about the future, as I intend to be around to see it."
"You know this planet's going to hell, right?"
"We all give a lot of money to environmental causes," he said. "A lot. I don't want to be wandering around an irradiated planet in search of uncontaminated food."
It was the first time Steven laughed at a reference to vampirism. He accepted it in his sister, but she was the exception to the rule. For a man with his son in the army, he was awfully squeamish. "We'll try not to blow up the planet. Though I wouldn't go to Iraq right now."
"I'm not a big fan of war zones. Too many explosions. Your son must be exceptionally brave."
"Maybe Amanda could meet him someday - before I'm gone."
"I'm sure she'd love to." She'd never met her nephew, or her sister- in-law. Or anyone added to the family since her 'death.' "Perhaps something can be arranged. The future is full of possibilities."
At that moment, Alex was looking not at the future but the past, and the set of coins from the Seleucid Empire on display at the Smithsonian.
There were a few other items in the exhibit, which was open at night for trustees to see the items on loan from other museums. Alex put on his best tie, hypnotized the guard, and was in. He tuned out the speeches about the future of the museum's restoration work and focused on taking advantage of their unusual night hours. He'd even picked up Ari's habit of holding a champagne glass in his hand, even if he wasn't going to touch it.
"Seleucus Nikator the First. Not particularly pretty coins, in comparison to the fine example set by Philip the Great's administration, but they are well-struck."
Alex hadn't seen the old man's approach. He was hoping it wasn't someone soliciting for a donation, as he looked more like an academic than a wealthy trustee. His three-piece suit was modest and in an old- fashioned style, and he spoke with a light, aristocratic British accept. His hair was white and perfectly trimmed, except for the locks at his temples, which were grown long and tucked behind his ears. "Except me for being so presumptuous. Dr. Salomon, Assistant Curator for the Near East Department in the Metropolitan Museum of Art."
They shook. "Dr. Green." It struck him then, as their hands met - Salomon's hand should have been much warmer, a human temperature. It wasn't. "Do we know each other?"
"We've never been formally introduced, and I had thought we might never be, but fate seems to have made its decision."
A moment ago, Alex had mistaken him for human. He still seemed that way. "You know my father."
"I knew your father, but we haven't shared company in a very, very long time." He looked down at the coins in the case. "Seleucus was perhaps not the most famous of Alexander's generals, but he was one of the best at building an empire. Only Ptolemy's children outlasted him."
"You study Alexander the Great?"
"I work in a Near Eastern Department. His name comes up from time to time." He had a very warm smile. He looked just like an old, doddering professor - but so did Ari. Alex searched his memories for any mention of a Dr. Salomon, or anyone of a similar name, but didn't find anything in the long list of people Ari mentioned. "As I recall Aristotle was particularly obsessed with him."
"I wouldn't say obsessed."
"You always hide the things dearest to you, to protect them from harm. Even if all they have is a legacy being trampled on by every historian worth his weight in salt."
"Something tells me you aren't completely innocent in that regard."
"I've polished plenty of his coins, but other than that done no lasting damage that I can imagine." Behind him, the event coordinator began to speak. "Shall we?"
Alex wasn't keen to go far with an older vampire he didn't know, so they went instead to the balcony overlooking the gathering, in full view of everyone. He didn't have to ask for it explicitly; it was something that was understood. "Aristotle never mentioned you."
"He doesn't know Dr. Salomon. As I said, it's been a long time."
"He knows everyone in America."
"Every one of us who chooses to make himself known, certainly. I've not had contact with the Community since shortly after your master and I parted ways. That may seem impossible to one raised on the importance of connections, but I've managed."
"You work at the Met? In the Near Eastern Department?" Alex looked him over carefully. "You translated the inscription on the sword, and mailed us the photograph."
Dr. Salomon smiled. "Very clever. Yes, it's an old saying, sort of a blessing before battle. 'King of the Damned, Bring me the Life in Death.'"
"The life in death is blood. We draw life from other people's death."
"Who's the King of the Damned?" Alex asked. "I know there used to be a lot of vampire kings, before Aristotle was born. I don't know much about them."
"The answer is a bit complicated. There was a belief that surely you've heard of, but was far more prevalent in my day, of the father of all vampires. No one who knew him would speak of him, and left us to our theories. When our kind ruled from Egypt to the Black Sea, some imagined our shared father to be himself a great king, if only metaphorically at that point. To others he was a god."
"What do you think he was?"
"Elusive," Dr. Salomon said. "Very elusive, to this day."
Alex had to laugh. "You really think he's still alive, if he even existed, and no one's ever found him?"
"The hunted become skilled at hiding quite quickly. And that was how Abaish described him - a hunted man, instinctually rejected by all but his family, whom he himself rejected in turn when he saw the evil he spawned. Add immortality and you have the perfect recipe for quite a hellish existence."
Despite the humor in undertone, there was a certain severity to the doctor's voice that made Alex turn around to face him properly, his back to the railing and the crowd beneath them. "If you work in history, you must have a ton of contact with myths and may therefore find this offensive, but Aristotle believes there's a scientific explanation to everything."
"From what I am to understand of his writing, he always has," Dr. Salomon said. "But biology never excluded the divine or incomprehensible. That I believe he described as 'essence,' though he may have a different term for it now. The immortal soul or some Christian nonsense."
Alex did not confirm or deny that his master was the Aristotle that Dr. Salomon was quoting. It seemed he didn't have to. He was wracking his brain, trying to figure out whom this could possibly be before him, but came up empty. Maybe he would drop a hint. Alex liked a challenge so he continued, "In Greek philosophy, the metaphysical and the physical were intrinsically linked. The writings of Aristotle indicate that he believed the metaphysical was as knowable as that with solid form."
"Yes, by a complex way of categorization. But to know it and touch it? To see something beyond explanation?" Dr. Salomon smiled. "But Aristotle has never seen anything he felt wasn't beyond explanation, has he? The right tools haven't been invented to explain it. That's all."
"That's what I believe, anyway," Alex said, unwilling to speak for his master. "It just doesn't make me an atheist. Besides, it's hard to be a supernatural creature and atheist at the same time." He wondered where this was going. People usually weren't so willing to throw themselves out there in conversation unless they wanted something. "You implied that you're searching for the original king, or whatever he was. Why? To prove a point? To ask him a question?"
"Now that, Master Alexander, is a bit more personal than a perusal of Ancient philosophy. So I will decline to answer directly, just as will decline to give a solid fact about your master, as if he is some mystery to me."
Alex had to think quickly. It was someone old, someone old enough to disguise even his vampirism, at least from afar. Someone who knew for sure Aristotle's real identity, and who spoke of both Aristotle and Abaish-katal casually, as if they were old friends and were getting together for drinks later. Aristotle didn't know a lot of Ancients whom he was sure were alive, except ... "Urushal."
He smiled nervously. "It took me awhile. I'll give you that."
"Aristotle would only bring across someone of a certain intellectual caliber - but it doesn't always translate to detective skills."
"If you wanted to contact Aristotle, why didn't you just do it when you translated the inscription on the sword? You were already writing him."
"Though I am not oblivious to his comings and goings on this Continent, this meeting is little more than a happy coincidence. Or perhaps fate, if you believe in such nonsense."
"But you knew I was his son."
"All research via the museum's server on trustees and some other private databanks. Nothing very original or exciting, I'm afraid." He reached into his jacket and retrieved a business card. "If he wishes to renew our acquaintance, I will be in the city through Saturday evening. If not, we will pass once again like ships in the night, and I will be content to know I have met someone worthy of his guardianship. You may have noticed that he is a bit exclusive."
"Maybe a little bit," Alex said.
When Alex returned to the hotel, Ari was playing on his laptop, oblivious to the earlier events or waiting for Alex to bring them up. A tumbler of whiskey was half-emptied on the coffee table, and the seat smelled slightly of cologne and aftershave. "How's Mr. Sutherland?"
"Concerned about his sister and terrified of me, as usual." Ari looked up, the light of the monitor flickering on his glasses. "You have something to tell me?"
"You've really been out of my head?"
"I am not, as you would believe, there every waking minute."
Alex retrieved the card from his pocket and handed it over, not as if Ari would recognize the name. "I met Urushal at the exhibit." It was so rare to see his master do a double-take that Alex had to laugh.
Ari had no immediate response, his expression of concentration as he was no doubt actively digging through Alex's memories for visual confirmation. Alex didn't feel it, nor did he in this case mind. "He looks different without a beard. Wow," his master said at last, leaning back in the desk chair. "He works at the Met? How could I have missed him?"
"He implied that he wanted to be missed. You haven't seen him in what, 2000 - "
" - and 150 years," Ari said, still flummoxed by the news. "We parted ways after leaving the looted tomb where we were prisoners and never saw each other again. Nicantor walked into the sun and Orpheus is still on the Council. Urushal I've never even heard mentioned, but I always assumed I would feel his death. The links we made in that tomb were very strong. Even after two millennia of captivity he was still strong enough to overwhelm us, but blood was the only way we had to communicate. We had no shared languages." He looked at the card, rubbing his beard. "So he wants to get back in touch."
"He said the meeting was a coincidence. I don't totally believe him."
"Urushal was hard to read, even for a vampire. He was older than the rest of us combined, so no one really succeeded in getting past his barriers, but then again we were all a mess, and he'd been there the longest. He didn't discuss his past, but none of us did. We were all convicts, guilty or innocent. It was an understanding we had." He shook his head. "He was nice to me, in the extent that we were both sane enough to carry on pleasant conversation. Most of the time we were in a daze, hostile to anything that came our way. Years of unending hunger will do that to you. When Nicantor killed himself, it wasn't a surprise. We were all thinking about it." He was not so jovial when discussing his wrongful imprisonment, but he wasn't holding back, either. "Everyone leaned on Urushal in the beginning, because he was the strongest. Then the duty came to me, because I was there for the shortest term and at least spoke something like the current language and knew who the Romans were and I could guess what might have happened to the vampires who controlled the prison. They had retreated deeper into Egypt while I was entombed. It was a strange time for all of us, mentally. But Urushal was kind. That I remember clearly. I don't know why he wants to get in touch with me, but I certainly won't turn him down." He looked back up at Alex. "You're cute when you're suspicious."
"He's second generation. Even if I wanted to refuse his offer, I wouldn't." He added, "I'll be careful."
Alex grumbled, but knowing he wouldn't convince Ari of his unfounded fears, promptly gave up trying.
Aristotle found it strange speaking to Urushal, especially in English. Urushal learned it either in England or a British conclave during the British Empire, because he spoke with that sort of accent, while Aristotle had tempered his formerly British accent to Canadian when he moved to the New World. Urushal had an air of sophistication even over the phone that was not found in the half-mad, starving skeleton of a prisoner who emerged from a stone coffin in time to fend off the Roman scavengers disturbing his agonizing rest.
They agreed to meet the following night. Urushal, as Dr. Salomon, was staying in an exquisite but less distinguished hotel than the Watergate, at the expense of the Met. Whatever the purpose of his visit, he wasn't interested in dwelling on it. "Aristotle." He smiled warmly and then embraced. Shaking hands seemed so pedantic.
"Urushal." There was still a link between them, as Aristotle had always suspected. It was quite thin, but when they sat together in the same room, it came to life from the proximity and made the conversation more relaxed instantaneously. "I am a bit surprised to see you."
Urushal had a decanter of brandy that was too red even for brandy, with just enough blood in it to make it palatable to the vampiric throat. The flames of the hotel room's fireplace - something Aristotle would never have lit himself, but Urushal seemed to luxuriate in - flickered on the crystal as he poured. "You knew I was alive, of course."
"I've had my doubts over the years, but yes. The last conversation I had about you that wasn't with my son was with Orpheus, and that was 1500 years ago. We were wondering where you were. He suspected India, but I had this feeling you would stay away from it for some reason."
"Abaish's territory." Urushal handed him a glass of brandy. "Yes, let the old man sit in his golden castle and watch mortals swim in his moat. I prefer to be a bit more engaged in life."
Abaish was older only in a generations, being Urushal's uncle if they were both telling the truth. He must have been younger, physically, when he was brought across, because he had black left in his beard, and Urushal was entirely gray, white even. He was shaved now, but he still left the hair by his temples long, curled behind his ears. It looked a little odd, as if he'd had a bad haircut and was fastidiously trying to ignore it. "You didn't care for him, did you?"
"All the Ancients feuded over territory and power. You know this. High and mighty kings think a lot of themselves, and not much of other people. Abaish was that way, and so was I. And so are the current generations of rulers, in their own way."
"I try to stay out of it," Aristotle said, "but I don't succeed." He tried the brandy; it wasn't bad, but he was more of a wine person. "The moment I finally decide to bring someone across, everyone seems to be knocking on my door, ready to start some ancient dispute all over again. Like I'm not busy with anything."
Urushal chuckled. "I haven't made anyone in thousands of years. Too much trouble, fatherhood. And inevitably fatal."
"Not to everyone," Aristotle said, defending himself even if it wasn't meant as an attack. Urushal clearly was referring to some ancient feud that ended badly. Otherwise he wouldn't be content to be alone for so long. "I find it very rewarding - most of the time. And I would prefer to leave something behind besides ashes and overanalyzed lecture notes."
"Letting others take the credit for your work, I feel, is a wise course. That is why I am assistant curator. No one of notice, and I doubt I ever have been.
"I learned that lesson much too late," Aristotle laughed. "So what have you been doing two thousand years, besides avoiding every vampire on the planet, apparently?"
"Oh, this and that." Urushal was exceptionally casual about it. "I got in touch with my only son, shortly before his death. A tumultuous meeting, of course, but necessary."
"You never told us you had a son."
"I never told you I didn't," he answered. "Just one, and my release came just in time to see him again."
"He died at Magna?"
"Yes." Urushal looked away for a moment, at the flames, before returning to Aristotle. "I stayed only long enough to establish who survived to lead our kind - the opponents of the war, of course. Your side."
"Only by default. I didn't care either way about vampire kingdoms. I just thought the mortal army might be ready for us and it wasn't worth the risk. After Magna I let others take power. I didn't want anything to do with any of them."
"Likewise. I traveled quite a bit, obviously. I didn't see Egypt again until the 1920's, when I was on an archaeological team in the Valley of the Kings. Nothing to make the papers."
"Looking for something?"
"Yes, my natural curiosity about our existence plagues me to some extent. I believe you would agree, O Aristotle of Stageira."
Aristotle grinned. "I'm too lazy to dig things up. Hard on the back when mortals can do that anyway. The answer lies in biology."
"How did I know you were going to say that?"
He finished his glass. "It's true. The answers are in the genetic codes in our blood. Even Abaish-katal knew that. He told me so, before there was a word like 'genetic.'"
Urushal did a double-take. "When did you speak to Abaish about our origins?"
"I visited him as a fledgling. You must know this - it was before we met. The pilgrimage masters take their fledglings on, to learn Abaish's ancient secrets if he's in a good enough mood. He still does it every few hundred years. He makes a public appearance and everyone races to bring their children to his feet."
"And he told you the origin of vampires? He spoke of his father?" There was a tone of insistence in Urushal's voice. "I don't remember this. I would have known. Your blood would have told me."
"I would have told you if I could have. He buried it. I remember the other things he taught me, but the stories he told of our ancestry - I've only started to remember them. In the last few years, I mean. I only have snippets. I do remember now he told me that they would - "
" - rise at the right time, with the right trigger."
Aristotle looked up. "How did you know that?"
"You don't think you're the only one, do you?" Urushal didn't laugh, even though he was smiling. It wasn't that sort of smile. "He knew it was too important information to be forgotten, so he put it in a dozen or so vampires. All too young to be able to break past his hypnosis. The trigger is his death - his hold on you ends, and the history is revealed. All that he has hidden is known. For the good of the world, he said he did it."
Aristotle squinted, as if that would reveal something in Urushal's expression. "How do you know this?"
"Because another one told me. It was in his blood. But yours - I never tasted it. I would have, but it must have been too fresh. Over time, perhaps, your mind has begun to break down his barriers." He leaned forward, abandoning his brandy and his casual posture. "You must tell me what he said."
"I don't remember clearly. It's only snippets in dreams." Aristotle did feel defensive, but the link between them was reassuring. "Not even complete sentences sometimes. He drew something on the cave wall - "
"A family tree?"
"Yes. He was talking about consanguinity. About not killing your brother. Something like that." He had a chance now, he realized, to utilize the resource in front of him. "Were Qa'ra and Qum'ra real brothers, before they were brought across?"
"Yes." There it was, after centuries of speculation: a solid answer from a knowledgeable source. "Ra'el brought across three sons of the king he killed to gain his kingdom. I was there when Abaish first heard of it. He said no good would come of it, and he was mostly right. Excluding yourself and that other one, Qa'ra's grandson."
He meant Lucius. Aristotle didn't rush with that information, because he wasn't used to revealing anything, especially something so personal. He would, if asked, but not before. Besides, Urushal probably knew. "And my brothers and sisters."
"They were executed because of Ra'el's mistake. They were the children of incest."
Aristotle shook his head. "It was only incest because they consumed their older brother. If they hadn't, they would not have been poisoned by his blood."
An odd look appeared on Urushal's face. "Yes, I suppose. I apologize - it's hard to think of them before that. Ra'el and I did not get along, so I saw little of them before I met Qerya."
"The oldest brother. What, Qum'ra wouldn't speak his name? I can't say it's a surprise."
The name was believably similar, but it was more that something in Aristotle's vast memory was telling him it wasn't wrong. He had things leftover from his link to Qum'ra never fully faded, but hidden in blood that he knew he was unable to interpret. Or maybe Abaish-katal simply told him, in that infamous conversation? "I can't remember. I know he never told me, but maybe someone did."
"Abaish? I can help you with that. I have become ... proficient at it." Urushal was using the link to its fullest extent, and it was overwhelming. He meant to drink his blood, of course. And why not? They freely shared of themselves when Aristotle was barely more than a fledgling, and so easily overcome by the Ancient. Now he had enough years to stand on his own and he needed help. He was not willing to wait until Abaish's death. That might never come.
"You have to be careful," Aristotle said, wondering in the back of his head why he was immediately agreeing to it. "I can't drink back. Not now, with Alex so young." Alex was exclusive, and so was he. It wasn't necessary, but it was a matter of trust. "You've done this before?"
"Yes, but previous subjects proved unbreakable. They were much younger than you, though. Their minds were not as strong." And like that Urushal was advancing on him, and if the link hadn't been there, he would have been terrified. But he wasn't - Aristotle was accepting when Urushal tore back his shirt, ripping it in the process as he bit down on his throat, and Aristotle's world became a burst of colors.
Abaish was talking, but Aristotle couldn't understand him. It was right in front of his eyes, himself sitting before Abaish, who was gesturing to scribbling on the wall, but it was as if he watched through a cloth screen, with details obscured and noise muted. Even though he had seen this scene before, in his dreams, it remained curtained off.
"Aristotle!" It was Qum'ra of all people, who didn't belong here, or anywhere new. Qum'ra belonged only in memories where he already was. "What the hell are you doing?"
He pointed. "Abaish is -"
"Pretentious Greek, you have to know everything!" Qum'ra was seething. "You're my only child and you're giving up your life for this?" He didn't wait for a response. He pushed him. "Run!"
Aristotle fell into a waking position on the couch, shoving away Urushal. He was doing it before he was even conscious, a natural reaction to something in his memory. Urushal staggered back, Aristotle's blood on his face.
Now he did not look so friendly, and the link was invasive, not welcoming. The whole room looked different in tone, with Qum'ra's long-dead voice still ringing in his ears. "I'm sorry. I-I don't know why I did that." He put a hand over his wound, which was closing up. "That wasn't Abaish's hypnotism. That was Qum'ra, but he's dead. It must be something -"
"You don't think your master can't still influence you? He wouldn't tell you, of course. He wasn't the sharing type."
Aristotle covered his wound because he didn't want to be bitten again, not just yet, even if Urushal's fangs were still extended and his intent obvious. "What do you know of my master, that I don't?"
