Trapping myself in the apartment did me little good after my midnight picnic with Kayto. I couldn't allow myself to relax, even when Alexis was away. Now I knew that Kayto could and would drop by my window, and I was determined to not allow myself the indulgence of his company again.
One sweet moment would lead to another. A touch of the hands, to a touch of the lips, to the touch of teeth against flesh. The thought made me shiver.
From one moment's weakness, to the next moment's atrociousness, when my newly blackened soul (or the more terrible empty space where it should be) would cause my current blackness to pale in comparison.
Thankfully, by the next night, Alexis tired of his game. "Lady Mendolia commands that you attend the opera with her tomorrow night. She was terribly disappointed that you didn't accompany me with her last time."
"Alone with her?"
"No, of course not, I'll be there." He scoffed. "She may not be a lady of the finest breeding and will overlook your lack of manners, but I should still be there to correct you. How else will you learn?"
Thus, Alexis dressed me while pressing his form liberally against mine and we took a gondola to the Teatro Fenix. Over the canal entrance, the owners had hung a metal roting in the form of a phoenix, a pet of some foreign god. The theatre, he explained, was called the phoenix because it had been destroyed by fire twice before, and the theatre always came back. Even though he wanted me to, I didn't ask what they called it before the fires.
Lady Mendolia, as befit her station, occupied her own box seat and, less befitting, attended on only by a footman. She slumped in her chair, unworried about the others who would no doubt be scanning the boxes for the cream of the crop that attended.
In Fallion, before the four gods had fallen into their centuries-long slumber, operas and plays were appreciated by whether Le Commerçant liked it. If he was bored, he'd close his eyes and feign sleep. Perhaps he really slept, no one knew. Attendees would make sure to carefully mark his attitude and mimic it. Who would dare counter a god?
They still kept the same custom, but usually by the mark of some senior dignitary in the government.
"My lady, so sorry to have kept you waiting," Alexis said, all charm and smiles, despite the fact that we were hardly late and were in fact early by his standards.
"No, no." She waved his platitudes off, but did not push herself up into proper posture. "I finished dinner early and couldn't think of anything else to do. Did you know, they won't open the theatre until half past seven?"
It was half past eight now. Alexis blanched (the idea of being so unfashionably early overtaking him — in Fallion, no one ever took supper until at least eight, even when attending a show), and gestured for me to step in.
In a debate about whether it was less sickening to sit beside Alexis or by her, well, I certainly wasn't the winner. At the very least, I could prevent myself from losing twice-over, and have to sit between them both. I sat down in the chair on the opposite side of the lady.
In my new position, I could finally see her figure. Instead of the elegant cream dress that had accentuated her beauty when he had first met her, she was positively a whale! Her dress was covered in so much off-white lace that she looked twice her side. Oh, and I had been relieved to have left Fallion fashion behind. This was worse!
She saw the two of us take a second look.
"I made it myself," she told us, somehow puffing up her in pride from her slouched position. He could barely tell under all those frills. "You can scoff, Alexis, but you've never made anything so fine."
He glanced at me. "Oh, I think I have."
I couldn't help pouting at his comparison of me to her monstrous lace.
"Lace is the art of the noblewomen in Venezia. My dear friend Lady Oriolo was kind enough to teach me."
Alexis frowned, barely able to hold another hurtful comment back, and sat between us. "Is your husband not coming?"
I don't know why he asked. I already knew the thought process going through his mind. If she had arrived more than an hour earlier, than she could not have dined with anyone, not even her husband. He would surely have made something up to detain her so they could arrive at a suitable time.
"He's at Richiotti's dinner party. They're entertaining a foreign dignitary."
"Antonio Richiotti is on the Council of Seven with Flavio," Alexis explained for my benefit. Ah, so that's why she was acted so melancholic. Her husband had abandoned her to attend a party held by a man who most likely disapproved of her marrying into one of the golden families. All of the other wives would be on their husband's arms, ready to impress the dignitary with their charm and lack of wit while Lady Mendolia could not attend at all. A good turn for Flavio, as Lady Mendolia did not suit that position at all.
