I did not startle as badly as I had done before when Avaln appeared with no forewarning. I sat upright and felt a reluctant spasm of pain from my exhausted muscles at the gesture. I felt worn thin, as if I were still hovering between sleep and awake, and it was as if I had not had any rest at all. The vampire did not move, just remained there watching me. His hair was pulled back and tied with a dark blue bow, the ends of the ribbon hanging to his shoulders, and his jacket was charcoal, buttoned high across the chest and hanging in a square tail at his knees. I could see the white line of an undershirt at the hems.
"What do you want now?" I mumbled.
"My tailor is at the manor. His assistant is waiting to take your measurements. I want you to cross over fully this time. Physically."
"I need to let Liam know-"
"Don't bother," Avaln interrupted, "It's not like they don't have cameras on this room."
That gave me pause. I looked around the room, slowly, and then turned my attention back on Avaln. He was standing, brushing out the tail of his coat so that it lay straight at the back of his legs.
"Are you certain?" I asked quietly. It seemed like a reasonable thing, but I didn't quite trust Avaln's word.
"I can take you to where they sit and monitor them. I can go anywhere inside ODV because they can't stop me from crossing over and back. Shall I?"
There was a hint of a challenge there, tipped with amusement, as if daring me to defy ODV's rules so brazenly. To take Avaln's side in the silent struggle that was occurring here and prove to the humans that I was beyond their reach because I had an otherworlder at my command and they were helpless against him. The choice was a simple one to make. I stood, swinging my legs off the sofa, and took up the radio that Liam had left me. He took my update with a professional calm and only requested that I check back in when I returned to our side. When I set it down, I met Avaln's eyes and held them, irises the color of wet bark. In the artificial light the lines of his face seemed starker than before, the shadows in the hollows of his eyes and cheeks darker by the contrast with his porcelain skin. It was little wonder the legends called vampires dead. There was nothing of the warmth of life in him.
"Pay attention to the sensation of crossing physically," Avaln said, taking my hand, "You'll need to be able to do this yourself soon."
It felt oddly natural. Like taking a step, then there was a lurch – sort of an inside jolt, the kind of sensation when one crested a hill and found a steep drop on the other side – and a fleeting moment of resistance. Then, we were in my room inside Avaln's manor, and I could see that we were not alone by the dim light of the gas lights. There was a woman and a man there, the man at the coffee table unpacking a bag, the woman wandering along the wall, looking at the objects that sat on the low tables or the inset bookcase. Both turned upon our arrival, as if they sensed us, despite the fact neither of us had moved or made a noise. Then the man stepped quickly around the sofa and sketched Avaln a cursory bow before turning his attention to me. He was a skinny man but was not very tall, barely an inch above me in height, and his hair was white at the tips, ice-blue at the roots. His skin was similarly tinted, white where it stretched tight and then blue in the folds and lines. There seemed to be flecks on his cheeks, like bits of mica in stone. He had no iris to his eyes and his pupils were the color of sea foam. His clothing was impeccable – every crease sharp, the lines of his trousers exact and the cut of his jacket gave him an imposing frame that I did not think would exist without it. There were some surprisingly modern touches – a scarf loose about the shoulders and the cut of his jacket was shorter, more like a tuxedo than the jackets I had seen Avaln wearing. He also wore a wristwatch that was clearly from my world.
The woman remained by the wall as the tailor studied me. Her face was narrow, pinched, and her hair hung in loose tawny curls down to her shoulders. There were feathers wound into the mane, originating from just around her ears, and there were more running along her neck and down her arms. She was heavily muscled, the strength of her arms clearly visible, and there were wings closed tight to her shoulders. I saw that her fingers were long and tipped with claws, her legs were those of a bird – like an eagle or hawk – from the knee down. Her bird-tail reached to the ground, the same tawny color of her hair. Her clothing was draped across her, ivory and pale, and there was little feminine about her. There was a ferocity there instead, a wild hate that was kept in check only because she bid it so.