"Everything, you stupid child! He couldn't hide anything from me, even if he thought he could." Even though Urushal was shorter than him, Aristotle was sitting, weakened, and the older vampire was towering over him, the fire behind him. "His intentions to overthrow his father, his jealousy for the favoritism for Qeyra - everything!"
"You drank his blood?"
"Yes." Urushal grabbed him, his eyes red with hunger or rage - it was hard to tell which. "When I taught him how to consume his brother. Just as I taught Qeyra how to consume his father. Ra'el never saw it coming. I thought they would all poison each other, but Qum'ra and Qa'ra teamed up - the only thing that saved them." He shook Aristotle. "Qum'ra must have thought I was dead, not to tell you about me. Now tell me what Abaish told you! Where is our father?"
"I don't know!" Aristotle fought him, but lost. "Why don't you find another one of Abaish's students, one with a better memory?"
"Because," Urushal hissed, "I've already eaten them all." And he bit, and this time, it was not friendly, or helpful. It was painful. The room began to darken.
No, no, no! Alex tried to warn him, and now Qum'ra tried, and he didn't listen. Not in time. Aristotle closed his eyes and called up the vampire with all the force left in his quickly-diminishing body. If he couldn't defeat Urushal in an open battle, maybe at least he could poison him. And maybe it worked, because Urushal pulled back and howled, but kept a firm grip around Aristotle's throat, pinning him to the furniture.
"That greedy old fuck!" Maybe Urushal said it in English, maybe he didn't and it just registered that way with the link between them. "Keeping everything for himself, putting it in fledglings like they're pots for preserves! And deadly fledglings at that. No. I'll beat him. I have the experience. I've done this eight times!" He was building himself up for something, and Aristotle was too weak to do anything about it. "Abaish, if you can hear me, I'm going to find our father if I have to tear through every vampire you've ever touched!" With that he tore open Aristotle's shirt and bit him near the collarbone, his fingers now like claws, digging into the flesh.
Aristotle screamed but no sound came out, even if his neck was free. The vampire was there, but it was frightened and bouncing around inside him, confusing him further. He looked up at the wall above him for something to focus on, but it was blank, an ugly off-white. There seemed to be no barrier now, between him and Urushal, physical or mental. Urushal was taking - stealing - and Aristotle was being robbed.
"Focus!" Qum'ra shouted. "Fight him!"
I can't concentrate, he pleaded to his master. He needed something to concentrate on, something exterior to both of them.
And there it was, as if Qum'ra had gifted him a present. His cell phone went off.
Unfamiliar with the noise - perhaps the theme song to Super Mario Brothers as a ringtone was a bit too obscure - Urushal stopped, and so did Aristotle, and there was nothing, just the soothing tone, as soothing as a midi file could be.
"Now!" Qum'ra shouted, and Aristotle pushed Urushal off him, his arms aching all the way. Urushal's face and hands were bloodied and dirty - with flesh, torn from Aristotle's neck and chest. "The fire, the fire!"
Aristotle obeyed his phantom master, and with an eerie lack of self- defense, reached into the flames and pulled out a log, which he turned at Urushal. The other vampire went up like kindle, and whether he lived or died was not Aristotle's concern. Away, away. He had to get away.
And, without ceremony, Aristotle hurled himself out the window, dropping fourteen floors onto someone's Lexus, at which point the phone stopped ringing and the car alarm picked up in its place. The drop put out the fire, but his arm still hurt - everything hurt. His other senses were blocked. Someone was shouting at him, some mortal, and he couldn't even hear his heartbeat, much less the words. Aristotle could only hear his own, and his heart didn't beat, just gasped as it contracted and expanded, as if trying to expel something foul. He tried to see the wound, but his eyes wouldn't focus, so he put his head down, and closed his eyes.
"I didn't make you to die," Qum'ra seethed.
Aristotle retreated to what he knew best - logic. "You are not alive. I can't form any new memories of you. This must be from the past."
"No, Aristotle. I am still your master, and I always will be."
There was something soothing in that tone, so Aristotle made his next guess. "You're a manifestation of my own self-defense mechanisms. I would think it would be someone else, but Plato's not quite so violent."
"I am your master, Aristotle. Who else would you want to defend you?" Qum'ra stood over him. "You can justify it how you wish. You would never listen to me in this regard - always thought you were smarter than me."
"I am," Aristotle replied, because it was true. He was smarter than Qum'ra. Maybe not older, or more clever, or stronger, or wiser. But he was smarter. He did not see anything beyond Qum'ra. "It's good to see you."
Qum'ra smiled. He had to be a hallucination, to do that. But he smiled and went in and out, to be replaced by a mortal with a beating heart far beyond his reach in the same position. "His ID doesn't say his blood type."
Vampire, he thought, but couldn't say. My blood type is vampire.
He rolled his head to the side to see the other EMT, and saw nothing but darkness.
In any other situation, hotwiring a car and smashing it sideways into an ambulance might have been, aside from the moral implications, a lot of fun. Alex certainly enjoyed it in video games, but tonight it had more of a purpose and it was all he could think of to stop the van, as things would get more complicated if they made it to the hospital and he was sure DC had plenty of hospitals. He would have stopped them from even loading Ari, but he was too late. He could only fly so quickly.
How was Ari so oblivious to the danger radiating from Urushal? Ari felt friendships were a sacred thing, and he wanted peace between vampires. It was notable but unrealistic. Alex had plans to explore more of DC that night but he stayed in, carefully monitoring the link while looking at a map of DC and the hotel Ari was invited to - just in case. There was no indication of any trouble until a very definite spike and waves of pain that came through clearly enough to Alex to be positive Ari was being attacked. He barely had it in him to dial the phone, but predictably got no answer. He collected himself and flew despite the pain, dialing repeatedly until the phone went straight voicemail, indicating it was probably broken. By the time of his arrival, fire trucks were the first sign of trouble, but he had to go around back for the broken glass on the busted car and the ambulance, already closed up and starting out to the hospital. Alex blew more time hotwiring a car by tearing open the panel to get at the wiring, but regained the time on the road, as his goal was cut off, not follow, the ambulance.
Fortunately for the EMTs, the ambulance did not overturn. He really didn't want to kill anyone, but he would do what was necessary to save his master. Also fortunately for the EMTs, none of them were resistors and there were only three of them, counting the driver. They let him take Ari and just fly off, convinced that they were supposed to go somewhere else but their car was busted, a good enough story for the moment.
He could not return to the hotel. The windows wouldn't open at the Watergate. Fortunately, again - and it was only fortune saving his master at this point - Ari always had a back-up reservation, in case he had to disappear without leaving the city, with another hotel that had a balcony. He'd even checked in, so Alex had key card. He dumped Ari on the bed and turned on all the lights.
"Master," he pleaded, but Ari didn't respond. Only then did he tear off the bandages the EMTs had started to apply. "Holy fucking shit."
Ari's wounds were still open, and it wasn't just bitten flesh. It was torn, almost as if he had been gnawed on, and the openings were extensive, down from his neck and into his chest. Ari's slow-beating vampire heart was visible, and it had holes in it. When it did beat, finally, black blood came out of it. Alex cut his palm and then Ari's. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon." Ari's body should have drawn blood naturally, but it was barely a trickle, and the wounds remained open and bleeding. Ari's face had already lost what color it had. Ari said repeatedly he was too old to bleed to death, but it sure looked like he was trying.
There were no other vampires in DC, or even the DC area. The closest were in Maryland, Ari said, all fledglings. The oldest person on the East Coast was Elizabeth Beckham in Boston, and how would she knew what to do?
There was only one person who could get someone anywhere at any time, within reason, and his private line was on Ari's contact list. Ari's phone was damaged, but Alex popped the battery out and back in and it turned back on. It was day in Europe, but he hoped that didn't matter. "Pick up, pick up..."
Marius did, in two rings. "Aristotle?"
"It's Alex." He was relieved to be talking to someone - anyone - but not that relieved. He was truly expecting Aristotle to turn to ashes before his eyes. "Aristotle's in trouble."
The cynical Marius believed everything. He had never heard of Urushal except in legend, but he didn't doubt Aristotle's recognition of him after two thousand years. Nor did he hesitate and ask for particulars on the mysterious fire and escape Aristotle made, which Alex couldn't explain. No, he didn't know what happened to Urushal. He just knew that Aristotle had wounds and they weren't closing and he wasn't accepting Alex's blood and Alex didn't have any other blood at this location, and couldn't leave Aristotle.
"I can have someone there before sunrise," Marius said, typing in the background. "Two people, hopefully, with blood."
"Thank you." Alex pressed his hand against Ari's chest. "I'm literally holding the wound closed, but it won't heal."
"And his heart is damaged?"
"There's holes in the lining."
Marius was silent for a moment. He came back with, "Can you sew?"
"No. I mean, I could try, but don't our bodies reject stitches?"
"Eventually, but if he's not healing at all, you'll have to close the wound manually. Call up for housekeeping. The maid will know how to sew. Then hypnotize the living daylights out of her. Fishing line is the best, but she might not have that. Anything but metal wire. No surgical staples. And you can go ahead and clean the wound - the outside of it. Other than that, you need to keep him together until my men get there. Does anyone else know Urushal?"
"That Councilman. Orpheus."
Alex bit his lip. "I don't know what to do. This isn't supposed to happen. I told him not to go."
"He's stubborn as hell. Always has been. I don't expect him to change now, not even for you. He's also stubborn as hell about not dying. I should know. Look, call me when my men get there, or if he wakes up and says something. Okay?"
"Okay." He was not okay, but he had to get off the phone.
There was a lingering fear that Urushal was going to come after him, and finish off whatever he had been doing to Aristotle, but Alex released there was nothing he could do to prevent that, and he had to focus on the task at hand. He called housekeeping - there weren't enough towels anyway - and removed what was left of Ari's shirt to wipe him down. The blood, from the scent, was entirely Ari's. Even when it was washed off, the wounds stayed open, not gushing blood but leaking, and every so often his heart would beat and startle the hell out of Alex.
"Ari," he pleaded, "you have to hang on. You can't die from this." His voice was cracking. "You can't die. You can't leave me."
The knock interrupted him from breaking down entirely, and he wiped his eyes and focused on the difficult task of having the maid not freak out beyond his ability to hypnotize her. It took awhile, longer than he really wanted to spend, before he convinced her that Ari's skin was just fabric she was sewing as normal. Once she set about it she was remarkably quick, perhaps because she had little awareness that there was an (arguably) living thing beneath her fingers, and she probably overstitched rather than under stitched, but she stopped the bleeding, and he helped her wipe off the blood, erased her memories of the call, and sent her off.
Returning to his master's side, he tried again to feed him, even opening his wrist and letting the blood trip into Ari's mouth, but it only succeeded in making his master hack it up. At which point, he opened his eyes.
"Ari," Alex said, pulling his chin in the right direction to see him, because Ari's eyes didn't focus, just looked straight ahead. "Master. Father. Dad. Can you hear me?"
Ari's arm on the uninjured side flailed and grabbed Alex by the ear, then head, pressing down on his skull as if he wanted in, to communicate in some other way, but couldn't.
"Ari, help is coming. I need you to hold it together." I need you not to die on me! "Is there someone I should call? Can anyone help you?"
It looked like even blinking was painful for Ari, who swallowed and said in a wheeze, "Abaish."
"Abaish-katal? In India?"
Ari looked like he was trying to nod, but it was beyond his abilities. "Golden palace ... There's a moat. Mortals." He gurgled. "Tell him ... he didn't get it. Urushal didn't get it."
Ari tapped Alex's head, and succeeded in pushing through the link. Memories.
"Your memories of Abaish-katal?" Alex was now not clear as to whether Ari felt Abaish-katal could help him or he was just desperate to warn him of something. Alex would rather not go to India looking for a vampire notorious at hiding if he didn't have to, if it wouldn't help Ari. "What did Urushal do to you?"
Ari sighed, but his energy went with that sigh, and he was out again. One arm fell over his chest, as if to indicate, Can't you see the damage for yourself?
"I can," Alex said, biting back tears. "Don't die on me, Ari. Don't bring me all this way and then die on me."
His master gave no indication as to whether he agreed to the request or not.
The Enforcers arrived with barely half an hour to sunrise. They were not friendly, but they were polite, and they had blood. A tank of it, but Ari couldn't ingest. Anything they put down his throat he would hack back up without regaining consciousness. The second one, who introduced himself as Dan, took to injecting blood straight into Aristotle's stomach, which stayed down longer but eventually made it back up, Ari's body rejecting it. When it came back up, it was black. "You said his heart is injured?"
Alex nodded, and they conference-called Marius, and Alex repeated Ari's only demand, to deliver a message to Abaish-katal.
"Nobody knows where Abaish-katal is. India is a big country."
"He said something about a golden palace with a moat. In a mortal area."
"Urushal told him that?"
"Maybe. He didn't have that information before."
Dan spoke to his chief in German, some dialect Alex didn't know. Marius hesitated before giving his decision.
"I would say to bring him here, but I'm not sure we can help him. If his heart is injured, he might not be pumping the blood you're giving him. Blood isn't the answer. If he's so set on seeing Abaish-katal, then we have to go with that option. And there are vampires in India with healing powers they don't share with the rest of the world. The problem is getting past Indian security."
"Mortal or vampire?"
"Mortal is easy. This is a crate-and-ship job. He's too sick to board a plane as a passenger. With luck we can have him in Delhi in 48 hours, maybe less. The problem is the vampire community doesn't like intruders. Aristotle was there in the early 1900's, and I mean the first decade, and it went badly, even though he was invited. We weren't on good terms so he never told me what happened, but he left after a month or so and disappeared into Tibet for years, visiting his friends there. On the other hand, word has it that it was the Community's fault - which, knowing Aristotle, it probably was - and that could mean they owe him a favor. He's friends with Hajji Ashraf, isn't he? Or friends with his son Felix."
"Hajji lives in New Delhi," Marius said. "Does political commentary for a late-night news program there. Do you have his number?"
Alex, now fighting the sun to stay awake, flipped open the cell phone and scrolled down to 'HAJJI CELL.' "Yes."
"You can't stay awake much longer, can you? Read it to me."
Alex gave up the number, unsure of what he would say to Hajji, whom he knew to be at least a thousand years old. If he had more time, he would call Felix.
"So, this is how I see it," Marius said, his voice calm. "I can get Aristotle to India. Whether he lives through the trip is something I can't help. And I can get you to India, but I think you'll have to go cargo as well. Don't worry - my men will handle it. It's not as uncomfortable as you think. And I won't send you unless Hajji can confirm that he can pick you both up. But once you're on Indian soil, you're on your own. The Enforcers have no jurisdiction there."
"Can you put in a good word for me?"
"I think it would be better if I didn't," Marius said. "I really don't think you'll hit any trouble. Aristotle's not much of a threat when he's incapacitated, and he has friends in India. Just go to sleep, and when you wake up, you'll be in India."
Alex was about to question the logistics of that, but Marius hung up. Alex turned to the Enforcers, but they were suddenly uninterested in his questions. The second one took the keys for the Watergate room to collect their things - there wouldn't be time, he explained - and Dan pulled out a very small laptop and began typing. The only advice he offered was to drink up before his journey, and it was advice Alex couldn't ignore. The pain from Aristotle and the stress of the evening were wearing on him, as was the coming sun. He took from the Enforcer's rations and sat down on the bed next to Ari. Ari had turned positively white, but the bleeding stopped and he was still, almost peaceful as the expression of agony was gone from his face.
"He isn't dying," Dan said, alarming Alex because it was so abrupt. "He's going into torpor from lack of blood. He'll remain in that state until someone finds a way to heal him so he can accept blood again, and then he'll come out of it."
"So he's not getting worse?"
"In a sense. But the deeper he goes into torpor, the harder it will be to get him out. It's important to move quickly."
The details of how that was going to happen were becoming hazy. Alex finished the bottle, and fell asleep leaning against his master, as if nothing was wrong and he just wanted his company.
Aristotle looked in all directions, but the screens playing his memories were faint, and the edges of the endless room dimly-lit. He couldn't focus on a single one of them. There was only one thing absurdly clear, and that was the image of his master. No - it was more than image. His master was in the room with him, the link between them as alive as it had been two thousand years ago. Qum'ra hadn't changed, of course. He was wearing the black Persian robes he was so fond of, relishing in the additional air of menace they gave him. Maybe that was why Aristotle avoided black so much as a clothing option.
"Are you alive?" Aristotle said, facing him directly. He had nothing to hide that could be hidden. "Answer me honestly."
"Are you referring to whether I still walk the earth or ever will again? Whether the flames of the barbarians consumed me or not?"
"No, I am not alive. The pain you felt from my death was real."
"Then you're just a figment of my imagination. A mental device to express my subconscious desires and fears."
Qum'ra was as he was at his best - barely patient, but not angry or unpleasant. "I can say no and you can choose not to believe me. The only thing that can convince you that I am something other than a image," Qum'ra said, stepping close to him with a vague menace, but one Aristotle was all too familiar with, "is the sensation you are feeling right now, something even you might have trouble expressing in words. And you're always so verbose. Really, Aristotle."
He meant the link, of course. It bustled as if Qum'ra was more than buried ashes in New Mexico. He didn't - couldn't - address how good it made him feel. How relieved he was. He didn't have to; if Qum'ra was alive in any sense, he already knew it. "The link keeps you alive?"
"A gross oversimplification, but you already know that."
He accepted the answer for what it was. There were too many questions to ask. "There were so many times when I needed you, and you weren't there. Not like this."
"You didn't need me," Qum'ra said, not coldly. Something in him was always hard to read, so Aristotle didn't try to guess at his emotions now. "When I died, you grieved. When you came out of it, able to function again in the world you still inhabit, you weren't sad I was gone."
Qum'ra rolled his eyes. "Don't bother denying it. Besides a few bumps in the road with your wrongful imprisonment and your various failures in making children, your life improved considerably the moment I ceased to exist. Whatever danger you were in was of your own making and you always survived."
"Except for with Urushal."
"Interrupting me as always," Qum'ra smiled. "I would have warned you about him if I thought he was ever going to escape his imprisonment. I wasn't there for the trial, but I heard of it. It was quite a scandal in its time. A child testifying against his master? Unthinkable."
"He mentioned he had a son."
"Yes. Dagar. An ungrateful bastard if there ever was one, and that comes from me of all people, and I stand guilty of one of the greatest crimes in vampire history. It made me rather reluctant to speak of the old days, when Abaish-katal was just one of many siblings still surviving, their children ruled great empires - and we, the third generation, grew impatient in waiting for our turn to shine and instead blackened history forever."
"Urushal's son - the one who died at Magna - was King Dagar? The last great vampire king?"
"Yes, though I can't enlighten you any further on the particulars of that. I cannot see the world through your memories. My access is limited."
Aristotle wasn't tired, but this place around him was. His eyes were having trouble focusing. He took off his glasses and put them back on, but it helped very little. Soon, he had a sense, it would all be gone.
At which point, Aristotle dropped to his knees and buried his head in Qum'ra's robes. "Master."
Qum'ra put his hand on Aristotle's head. "I cannot help you any further. Your escape is out of your hands now."
"I want your help. I need you," he pleaded, finally breaking down. "I can't do this alone. I don't know how."
Qum'ra immediately knew what he was referring to. He had always known. "I may have seemed confident to a young fledgling like yourself, but I was a failed father many times over before you came along. I knew Abaish was right when he said you would be the one to survive. I denied it at the time, a preservation of my dignity, but we both knew he was right."
"Teach me about the poison."
"You must follow by example. Consider: I didn't even have that." He picked Aristotle's head up so their eyes met. "I will not say you will succeed. I wasn't for false reassurances when I was alive and death has not changed that. But I can state for a fact that you have always managed things, Aristotle."
Aristotle smiled, but only a little. "Don't leave me, Master."
"O Aristotle of Stageira," Qum'ra said, "I never have."
