Chapter One

The Rain

It was coming down hard, that flood of the heavens. Each individual droplet soared to the Earth only to splatter itself into a million smaller pieces upon hitting the ground.

Tristan found it quite peaceful to watch this from the library's window. He enjoyed a good book and a calming storm more than almost anything, as was plainly divulged from the multiple burnt-out candles on the table next to him. He knew that he hadn't slept the last night, but with the rain insistently pouring down from the dark sky, it was difficult to tell whether it was dawn or dusk.

At any rate, the book he was reading now was especially savory, as all forbidden fruits are.

He had stolen it from his father's study three days ago, on one of his night-walks that resulted from a bad case of chronic insomnia. The book had been locked away in a desk drawer, which Tristan had deftly picked and opened in order to examine the contents. The book had a title most full of danger: Blood Feuds Old and New by "Dry" Dirk Jacington, Tristan's own great-uncle. Tristan had also found a report underneath the book that Dirk Jacington had been hanged for libel, and so despite the off-putting epithet of Uncle Dirk, removed the book from its safe in any case.

Dry Dirk had not lived up to his name in this particular publication. It might have served him better if he had, Tristan thought, amused. Near every noble House in the lands of the King had had a part in the makings of the book. Tristan was pleased to find out that his forebears had at least not been the dusty old greybeards that his teacher had led him to believe: in fact, one of them had once carried off the queen to his estate, only to find the king waiting for him in expectation of the feast that John Jacington the Second had promised him as a wedding guest, Laughably stupid as it was, some of his other ancestors had had some amount of cunning within those thick skulls of theirs. Jim Jeremy Jacington had in fact risen to be the right hand of the king himself, and his brother John Jeremy had invented one of the first methods of restraining vampires. A number of younger brothers ended their lives as duelists; a number of elder brothers had ended theirs as warriors or had simply been stabbed in the back by jealous relatives. Best watch out there, thought Tristan. Alyssa might get that idea into her head. But Alyssa had the wits that one might compare to the great John Jacington the Second.

A most interesting tale was more recent: Dry Dirk's younger brother had apparently murdered all of his siblings but Dry Dirk, who happened to be "hiding under a rock at the time", only to have Dry Dirk's son kill him. Tristan knew about the old inter-House feuds, small and large, but most had spared him the juicier details of the commonplace kinslaying in order to gain power. Vampire duelists would simply not work to accomplish something of such treachery, so they were instead entrusted with the Tournament of the Houses every five years and House feud duels every five days. House Jacington was one of the greater houses, fortunately for Tristan, with great acres of land and people and large amounts of wealth hidden within their estate. Tristan knew that the library alone had cost a fortune, and oft suspected that he was the only one who cared. Alyssa would strut about wearing the jewels and silk of a fine lady, but spit on whatever book happened to lie on Tristan's lap at the time, even if it was one of the only four remaining copies of Beastes and Their Homelands. Strangely enough, the longest section of that book was devoted to dragons. Though most people saw vampires in their daily lives, none had even so much as claimed to see a dragon for several thousand years. There was a page devoted to vampires, but it was short. When he asked Father why that might have been, he had been told to get his head out of the stories and make the pages on the House treasury longer. Tristan had sullenly journeyed to the library, and had stayed there with his secret book.

As to why Dry Dirk had been hanged, there were several pages that should have contained details on Tristan's uncle, but Father had had them torn out and the man hanged. Tristan paid it no mind, lords had been known to do far worse and he had no doubt that he eventually would.