"This is Amber Jennings," Avaln told the two, "She requires an entire wardrobe for our world. Amber, this is Somine and his assistant Cla. I'll leave her to you both now."
He murmured something else as a polite exit and strode deliberately from the room. I remained stock-still, keenly aware of the scrutiny from both the otherworlders. I did not know where I stood with these two. With Tatin, I at least felt some sort of connection there – I had been with Avaln when we saved him and he had kissed me and shown me some of what he was in that moment. I had seen him vulnerable. These two felt like wolves, in the peak of their power, able to hunt on a whim and with me helpless before their cold and even stares. Somine walked in a slow circle around me, those unnatural eyes darting here and there as they considered something I could not follow. Cla had not moved from her spot, but her attention had drifted back to the contents of the bookshelf. Her fingers ran along the spines of the books sitting there. Some of them looked modern in build.
"I won't be able to hide the fact you're human," Somine finally said. His voice was surprisingly soft. "So let's be daring. Bold colors. Grab everyone's attention. Cla?"
"Yes," the woman said, and her voice was pitched high, the word clipped.
She darted forwards, her movements sharp, and she picked up a length of knotted cord from the table. She made for the bedroom beyond, gesturing that I should follow. I looked at Somine for a moment and he just raised his pale eyebrows at me and nodded towards where Cla had vanished into the room beyond. I followed, reluctant, uncertain as to what was expected of me here. Cla was just inside and she closed the door behind us.
"Undress to your undergarments," the woman instructed, moving about to light the gas lanterns. I suspected it was more for me than her own aid.
"Pardon?" I asked weakly.
"Dresses are fitted. I need exact measurements."
It seemed plausible enough and I wasn't about to argue with someone who seemed to know what they were doing. I undressed and stood there awkwardly with my arms crossed over my chest, hiding my bra, while she wrapped the cord around my waist and hips and scratched numbers onto a tablet. It was covered in wax on one side and she used a stylus to record her numbers.
"So I hope this isn't offensive," I said, "but what are you and Somine?"
"Somine is a poltergeist," she said, "I'm a harpy."
"Poltergeist? But those are-"
"Spirits, yes, that's what you humans call them. The reality is he's as flesh and blood as you or I. He's just invisible and somewhat incorporeal in your world. That is his nature. Don't let yourself be afraid around him. It's like a drug to his kind and Somine's self-restraint is no better than the rest of his species."
It seemed the creatures we thought dead were in reality, alive and completely unconnected to the passing of humanity. Idly, I wondered if that meant that ghosts and wraiths and all the rest were also corporeal and alive, and what that would mean for zombies.
"Now," Cla continued, looping the cord higher up, across the point of my breasts, "Your legends of harpies aren't terribly far off. We're all women in form – for whatever that's worth – and we are extremely territorial and will rip apart anyone who trespasses. That's why we say Somine is the one that owns our business and I'm merely an assistant. I do most of the design work, but harpies can't own things. It's just a bad idea. No one would visit our shop if it were harpy territory and I'm honestly not certain I couldn't keep myself in check – one unpleasant customer and we'd have blood all over the walls."
There was a sort of gleeful mirth to her voice when she said that, the first change in inflection I'd heard from her so far.
"So do you live on Avaln's territory?"
"Our shop is on the edges of it and we service both him and the surrounding nobility. We're very exclusive."
She seemed to be finished with measurements, having taken the full extent of my body, from wrist to ankle. I dressed again and followed her back into the main room, smoothing out my short hair as we went. Cla handed off the measurements to Somine, who studied them for a moment, eying the available fabric they had while he did so. I saw vivid blues, purple, and some reddish creams mixed all together.
"Where does all this come from?" I asked, touching the bolts of fabric. They didn't quite feel like what I was used to finding in a fabric store.
"We have industry," Somine replied distractedly, "It's just run by the lesser creatures and human slaves."