"I shall not be unescorted!" she announced rather loudly. If I could see down into the pit where most of the audience sat, I would probably see them start and peer up at that outburst. Her cries did not improve her position, and her bodice must be cutting into her something awful. "I thought to myself that I would take the time to ponder. I know it's terribly unladylike, and would make my worst enemies frown in condescending delight, but I thought I would take the risk, this once."
Alexis opened his mouth to make some smarmy and empty reply, but she stopped him with a gesture. "I know what you are to say, my dear friend. Women should never have enemies themselves. Enemies are serious men against aesthetic men. A lady must restrain herself from creating enmities, so that she may be on equal relations for all manner of men, as to do her husband justice. Or some such rot."
I tried to hold my laughter under my breath, but it escaped. Oh, Alexis must be furious under that emotionless expression, to have someone dare tell him what he would say.
"I would not phrase it like that," he said, strained by the effort to remain civil.
"Monsieur Braud agrees with me."
"Please, call him Seraphin. It suits him so well."
My insides froze, the stolen blood that flowed through my veins stopped. One who serves with the glow of the gods. It suits you. Alexis meant it in an entirely different way.
"Fine. Then what would you say?"
"That one should not have enemies. One should be above all that. And it's a very effective revenge to look down at them and refuse to be at their level."
She waved her hand, as if to say it didn't matter. "I can condescend them all I like. They'll just think I'm glaring up at them."
"Well, then, it's better not to be in such company. We'll enjoy this evening much more than they will theirs. Pleasure is the finest revenge, after all. One can not help but envy those with pleasure, while cutting themselves off from any of theirs."
"So writes Simone."
I blinked in surprise, as did Alexis. I recognised that strain in his hand. He was beyond furious, and for once, not at me, although I suspected that I would bear the brunt of it. If it rid me of this miserable existence, I did not care.
He would later rant something like, "How dare she try to embarrass me like that? To — to insinuate that I merely repeat the words of other men! She is a peasant — a peasant — somehow finding herself married into a better position! Likely her husband simply got that whore with child. How dare she believe her to be better than me?"
Hmm, perhaps that's what her plentiful folds hid.
Alexis only liked the beautiful, and only when they hung on his every word. Thus his constant exasperation with me.
He thought I would be mesmerised by him when I became a vampire. What did my opinion matter, though, really? I was practically uneducated, only able to read and write and do basic arithmetic.
"I do read, you know," she continued, either unaware or choosing to ignore his mood. "Everything you say comes out of a book, from one dandy or another."
"They merely transcribed my brilliance."
"Fifty years years before you could have possibly been born? I think not. Unless you are admitting to being a vampire."
She said it lightly, but I could tell her deeper interest in her question. Alexis had underestimated her. She had trapped in him such a way that his ego screamed to tell her the truth.
He narrowed his eyes, then closed them. Like one of the opera actors we had come to witness, he proclaimed, "I am a god, of pleasure and indolence."
"Mmm-hmm," she hummed, rather as if she had a close encounter with Kayto. What did he do when I could not see him? Was it from his lips that she had gleaned what they really were? He was the only one to know. "It's for the best, I suppose. My escort tonight would rather take it badly to be in the company of a vampire. Although he may still run you through with a sword for claiming to be a god. The Fallion are particular about their gods, as you should well know."
"Fallion?" I would have held my breath, if I had breath to hold.
"I did not realize many of our kinsmen came here," Alexis said. "You know how we are. Very particular about the land we walk on."
"It seems Venezia is particularly of interest to Fallion these days. First you two arrive, and now the Foreign Trade Minister and his companion."
"The Duc du Barnet is here?" I blurted out.
"He arrived yesterday with an entourage, quite unannounced. Yet, not quite unexpected. Even though it may seem like Venezia is just a city state, Seraphin, we are mighty. If you counted all of our trade alliances as part of our territory, why, we'd be even larger than Fallion. And that's before you count Fallion into the equation."