A flash of lightning lighted the room, filling it with a blinding flash of white. Then there was a great rumbling thunder, and the wind picked up again. The rain patter against the window, and Tristan lit another candle. It would be some time before he left and called for a servant to dispose of the mess he would leave behind. One of the more interesting accounts was of one of Tristan's adult cousins, who had attempted to stir a rebellion against the king and crown himself as both king and lord of the Jacington Estate. The latter had been his mistake. It had been Father who drove the man to exile, with three ships full of his finest knights, family and vampires...without enough nightsbane to keep the vampires under control for a long voyage through the Endless Sea. Tristan hoped that he would never meet his cousin, for if he did then he might be eaten. Nightsbane was the new gold, as Father once put it. It keeps you in control of your vampires. They can't touch the nightshade power, but mixed with a small dose of animal blood it was only a nice cup of red wine, the Colleges claimed. Tristan mistrusted their professors. What wine would leave its consumer too weak to even resist a verbal command? Oh, they could think for themselves, Tristan had seen it in their eyes. A pulsing hatred, just waiting to be released. But oh, they were compelled to do exactly as the master told them from the first time that they tasted this sweet blood-wine. Tristan thought them rather sad. Alyssa thought them rather pitiful. Occasionally a dose would be forgotten, and someone would end up dead, but there was always retribution. Some of the stronger ones could break free of the impulses that nightsbane gave them physically, and about half were able to do so verbally. House Jacington kept eight vampires: one a cupbearer, dressed in finery and displayed as lovely as a china doll. Her name had been Janie. Now she was just "you there" or "cupbearer!". The drunken men-at-arms loved her, although she could sometimes smile sweetly and remind them what exactly she was and put an end to their laughter, fun and groping all at once. Then there was Kettle, the bodyguard named for the way he would sometimes seem as if he had steam blowing out of his ears. Father dressed him in mail and boiled leather at all times, with a nameless two-handed sword. Kettle seldom used it, though. He preferred to kill those insolent enough to attack his masters with his bare hands and teeth, as sharp as hell and just as bloody,

Then there was Smile. Smile always gave Tristan pause, just looking at him, you could see that there was something not quite right. Then you realized that he was smiling, and his two fangs were bared at you. Smile was the steward, and Tristan wondered if it was wise to trust him. He had voiced his concerns to Father once, and Father had replied "as wise as it is to trust my whip and noose."

Of course, nooses would not have much effect on vampires. That was what sharp wooden bits were for, but you had to aim just right at the heart.

Drunkard and Sober were both captains of the guard, as somehow they managed to split the duty. Drunkard never smiled nor laughed, and barked out commands gutturally. Sober was always laughing, making japes and jokes of all shapes and sizes, but an efficient captain at that. He was well liked for a vampire. The men just had to be careful not to tell their captains what to do, or they'd find Drunkard or Sober scrubbing their boots that afternoon, which Whisper would report to Tristan's Father. Then the man-at-arms would lose a finger or a toe, and they'd remember how to speak properly to their captains. Tristan would guess that they were good officers, for the estate had not been broken into or besieged whilst he had been alive, but couldn't quite fathom why Father would have chosen them over normal men.

Whisper was dangerous. Whisper was the second-most expensive of all the vampires of House Jacington, and the first most cunning. Her job was her name; to whisper in the ear of Lord Jacington was a great honor to hear her tell it. She was always in around the corner or in the shadows, and she made James uneasy. However, she took her breaks nearly as seriously as she took her work: she would done mugs of ale with the men-at-arms and brag about how she used to be the most dangerous pirate on the sea and bed the second-most every night on board their fearsome ship. Sometimes it would almost seem as if she could taste the ale and actually become drunk. Tristan suspected that to taste ale again would be one of her three magic wishes. As good a spy and boaster as she was, and such an unusual combination at that, she was absolutely worthless with a blade. So the duty of defending the honor of House Jacington fell to Arryn, as he called himself, or Stabber, depending on to whom you were talking. Lord Jacington always referred to him as Arryn and would occasionally bring him into his privy chambers for a talk on strategy and counsel in the ongoing war of Houses. Such routine things were of no matter to Tristan. He much preferred to read about war than to wage it.

A brother, or cousin, good friend or coworker of Arryn's was the master-at-arms. Whilst Arryn was skilled with the rapier, which had been decreed the Noble Weapon of the Tournament of Houses, Erryn was devastating in plate and mail, with a sword in one hand and any amount of steel in any shape clutched in the other. For his variety, he had been named master-at-arms. Once it had been in Father's head to have him trained for the Tournament. Poor Erryn had been run through forty-three times by the end of the practice session, and it was a week before he showed more of his outside than of his inside.

Having read the last of the accounts of his own ancestors (apparently Thomas Jacington had seen a dragon and went off to chase it, only to find it to be a fearsomely outfitted war galley of House Tonne, with which House Jacington had been at war with), and having run out of candle, Tristan extinguished what remained of the flame and got up to find his soft feather bed.