Alex woke slowly, and his attempts to panic at the absence of his master were stymied by a heaviness not just brought on by the retreating sun. In fact, it was long gone, and the night well- established. While his mind came alive, his body was slow to react. Even the vampire, the usual propeller out of sleep, was unresponsive. The heaviness began to evaporate only after he successfully opened the link with Ari. His master was weak, but not far away. And he was alive, if not in every sense of the word.
Relieved, he sat up, and noticed the bedding and the room were entirely unfamiliar. The air smelled different - less humid, more full of humanity and spices and pleasant but false scents. Incense were much better than chemical cleaners.
"At least one of our guests is finally awake," said a voice that could only be Felix, and Alex was not mistaken in his guess. He looked up to the British vampire entering the room, bringing with him a glass of blood. "You may not feel hungry, but you'll recover more quickly if you drink."
"Thanks," he mumbled, and after a few sips, his hunger returned with a ferocity unmatched recently, and he downed the rest of it and licked the drip lines from the outside of the glass before Felix refilled it from a mug. "Thank you," he repeated dumbly, and drained two more glasses. His head was clearing. "Where's Ari?"
"In the other room. He is much the same condition as he was in New Jersey."
"Yes, I flew from Toronto to meet your plane in New Jersey, to make sure the transfer to the commercial flight to India went smoothly. From there it was fourteen hours to Delhi. You've essentially been sleeping for two days."
He did the calculations. "Some of that must have been night."
"You were drugged. Be content with it - long flights in a cargo box, going in and out of daylight are miserable. I was awake through most of it and somewhat jealous of you, and I rode First Class."
Alex had to smile. Felix was so warm and inviting that it was his natural reaction. "So I rode in a coffin?"
"Far too conspicuous, we've found. It was more of an actual box - square shape and all. If not for your immortal condition you would be rather sore right now."
He stood to test Felix's theory, and he felt a little dizzy, but otherwise fine. "Ari."
"Yes, of course." Felix led him through a colorful living room, filled with beautiful tile and wooden furniture, and into another guest bedroom. "His condition is, as I've said, the same."
"As in New Jersey? You're fucking kidding me." Alex was horrified. Not only was Ari white as a ghost but some of his hair had fallen out. Patches of his beard were missing, leaving it uneven. "He was better in DC." He sat down next to him and kissed him on his very cold head. "Master." Alex gave it a respectful moment before taking Ari's arms down from where they were crossed over his chest and unbuttoning the new shirt low enough to check the stitches. They held, and there were only minor signs of irritation but no rejection. Ari's flesh refused to heal; without the stitches, he would have lost whatever blood he still had in his system. Alex covered him back up and said without taking his eyes off Ari, "So I'm India?"
"New Delhi, specifically. My master owns this building, though the rest of the area is mortal residential. He will return shortly from feeding." He must have sensed Alex's next question. "Vampires in India still hunt. Since Hajji doesn't drink wine, bottled blood came only after the British brought ice boxes. It's quite a different world over here. Vampirism developed differently."
"We're not going to be any trouble, are we?" Alex asked. "Marius said something about security and the Indian Community."
"Marius is paranoid. Aristotle did not receive a warm welcome on his last trip here, yes, but that was a different time and Hajji is now the third oldest vampire in Hindustan. His word holds more sway and he cleared everything with Skandagupta hours after the Enforcers contacted him. The only one above him is Abaish-katal, of course, who has proved rather difficult to contact and is far more tolerant of outsiders than most of the active members of the Community," Felix said. "I was not accepted into the Community because of my nationality until I had Abaish's blessing, which he gave without a hint of hesitation. We were all worked up over nothing, it seemed."
Felix was British. Ari said he used to be soldier - a rifleman under a young Duke of Wellington, before he earned that title. He was in India to protect England's trading interests when Hajji found him, and he was the first white vampire made in India. Aristotle implied it wasn't easy for him, and Alex didn't doubt it. "Do you know anything about Urushal?"
"The Ancient who attacked Aristotle, I was told? No, I'm afraid not. Hajji's fairly young - in comparison to Aristotle, obviously - and his master never told him much of the Ancients and took him out of the Community in Baghdad who could have told him more."
"Well, he's a smarmy prick."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Alex stroked Ari's head, but only succeeded in dislodging more hair. He drew back his hand in horror, wondering how he would explain this to Ari, who loved the hair he still had. That was assuming they got him out of this.
The windows opening upstairs signaled the return of Hajji Ashraf, and Felix excused himself to greet his master. Hajji was not long before appearing in the doorway. Alex had never seen him before, but he wasn't terribly surprised. Hajji was Arab, so his skin was darker, but perhaps not to his Indian counterparts. He was dressed in a very modern business suit, all dark colors, and clean-shaven. The only sign of his religious devotion were prayer beads on the same wrist as his expensive watch. Alex rose to greet him, and Hajji paused and looked at Aristotle, then back at Alex. "Alexander. I would prefer our meeting to be under better circumstances." His accent was entirely Indian, nothing like his son's soft English tones.
Alex remembered the cardinal rule, not to shake hands unless someone else initiated, and Hajji smiled warmly but did not. "I can see you are tired from the plane. What's the mortal term for it?"
"Jetlagged," Felix answered before Alex could.
"The Enforcers drugged me," Alex grumbled. He really wasn't fond of being drugged by Enforcers.
"Were they at least good drugs?"
"Uh, no." Alex had to smile. "Thank you for taking us in. Ari insisted on seeing Abaish-katal -"
"No easy request, I assure you."
" - and we didn't have anyone else to go to."
Hajji waved it off. "I would not say I am good friends with Aristotle, not after the way he was treated last time he was here that I was not able to prevent, but I prefer to at least think of us as good acquaintances, if Aristotle does not hold grudges. He doesn't seem the type."
Hajji sighed when looking at Aristotle. "I knew him when I was mortal, you know."
"Really? He never mentioned it." He added, "But that's not the sort of thing he would talk about." It was impolite to inquire after someone's mortal life, though it happened anyway.
"He was a visiting scholar - a mathematician - at the House of Wisdom and the caliph's court, where I was a qari - a reader of the Qur'an. It must have been very early in my career, because I was not yet writing poetry, and I remember him because he was white and looked bizarre in local clothing. He wasn't known as Aristotle, of course, not while the scholars were busy translating Aristotle's work into Arabic. In fact, I entirely forget the name he used. I saw him more often than spoke to him, and then we went our separate ways. My master told me decades later that this person I had encountered was an Ancient vampire. When we met in Kabul I was quite embarrassed." His tone became serious again. "When he was here last, in 1905, he was badly mistreated by the Community. He was my guest and I should have protected him, but I underestimated the length others would go to rid us of another white influence, even one to came here to help us. Anything I can do to help him now is just beginning to undo that injustice."
"Aristotle got in an altercation with a member of the Community who tried to assassinate him. How it was resolved is something Aristotle has made both of us swear never to reveal. He has not identified you as the exception to the rule even though I imagine you are, so I am afraid I cannot help you."
Alex didn't have to guess for long before arriving at a satisfactory answer: Aristotle poisoned someone, probably in self-defense. Hajji and Felix must have seen it or known about it. But they wouldn't admit to that and Alex wouldn't ask them to. Instead he said, "Ari's last words were to insist I take him to Abaish-katal - or at least deliver a message about Urushal."
"You understand Abaish-katal has not been seen since the 1830's. All attempts to contact him have been for naught. He let all of his thralls go in the 40's. I opened channels to reach him when you arrived but I am not that hopeful."
"Ari said something about a golden palace. Something Urushal told him about Abaish-katal. It had a moat - and mortals."
Hajji looked at him very intensely. "He specifically said 'golden.'"
"Yes. Golden palace. But there must be dozens -"
"No, most of our temples have been looted by different invaders. He must mean the Golden Temple of Amritsar. It's a functioning holy site so there are hundreds of mortals there day and night, and it has a pool surrounding it on three sides. The Pool of Nectar, they call it. Sikhs bathe in the spring water for their health."
It couldn't be that easy. "But - it's a holy site?"
"Indian vampires have an unusual level of tolerance for holy sites," Felix explained. "After all, we have so many. People make them at gas stations off the highway. But Abaish-katal is different."
Hajji nodded, super-focused now. "Abaish uses holy sites to hide from intrusive vampires. How he does it, I have no idea. Five millennia to build up a tolerance, I suppose. When I first met him, it was in a Buddhist Temple in Bodh Gaya. An extremely painful experience."
"The information might be out-of-date. Urushal probably hasn't spoken to Abaish-katal in thousands of years."
"Darbar Sahib isn't that old," Hajji said. "Not even five hundred years since they broke ground. Sikhism isn't much older. The information cannot be that stale. A good lead - if I can manage to get close enough to the temple grounds without my feet burning off."
"I'll go," Alex said. "You don't have to."
Hajji smiled. "Ah, a passionate young fledgling, ignoring logistics and common sense in devotion to his master. I commend it but I don't in this case encourage it." He did a brief sideways glance to his own son.
Feliks said calmly, "It's the holiest spot in the Sikh religion. The Temple itself, which is plated with gold, is surrounded by a pool of water that to us is like Christian holy water. And that is surrounded by a marble walkway full of penitents carrying holy items. The prayer rooms are open day and night. Even when they close the temple itself for a few hours in the dead of night, it's open to mortal men to clean it, so it's never truly closed."
"And let's not forget the singers on the loudspeaker, reading from their holy book 24/7," Hajji said. "They take hourly shifts, so the singing never stops."
"It's too well-lit to fly in, even if you weren't seen. And if you got weak and fell into the water, you would probably burn to death," Felix added. "If Aristotle's life wasn't on the line, it would not be given any consideration."
"But Aristotle's life is on the line," Alex said. "Am I supposed to sit here and pull my hair out? I'm not doing anything for him."
Felix was about to say something, but Hajji raised a hand to stop him. "If he wants to go, he's welcome to try. I suspect he won't stop putting up a fuss unless we let him anyway." He turned back to Alex. "The flight to Amritsar is about an hour, more because we'll be traveling by private plane. If I can manage a plane we can be there well before sunrise. The city beyond the temple is not unbearably holy, but it may be as far as you go. Aristotle will not be very grateful for my hospitality if I get his son killed."
"I can behave myself," Alex insisted, antsy now at just standing around and talking when there was something he could be doing.
"Very well. Felix, please make the arrangements." Hajji nodded and left, and Felix excused himself to make calls, leaving Alex with his master. He returned briefly to his room to collect the computer bag packed and shipped with him by the Enforcers, and some other assorted items. It occurred to him that he probably looked and smelled bad, as the word "crate" was used to describe his flight accommodations, but he was reluctant to leave Ari. It was silly, really, because now he would be leaving him for a day, probably more. The link between them was steady but weak, and distance would only make it weaker.
"I warned you," he said. "Not well, but I guess I did." When his master did not offer a response, he left for the shower, which worked. Mortal plumbing was not always reliable in a vampire's home, but Hajji's home seemed to be nothing if not luxurious. Then again this was a man who probably lived in palaces for most of his existence, and now had to be content with cinderblock apartments. Feeling closer to himself again, Alex emerged, clothed but with his hair wrapped in a towel, to jump at the sight of a woman standing right in front of him. "Excuse me."
"You're Aristotle's son," she said. She was clearly Indian, but modernly dressed except for a silk scarf around her neck. "I'm Latika. Hajji is my father."
If he was less embarrassed he might have guessed that. "Hi. Alex." He didn't want to offer his hand so he gave a little, pathetic sort of wave and took the towel off his head. "I didn't know you were here."
"Papa called me for a ride to the airport. As if he can't drive himself." She rolled her eyes, but the tone was affectionate. "Felix would do it, but he has to stay with your master while you're gone, I understand?" The door to Ari's room was shut and she did not inquire about it. "You don't have to be nervous around me. Papa should have introduced me, of course, but his mind is always in a million places and he doesn't stand on ceremony when he doesn't have to."
"I heard that!" Hajji shouted from the stairs. He came down from the top floor, buttoning his Indian-style long shirt that looked more to Alex like a nightgown. He stopped to kiss his daughter on the cheek. "I am very busy, you know. An ancient and powerful vampire has things on his schedule."
"Oh, Papa, are you missing your soap operas?" She was shorter than him, but still able to pat him on the cheek. "Just buy the damn DVR or whatever it's called."
Hajji didn't look the least bit perturbed except to glance at Alex and said, "Daughters. My son is very obedient."
"For the two weeks a year he may be in India, I'm sure he is. The rest of the time, we have to put up with you." She smiled and went for the refrigerator as Felix came down, still sorting the papers in his hands.
"How many daughters do you have?" Normally it was a question Alex wouldn't ask, but it seemed appropriate. It hadn't even occurred to him that Hajji would have other children.
"Six. Six. What was I thinking?"
"That you may need a ride somewhere someday," Felix answered, his voice otherwise completely serious as he handed Hajji a folder. "I booked a hotel for you - the Ritz Plaza, which is far enough away from the temple but you can see it from the rooftop. And it has roof access. Two rooms for three nights, but they're not very busy if you need to extend. Also there's a pool."
"Felix, this is not a pleasure trip."
"I thought I'd mention it." He must have seen his sister before because there was no formal note of her arrival. "If you need a driver in Amritsar, I can get one for you, but you are in flying distance of the Temple and there are taxicabs everywhere. If you need Fatima - "
"Yes, I know, she's in Kashmir, organizing a wedding. I mostly know where my own children are, if they don't run wild on me and move to Chicago of all places."
Hajji smiled and kissed his son on the forehead. "I am capable of managing around India myself. Though rides are occasionally preferred," he said in respect to Latika. "I would say not to worry, but I don't care for giving impossible commands. We will be fine."
Alex checked on Ari a final time, but his master hadn't changed, for better or worse. "How far is Amritsar?"
"Not far. Six hours by train. You'll feel as though he's a few states away," Felix said. "I'll be here the whole time."
Alex stroked Ari's cheek, taking a little white hair with him. "He's gonna be so pissed about his hair."
"Yes, he is rather sensitive in that regard."
"Are you going to tell me he's going to be all right?"
"No," Felix said, "I'm sure you've heard that enough."
Latika drove them to the private airport for dignitaries, talking to her father most of the way in Hindi or Punjabi or some dialect Alex wouldn't be able to begin to guess at. Arabic he would recognize, but not understand. Even at night the Indian roads were hard to navigate, with drivers just as crazy as she seemed to be, and people driving motorcycles across incoming traffic to get where they were going. Alex was a mighty vampire but he still held onto the handlebar until they reached the airport, where a plane was waiting for them. Alex was not entirely surprised to discover his passport had an Indian visa, the kind that could take weeks to apply for; Felix was an amazing back-up to Ari.
There were about ten passenger seats on the plane, but they were the only passengers. "A bad introduction to India, I know," Hajji said, taking the seat across from him. "Maybe we will find Abaish, and Aristotle will recover, and by then I think you may be sick of this place."
"I like it," Alex said, not lying. "It smells better."
"It smells human, you mean. I was in Canada once - didn't care for it. But Feliks is happy there so I will not discourage him," Hajji said. "Did your master teach you to hunt?"
Not sure why he was being asked, Alex could not escape answering. "Yes. But I'm rusty."
"They don't let us hunt much in the West, do they? I heard some children aren't even trained." Hajji paused but Alex would not speak for his friends, who only had a few kills each. "I cannot arrange bottled blood on such short notice for Amritsar, which has no vampires."
"Yes, hopefully. But the temple will make you weak and you will need to feed. The poor lighting and slums don't make it hard, even if you are rather distinctive-looking."
"Indian vampires don't use wine to preserve blood?"
"The Muslim ones don't," Hajji said. "And India has been ruled by Muslims for most of the past 800 years. It's not impossible to get blood wine, but I don't keep it in the house unless I have notice. In Amritsar, you will have to fend for yourself. Or I can enthrall someone for you, but I suspect you would like that less."
The very idea of feeding from a hypnotized person was for some reason disgusting to him. "I'll manage."
"You're very brave." Hajji waved off the drink offerings from the one attendant, who didn't know any better or speak English. "Do you know the first white person to see India? I suppose you probably do."
"It was probably like, some scout in the army, if you want to be technical. But yeah, Alexander the Great. He crossed the Hindu Kush and made it to the Indus River, then he returned around because his army threatened to mutiny."
"We are very close to the Indus River now. Perhaps we've flown over it. Amritsar didn't exist two thousand years ago even as a bump in the road, but he is said to have built many cities in the area of the Punjab, along the border with what is now Pakistan." He shrugged. "This may not interest you at all. You may be entirely frustrated with the reference, but I thought I would mention it."
"It's unavoidable," Alex said. "I don't really mind it at this point. I know Aristotle didn't pick me for my name. I don't think he's ever even called me Alexander. He doesn't introduce me that way. Everyone just ... does it."
"When you're a vampire, your first name is very important, because it's the one you keep. My real last name is quite long and pretentious. Ashraf just means I'm a descent of the Prophet, which I am, so it was convenient. I've never heard of one of us call me 'Mr. Ashraf.' So perhaps they are just being formal with you."
"I get that." Alex was trying to take his mind off his master, but of course it wasn't working. "I could have changed my name, I guess, to avoid all the jokes, but I didn't want to and Ari didn't encourage it. He did take a lot of flack in the beginning though. And Lucius keeps making obscure comments about my 'potential.'"
Hajji smiled. "I know Lucius. He was a friend of my master. He does that - gets under your skin. Or he did when I last saw him in the 1300's, and it sounds like he hasn't changed. He doesn't seem like the type to change very much, though very few of us do. When I saw Aristotle in New York, he seemed the same to me as he had been when I first met him, though he has a bit more on his mind these days." And to Alex's expression he said, "He has been under stress because he has the unfortunate trait of being useful for a century at least. You are not entirely the cause."
"He's tried to quit his job, take vacations. It never works."
"I know. Mostly because Feliks is particularly stressed during these periods and my phone bill skyrockets."
Hajji shrugged. "He wouldn't do it if he didn't like Aristotle, and they are good friends. They have very similar natures in how they organize their lives. And they both make themselves far too useful to the Community. But it passes the time. You have to have an interesting life to spend an eternity living it. Feliks is a barrister and an accountant. I made a ton of children to drive myself crazy. I think, in the end, his plan makes more sense."
Alex wasn't old enough to make a call on that. Really, he'd given very little thought to what he would do with his time when his hundred years with Ari were up, and now he couldn't focus on much besides his current, very weak link. It was steady but growing weaker, and it put his stomach in knots, as if he was physically tied to his master's body back in Delhi.
The plane ride was not much longer. The real slow-down came on the drive to the hotel, as Hajji didn't know where it was and couldn't fly there. Even at that hour of night, traffic was still erratic and the roads poor.
Hajji didn't try to take Alex's mind off the subject, a worthless endeavor. "Aristotle intended to come up here when he was in India last, but he went straight to work first trying to help the Community with British paperwork and left rather immediately after the fight, going east. He mentioned it to me when he was staying at my palace in Rajastan. I asked if he had been before, and he said only maybe, he couldn't remember the route he took to get to what is now Delhi when he was a fledgling. And of course it looks different now. He didn't need to give his reason. I know who he is. My master told me."
The mortal Aristotle only knew of India as some place beyond the end of the world, and relied on the descriptions of the returning Macedonian soldiers and whatever King Alexander wrote to him from the battlefield. And, of course, his elephant. Alexander was still a subject Ari avoided. Maybe Urushal was right in at least one respect, that some things were too dear to Ari for even himself to fully comprehend, or want to. Alexander was one of them. Plato was the other.
The city was as described - mostly slums, or ugly brick buildings with signs for soft drinks or political candidates. There was an excessive number of motorcycles on the road, perhaps even more than in Delhi if that was possible. The neighborhood changed a little as the taxi approached the hotel. Check-in was swift. Felix had booked rooms for them on the top floor, next to the stairs to the roof.
The night was waning, and Alex knew it. He went up to the roof with Hajji, and in the distance they could see the gold and marble spires of the domes surrounding the temple area, and hear the chanting of the man reading from the holy book of the Sikhs.
"I forgot to ask if I should wear something special," Alex said.
"Everyone your age wears jeans now. They give you a bandana to cover your head and you'll look like everyone else."