"There's a hierarchy to the otherworld," Cla continued, "At the top are the high sentience creatures like myself, Somine, and Avaln. The lessers – like house fairies – are subservient to us. And below all of them are the humans, useful for their intelligence, but with no status and we keep them as servants or food according to their talents – or lack thereof."
The two fell into talking them and seemed to completely forget about me. I remained standing there a moment more, awkward, feeling out of place. Technically this was my room, but it seemed the two tailors were more comfortable in it than I was.
"Do you need me?" I finally asked.
"Not for a bit," Somine replied distractedly, "You're free to see if your master needs you."
"He's not my master," I replied automatically. Both the harpy and the poltergeist paused, Somine half-turning to regard me with cold blue eyes.
"I see," he whispered, then turned his attention back to the measurements that Cla had taken.
It was not agreement, but nor was it a rebuttal. Merely an acknowledgment that I had spoken. I turned and quickly strode from the room. I did not go to find Avaln, nor did I search out Tatin or anyone else in the manor. The servants were scarce and while I saw signs of their presence, I did not encounter any directly. I was glad for that. I had no desire to have Avaln come looking for me at this moment. I caught up an oil lantern on my way out, making for one of the side doors I had seen the night prior on our walk around the exterior of the manor. It took a moment before I could bring myself to venture out into the darkness. This was Avaln's territory, I had to tell myself. I was safe here. There were monsters out there, but there were also monsters here in the manor, and I would never be safe again. This was the legacy of my bloodline.
I crossed the silent yard, keeping to the path, as beyond the circle of light there was absolute darkness and I would easily become lost, I knew. Without anything to guide me I quickly lost my sense of distance, and it seemed like much further than I expected to the stables, but eventually the building rose out of the dark before, the smaller side entrance illuminated only by the pale blue glow-lantern. It was a welcome scent, familiar, and safe. My breath was coming quick and I fairly ran the last few yards, feeling the hair in the back of my neck crawl at the thought of all that dark behind me. I ducked inside and the smell of horse and hay greeted me. I crossed the first row, down the second, until I came to the cage.
The kelpie was awake, sitting with his back against the far wall, watching as I stepped into view.
"I thought you'd be back," he said. I thought he looked paler than the time I had seen him before, and there were bruises across his shoulders, looping over onto his back.
"You've killed people," I said.
"Of course." He did not seem bothered by my accusation. "So has Avaln. So have we all. Not as many as you think though – perhaps one or two a year? There are two hungers to us, you see, a physical one that need not necessarily be sated by human flesh – and a second craving of the mind and soul. That is a slow hunger and while it will not kill us, it is agonizing to endure. I have not tasted the death of a mortal – nor the intimacy of one - since I was imprisoned here. Is that why you came?"
"No," I said quickly, "I wanted to know why you don't take an oath to Avaln."
"It's exchanging one cage for another." He looked away and his tone was bitter. "We live a very long time, human, and I would rather endure and wait than trade away my freedom so easily. There is still hope yet. And what of you? What threats or promises were given you that you would surrender your own freedom?"
I backed away from the cage, catching up against the door of the empty stable stall opposite. The wood slats surrounding the bottom half of his cage obscured him from view and I inhaled, stared up at the rafters that sunk into the darkness, and exhaled slowly.
"It's not like that," I finally said.
"Then why are you here speaking with me?"
"Because I think Avaln intends for me to serve him and I don't want that to happen."
I heard him shift in his cage, drawing himself to his feet, and then he leaned on the bars with his arms on the wooden slats, gazing at me with narrowed eyes. I could not help but note how pale his skin was, and the faint sheen of scar tissue along one part of his neck.
"So you need information," he murmured, "About this world, about Avaln, about how our oaths work. Why would I give that to you?"
"You're one of Avaln's enemies. Who better than to help me gain mastery over him?"
My heart was beating painfully in my chest. I wasn't certain this would work. I didn't even know if it should work, if this was wise or not, but I did know I needed someone in my corner here in the otherworld and I wasn't certain I could entirely trust Avaln. This would give me another opinion, at least. I was terrified by my own actions in this moment and I wondered if the kelpie could sense that, for he was unnaturally intent on watching me, his pale eyes sharp. There was a hungry look in him. I couldn't trust him, either. His information would be dangerous.