"Except for my skin."
"Yes - a minor inconvenience. Nothing like the real problems of entering a holy complex. Prepare yourself for the notion that you might have to turn back." He added, "It is the perfect hiding place for a vampire."
"I have to try. Ari wanted me to tell Abaish-katal about Urushal. It was his last request before he went into torpor."
"I assume what Aristotle actually said to say does not concern me."
"It's hard to explain anyway."
Hajji did not ask any further questions. "We'll hunt tomorrow night, first thing, then go, unless I hear from my normal lines of inquiry about Abaish. Get some rest."
"But I just spent two days sleeping."
"And you're tired," Hajji said, and wasn't wrong.
Sleep was not as refreshing as it should have been. Alex woke alone, and to worry and hunger, neither of which he could immediately relieve. The link to Ari remained the same - far too distant and far too weak a signal, but alive. Ari was still alive.
Hajji was awake, of course. He threw him a black jacket. "For hunting. You must be hungry."
He couldn't deny that he was, or that the vampire wasn't clawing at his consciousness for sustenance to an agonizing level, but he hadn't killed in ... since before Guatemala. The beach patroller in California was his last kill.
Hajji didn't slow down for him, not when they were both so hungry, as they flew from rooftop to rooftop. "Go for a man. They don't scream as loudly and they're less likely to be anemic." He gave him a look that said, Do you need help?
"I'll be fine," Alex said, and knowing Hajji was watching him, leapt into an alleyway and let the vampire surface. It was crowded with nighttime shoppers and pilgrims, and he could smell the unwashed and the washed, the men with messy beards and those who cleaned them with shampoo, the women who were menstruating and those who were not.
The hunter was not gone, or even rusty. That part of the vampire came to life without any prodding, and he did not pick off the first person he saw in a frenzy. He wanted to hunt, to luxuriate in the chase even if the person didn't know they were being chased. When he found a system of alleyways that were dark and quiet enough to serve, he perched in a corner and waited.
There were appetizing females but he took Hajji's advice, and waited for someone fat and juicy and male, and unfortunate to head in a darkened direction. Alex became oblivious to everything else but the things he would need to hunt - touch, smell, hearing. The man looked behind him, but Alex was already up on a rafter, out of sight. Still, he could smell the growing fear, the sense that something wasn't right.
Alex didn't draw it out. He was too hungry. He did follow and finally chase for a few turns before jumping him in an abandoned corner, pushing him behind a fallen Fanta orange soda billboard and biting down before the scream could escape his throat.
How had he possibly gone so long, denying himself this bliss? His overworked senses had very little time for theoretical questions as he pulled back, and kept the now-bloodless body from falling and making a sound. There were no dumpsters, so he deposited the body on the roof of an abandoned building and covered it with a flag. Out of sight it might go unnoticed for several days.
By now he'd lost most of his sense of direction, but the temple centered him, like a dark tower watching him in the distance, taunting him with its holiness. He flew a bit closer to it, and Hajji landed beside him, shedding his coat. He was now wearing a turban. "I assume it went well?"
"Ari would say, 'Kids today don't know what they're missing.'"
Hajji chuckled and turned to the temple complex. "The main entrance is by the clock tower. You have to take off your shoes, so your feet won't be protected from holy water, but the water people wash their feet in before entering isn't holy. Or, I don't think so. Inside, there's a marble walkway surrounding the Pool of Nectar and the Temple in the center with a walkway leading to it. People always walk clockwise around holy sites, though you can go the other way if you have to. And you may have to."
"How do we contact Abaish-katal, if he is in there? Call his name?"
"Abaish-katal can drain by proximity. He didn't need contact. One of us has to get close enough to the temple itself that he can draw our blood. It will be me if it's either of us." He added, "Shouting may also work. If he's here, he definitely knows two vampires are here. He may not know why."
"So he just ... psychically steals blood from people?"
"In a fashion. That's how he feeds. He only needs a high population density to take a little from everyone. Also it's hot and people don't notice when they get weak."
"What does he look like?" It hadn't occurred to Alex to ask before.
"He has a beard that's mostly gray, but there's some black in it. His skin color is similar to mine, perhaps a little darker. He dresses very modestly, long sleeves and a long jacket and a turban."
"So that doesn't narrow it down, really."
"No. Trust me - if you are in the presence of Abaish-katal, you will know it. Unless he doesn't want you to know. Then he might be right in front of you and you'll miss him entirely." Hajji was ticking off his prayer beads in his hand unconsciously. They were also known as 'worry beads' so that was probably why. "If you panic, try not to fly out. And if you fly, for the love of G-d, don't fly over the water. If you fall in I cannot get you." He focused on Alex. "Tell me if you have to leave. I'll take you out and go back in. Don't be ashamed. I've been around holy sites all my life and I'm not sure I'm going to make it inside the temple itself."
"I'm serious about this, Alex."
"I'm not going to talk you out of it, am I?"
Hajji shook his head. "Then let's go."
They descended to the street and began the walk to the temple, past shops selling religious paraphernalia and souvenirs. The white clock tower stood mocking them in the distance, daring them to come closer. They stopped to put their shoes with a deposit station and Alex got a bright orange handkerchief that read 'Golden Temple Amritsar' in bold letters on it, announcing his tourist status if it wasn't made too obvious by the color of his skin. Aside from a couple taking photographs, he was the only white person in sight.
As they ascended the steps to the entranceway after dipping their feet in a watery groove to clean them, Hajji grabbed him by the arm and held him. As the Golden Temple proper came into view through the gate, Alex was hit with a wave of dizziness Hajji was expecting, and needed the help standing. "I'm okay," he said, even though he wasn't, as they paused near the entrance. The singer reading lyrically from the Sikh holy book was ringing in his ears, and the soles of his feet tingled. But the first wave passed and he could balance himself again. "I'm okay." It would have been useless to buy earplugs - his hearing was too good. "That goes on all night?"
"Yes. This way."
The Golden Temple, a marble building with gold plating, was in the middle of the man-made lake, which men were indeed dipping into as if it was a swimming pool. There was one walkway, with golden handrails and a stream of pilgrims going in and out in a clockwise procession. As they rounded the corner, heading in the direction of the walkway, the ringing in Alex's ears became more of a sharp pain, blinding him. "Stop!"
"You want to leave?"
"No. I want to stop." He pulled free from Hajji's grasp, which wasn't quite as strong at the moment, and ducked into the archway, giving him an extra few feet of distance from the pool and the temple, and covered both his ears. "I'm okay," he said, mostly to himself. "I'm okay." It was the lie he needed to hear at the moment, to will himself out of this. The vampire was afraid of holy places, and he was not here because he was a vampire. He was here because Ari sent him here. Ari needed his help. Alex looked up at the temple, but his eyes wouldn't focus. "Go."
"You can stay here?"
He nodded furiously. "Just fucking go."
Alex had no link to Hajji, and he was too distracted to notice if he was gone. He just knew he was alone, without Ari, and he was in pain. Someone said something to him, and he looked up to a ritual guard wearing a bright orange gown, white pants, and a deep blue turban. He carried a spear, but not in a way that looked like he would ever use it.
"I'm okay," he said. "I don't speak Punjabi."
"Water?" The guard pointed to one of the corner stations offering free water to all pilgrims.
"No. No, just quiet." He laid down, up against the wall. Marble was such a soft stone. He curled into a ball, his head between his knees, the voice on the loudspeaker like a hammer being bashed into his skull. His eyes couldn't close any further, but he tried anyway, to block out every one of his senses that he could. He tried to keep the vampire down, and ended up biting his knee, drawing his own tasteless blood. He couldn't drain himself, but it gave the vampire something to do other than attack everyone in sight, if he could even stand up.
I'm sorry, Ari. I tried. I tried so hard to help you, he pleaded in his mind. I'm too weak. I'm not Alexander. And I am so, so sorry.
He was being dragged. He should have put up a fight, but it would have involved getting out of his fetal position and trying not to show his fangs, and he wasn't sure that was possible. They could dump him in the holy water for all he cared, anything to spare him another moment of this.
And like any throbbing pain, he became accustomed to it - never fully beyond it, but accepting it as part of his existence. He wouldn't have noticed anything at all if someone hadn't sat down beside him and leaned against a supporting pillar. "How did you get here?"
Alex opened his eyes to Hajji and did not recognize his surroundings. They were inside some building with wide-open entrances leading down to the main complex, a good hundred feet from the water's edge. Hajji was burned - on his feet but also on his face, which in this atmosphere was not healing as normal. "Someone flicked blessed water on me. I almost went right over the railing." His hands were burned, too. "Inside is not very large, and filled with people reading holy books. You wouldn't enjoy it."
"Where are we?"
"Akal Takht - a building of temporal authority of the Sikh gurus, or something like that. I only know it because there was a standoff here between the government and Sikh radicals in 1984. See? You can still see the damage." But it hurt Alex too much to look in the direction Hajji was pointing. His body ached. "You ran here?"
"Someone dragged me. Must have thought I was ill."
"They weren't wrong," Hajji said. "You look terrible."
"I'm aware, I assure you."
Alex decided he'd been sitting up for too long, and put his head back on the stone. "No Abaish-katal."
"Maybe, maybe not. He doesn't appear right away. You have to put in a request, and wait a little while. He might have sensed me. I certainly screamed his name enough, when I panicked in the sacred chamber." He looked down at Alex. "I'm not sure I can fly."
"I'm not sure I can walk."
"The only way out is the way we came. Perhaps getting away will provide some motivation?"
Alex tried to stand, but fell into Hajji, who put Alex's arm over his shoulder as they started the unbearably slow and long walk back to the clock tower entrance. The pain of being closer to the temple became real again along the walkway, but now there was the promise of a better future, outside the compound's walls, and that was the only thing that spurred them on. The steps up to the passageway out were downright painful, like climbing Everest, and it was just as difficult not to stumble down the other side. Somewhere between the shoe stand and a shop selling miniature versions of the temple and framed pictures of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, Alex collapsed into dry heaves, and Hajji was not far behind. His burns were healing and his face already looked better, but that was not to see his agony wasn't obvious on his face. "I can still hear that fucking singer."
"We need to get our shoes."
"Do you think they'll let us crawl to the shoe stand?"
Hajji inadvertently broke out laughing, and Alex followed. From there they retrieved their shoes and hailed an auto-rickshaw, had him drive to the empty fields, and ate him, then the itinerant farmer's wife who came to investigate. If there had been anyone else, they might have just kept feeding, trying to dull the pain and frustration with blood. Blood made everything better. Blood let them fly again, away from the carnage. They came to rest at a water tower on a government building, their senses on overload. Neither of them spoke for quite awhile. There were night animals, and in the distance vehicles carrying human heartbeats, but otherwise there were no sounds. It was wonderful.
"I really had my money on you running out - or I would have, if my religion permitted gambling."
"Thanks," Alex said. "I appreciate the confidence."
"Aristotle made you out of steel. Has anyone ever told you that?"
"People have said something to that effect. Enforcers, actually."
"Enforcers? Aristotle must be so proud."
"Yeah, if he was conscious."
They laughed instead of being bummed because everything felt great in comparison to an hour earlier. They still hurt, but their bodies were just overtired. There was no use in attempting anything else that night. When they returned to the hotel, Alex couldn't believe how early the clock said it was. He felt as though he had spent a lifetime in that complex. The hotel provided him with a complimentary postcard of the Golden Temple in daylight, but just looking at it gave him shivers.
Hajji was on the phone to Feliks in his own room. Alex, without a working cell phone, asked to speak. "How's Ari?"
"Very much the same," Feliks said. "At this point I take it to be a good sign."
"Is he healing?"
"No, but he hasn't rejected the stitches."
"Can you say goodnight to him for me?"
Feliks always called him that, but Alex wasn't annoyed. It had a sort of affectionate flavor to it, especially with his British accent. Alex gave the phone back. "Thank you."
"Abaish-katal moves slowly. You know that."
Alex nodded, but he didn't feel like being reassured anymore. He returned to his own room and stared vacantly at the television's Hindi-language dramas for the remaining hours until sunrise.
The hotel sent up a second complimentary fruit basket for each of them, perhaps concerned that they were taking advantage of the hotel's delightful cuisine. Alex's knowledge of Indian food extended to the take-up place near campus in New Haven, and Hajji, despite having lived in the country for over a thousand years, merely said, "I've never eaten it." Instead they left it with some beggars not far from the hotel. Amritsar was alive again, the temple taunting them in the distance. There was no thought of going back, not tonight, so soon after so much trauma. The vampire could only take so much.
Alex was buying a miniature version of the Golden Temple that lit up but required a European outlet to do so when Hajji answered his ringing phone, and stepped out of the shop to speak in some Indian language. He was gone only for a minute before running back in. "Abaish-katal is in Delhi."
"My apartment. He arrived about an hour after sundown." He put his ear back to the phone. "Feliks says he doesn't know how to use the phone. He's also ... what? Yes, he's dressed like a Sikh temple guard. Thank you." He hung up on Feliks. "The plane will be ready in twenty minutes."
It took them that long to check out of the hotel and get to the airport. Alex had no patience for the customs officials, and barely managed to get out his passport. He only had his carry-on, and the box with the Temple miniature. He thought he would be more settled once they were in the air, but he was wrong. "How did he get there?"
"I imagine he flew. He must have stopped somewhere for the day, and finished the journey at dusk. That was really fucking fast." Hajji was overwhelmed in his own way. "He really cares for your master."
"Well in a way, this situation is sorta his fault." Alex wouldn't take any questions about that, and Hajji wouldn't ask them. "Did he say anything? Does he speak English?"
"No. Feliks called rather immediately. And he's certainly heard English, living in such a populous pilgrimage site, but he may never have actually spoken it. If Abaish-katal has been drinking from pilgrims for two hundred years, he may not be as lost as one would imagine a hermit to be in the modern world. He may have the technical knowledge, but now how to apply it. Memories can be confusing. I would say, I've had more contact with him than most vampires alive today because of my age and all the children I had to present to him, and he never seemed lost. You could discuss anything with him." Hajji smiled. "Perhaps if I could stand it, the Golden Temple would not be a bad place to live."
"What can Abaish-katal do for Aristotle?"
"This was your idea, kid. I have no idea what he can do, if anything."
It wasn't very relieving, but it was true. Alex couldn't fault him for that. The next hour in the air was spent in agony, and there was some ordinary, mortal chauffeur to get them around New Delhi. Hajji actually said he would tip him based on how many speed laws he was able to break, and the mortal did his best.
The apartment complex was in a gated community, so they were dropped at the entrance, and had to walk past Hajji's mortal neighbors in a brisk but ordinary way. "Now when you see Abaish-katal," Hajji said, stopping him on the steps to the doorway, "you bow three times. And I mean on the floor. Forehead touches the ground. If he taps you on the head, it's a sign that he acknowledges and respects you. If he doesn't ... well, he doesn't always do that. Even ancients get tired of ceremony."
Hajji had a keypad lock, and they entered the bottom floor, only to be greeted by Feliks. "Master." He did not hesitate to run to him and Hajji embraced him. "He's not here. He's gone out."
Alex felt his heart lighten a little - maybe he was nervous about meeting this guy and concern for Ari couldn't totally override that. "Where?"
"He looked at Aristotle, he pried open some of the stitches and I showed him how to use a flashlight, and he said he needed directions to a medical school. A good one. I tried to convince him to wait for you, or at least change, but he insisted."
"He didn't know how to use a flashlight?"
"He tried out the phone, but couldn't dial anything. So I thought I would call instead. He knew what it was, even said he recognized the brand name as being Japanese, but obviously he'd never actually held or used one. The light switches and remotes he got very quickly, I think."
Alex went up a flight to the guest rooms and Ari. "Master." But there was no response from this master. His shift was opened, and medical tape over his heart area. That was where some stitches were pulled, leaving behind holes that refused to close. Most of his hair was gone, or more accurately on the pillow, and it make him look startling old.
"How's his English?" Hajji was saying as the others came upstairs.
"Not great, but not terrible. I spoke to him in English a little when I first met him, but that was more of a curiosity. Now he says half the words people speak are English. Telephone. Electricity. Prime Minister. He's used to them."
Alex turned away from Ari to focus a bit more on their conversation. The situation was a little beyond him.
"How's his mood?"
"He is very concerned about Aristotle. He knew everything that happened in DC, or so he said, with Urushal. He must have drained one of you. He wasn't positive or negative about Aristotle's condition, but acted quickly. He must have some kind of plan, to have such specific requests."
"Is there anything we can do for Aristotle now?"
"No. Nothing. Not yet, he said." Feliks' eyes darted to Alex, acknowledging he was there to hear him. "He's very good at hiding his presence - took me completely by surprise. If I had never seen him before I would have never have recognized him. Even as a vampire."
"Did you tell anyone about his arrival?"
"Not even your sisters?"
"Why do you think I had a mortal pick you up?"
Hajji kissed him. "Good boy."
Hajji went about making sure that the accommodations provided for Abaish-katal were suitable, which involved quizzing Feliks on a number of different purchases. While they obsessed over the furniture, Alex took blood from the fridge to calm himself and returned to Ari's side. "Hey. I visited a Sikh holy site. I even bought a replica of it. It lights up. I don't think it's real gold, though. I think he ripped me off."
Ari's hand was cold, his fingernails white from lack of blood.
"You would have appreciated it more, I think. I did get a postcard. I'll show it off when I'm not stressed out." He squeezed his master's hand. "Me, stressed out. Like that's such a big deal in comparison to you." Alex frowned. "It's bad, isn't it? That Abaish-katal raced here? Everyone's acting like he moved mountains for you and he hasn't even done anything yet. He hasn't fixed you. He's off ... I don't know, draining med students. He didn't say he could do anything for you. Well, he had fucking better. This is his fault. You shouldn't have to be part of some ancient feud between two vampires with nothing better to do."
"You are right, of course."
Alex looked up, and said the first thing that came to his mind. "You're the temple guard. The one who approached me."
"Yes." He was certainly dressed like it, in a long orange shirt that went down to his knees and a blue turban. His beard was mostly gray, but not entirely. However old he was, his body wasn't as old as Ari's. "And carried you to Akal Takht."
Alex's eyes widen. All of his vampiric senses, which hadn't even noticed the entrance of this person, were kicking in. "Oh shit," he said under his breath, though the guard could hear it perfectly well, and he literally fell over trying to reach the ground, taking the chair with him. He wasn't sure how far up he was supposed to sit between bows, but Abaish-katal touched him on the head.
"You're not at fault." His English was surprisingly fluent yet barely understandable, with a heavy mixed accent from nowhere. It was as if he was pronouncing words he'd only heard for years for the first time, and he probably was. "If I wanted you to know I was here I would have let you know." He had only the faintest vampiric aura, little more than nothing. "If I present myself properly every vampire in Delhi will sense me and come begging for something or other."
"Which is sort of what I'm doing."
"No. They want power for themselves. You want me to heal your master. Is different." Abaish spoke as if he was very sure of his words, but his tone wasn't commanding at all. "If Aristotle wakes this time I will tell him what he is missing, and tell Urushal if he touches him again, I will kill him myself."
"Of course. He is my nephew - old and hard to kill, if Aristotle was even trying. I don't think he was." He put a hand on Aristotle's chest. "I tried to draw from your master before, but his blood has gone bad."
"He won't take any new blood. It's because of his heart, isn't it?"
"The heart is the one organ a vampire cannot live without. The head is also important, but if damaged, it will repair itself. The fresh blood to provide for that healing will come, of course, through the heart." His pronunciation was actually kind of funny, but Alex held back his laughter. "Aristotle's heart is not salvageable. The only solution is a heart transplant, which I'm told is now possible."
"Wouldn't he reject a human heart?" And it went without saying that a vampire heart, when pulled from its owner, would turn to dust like all other body parts disconnected from the vampire.
"Yes, this is a problem. The only solution is to try to turn the heart on the table." He was looking for the world. "Operating table. With vampire blood in the heart."
"Can you ... perform open-heart surgery?" Alex didn't expect the answer to be so mundane.
"I can learn all there is to know about it, but knowing and doing are different things. I will need real surgeons. Enthralled mortals. They say the National Heart Institute is the best. I don't know if this is true yet." He looked away from Aristotle, and now he was not a nice old man. His stare was very penetrating. "Your master could die on the table. He could reject the heart after we've disconnected the old one. But if we do nothing, he will remain in this state for eternity. Do you want to do this?"
"Why are you asking me?"
"You have the most to lose. Your sanity. Possibly your life."
Alex didn't hesitate. "We should do it. For Aristotle. He wouldn't want to stay eternity like this."
Abaish nodded in approval. "I require more research. I will return tomorrow night." He opened the window, and Alex blinked and he was gone, as if he'd never been there.
Alex picked up his glass, only to find it empty and his hands shaking. He went to the kitchen, and Feliks came down the stairs. "What happened to you?"
"... He was here?"
"I guess he didn't ... feel the need to tell you?" Alex was assaulted, at least verbally, but an unnerved Felix and livid Hajji, who had yet to see Abaish. Alex repeated the conversation, which was followed by questions he couldn't answer.
"Years of guarding a holy site and he thinks he could be a doctor?" Hajji said. "And he wants to take Aristotle to a hospital?"
"That's what he said."
"Is he just leaving the logistics of this up to us?"
Alex shrugged. "Look, I really don't know. I spoke to him for maybe five minutes. He seemed to have a plan."
"He spoke to you in English?"
"It was funny to hear someone pronouncing words for the first time, but yes, he did. I was really impressed."
While Hajji was too worked to say much of anything in English, mumbling instead in an angry Arabic, Feliks remained calm. "This has never been done before, but that doesn't mean it won't work."
"There will be some logistical problems."
"He undoubtedly plans to plow through them, and I don't doubt that he can. Until I explain what a camera is."
Hajji got his formal greeting and opportunity to welcome Abaish-katal into his home the following night, when the Ancient returned with a stack of medical tomes in both English and Hindi. He had discarded his ritual robes and wore a plain blue shirt and ill-fitting pants, but kept the Sikh turban. He looked like any ordinary Indian, if a rather pale one in comparison, and that made Hajji and Feliks bowing look a bit more ridiculous than it already did. He excused them from it. He said he did not need to check on Aristotle. He knew nothing had changed.
"Sir Ganga Ram Hospital has the best cardiac surgeon in India," he said. "I just need to convince him to work nights."
"And convince him to operate on a vampire."
Abaish looked unconcerned. "I am always convincing people about the existence of or non-existence of vampires. This to me is very simple compared to everything else." His English was much better, though his accent was still heavy, an Indian-mystery mix. He turned to Feliks. "I need scrubs and IDs for Sir Ganga Ram for all of us, and I'm going to need a lot of blood for Aristotle. The hospital supplies may run dry if he consumes blood at the rate I suspect he will. New hearts beat faster." He pointed a pen at Hajji. "I'm going to need a fresh heart. No, two of them, to be safe. Take from a man who looks healthy."
"A few hours old, at most. You can get the cooler from the hospital."
There was some hesitation on Hajji's face, even if there was none in his words. Alex understood once he realized the request to tear a still-beating heart out of a mortal, something quite brutal for a vampire, especially if it wasn't to feed. "When?"
"I need time to enthrall all the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff we will need for this. So he should go in tonight, and operate tomorrow night, or a day later."
Trying not to sound like he was questioning Abaish's wisdom, Hajji cautiously said, "You don't think you need more time to plan this?"
"I can't risk us delaying it arbitrarily leading to a rejection of the new heart. Aristotle's blood is deteriorating, though not enough to kill him."
"Good enough for me," Alex said. He couldn't take more of watching Aristotle sit in a coma as the link got weaker and weaker. It was eating away at him. "What can I do?"
Alex's task was rather mundane, but he would gladly take it over tearing out people's hearts or fabricating paperwork. He had to stay with Aristotle, from the moment they loaded him into the car through admissions, because Abaish-katal, now with his beard trimmed down to a normal size and wearing a white coat, was busy hypnotizing everyone in sight. Whatever explanation Abaish gave in Hindi, even if it was only a single word, was always sufficient. Sometimes he got past guards with a stare. Alex could sense a little more of the vampire in Abaish as he overwhelmed the mind of mortal after mortal without flinching. He even got him in the VIP wing, where the heavy security meant no one would be looking at his charts or disturbing him to check his temperature. The high-security room was empty. All four beds, with curtains between the two on each side, were empty. The windows had bulletproof glass and were small, and the drapes heavy.
"If someone asks, what's his name?"
"Aristotle." Abaish was the one to tie the hospital bracelet around his wrist. They changed him into a gown, and he truly looked as sick as he really was inside. An old man, pale and thin, with no hair on his head and barely a stubble of a beard. "There's one nurse for this room. Her name is Jayashri and she's under my control. Anyone else gets sent away. They think he's a high-security patient so they will listen to you."
Alex stayed at Aristotle's bedside the rest of the night. Feliks stopped in to provide him with documentation as to why he was there and a security badge. Abaish was mostly gone, arranging things, leaving Aristotle mostly untended. A vampire in torpor didn't need a lot of care.
At the end of the night, Feliks came to pick him up. Alex couldn't sleep in the hospital. He stayed for a minute, looking at Aristotle. "You should know that if Aristotle ... expires at any point, and you have trouble with the separation, my master will keep you contained until it passes so you don't destroy yourself."
Alex nodded somewhat numbly. He was expecting this speech.
"Secondly ... if he dies but you live, and return to sanity, you have no master to answer to and can go where you please. I've known you from the beginning to be a man of considerable good sense and self- sufficiency, but if you need someone ... to take care of you, until you're a little older, I offer my services. Anyone wishing to harm you would have to answer to me. I may not be the most powerful vampire - "
"It's in his will, isn't it?"
Feliks looked a little relieved. "Yes, it is. I would do it anyway. He knows that. This is all hypothetical and you are not obligated to accept my protection, but you should know that you have it."
It was not an easy thing for a vampire to care for a fledgling, especially one that wasn't his own making. It required tremendous patience, flexibility, and financial responsibility. Feliks would be responsible for answering for all of Alex's mistakes. He would be held accountable if Alex went wild. He might even be asked to destroy him. It was not made lightly and Alex said, "Thank you."
He did not know if he would take Felix up on the offer, but mostly, he didn't want to think that far ahead.
The drive the following night to the hospital was rather solemn. Aristotle was on the OR list for the first night shift, and Hajji was off doing the unmentionable to two unlucky mortals to happen to pass his way. Alex was anxious, which made the vampire anxious, no matter how well he fed back at the apartment. Hospitals were always difficult anyway; they would be impossible without the antiseptics killing the smell of human blood in the air.
Alex was not surprised that he would not be allowed to be in the OR, for reasons unrelated to hospital policy. If Ari turned to ash, he would frenzy. He only had a few minutes with him on the floor before Abaish-katal arrived in surgical scrubs, Hajji not far behind him. Abaish had shaved his beard down to the minimum that could be considered a beard, though the hair from the sides of face was still very long. "I don't know how long this will take. The vampire responds very quickly, so perhaps not so long."
"Do you have the doctor you wanted?"
"I have a team of doctors," Abaish-katal said. His English was infinitely better. He was certainly a fast learner. "Feliks will stay with you."
The worry hadn't occurred to him until the drive to the hospital. It seemed selfish to voice it. "Am I going to feel it?"
"Aristotle's nervous system is limited in his state," Abaish-katal said. "It is certainly possibly that, if the surgery is a success, he will begin to project again. He will be sedated."
"Antiarin," Hajji said. "Curare grows in South America; Antiarin grows in Indonesia and paralyzes the central nervous system. Very effective on vampires, but not deadly." He looked up as the nurse entered. "Time to go."
Alex wasn't ready, but he would never be ready. He knew. "Good luck, Master." He kissed him on the cheek and released his hold on Ari's cold hand, and watched them leave the word. He must have been so caught up in worrying that he missed Feliks' entrance.
"Come on," Feliks said, his voice soft as they went to the waiting room. "Remember - no news is good news." Because Alex would feel Ari's death, so feeling nothing meant he was still alive.
Alex was amazed that feeling nothing could still be quite painful.
Aristotle's first instinct was to reach again for his master. This time, he didn't find him. If Qum'ra was in any sense still alive, he couldn't find him. The momentary panic passed slowly, the rate that all thing seemed to be moving, like the slow approach of outside noises - people talking, machines beeping, and the hum of the fluorescent lights above him. Actually it was rather quiet, at least in his immediate area, with no mortal heartbeats to disrupt his train of thought, haggard though it was.
Opening his eyes just provided him with a painful blur from the light. He growled, but kept his eyes open. He raised his hand and felt a tug, gentle but threatening to be very painful, and after a long minute was able to focus on the IV implanted in his arm. The familiar, soothing color of blood filled the plastic tub, but the vampire had little response to this, however thirsty he was. Probing the vampire the same way he probed the medical tape around the IV, he found it at best groggy, not far from his own state.
When he squinted he noticed his other arm had something on it. A wristband, which he had to hold very close to his face to read: Aristotle. Patient ID #322-147. Sir Ganga Ram. Admitted 14/4/10.
Where the hell am I? Did the ambulance take him to the hospital? Did they put him on the transfusion list for blood loss? Where the hell were the Enforcers? Where was Urushal? Where was Alex?
Alex was asleep. The answer did not come instantaneously but it did come, through the link. It was daylight, he realized, from the one window in the room that didn't have the drapes pulled. No wonder the vampire was so docile.
He heard the mortal's heartbeat before he saw her, an Indian woman in nurse's garb. She was so certainly no danger to him, as he could barely move his head, much less his body. His mouth was just very dry.
She looked at the chart, and said in clear but accented English, "Good morning." She wasn't overly cheery but he was rather thankful for that.
"Where am I?" His voice sounded less bestial and more just soar and heavy.
"The high-security ward. You came right here after post-op."
"No - I mean, where am I?" How to phrase it any better escaped him.
"New Delhi, sir." She flashed her pen light in his eyes. "Look up, please."
He tried to comply, but it really was quite painful. "India?"
"Yes." She opened her pen. "I need you to answer some basic questions for me. Is that okay?"
He nodded. He had no ability to put up a fight.
"What is your name?"
"Aristotle." He did not know which last name to give.
"How old are you?"
Without hesitating, he answered, "Sixty-two."
"What year is it?"
He had to smile a little bit. "When I passed out it was 2010. Is it still 2010?"
Aristotle sighed with relief. "It was February when I was - I fell out a window. What is today?"
"March 27th, 2010. You've been unconscious for two weeks."
"Since I was admitted?"
"Since your surgery. Who is the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of India? You can answer either one."
"Barack Obama and Manmohan Singh."
"Very good. Now your doctor's instructions are for you to remain NPO until further notice - that means no food or drink. Do you understand?"
He nodded. Not a difficult order to follow. The opposite would have been agonizing. "Who is my doctor?"
"Dr. Katal is in charge of all of your care." She placed his hand on a button. "Just press this if you need assistance."
Abaish-katal? "Can you call Dr. Katal?"
"Of course. He'll get to you as soon as he can." She moved too quickly for a mortal, or maybe his eyes moved too slowly for a vampire. Everything was a little slower than it should have been, his own voice unnatural. He did the best inspection of his surroundings as he could. He was in a hospital ward, with no one in the bed next to him. Despite all of the equipment on the wall, he wasn't hooked up to a single machine except for the blood bag IV. There was a fresh scar trailing from his collarbone to his chest, which was covered in bandages and note that said in bold, English letters, 'ARISTOTLE DO NOT REMOVE.'
The insistency of the letters made him smile, and he put his head back. He must have gone to sleep, because when he opened his eyes the sun shaft had moved, and he was not alone. For the second time in his life, he was helpless before the vampire master Abaish-katal. This time, the latter was in hospital scrubs and a white coat, his hair tied up in a Sikh-style turban. "Good morning, Aristotle."
"Abaish-katal." There was some embarrassment when he attempted to move, because he couldn't, much less bow before him. Not eager to make a fool of himself, he decided to put things together in his head before blindly asking about his situation. "Alex contacted you?"
"Urushal gave me away. There is only one golden palace in India with a moat that mortals still tend to. The Golden Temple in Amritsar."
"A Sikh holy site," Aristotle said. His voice was still hoarse, and he didn't refuse when Abaish handed him a bag of blood. He couldn't produce the vampire or his fangs, so he just sucked through the tube. "Thank you. So that was how you were hiding from us."
"I suppose I haven't changed much," said the Ancient - in English, wearing modern medical custom. "Alex was very insistent that he get a message to me."
"Urushal was looking for something in my blood."
"Yes, I know all about it. Or I can guess, as I only have his story and what you said to him, which was enough for the time being. Your blood when you arrived in Delhi had gone stale, so I couldn't read it. Right now I think you will not be as receptive to the information, but later I will tell you what he was looking for."
"He wants to find him."
"Urushal has obsessed about his grandfather for 5000 years. There is very little that could change him. But - you have questions concerning your current predicament."
Aristotle nodded dumbly, continuing to suck on the bag as if it was a juice pack. He was getting blood from the IV, but it still felt good in his throat.
"Alexander recovered you, then contacted the Enforcers. As he was insistent about finding me, they sent both of you to Delhi, where Hajji agreed to take you into his home and take Alexander to Amritsar, as your son would not hear of otherwise - and I suspect, they had no idea what else to do with you. He made it quite close to the Temple itself, close enough for his blood to tell me everything I needed to know. I flew to Delhi, operated, and here you are."
"Urushal meant to consume you, the way Qum'ra and Qa'ra did to their brother, and take your power on the chance that it would crack open your memories for him, even though it wouldn't. The wounds he created could not be healed without a working heart, and the first thing he did - and the secret behind the maneuver - is to damage your heart beyond repair. So I replaced it."
"Some mortal's heart. Someone Hajji killed. I think he has his wallet."
"I have a human heart?"
"No, I connected the heart with the help of some very enthralled surgeons and turned it with vampire blood while you were on the table. It was the only hope for you being able to heal yourself. It took, and we removed the other heart - which is now ashes, of course. A risky procedure - without a heart you could have died on the table, but again, you son was very insistent on trying it. He would rather have you dead than eternally in torpor. You can see it as a compliment if you wish. I believe he means it that way."
Aristotle's mind was not as swift as he demanded it to be, so his answer was slow in coming. "It was your blood. You put your blood in my heart."
"It was the best option for your survival. Your blood was no good and mine was the strongest available."
He nodded. "How is Alex?"
"He would be here, obviously, if it was night, but they will not let him sleep by your side. He will be here tonight, and I imagine every night after that unless you insist on otherwise." He moved to the IV. "Rest, Aristotle. This is not going to be as easy a recovery as a broken bone."
"I'm old, and I had a heart transplant," he said, and grimaced at the sight of the needle. What was inside wasn't red. "Master Abaish, what is that?"
"Since your body started recovering, it began to project its agonies - like the pain you feel now in your chest that you have not mentioned to me but is clear on your face - through the connection with your son. Antiarin is too drastic on the nervous system and the heart, but we have found that mortal concoctions are quite effective." He smiled devilishly as he inserted the needle into the IV. "It's morphine."
Aristotle decided not to object, if Alex was feeling anything close to what he was feeling. Barely a minute after the injection, he didn't feel like objecting to anything at all.
"O Aristotle son of Nicomachus! Go towards the light! Your destiny awaits you on the other side!"
Aristotle squinted and waved his hands to cover his eyes. "Put that down right now."
Alex laughed and put away the flashlight. "I've always wanted to try that. Thanks, Master."
Aristotle was still groggy and stiff, and couldn't see his son until he was given his spare glasses. The Alex hovering over him was as he remembered, but upon closer inspection, a little worn, not perfectly shaven, and with an exhaustion that didn't belong in his eyes. "Hey, kid." There was no way to express, in words, how worried he was about him, or how much he wanted to reassure him, but Aristotle was still floating from the drugs, and he suspected it was the same way on Alex's end. So instead he just said, "It's good to see you."
"Yeah." Alex smiled, but there was so much weariness in it. "Same."
"So Abaish-katal told me you rescued me."
"Ran a car into the ambulance, flipped it by accident."
"You could have just pulled in front of it."
"I'm not that good a driver. Hitting it was easier."
Aristotle grinned. "I also heard a lot came after that."
"Marius totally did not tell me they were going to drug me for the plane."
"He wouldn't. It's the best way to go, actually."
"Yeah, Feliks defended him. He's been here the whole time, by the way. He met the plane in Newark and flew to India. Did you know he has six sisters? He's never mentioned them. Latika is here in Delhi, chauffeuring her father around and mocking him asking."
"Is Latika a Muslim one or a Hindu one?"
Aristotle frowned. "They run together a little bit. I only met them once."
"They've all tried to get me into Hindi soap operas - especially Hajji - but I'm just not into romance and marriage that much. Also they're really silly, but Hajji's crazy into them. He tapes all of them. They're like C-SPAN with plot, but the plot's always the same."
"Hajji has an apartment in New Delhi, doesn't he?"
"He has an apartment building. But I've been here every night." He gestured to the TV attached to the ceiling. "You've watched a lot of Indian TV, actually, but your eyes weren't open. It may have had a subliminal effect. If you start really wanting to buy some Indian product, the advertisements are working their way into your brain."
"How long was I out?"
"It's been two weeks since you came out of surgery. Before that, another week. So, about three since Urushal decided to snack on you."
"You warned me about him."
"Jesus, I was kicking myself for not listening to you. That must have been you calling. That saved my life. Distracted me long enough to get away."
"How did you get away?"
He sighed. "Urushal had this huge fire going in his room. Showing off that he could deal with it. I hurled a log at him and tossed myself out the window. Landed on a car with a really loud siren. I guess he wasn't in the mood to pursue because he was on fire."
"Abaish-katal says he's still alive."
He wasn't surprised. "I didn't see him die and I wasn't trying to kill him. I just wanted to get away. Urushal is like me - a survivor. He's just much better at hiding and fooling people."
"Abaish-katal says you can tell him that if he ever touches you again, Abaish will kill him." Alex tugged on his arm. "Please don't get into a situation where you have to do that."
Aristotle raised his hand successfully for the first time, and put it on his son's shoulder. "I will certainly try."
To Aristotle's frustration, Abaish-katal was not willing or eager to discharge his patient. Having managed around the mortal bureaucracy for almost three weeks, he was positive he could continue it. The hospital gave Aristotle as a patient access to their blood supply. He didn't feel particularly hungry, but that was probably because he was feeding all the time, even when he slept, which was still most of the day and night. Abaish-katal was always in the hospital - Aristotle suspected he never slept - and Alex was there in the evenings. Only one nurse would check on him and she never took his pulse or his blood pressure.
Abaish-katal also seemed set on giving him morphine, whether he wanted it or not. "They say that pain distracts the body from the healing process, so this will only shorten your stay."
He would have objected more, if not for Alex. "The mortal body."
"That does not necessarily exempt us," Abaish insisted, and after letting the morphine take its course, said, "I need to inspect the wound."
This involved something a mortal doctor would not have done, cutting him open right there in the room, enough to see and feel the heart. No amount of opiates could dull how strange the sensation was of having a heart gripped by another person. It was invasive but not disturbing. To Abaish's delight, the wound closed very quickly. "When I saw you first, your wounds were not healing. They had to stitch you up. Your body was too weak to even reject the stitches."
Aristotle nodded, oddly at ease with whatever Abaish was going to do to him. How much blood Abaish-katal had given him was not specified, but it was enough to make a difference. Or Abaish was just being Abaish, and therefore perfectly sensible through a natural link. "I heard my master," Aristotle said in his slurred voice. "He saved me. He told me to run. Him and Alex - they saved me. I couldn't have fought Urushal off on my own." He tilted his head. "Is Qum'ra dead?"
Abaish looked up from his chart. "I imagine so."
"I know physically, he is dead. And that I only remember him. But ... he knew what was happening to me. He was there. Is he alive somewhere, in the link?"