"It's a deal," he finally said, "Tell me what you need to know."
Eausnie was wary of telling me too much. I understood that, as he needed to have a reason for me to return. I would have to be careful, I realized, in my dealings with him. Still, the information he provided was valuable. He explained the concept of oath, and how it bound the otherworlders in a way it could never bind humans. Symbolism was important in the otherworld, he said, just as powerful as our own science. To give something meaning was to give it substance and reality. Vampires took blood because it was symbolic of life, just as kelpies or incubi took breath for the same reasons. Words had similar power, as they were symbols of concepts, and oaths represented a binding. It was rare, Eausnie said, that an otherworlder would outright lie. There were half-truths, of course, and omissions, but generally otherworlders prided themselves on speaking truth and keeping to what they said. Not like humanity, and there was a touch of disgust in his voice when he said that. I wondered if this was part of why they looked upon us like animals – that we broke our word and lied without hesitation – that in their minds, this made us the lesser creatures. It was a sobering thought and I felt suddenly small before this kelpie, even though I was the one on the outside of the cage.
He did not know the exact nature of Avaln's oath to my bloodline and he doubted I would be able to get it from Avaln or any of his subjects without a direct order. Those would work, he explained, but there would likely be a cost to them. Oaths had room for interpretation and even if Avaln had sworn to protect my family, he could easily interpret that to mean that a short-term harm would prevent a greater injury later. Much like spanking a child. Eausnie's amusement was apparent. Still, the vampire would be loathe to abuse the oath like that, and so I would have a balancing act.
"He already warned me as such," I said bitterly.
"Then find the boundaries. See where he's willing to give on his pride rather than give on the oath itself."
I held all the control, Eausnie said. Avaln knew that. He also would know how to take that balance of power back, if it came to that. Humans were fragile. He could destroy me if he so chose. I would have to prove that I was worthy of holding control of the vampire. That, the kelpie speculated, was probably what kept this arrangement working for so long. If my ancestor had been someone Avlan despised, he would have been a reluctant servant, doing only what he was bidden and nothing more. Instead, he took possession of the entire Jennings line, and that spoke to something far deeper than a simple oath.
That was all he was willing to give me. For one thing, he did not want me to remain missing for too long lest the vampire come looking, and I had to admit he was right. Reluctantly, I returned to the manor. Avaln did not seek me out, instead leaving me entirely to the care of the harpy and poltergeist. They, in turn, only required me to be there physically for fitting, and made no attempt at conversation. There were snatches between each other, of mundane things like design choice or color, and of little interest to myself. When they finally released me in what I thought was the evening, Avaln came around and made arrangements with the two for them to stay at the manor, so that at least one dress would be ready for the party at Mirain's. Then he turned to me.
"I'll have a meal sent up to this room," he said, "Stay in the otherworld tonight."
"Do not argue this one, Jennings." There was steel in his voice and the two tailors quickly found reason to leave the room. Cla shot me a glance over her shoulder as she departed and I saw a look in her eyes that I recognized – a warning. Even the harpy seemed to know not to defy the vampire.
"At least explain why," I said.
"Because you're exhausted. I can tell. You haven't let yourself rest – truly rest – since being brought to England. Drugged sleep, the half-sleep of crossing as a spirit, and those few hours you caught were troubled – I watched you shiver in your sleep. And I can keep you out of reach of ODV and their military schedules here. They forget you aren't one of them in that regards."
In other words, I could sleep in. It was a tempting lure and I wondered how much of what Avaln said was genuine concern for my well-being, or a way to ensure I remained here in his possession. Or even a way to put ODV in their place.
"I won't argue," I sighed, "Thank you."
The vampire nodded in approval and quickly left the room. Give and take. It would have to be a balancing act, and this was one concession that would be easy to make.