The Ancient put his medical equipment away and faced Aristotle. "I do not have a link with my father. I will never know what it is you truly feel for your maker. But, over the centuries, I have learned not to assume. My father believed death is finite, and the Buddha told me death was quite the opposite of what I believed. Neither, as you have guessed, was a vampire, but that does not make their words invalid. What happens to us when we lose the final connections we have with our own flesh remains, despite five millennia of thought and discussion, a mystery. Qum'ra had something when he died mortals do not have - a definitive connection to his living son. This connection exists partially beyond time and space. As you would put it, it is essence without form. If you say Qum'ra exists in that link, and spoke to you, I have no reason to believe you are wrong."
The link between the two of them in that hospital room was the only thing that helped Aristotle understand and remember his words. Everything else was fuzzy, but Abaish-katal's speech was crystal clear. "Have other vampires come to you and said they've heard their master speak to them?"
"Yes, but some were clearly delusional, and hearing what they wanted to hear."
"When I wanted Qum'ra there - when he died, and I was grieving - he wasn't. When I was desperate to figure out how to create a fledgling who would survive, he was silent."
"These were things you could discover for yourself. Or in the case of mourning, had to discover for yourself."
Aristotle put a hand over his chest, almost protectively as he remembered Urushal biting into his flesh. "But when I was dying, he was there. I asked him if he was dead, and he said yes, but he still saved me."
"Twenty-two hundred years ago, you were so eager to be free of your master. You felt he saw you as a joke."
"He said so."
"And you believed him, but what he said and what he meant were different things. In the link, he cannot lie to you. I know masters who have wished death on their fledglings, or wouldn't bother to save them. He is not one of them. He was not one of them when he was alive and death is unlikely to change that. However complex your feelings for him, Aristotle, Qum'ra is your eternal master. You are old enough now to not only hear it but to understand it." He zipped up his bag. "I am going to a lecture series given in the hospital. And you need to rest."
"I have so many questions."
Abaish smiled. "Which part of eternal did you not understand?"
Aristotle woke to the beeping of an IV, this time much closer to him before it was reset and ceased.
"Om mani padme hum, Om mani padme hum, Om mani padme hum, Om mani padme hum, Om mani padme hum..."
It was like a buzzing in his ear, though a more pleasant one. He looked to his right, but the certain was drawn. It did not extend all the way to the floor, and he could see a man in flip-flips pacing back and forth beside the bed, his maroon robes down to his ankles.
For the first few minutes it was soothing and rhythmic. Then Aristotle's pain medicine wore off, and he tore back the curtain enough to see the pacing monk. "Can I please get some peace and quiet?" The vampire was making him angrier than he should have been, but he was fine with that.
The monk looked very hesitant, but the man in the hospital bed said in Tibetan, "Go, go. Don't disturb him."
Aristotle sighed and closed his eyes to the sound of the monk leaving, then played with the curtain to try to get it back into its old position, and failed. He wasn't very mobile. It didn't matter, really, as neither of them could really see each other from their hospital beds, and the only way he knew someone was there was from the beating heart. There were no others in the room, the closest being the security guards just outside the door. "Sorry to bother you," Aristotle said, or thought he said. In his weakened and altered state, his Tibetan was probably terrible. "My ears are very sensitive."
"No, I don't want to disturb. Also, he was disturbing me a little, too," the Tibetan laughed. "But I couldn't say that. So, you did me a favor. Thank you."
"You're welcome." He seriously considered pressing the button for the nurse for more morphine. It was not an unbearable pain, but it was endless. As a vampire, he was used to pain, but then followed by a quick healing process. His body refused to comply with his demands. It was as sluggish as the old man he really was, if not for the vampire keeping him alive. "I will never be pure or exalted," he said to himself, which was what the prayer requested, though it was hard to translate.
"This is a very negative attitude," his fellow patient said. "You would think in a hospital, where we come to be relieved of our pain, we would be positive, but it is always the opposite. Excuse me - am I disturbing you?"
"No," he replied, also in Tibetan. "I just didn't expect an answer. I would rather talk than stare at the ceiling."
The other patient moved slightly, craning to see a little of him, as Aristotle had done earlier, and said, "Your Tibetan is very good. Where did you study?"
"In Xinjiang, when I was studying for my geshe exams."
"You studied in Xinjiang? Did you take them?"
"No, they wouldn't let me."
"Because you're not Tibetan?"
"Because I'm not a Buddhist."
To his surprise, the other patient laughed. "Why would you study for the geshe exams if you are not a Buddhist?"
"I like philosophical debate. The highest level offered in Tibet is during the geshe exams. So, I studied for them. Yengi said I would have passed, but it was never about passing or failing."
"I am jealous, you know. When I took my geshe exams, I was all about passing, because I had to pass. It would have been very embarrassing if I did not pass. But for years I didn't take it that seriously, so at the end, I had to study very hard!"
"Cramming, they call it, in America."
"Yes, then, cramming," he said, the last word in English. "So the man who is ready, and not Buddhist, does not take it, and the Buddhist who is not ready takes it!" He laughed, and so did Aristotle.
"I suppose it is a little funny," he said. "What's your name, Geshe?"
"What are you in for?"
"Heart transplant. I didn't even know I needed one until I woke up here. But that heart was pretty old. I think we had a good run." His chest was still bandaged, but the signs of Abaish's early inspection were gone. Only the zigzagging scar from where Urushal tore him open remained, and he suspected it would have healed by now if it was ever going to. "If I wanted to be positive, I would say, I'm glad I lived so long as for them to invent open-heart surgery."
"This is true," Tenzin said. "I am also very fortunate. There was no medicine growing up that was not traditional. They were afraid to immunize me, because it was so new. Now it's no big deal!"
"Kids today," Aristotle snickered. "They take good health for granted." Alex was the exception to the rule. Not a lot of grad students faced terminal cancer. "Their happiness is an illusion of course. Do you want to know the worst thing I ever heard a yogi say?"
"What is this?"
"To be fair, it wasn't me. It was my friend Yengi, who told me this story. When he was very young, he went to a seer to decide if he should shave his head or pursue a family life. He won't tell me where this yogi lived - maybe he doesn't remember. He sat down to have his fortune read, and the yogi looked him dead in the eyes and said, 'You will live a very long and never achieve Enlightenment.'"
"That's very cruel."
"It's true. He is much older than he thought he would have ever lived, and he has never achieved Enlightenment. Some of us are not eligible."
Tenzin became very animated, even though he was old and in pain, "How can you say, 'I have studied for the geshe exams' and think that? Ah, but you said, you're not a Buddhist. So that explains it."
"Yes, you pray for the Enlightenment of all sentient beings. That includes animals, tormented spirits, and demons. My existence is achieved only by what by any standards would be creating suffering in the world. If I stopped eating, I would cease to exist."
"If I stopped eating, I would cease to exist," Tenzin said. "The Buddha ate, so a sentient being was killed so he could do so. And he was Enlightened well before he died."
"I never agreed with the lump system of classification. A plant is different from a human being, in terms of slaughter. If they were the same, killing both would be outlawed. And then, we would all die a very ascetic death."
"Freedom from suffering does not come from your stomach," Tenzin said, and from the shadows, and he gesturing to his own stomach. "I know this very well at this exact moment!" He laughed. "It comes from your mind."
"I wasn't able to do it," Aristotle said. "Withdraw into true meditation. For two reasons. The first, I am a tormented demon, and my torment does not stop when I sit quietly. The second is I've never wished to withdraw from the world. The knowledge that we seek is contained in understanding the world, not looking beyond it. I decided this when I was very young. I had to go against my root teacher, as you would say. I don't know if he ever forgave me."
"Forgiveness is taking no action. If one looks at things objectively, and is neither overly sad nor overly happy, emotions will not overtake you. One has to work to keep up a state of hatred. Forgiveness is the natural response of the mind."
"He was very interested in the mind," Aristotle said. "I never met anyone to match him, though to be fair I never met the Buddha. We missed each other across the centuries and when I came to India, he was already gone."
"Then tell me about your teacher."
"Oh, there's plenty of books about Plato. I don't think I can do him justice."
"Be realistic and objective, then. Not overly emotional either way."
"I told you, I was not good at that."
"Can you try?" Tenzin was strangely curious. "You will try and I will try to listen. They gave me a shot and I don't know what it was, so it may not work, but I am hopeful."
Aristotle laughed. "Okay. Plato's hard to summarize..."
Aristotle was sleeping when Alex arrived, and woke to him present at his side. Specifically, he was sitting in a chair pulled up against the bed, his head resting on the bed and a hand around Aristotle's arm. When Aristotle twitched, Alex's head darted up.
He rubbed his eyes furiously. "Sorry, Master. I don't know why I'm so tired."
"Am I wearing you out?" Aristotle said affectionately.
"No," Alex said, even though they both knew it was perfectly true. Weeks of physical and mental stress, which to some extent continued, wore him down. "So Abaish tried to get you your own floor, but you got a roommate anyway."
"He's someone to talk to during the day," Aristotle said, switching to Greek. There were three heartbeats on the other side of the curtain, one of a mortal sleeping and two watched on, humming prayers. "He's a nice guy."
"You're awake during the day?"
"I think my body is too confused to care about the sun right now." He accepted a bag of blood from Alex, but he still had to suck through the tube instead of just biting through the plastic. That was how weak the vampire was. "Abaish-katal is here whenever I push the nurse button."
"Yeah, he hasn't left the hospital since you were admitted. I don't know where he sleeps, if he does it at all. Or what he does when he's awake."
"The same thing he does in the Golden Temple, I suppose. Drain a passerby for information on the world. Or maybe he's just enjoying getting it manually." He was too weak to shrug. He just wanted to drink, even though he was being fed from the IV. The act of feeding soothed him, and dulled his pain. "I haven't had a chance to thank him yet. How has he been?"
"Really nice about everything. I expected ... I don't really know what I expected. He was such an abstract construct until all of the sudden, I'm in India, and two days later he's standing in front of me. He made the surgery my decision."
"He told me. Thank you - and you guessed correctly. I would not like to be around for an eternity doing nothing. It was worth the risk."
As much as Alex wasn't truly worried about his master's rejection, there was still relief visible on his face when he heard it. "Feliks offered to take care of me if you died. He said it was in your will but he would offer to do it even if it wasn't."
"That's why it's in my will." His trust in the young Feliks was never misplaced.
"Hajji completely did not believe there was a medical answer to your problem. He didn't say it directly to Abaish-katal, but he thought he was crazy. He went along with the plan anyway. He knows who your heart is from because he had to get it, and he was in the operating room with Abaish and a bunch of mortals."
"I'll have to tell Hajji he's fulfilled his obligation, even though I never said he had any from my last trip to India. He told you about that?"
"He and Feliks both were sworn to secrecy about the details of how you ended this fight with some guy, so I assume that means you poisoned him."
"Correct." There was no better time to answer the follow-up question. "The short version is, this guy wanted me gone and he would not quit, even after I survived this attempt by professional assassins. At that point I think it was loss of face, because I was ready to leave the colony and end it peacefully, but he demanded that I fight him in this public duel. If I refused, Hajji would lose face, as would the Elder of the Rajas, who walked into the sun after Partition - but that was years off. I didn't care what anyone thought at that point, of course, but so many people stood to lose face that I couldn't walk out without betraying them. And he tried to kill me a few times, which ticked me off." He finished the blood pack but missed the garbage can by a long shot. Alex cleaned up for him. "It was Hajji, Feliks, and the Elder Raja watching us, and it was a duel to the death. I tried to kill him a normal way, but he was a good thousand years old and trained to fight. He died pretty instantaneously, with my help. My heart wasn't in the whole thing. Obviously I made them all swear to secrecy about how the fight had gone except for the outcome, and didn't clarify any questions they might have had. It wasn't so obvious, but they must have been suspicious. Even though I was the technical winner, I was very tired of India. I went to Nepal, and from there to Tibet to see Yengi and Dorje. It's very hard for anyone to get over the Himalayas, even a vampire. Especially us, because there's no shelter during the day."
"Hajji still feels bad about it."
"I know. I've reassured him many times that I don't blame him. Feliks too, as he's the one who invited me in the first place. Maybe this will even the score in their minds. And they got to see Abaish-katal."
"No one else knows he's here," Alex said. "Even I wouldn't have known if he hadn't stood in front of my face and told me. He says that if people know he's here, they'll all come after him to learn special powers."
"He's not wrong. I was going to take you, of course, but not for fifty years at least. Whether he wants to teach you anything now is his call. You might not be old enough."
"I get that a lot."
Aristotle grinned and ran his hand through Alex's overgrown hair, more of a mess than it usually was. "Patience."
"My generation doesn't have patience. That's why we get shit done."
"It's a subtle art."
Over the next few days there was a stream of visitors for Tenzin during the day, which Tenzin admitted when they were gone was a little bit tiring. Aristotle admired his patience; 'a little' didn't begin to cover it. Aristotle was busy contemplating taking their heads off.
Abaish-katal was amused, but not overly concerned, at his distress when he arrived to change the blood bag on the IV. "Finally you're showing some life. I tried to keep the ward closed, but sometimes they do actually bring in VIPs. Bad timing."
"No, we talk. Mostly about philosophy."
"Your favorite subject. But Buddhist philosophy?"
"You tell me. You knew the Buddha." He tugged on the curtain. "Geshe Tenzin! This is my doctor, the one who knew Buddha Gautama."
"Oh?" Tenzin mostly sounded amused. "What was he like?"
Abaish-katal looked annoyed. "Smaller than you'd think," he said, and signed off on the chart. "Missing a toe."
"Really?" Aristotle said.
"He lost it when he was an ascetic. A worm crawled in and it had to be amputated. I would never have been looking if everyone hadn't been bending over to proclaim him perfect in every physical way." He injected another heavy dose of morphine into the IV. "Now stop asking questions and go to sleep."
Aristotle was too busy laughing to get Abaish-katal's final expression as he left.
Tenzin was discharged the next day. Aristotle happened to be awake as he was packing to leave, and he waved from the wheelchair. "You should come visit me sometime in Dharamsala."
"If I don't tell my friends when I'm released, I might be able to squeeze out more free time." He had a feeling Tenzin would have said 'If I could be so lucky' if he wasn't surrounded by people.
Aristotle was not alone for long. Hajji and Feliks came with Alex. "My G-d, if you had died on my watch," Hajji said. "Marius was very descriptive in what he would do to me if I didn't protect you. Didn't you used to hate this guy?"
"I never hated him," Aristotle said, which wasn't a lie. "Thank you for dealing with Marius and taking care of my son."
"I got to meet him. Not many Indian vampires can boast that."
"I count," Feliks said defensively.
"Vampires in India. Who live here. Full time." Hajji rolled his eyes at his youngest child. "I did not imagine hospitals would be so convenient, once you get past all the security and doctors and nurses. I want you back home as soon as possible, but I could never supply you with this much blood on tap."
"I heard you provided me with something else."
"Ah, yes. Of this I can definitely say of your heart's owner - he loved to drive motorcycles. Very fast and very well. Took me far too long to catch him. So if you feel an urge -"
"He already does that with cars," Alex said. "I've seen Indian driving, Ari. It's crazy. Even for you."
The notion of driving - or really, sitting up - perked Aristotle up so that he was able to continue the conversation for some time. Not as long as he would have wanted, but he had to be satisfied for the lecture he'd just given Alex on patience. Hajji and Feliks left when Aristotle started to wane, but Alex stayed with him for the rest of the night, even when he was asleep.
"Tomorrow," he said, "bring a mirror."
Alex was instantly nervous. "I don't have one."
"So that's how bad I look?" To which again, his fledgling was reluctant to answer. "I know my hair fell out. I can tell it's not there anymore." His beard wasn't coming back at any amazing rate, either, perpetually staying at a few day's growth. "It is coming back, but I'm not going to visit my roommate until my beard is back. Personal honor and all that."
"Ari, you know who your roommate was, right?"
"His name was Tenzin, but he had a geshe degree, so you call him Geshe Tenzin."
"Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama? You didn't turn on the news or see his followers all over the place? He was here for a gallstone operation."
"Yes, he said that. Well, I guess I know where he lives now." He laughed. "He didn't exactly rush to tell me. The 13th Dalai Lama was way more formal."
"Aren't they the same guy?"
"Tibetans believe it's the same soul reincarnated, so this would be the third time I've met the same person. The 7th Dalai Lama I knew, if very briefly. More like saw, really. It's a long story for another time, but it's how I met Yengi. They were executing practitioners of black magic, something he practiced in his lifetime, but gave up before he became a vampire. He tried to campaign against this, but didn't get very far. For his own safety, his master ordered him to leave Tibet and go to Bhutan. I traveled with him, and from there we went to Europe."
"You didn't tell your buddy number 14 this, did you?"
"I don't think so, but I am on a lot of drugs." He dismissed Alex's worries with a wink. "He invited me to his home, and he's the sort of person who means what he says. Now he'll just be easier to find."
Aristotle did not get his mirror, but he did get to sit in a wheelchair. Despite the constant IV flow he was hungrier and hungrier, a sign of the recovering vampire, confused by infusionary blood and only satisfied by consuming something, and tore the packet open with his fangs. Abaish-katal watched on as Alex pushed him around the room. At last Aristotle said, "Say it."
"This does feel a little weird," Alex admitted.
"When I brought you across, I intended for you never to see the inside of a hospital again. I also thought my heart was like the rest of me, and would last until I died. Also I assume I'm a bit heavier than you were." Aristotle vividly remembered wheeling a dying Alex out to the car after weekly dialysis. Aristotle's position was far less desperate - now, anyway, but Abaish-katal was cautious.
Aristotle dozed, and they must have thought he was asleep, because Alex said, "You promised you would tell him."
"I did not promise, but I still intend to. It's not something to hear in his condition. He would prefer a clearer mind."
It didn't alarm him because he knew what it was. He managed to push himself off the wall so he wheeled closer to them. "You promised to tell me what you told me two thousand years ago. What Urushal wanted. That's why you saved me - Urushal said I'm one of your receptacles."
"I wouldn't put it that way at all," Abaish said. "And I did not save you because I needed you to carry some sacred knowledge after my death. I saved you because, as Alexander has said outright, this was my fault. I was not aware that Urushal was hunting everyone I told, nor did I warn you that he might be because he was still entombed for what was supposed to be an eternity. That and I would prefer not to lose you, Aristotle. I would prefer not to lose any of us, but you are Qum'ra's only surviving son, and I promised him I would protect you."
"Urushal said he was looking for your father. He suspected that you'd told me about him, even more when I admitted I knew something of it. Over the last few years, I've had dreams of our conversation."
"It has been two millennia and your mind was always particularly sharp. You naturally began to break down the barriers I put in place."
"I trusted Urushal enough to mention it. He was so kind to me when we escaped from prison."
"He had no friends emerging from that place," Abaish said. "I suppose he had no reason not to present himself as a harmless old man who needed help orienting himself. It didn't take long for him to find his son, and have his revenge."
"He said his son was King Dagar, who died at Magna. By implication, Urushal fought at Magna."
Abaish shifted uncomfortably. "In a sense. Urushal was responsible for Magna. Or at the very least, the results of the combat. The mortals knew how to fight a vampire army, didn't they?"
The memories of Magna rose unbidden. "He was the one who betrayed us? His entire kind? Why would he do such a thing?"
"To kill Dagar. A mostly legal maneuver. In Ancient times you might even have difficultly prosecuting him. It was his right to destroy his son, whom in his absence became a mighty king. By law, anyone who allied with his son against the father was also guilty by association. Since Dagar led the army at Magna, every soldier was fighting for him - against his father."
"Dagar never told anyone."
"That is why I said only partially-legal. To uphold the letter of the law, Urushal should have publicly announced himself, his intentions to destroy his son, and to do the same to everyone who allied with Dagar. Either he did not have the time or did not care either way." He continued to Aristotle's stunned expression, while Alex could be only an observer to their ancient pain, "For years the Community has searched in vain for the one who betrayed them to the mortals, and as a result was nearly responsible for the destruction of our race. I was not unaware of the events not long after they occurred, but I did not enlighten them. The result would have been a fruitless hunt that would span centuries, and the Community needed to rebuild, not keep old wounds open and festering. It is because Urushal never forgave his son for testifying against him that Magna happened. I did not wish to see the cycle of retribution continue. No good would come of it. Urushal went his own way, and when we spoke, seemed satisfied with his revenge and wished no further harm on the Community. When provoked, his capacity for terror is unlimited. With that in consideration I let him go."
"You didn't kill him yourself, when you had the chance."
"Aristotle, I am very old, and all of my siblings are dead. Even by Magna, most of my nieces and nephews were dead and my connections to the third generation and beyond were limited. The truth is, I did not wish Urushal's death at that moment. He is my nephew, and he had a right to do what he did to Dagar. That the Community followed Dagar blindly into battle, overconfident that the mortal military machine could not possibly hurt them, was a disaster partially of their own making." He added, "If we met now, the results might be quite different."
The next night Alex wheeled Aristotle up to one of the balconies, where he could look out on busy nighttime Delhi and get better cell reception to call Marius. Alex had not been giving Marius updates, nor did he think Marius expected him to. It was Ari's decision, and Ari waited until he was strong enough to have a long, coherent conversation without drugs. His voice was still raspy, and he didn't stay on the phone long, speaking in some archaic form of Latin that he used with Marius before handing the phone back.
"Did you tell him?"
"About Urushal?" Ari was slowly talking again like he was listening to Alex's thoughts again and answering them, however unintentionally. It was in a way a relief, to have him back to his old self. "No. It was Abaish's decision and I have to honor it, especially after all he's done for me."
"Urushal nearly annihilated our species."
"And the few people who remember that battle are smart enough to know not to mess with him," Ari said. "Forgiveness is taking no action. To avoid overbearing emotion, one looks at things objectively, and is neither overly sad nor overly happy."
"For someone who listed and categorized emotions, I didn't know you would be so dismissive of them. Or is this some of 14's wisdom?"
"You really shouldn't call him that."
"You were the one calling him by his first name."
"That was how he introduced himself."
"You did say to aim for 'mildness of temper.'"
Ari glared at him. "You can stop quoting me now."
It was good to see Ari annoyed. It was good to see Ari expressing any emotion that wasn't agony. The three weeks Ari spent in a coma left a void in Alex's life he wasn't prepared for, even if his master was right there. It was not the link, which was still in place. It was Ari, his master and friend, whom it was so traumatic to part with.
"You okay, kid?"
Alex looked up. "Yeah." He turned to the skyline, and the noises of Delhi. "I'm just ... relieved. About everything. It was one thing for you to live, but to just see you lie there ... I didn't know if you were going to be different, after the surgery."
"That has yet to be conclusively determined. I don't feel any different, aside from the obvious."
"Abaish-katal told me it was his blood that went into your heart."
"He offered up that information?" Ari looked strange, raising an eyebrow when he had no eyebrows.
"I asked. I was curious."
"I already had a blood bond with Abaish-katal. I drank his blood two thousand years ago. But I suppose with all those hours of waiting for me to wake up, you have a lot of time to think about things like that. Qum'ra is still my master, Alex. He always will be."
Alex did not miss the shadow that passed over Ari's face. "What is it?"
"I was debating whether to tell you. I spoke to Qum'ra - or I think I did - through the link. He's not alive in a physical sense, but I was sure at that moment that he was there."
"When was this?"
"When Urushal was killing me. It wasn't just a hallucination brought on by blood loss. He very clearly instructed me on how to get away. Your well-timed phone call did the rest of the work. I asked Abaish about it, and he couldn't confirm whether Qum'ra is really still alive somehow. After all, he has no master."
"He told you that."
"He knew I'd come that far in my assumptions."
Alex leaned against the railing. "Does it make you feel - I don't know, better that Qum'ra might still be alive?"
"I had no idea how much it would. I still hate him for all the reasons I hated him two thousand years ago, but he was there for me. And if something should happen to me more disastrous than what's already happened to me, maybe I could be there for you."
"Ari, I've had enough shocks for one lifetime. Don't scare me."
Ari smiled. "I would think it would be more reassuring."
"We're vampires. We're not supposed to talk about death - we're supposed to talk about eternal life." He pointed. "And don't ask me if there's really a difference. I know you want to."
His master chuckled. "Where's your sense of intellectual adventure?"
"I like to keep it far away from the part of my brain that worries if my master's going to die on me. And over the last few weeks that's been really hard."
Ari's expression softened. "What I mean to say is, if it's at all within my power, I have no intention of ever leaving you." It wasn't that he said it so much as how he said it that made all the difference.
When Ari could stand, Abaish-katal said he would him leave the hospital, and continue to recuperate in Hajji's apartment. Abaish was not leaving immediately, but his future plans were unclear.
One part of his plan was conducted in the hospital, on the final night, while Hajji and Feliks were getting the house ready and no vampire was in miles of the hospital. "I won't unlock the memories for you," Abaish said to Aristotle. Alex, to his surprise, was allowed to join the conversation, at least in bodily form while Abaish addressed his master, who was now in normal clothing and sitting up in a chair instead of in bed. "It would be too difficult on you, especially right now. And it is easier for me to tell you what you want to know. But let me here your assumptions. I'm curious to see how far you've come."
Ari looked at Alex before proceeding. "Your father isn't a vampire."
"That means you have no Maker's Mark, because no one brought you across. You were born with a predisposition to be a vampire."
"It was Alex who really thought of this," Ari said, "to look at the vampire a bit like a virus, even though it's more of a pathogen. The only way we know it to spread is through open exposure to vampire blood. However, genetic material is passed on in that exposure, unlike say a cold or a virus, to the point where paternity might be established through DNA testing. The Council has limited this research, but we think we can find the strains of the old bloodlines through a widespread DNA panel."
"Assuming no one would object."
"Assuming, yes. But then we come to you, the anomaly. You were never exposed to the vampire pathogen. It was already in your genetic code when you were born. You were pre-disposed to crossing over, rather than being brought across. There must have been some biological event that triggered it, like puberty or exposure to blood or something like that. That's the only way to explain how you aged as far as you did. But when you were young, you might have been considered human."
"Correct again." Abaish shot an impressed look at Alex.
"The biological explanation, if we take all of that into assumption, along with the fact that your father was human, must be something akin to your father having been exposed to something that mutated his genes to produce the vampire pathogen in his children's genetic material, or simply born that way. I'm inclined to the first assumption, because while no two humans are precisely alike, the chances of only one human developing this mutation through all of human history is rather slim. It doesn't make evolutionary sense. And you've mentioned that your father is alive - which tosses out the idea that he's a normal human, even if he's not a vampire." Ari looked up at Alex from his position on the low hospital chair. "Anything else?"
"I think that covers it."
Abaish sat back, and for a moment he was not the kindly doctor, but a quietly imposing figure. "I was not my father's first child. He had many, with many different women. The vampire condition, as you might put it, didn't manifest in my siblings until I was already born. And then it came for me very late - as you can see - so he had some hope I think, that I might stay human. But he swore off children when he realized he was creating monsters. He might have killed us, if he had not taken an oath never to kill again, and he was relieved to discover we were all sterile. That was true even before the vampire manifested. When I was young, I was married, but had no children. I did not cast my wife out because I suspected it was my fault, not hers. I turned after she died. I don't know the trigger - it seemed to happen to each of us on its own.
"Father tried to lead us, or at least rein us in, but he couldn't control our appetites. When we discovered that we could create others like us, he gave up in despair and went into the mountains. A few of us followed, to persuade him to see the good in us, but he rejected us all. I came the closest - but not for hundreds of years, after many attempts, and after years of following him through the desert. He finally accepted me as his son, but our relationship has always been strained. He says my nature is a reflection of his curse, for his great sin."
"The greatest vampire sin is killing your brother," Alex said. "So ... your father was Cain?"
"The Hebrew legend?" Ari scratched his emerging beard. "I heard it a few times, but I always wrote it off."
"Ah, Greeks. Forgive me, Aristotle, but you have a tendency to reject what you did not think of first," Abaish said. "Cain is my father. The biblical passage concerning him is more true than false, by his own recollection. A god only he could speak to cursed him to wander the earth, immortal even when he wished for death, never to be forgiven for his sin. In later days, he would spend his time going back and forth between the graves of his parents and the grave of his brother, in Canaan and Assyria."
"The Syrian Old One," Ari said. "Hajji mentioned the old legend about the oldest vampire being buried in Syria."
"Abel wasn't a vampire, but key to vampire history. His grave is a holy site to Muslims, but that has never bothered my father. Because he was cursed by his god - or, some genetic mutation - Cain was not only unable to find rest but unable to create children who were not, in his eyes, monsters. Killing is, after all, how we exist on a daily basis."
"Cain had children," Alex said, and to Ari's look, he answered, "Hey, I took Biblical Literature in college. It was a social studies credit, and it's early in the book. Cain had children."
"It is amusing how much vampire history is recorded in a mortal holy book. The story as it's told is not correct. Enoch was my oldest brother, and he had no wives, only children he created. As you will also recall, Adam and Even had an additional child, Seth, and from Seth came the rest of the human race. Or so the story goes - there were of course many other people in the world when I was born and my father was reluctant to speak of his past. I did not meet the man history has called Adam, but I was at his funeral. A peace-offering from my father after so many attempts to receive his blessing."
"I heard the Cain legend many times," Ari said, "but that was mostly after Christianity became widespread, and became a popular belief for a time among our kind. No one could prove anything, and I never gave it much credence. Forgive me for being so dismissive."
"I have never fed the rumors, so I cannot blame you."
"Why not?" Alex asked. "Why do you keep our ancestry secret, even from Urushal? He nearly killed Ari trying to find out more about his grandfather, and he killed others before that. If Cain can't die, what's the harm?"
Abaish was building himself up to this answer, one he was more reluctant to give. "He is not looking for a relationship with his grandfather. He wants his grandfather's blood - and since Cain will not kill him, if he found him, he might just get it. Our father's blood makes us immensely powerful - a secret I was unfortunate enough to admit to small gathering of siblings."
"You drank from your mortal father?"
"Not as you are imagining it!" Abaish said defensively. "It was far more happenstance. I came upon him during one of his many attempts to end his life, and he was bleeding very badly. The wound healed despite his attempts to keep it open, and bleed to death, and I nursed him back to health. To stop the flow and not contaminate the soil around us, bringing scavengers from all over, some of it was collected in a bucket. I dug a whole to bury it, but ..." He looked down. "I was weak, and the smell was strong. I cannot say, precisely, what it did to me, but Father cast me out, refusing any more healing, and when I met the others, they knew something was different." He paused, and neither of them pressed him at that moment, waiting patiently for him to collect his thoughts. "Urushal wants this power. He is not the first to try. So I refused to repeat the legend of our origins to discourage others. I even fought one of them on the trail, and left her staked to the ground so the sun would take her, to protect him. Father watched from the mountain, and after that, he forgave me, but he told me never to destroy one of my siblings again. And thus the first line of the Code was born, not from a vampire's lips. We left Father alone, and went to seek our own fortunes, and built all the great vampire kingdoms or ruled mortal ones. Father stayed away from us, and we respected that, until I was the only one left who knew him, not just of him."
"Do you know where he is?"
"I suspect. He dreams of forgiveness and visits his brother's grave frequently. But, as I told you earlier, I have no link to my father. I feel no special feeling in his presence. I cannot sense him from afar. If I did not know him I would see him as any other mortal," Abaish said. "As a tribute to him, I made no children. So after these long years, we have only each other, and barely that. I take some comfort in knowing that he is alive - and that if he is not, that means he has found the peace he has been looking for, the kind found in death. Either way, he is well." He let the sadness pass over him before continuing. "The trigger is my death. If I were to expire, you would know to go to Cain, and tell him how much I loved him. You would have some memories of him that I have given you, to help you find him. Those, I am not yet willing to freely share. If your mind finds them on its own, so be it. You were not a receptacle, Aristotle. Because of your good nature, I trusted you to deliver a personal message, should it ever need to be delivered. At the time, I did not think it an unreasonable burden. For that, I am sorry." He looked at Alex. "Before I leave, I will teach your son to hide memories of me in his blood. There is only so much he is capable of learning at his age, but it is important."
Any further speech was interrupted by the guards unlocking the door, and Hajji and Feliks arriving. Felix brought with him a wheelchair, but it was Alex who offered to push Aristotle the distance to the car. Abaish-katal said he would join them later, and customarily disappeared.
"May I ask what you were discussing?" Feliks said, unable to indulge his curiosity.
Ari looked over his shoulder at Alex. "Oh, you know. Just a trip down memory lane."
"You have a lot of stairs," Ari said as Alex dragged his wheelchair up the second flight.
"The elevator was extra," Hajji said. "And most of my guests fly."
"I was flying across India while your master was a fledgling," Ari said, his cane in his lap. He could stand on his own, just not for very long, and certainly not up the stairs of Hajji's apartment building. "You just caught me at a weak moment." Alex straightened out his wheelchair as Hajji brought up the bags. "Have I been here before?"
"It's nice." He looked over his shoulder. "You really have an idol in your house?" He gesture to the green, bejeweled elephant idol of Ganesh on a stand by the counter. "Is that a little Hindu heresy creeping into your life?"
"Aishwarya is very devoted to her false god and it's so hard for her to find housing when she stays in Delhi. This town has really taken a bad turn in the last three hundred years and I won't have my daughter in some rat-infested slum. So what? I'm an old man. I've gone soft."
"Allah is merciful and compassionate," Feliks said. "Also she left it here for him and he doesn't want his neighbors to see him throwing out a god. I'm sure he would love for you to take it off his hands."
"No! I will never find a suitable excuse for Aishwarya. She considers it a gift. Unfortunately I would rather buy him an actual elephant than give away that one and deal with her wrath. A woman scorned and all that."
"Please don't buy him an actual elephant," Alex said. "We already have a lizard and we can barely keep track of him. And he's tiny. He drinks like nothing."
"Where is Seleucus? Still with Janette?"
"She only lasted for a week, emailed me that he was creeping her out." Alex helped his master out of the chair and onto the more comfortable sofa. "Well everyone I trust is either here or abroad so he's at Lucius', hopefully not being taunted in some manner."
"Did you tell her you were going to see Abaish-katal?"
"Then that chameleon is getting the red carpet treatment in Seattle, I can tell you that." Ari laughed and accepted a glass from Feliks. "Few men openly terrify LaCroix. Abaish-katal is one of them. Being in his presence merits respect. Being the anole fledgling of someone in his presence merits respect."
"You are really confident about this."
"You didn't see Abaish load me up with morphine before we left?"
Alex had, but hadn't said anything. He was both happy and anxious about the release, as they really had no idea how quickly Ari would recover from his surgery. He could barely walk and his appetite was still down, indicating a weak vampire. The best way to get him to drink was to remind him that blood was his life force and it would help his beard grow back faster.
Alex's greatest comfort was that he would stay here, and not leave Ari alone for the day in the hospital. He checked that the bed was made and the fridge was stocked before checking his email. He looked over the counter to see his master already asleep on the sofa, the television blaring in ignorance. "If I were cruel I would take a picture of him right now."
Feliks appeared beside him, now in a dressing gown for bed. Feliks was young - by Aristotle and Hajji's standards - and slept most of the day. "I could tell him you said that."
"I would be disappointed if he was surprised. It means he's losing his touch." And all in all, Ari seemed to be sailing through the emotional end of his trauma. Maybe surgery was not that difficult a mental prospect for vampires. "He wants to go meet his roommate. Apparently the Dalai Lama just invited him over his house before he was discharged."
"In Dharamsala? That's not that far. An hour by plane. It's in the north - rather close to Amritsar, but higher in the mountains. You have a nice view of the Himalayas, I'm told."
"I thought Indian security was like, intense."
"Marius was being paranoid. Aristotle is an old friend and he has Abaish-katal's blessing from when he was young, even if he didn't have it now. Everyone knows he won't make trouble, especially in his condition. What happened a hundred years ago was under a very different administration. Hajji is an elder now. Only Skandagupta can overrule him and Skandagupta is younger than Aristotle. If Aristotle wants to go visit the Dalai Lama, let him. It's not as if the office hasn't had communication with vampires."
"Really?" Alex knew Indian society was different, but no one was offering up the intricacies.
"Not this one, of course. Or perhaps so, when he was young. I'm not an expert on the subject. I do know the Great Fifth, as he's known, employed a number of vampires as his personal guards. They weren't used much, but it was the 13th who officially disbanded them."
"So Tibetans just know about vampires."
Feliks looked affronted. "Of course not. You don't tell mortals everything. When you have a mortal society that believes in demons, spirits, protector gods, and ghosts manifesting and walking among them, some of whom can be politically useful, you find opportunities for us not available in the West. Asian vampires are far more enterprising."
Abaish-katal didn't reappear for three days, most of which Ari spent sleeping. His appetite still went in and out and he had to be coaxed into even fresh blood. He did take a short walk around the gated community, his cane in one hand and Alex holding the other arm. "Just think of it as cardiac rehab."
"Is that supposed to be good?" Ari said.
"Are you out of breath? Do you have chest pain?"
"Good, because we really had no idea if that heart would work when we put it in there."
Ari tugged on his arm and smiled. "It was very brave of you to manage all of this."
"Everyone else did everything. I slept through half of it and totally freaked out when I got five feet into the Temple doorway."
"They wouldn't have done any of this without you. Not even Abaish- katal, because you were the one that found him and let him know, even if you were freaking out while you were doing it. Feliks would have managed my estate until the sun went supernova, but that would have been it."
"But think of the interest you would have accrued."
With great effort, Ari pulled him closer and kissed him. "You went above and beyond the call of fledgling duty. How can I show my appreciation?"
"We could go to Greece."
"Hmm. I don't think they sell plane tickets 92 years in advance. I'll have to look into that."
"You have some serious hang-ups about your mortality, you know that? We went to my home and dealt with my abusive childhood."
"Greece is more of a concept than a home," Ari said, not relenting at all. "But I hear you got to see the Indus Valley."
"Yeah, from a plane. At night."
They were approaching the building, where Feliks was nervously awaiting their slow arrival. "Well," said Ari, "would you have preferred to walk there?"
Upstairs, Abaish-katal was waiting. He listened to Ari's heartbeat and his chest, as if that would tell him anything.
"You like playing doctor, don't you?"
"I performed a heart transplant. I prefer to think I'm not just playing." Abaish grinned and put away his equipment. "Your father wanted you to be a doctor, did he not?"
"He did, but he would have understood had he lived to see my accomplishments. Proxenus wanted me to be a metallurgist. He was far harder to convince."
Hajji and Feliks were invited down, at which point Abaish-katal announced he would be holding court for the Community at the end of the month, when hundreds would no doubt flock to him for the opportunity to learn some new trick or ancient secret. Alex could conceive now of how frustrated Abaish must have been, unable to interact normally with society because of his age and power. It was what Ari feared, which was why he hid his identity and age from so many vampires.
Ari was weak, but on the mend. Abaish told him he was out of the woods at the end of the week, and before they parted ways, the master vampire took Alex to the roof of an abandoned building nearby. They sat across from each other, Abaish oblivious to the rundown surroundings.
"Your link to your master is now blocked," Abaish-katal said. "You may say what you like."
"I don't have anything to hide from Ari."
"Nonetheless it should give you an incentive to ask something you might not ask."
"What does Katal mean?"
Abaish found this amusing, of course. "Alternately, the King or the Destroyer. When Urushal ruled, he was known as Uru-katal. No one has bothered to ask me about it in thousands of years."
Alex didn't want to waste this opportunity. That was his greatest fear. "Can you teach me to control the poison in my family?"
"If it dated back to my father, I would know more about it. It is, as you know, a byproduct of Qum'ra and Qa'ra's incestuous devouring of their brother. Your master knows far more about it than I do."
"I thought you would say that." But he wasn't upset with Abaish-katal. The vampire wasn't a god. Some things - very few, admittedly - were beyond his realm of experience. "Ari wants to teach me, but he doesn't think I'm old enough."
"He may be right."
"He said it's about control. In this case, maybe, controlling my anger. The anger triggers the poison." He drew a circle in the dirt in front of him. "Can you teach me control?"
"To control the vampire is a matter of taming a beast that can never be fully tamed. You are also that beast, Alex. Even if I could teach you to control the vampire's emotions, I could not teach you to control yours. We remain, despite whatever power blood and age gives us, human, with all of the faults that go along with it. We are happy when we succeed and sad when we fail. We are not exempt from morality, however convinced some vampires become of this fact. Mastering your vampire - your particularly dangerous vampire - cannot be taught over a night. It must be learned from experience. Aristotle doesn't want to teach you because the experiences his master put him through to tame the poison were difficult, even traumatic. He would spare you from that if he could. He thinks you have been through enough."
"I'm strong enough. I have to be. Otherwise I might hurt someone when I don't want to. I'll be a monster."
"He knows this, too. He wants to spare you this not because of a perceived weakness, but because he loves you. It is his duty to shield you from harm, especially when he is the cause. But in the end, only he can teach you, and only you will determine if you have the fortitude to learn. I think you are very promising."
Though Alex could sense his master, there was an extra layer there between them that he could sense, like a glass door. He was always free, but Aristotle was always there. "Did Ari bring me across because he wanted another Alexander?" It was a question never dared to think, let alone ask.
"No. Alexander's star burned too brightly and consumed all around him. There were signs of it even when he was Aristotle's pupil. Aristotle's attempts to provide some enlightenment to the prince had moments where success seemed possible, but Alexander was all too human, and all too like his mother and father - a bit mad, and always hungry for conquest. You were, from the moment he met you, an altogether different sort of person, brilliant but humbled by an acute sense of your own mortality. Even given eternity, your goal is much different. Closer to Aristotle's."
"Yes. And there is the additional item, that he sees you not as a student, but as a son. Something he never felt when he taught Alexander."
Alex looked down. "I'm sorry for asking, but you've been through his mind, and he won't answer these questions. Even for me."
"The weight of history is particularly oppressive for him. His discoveries and mistakes have defined history and scholarship since he drew his last human breath. If he remained unengaged in the mortal world, and withdrew into the Community, it would be easier for him, but the same curiosity that drove him to Qum'ra and the prospect of exploring the unknown still drives him today - to places where he finds people like you. He will always be Aristotle in almost every sense of the word, and he knows it."
"So you're telling me not to be hard on him?"
"I'm not telling you to do or not do anything. I am offering only a explanation of your master as I see it, as an observer of his memories through the blood. As for your behavior, he seems more than satisfied with it. A great deal more than satisfied."
"I have another question - I guess you don't have to answer this." Alex said. "The surgery - did your blood change him?"
Abaish paused before answering, maybe searching for the answer in himself. "He has had my blood before, and in greater volume than what I put in that heart to bring it across. But I would not qualify our previous experiences as quote so intimate. Perhaps there will be some differences, however small, in the vampire, but nothing can redefine him. Qum'ra tried and failed, and Qum'ra was his master. If it was possible he would have been the one to succeed. You want the same Aristotle you have always known, but you could never have that anyway. Our bodies may be static, but we are not. Time alters us more easily than we think."
Alex had no more questions. Not at the moment, anyway, and he felt as if he'd learned enough. He drank Abaish's incredibly potent blood, and through the temporarily strong link Abaish was able to teach him how to hide the memories of their meeting in his blood, though if asked to describe how he did it, Alex would be at a loss for words. When they returned to Hajji's apartment building Alex was woozy - not hungry, certainly, but mentally exhausted.
Ari's solitary question was, "Was he nice?"
His master nodded, and they fell asleep together on the bed, Alex clinging to his master's side.
Two Months Later Kangra Valley, India
It was before the monsoon season, so the riverbed was particularly dry, little more than a trickle running between the rocks for locals to wash their clothing in. It was one of the few open sources of water Alex saw in India that wasn't green with sewage and algae. Yengi, newly-arrived from Nepal, met them at the Dharamsala airport. Public transportation was only once a day; they had to forge a good deal of Indian permits to get a private plane flown in, and it was more of a helicopter. In the light of the full moon, Alex could see the snowy Himalayas, just over the Indian mountains that stood in the way, but only from certain angles.
Yengi was old, but not withered. His skin was hard and cracked, but from the hard winds of the planes of Tibet, where he spent most of his mortal life. His features were Mongolian in character - a mixture of Tibetan and Uyghur heritage. He was not young, but not old - maybe in his fifties or a bit younger, with his hair cropped on the short side and a rather untamed but trimmed goatee making him seem older, perhaps ages. His traditional Tibetan chuba coat, blue in color, was worn and stained, and he had a wide-brimmed, almost cowboy-like hat on his head.
He greeted Aristotle quite warmly. "Tashi delek." There was a brief attempt at formality before they embraced. "It is good to see you, Aristotle. When did we last meet?"
"The 1930's, when I was run out of Lhasa. They thought I was British."
"Ah yes, I remember now." Yengi had his prayer beads lose, held in one hand, and they swung a little when he moved. "And this must be Alex." He had a little trouble with the end of the name, making it sound like it had a hard K in it, but that was certainly excusable. "Hello, Alex."
"Hello, Yengi. Nice to meet you." He bowed a little bit. By now, he knew how to greet people, especially his elders.
"Your English is very good," Aristotle noted.
"I watch television." Some of the words he pronounced in a British accent, some in an Indian accent. It made for an odd mix, but it was not unsurprising. "I got a TV set maybe five, six years ago. There was so much rioting and I was tired of going to gatherings to see the footage for myself." He lived in Bouddha, a neighborhood of Katmandu in Nepal where Tibetan exiles gathered around the famous Buddhist stupa shrine there. Though never a monk, according to Aristotle he was very religious.
The cab from the airport took them to this meeting spot in the depth of the valley. In the mountains was Upper Dharamsala, and the small town within of McLeod-Ganj where the majority of the Tibetan community gathered around the monastery of the Dalai Lama. Amusingly, Yengi simply refused to ride a cab up the mountain. "I don't want to get killed," he said. "It's much safer to fly."
There were almost no lights in the valley, so flying was perfectly safe for them, and they had Yengi to guide them. He led them to public housing on the slope, and Alex could clearly see what he was talking about. The roads were barely paved, on a 45 degree slope, had no railings, and sometimes only wide enough for one car to pass. Other cars had to pull around the edge of the cliff, and a cow in the middle of the road stopped traffic entirely not far from the buildings. "First, we must see my grandmother. She knows you are coming."
"What should we call her?" Alex asked.
"Grandmother," Yengi said. "Everyone calls her that."
"Even I don't know her real name," Aristotle said, "but she is Yengi's grand-master. She's the oldest vampire from Tibet." The buildings they walked past were ordinary apartments, brick or cement buildings decorated by Tibetan flags or laundry on lines. It was nearing midnight and only some lamps were still lit.
Cement stairs led to the top level of a smaller complex, with ordinary mortals on the lower floors. The top floor had no heartbeats. Yengi stopped at the door to give them both white khatas, or silk scarves, to offer in greeting. "You don't have to bow," Aristotle whispered to Alex, but he would of course be doing whatever his master was doing.
The first room of the interior was an ordinary kitchen by all appearances, but Yengi ignored it and went straight to the second door, revealing a different sitting. It was (They were) still square rooms made of cement and plaster, but the furniture was wooden and distinctly Himalayan, and all the walls were covered with paintings on scrolls, hung in elaborate tapestry. There wasn't a hint of anything modern when they came before the woman described as "Grandmother" and Yengi removed his hat and began his three prostrations.
It was a good description for her. Whatever age her body was, it was older than Aristotle, or she simply hadn't aged well in her lifetime. Her hair was entirely gray, and her face shriveled and cracked so there was barely an inch of soft flesh. Not knowing better, Alex would have guessed her to easily be in her 80's, and sensed her to be around 1200-1400 years old. Her hair was in a long, long braid that was wrapped around her head many times and decorated with semi-precious stones and other jewelry. Her clothes were perfectly ordinary, Tibetan dress but nothing ancient, just the sort of thing other women would wear, and the cloth was lighter because it was India, even if her vampire body didn't care about the weather. In one hand was a long Buddhist rosary of red stones, which hung from (to ?) her knee. She didn't say anything as they all finished prostrating and presented their scarves, which she accepted and draped over their shoulders.
"Grandmother," Yengi said in Tibetan, which Alex was learning fast, "this is Aristotle, and his son Alex."
She didn't mince words. It was hard to tell how she felt about them, her voice not unwelcoming but not soft either, "You've come to see Kundun," she said in surprisingly good English. Kundun meant "the presence" and was a name for the Dalai Lama.
"It is one of my reasons for coming, Grandmother," Aristotle said.
"I think he's soft," she said, and her beads clicked when she ticked them off, especially because they were heavy stone. "Thirteen would have never put up with the nonsense he sits through. But people like him. Are you just going to walk in?"
"He did invite me, Grandmother."
Her features might be aged, but her eyes betrayed a cunning that only an adept mind could manage. "You can tell him people you've known, but don't go into detail about us, even if he asks. I don't think he'll ask. Westerners would say this is stupid, but he's smart enough to take things on faith. Unless an Oracle tells him otherwise, but Oracles are too busy saying bad things about the Chinese." She focused on Ari. "You want to take the geshe exam. I heard you are a little bit of a showoff."
Ari smiled. "Who told you that?"
"All the British in Tibet were showoffs." That Aristotle wasn't British was irrelevant; he was white and would have been grouped with them early in the previous century. "Also you're not a Buddhist and you want to take the geshe exams."
"I will remind you that monks are mostly resistors."
"I would only do it fairly, Grandmother. Otherwise I would have no reason to debate them. It's not about winning."
She smiled, just a little. "Of course not."
However she regarded her guests, Grandmother opened her home to them. It spanned the entire floor and there were balconies facing the Himalayas, and it was not far from McLeod-Ganj, which was confusing from the sky but not large enough to get very lost in on the ground. There were not more than three or four main roads, most of them cluttered with handicraft stores and restaurants of American, Indian, and Chinese food. The shopkeepers were Indian; Tibetan refugees couldn't own land in India and just rented, even if they were born there. The main crowd awake at night was Americans, mostly people Alex's age, sitting in coffee shops or internet cafes. The monks went to bed earlier because they had to be up around 3 in the morning, and the shopkeepers accordingly did not stay open to lessened crowds. It was summer, and the day was long, meaning it was difficult to get into the monastic complex at night because it was closing at that time, not that it was a real hindrance to any of them. The Tsuglagkhang Complex was surprisingly pedestrian: monks hung their laundry on lines and water boilers were visible and churning. Only the actual shrine rooms were too holy for Alex to enter, though he quickly discovered hanging around the complex made him dizzy. Across from the main altar was the Dalai Lama's private residence, a house protected by a steel gate and Indian soldiers.
Aristotle spoke to the night guards, and was told that His Holiness was not taking private audiences and not to come back. He put his name in anyway, and returned the next day with Alex to receive immediate entrance. It was as early in the evening as they could make it, and security was rushed. Yengi did not accompany them. He was lukewarm to the Dalai Lama as an institution and didn't feel his presence was necessary.
"Wow. I really thought he wouldn't remember you," Alex said as they stood in the doorway to the interior to what as a perfectly ordinary, if excessively nice ranch Indian home, albeit with a few extra golden statues and awards on the wall. "Much less roll out the red carpet." The carpet beneath their feet, by sheer coincidence, was actually red.
"I must have made an impression." To which his master added, "I am Aristotle."
"You're such a showoff when you think nobody's watching." Alex's addition to that was cut off as other monks came out, followed by the Dalai Lama, though they were more assistants than a processional and he actually showed them away, accepting Aristotle's khata offering. They greeted each other as old friends. That must have been some serious hospital bonding.
"And this is my son, Alex," Aristotle said very clearly in English, and Alex hesitantly approached the famous political figure, suddenly unsure if he would get burned by his presence. He wasn't. The Dalai Lama was just an ordinary person, whether in maroon robes or a hospital gown.
"Thank you for seeing my father," was all Alex could really put together to say to him as they shook hands. "This means a lot to him."
"And you, too, also, I think," the Dalai Lama said in his halting English.
It certainly is a bizarre experience, Alex thought. And it meant a lot to him to see Ari so enthusiastic about something. He was slow to recover from his injuries and dramatic surgery, but as they prepared for their journey north, the spark of that energy that made him Ari was visible again. So the mortal holy man wasn't wrong. "Thank you."
Alex didn't stay with them. He wasn't uninvited, but they wanted to talk Buddhist philosophy, something that was not his strong point. He did have unprecedented access to the house and grounds, to the consternation of the guards. There were numerous interesting things around the house, rescued from Tibet or given to the leader during his global travels.
Ari was not long. The Dalai Lama went to bed not long after nightfall, and they were pushing into the time of an old, important man. They walked down the driveway to the exit, and the complex had gone completely silent. "He thinks if I can take the exams, it should be at the Gyuto Monastery in the valley. It's about 40 minutes from here, by car. And it would have to be during the day, of course."
"Those monks have to be at their best and brightest to debate Aristotle of Stageira," Alex said. Aside from the occasional motorcycle or the one open internet café, Temple Road was dark at night, just not to them. The dim light was plenty for their natural predator eyes. "That or they're going to crush you because you can't beat them at their own game."
"Oh ye of little faith!"
"C'mon, they don't sell test prep books for - how long is this exam?"
"Is there at least a multiple choice section?"
"It's all oral."
"Ouch. I'd ask why you do this to yourself, but I know you too well."
Instead of returning to Grandmother's house, they went to the stupa in the middle of town, which had rows of prayer wheels for worshippers to spin if just passing by on the way to the bank or work. Inside the structure built around the stupa itself was too holy for Alex, but the roof was perfectly fine, and if they sat behind the gold trimmings, they were out of everyone's sights. The heartbeats they heard were the soft rhythm of sleeping mortals and a few larger animals. In a few hours, the monks would be up, their day begun anew while it was still dark.
"So ... you're not having some kind of spiritual reawakening, are you? Because I thought we weren't supposed to have those."
"No, I've always been this crazy," Ari said, smiling reassuringly. "Spirituality can be harmful to vampires - if we let it be. It's mainly a Western conception, that the vampire is a damned creature."
"Because we have no soul."
"Ah, your Lutheran roots are showing through. The soul - as you know it - is the Christian soul, to be granted everlasting life in heaven or damned to hell for its deeds. And by our deeds, we are damned. A product of a combination of Roman institutionalization of the church and early Christianity's roots in Pharisitic Judaism."
"And their inclusion of Aristotelian philosophy in their worldview."
"And that," his master said. "The point is, the idea of a soul as something that is judged based on one's actions upon death is, in Western culture, a later idea. I believed that the soul was simply our divine essence, inherent in every sentient being."
Alex picked up, "And every sentient being is capable of Enlightenment."
"On this, Buddhist philosophy and I parted ways, for more reasons than you would think. First, I don't think a plant is capable of meditating its way to Nirvana, to oversimplify. Second, the vampire is an animal incapable of learning to live without desire, and therefore unable to follow the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. But mostly, Buddhist Enlightenment as I saw it when first introduced to it two thousand years ago was something to be attained from withdrawing from and overcoming the physical world, which is an illusion."
"You spent your mortality studying and cataloging the physical world as your means to Enlightenment," Alex said. "The opposite direction. What did you think would happen if you discovered all there was to learn? You would just blink out of the world? Ascend into the other reality Plato was looking for?"
Ari looked out. They could feel the chill of evening because of the wind on their faces. "There were times when I believed that and times when I thought what I thought when I met you, that knowledge was endless because the knowledge of old learning would create new knowledge to be learned. Qum'ra tried to destroy my belief in myself. He tried to convince me that I didn't know anything and never would. At first it was a game to him, but later, maybe when he realized I was smarter than him, it became an obsession. So he broke me over and over again but it never changed my believe in the truth - whatever that truth was, I believed it could be found. I thought he hated me, but he saved me from Urushal."
"That could have been your fight-or-flight response kicking in. A psychological manifestation of your subconscious - "
"I know. That is the most logical explanation, even if I know it isn't the right one. The same way you feel my presence now, all the time, to the point where you're not even always aware of it - that was how it felt to heard his voice." Ari sighed and leaned his head against the whitewashed stone of the tower. "I did not have a spiritual awakening in some biblical sense. Qum'ra reminded me that there are possibilities beyond this physical world that somehow exist in this physical world, and that we as vampires have special access to them."
"But your focus is the physical world."
"I wrote that in rejection of Plato's metaphysical ideas. When I was alive, Plato provided the drive to search in this world for his, rather than skip right over to the end solution as I felt he was doing. My whole life - for good, rather than evil - was in Plato's shadow. I was going to be the philosopher who made philosopher kings. I build a new school when I couldn't have his. I even seemed slated for Socrates' fate, if I wanted it. It was mine to take, but I would do better. You want to know why I can't talk about Plato? Because the debt I owe to him can never be repaid."
Alex studied his master, but didn't say what immediately came to his mind. He weighed it first. "You feel the same way about Qum'ra."
"Maybe. The only thing I know is that I don't know. And you know how I am. I never like not knowing something." He tugged playfully on Alex's sleeve. "What about you, kid? Do you want to follow your crazy master into the metaphysical darkness or do you want to go back to LA and live a normal life? You deserve a choice and I'll honor it."
Alex laughed. "Is that even a real question? I've never wanted a normal life. Otherwise I walked have walked out on your poisonous, bald ass a long time ago."
"Balding. Please do not insult the hair that has grown back. It's very sensitive," Ari said. "Should I hold you to that next time you get appropriately angry at me about our family heritage?"
"Something definitely happened to you on that operating table for you to call it a heritage," Alex answered. "And yes, I will get pissed at you from time to time, but ... I can deal. Somehow."
"Is this where you say you wouldn't have anyone else for a master?"
"Like I get a choice?"
"You couldn't possibly have said the Kodak moment thing?"
"Ari, if you were my kid and you said the Kodak moment thing to me, I would push you off this roof."
"I can fly."
"You know what I mean!"
Ari collapsed into giggles, at which point Alex realized that despite everything, they were both going to be all right.
"I should have asked Abaish-katal to teach me how to stay awake during the day," said a grumpy Alex, drinking the evening's offerings of foul goat blood. It was the easiest thing to option in bottles, as the cows were sacred and the nearby hospitals scarce. Ari took him hunting in the valley during their stay, as animal blood wasn't a healthy diet for a fledgling, but it was all Grandmother drank.
Yengi, who had a sense of humor about things, grinned delightfully at Alex's frustration, which earned him a growl, and they departed for the valley. Ari was trapped in daylight within the walls of the Gyuto Monastery's main temple. The holiness of the place didn't seem to bother him, but he was always happy to see them at dusk, especially when they brought dinner. It was his sixth night, and he didn't speak a word until he'd guzzled the entire red thermos. From there they left the temple grounds to walk out onto the landscaped fields, looking out to the Himalayas.
Since Ari wasn't going to offer the information up, Alex asked, "Did you pass?"
"It was never about passing. Geshe Tenzin told me that. After all, I'm not willing to do the three year, three month retreat required for absolute concentration prior to the exams. And the eight months of daily debates to qualify to even take them properly. I didn't think you would appreciate it. But yes, I passed. Unofficially. There wasn't any official acknowledgment of that fact." He didn't seem disappointed. If anything, he was ecstatic.
"Dorje Cheogyul took them and passed," Yengi said, referring to his cousin and Aristotle's former teacher.
"Dorje Cheogyul is an actual monk. In an actual monastery. I'm just passing through." He wrapped his arm around Alex and pulled him in. "I have things to do."
"Are you saying we have things to do, or am I a thing?" Alex asked.
Ari's eyes twinkled not from the vampire, but from a devilish gleam that was uniquely his. "A little of both."
[return to the main page]