"Venezia is indeed a very special city," a newcomer said, rudely interrupting the conversation without waiting for introduction. But that is not what startled me, and he would be very disappointed to hear me use the word 'but' to start a sentence. "I'm very glad I got to see it again."
Lady Mendolia turned to greet her visitor. I stayed in my seat, facing the stage, as if that would prevent what was to come. Alexis, unaware of the current situation, turned as well.
"This is Monsieur Alexis Braud and his nephew Seraphin," she introduced. "They are also from Fallion. Alexis, Seraphin — we are very much on a first name basis in my circles — this is Rosair Leveque."
Not him. It could have been anyone — it should have been anyone but him. Out of one million citizens, it couldn't be him. He was the only one who couldn't see me like this. The Duc du Barnet, whimpering all night about his disastrous masque would have been better.
"It's wonderful to meet another Fallion so far from home," Alexis said. "Seraphin, greet Monsieur Leveque."
"Master Leveque," he said. "Even though I teach at a school now."
Alexis clapped me on the shoulder. I stayed, unblinking.
"Young men these days," Alexis said by way of apology. "They're so absorbed in the anticipation."
Well, there was nothing for it. I couldn't sneak away without him seeing my face. I stood.
"Good evening, Master Leveque."
He looked near enough the same to the last time I saw him. He had more silver in his hair, but it gave him a dignified air that would never suit Alexis. Alexis could only hope to look attractive by his unceasing attempts to look ever younger. Master Leveque wore a cape over his outfit, as was the custom in Venezia but that my sire had not been able to secure before the evening began. I could almost see him coveting it.
My sire would have no interest in Master Leveque, even though he was handsome. He was too old. Nor did he know his former occupation.
Something wavered in his eyes. "Good evening… Seraphin, was it?"
My shoulders slumped. Ah, why had I assumed he would remember me? I had been only one student in thousands at the Foundling Hospital. He had taught me everything I knew about morals and Le Chasseur and the other three gods. He had even gone so far as to gain me an apprenticeship in one of the Hunter's Guild's factories. Yet, I wasn't so special. Every boy and girl was placed in an apprenticeship or position upon graduation, as mandated by the Foundling Hospital's charter.
And it had been so many years ago, at least seven, with so many thousands of new students between then and now. I had only been fourteen, then.
He had mattered to me much more than I had mattered to him.
I nodded, and settled back in my seat. They all moved to sit down as well. Alexis, misappropriating the position of host from Lady Mendolia, struck up a conversation with Master Leveque about the reasons for his visit.
He replied, "I'm accompanying the Duc du Barnet on a tour through the city-states."
"Oh, are you tutoring the Duc's children?" Alexis feigned ignorance. We both knew the only reason why the Duc could be on an impromptu tour. "You said you were a teacher."
"No, no. The Duc's two sons are at the Guild Academy now. No. He is here on a more official capacity. A fortnight ago, a terrible incident occurred at the Duc's Chateau." He glanced at Lady Mendolia, who was hanging onto every word. He leaned forward, his expression apologetic. "Vampires, I'm afraid to say."
"Vampires!" Alexis drew back, covering his mouth with one hand.
"Yes, vampires." Master Leveque made as if to curse, but stopped himself. "I'm sorry that I must talk of such a subject in a lady's presence."
"No offence necessary," she assured him. She seemed interested, but not distressed like a proper Fallion woman.
"The Hunters chased them through the capital city, but alas, have not been able to properly execute them. The Duc decided in his role of Minister of Foreign Trade that he must ensure that none of our trade partners are harbouring—I mean, in danger from them."
Of course. A vampire had danced with his Duchesse all night — his very wife had been seduced! He would destroy all safe harbours, as his duty to his god and country. Le Chasseur would expect no less.
Well, that was that then. Undoubtedly, as Alexis couldn't bear to not be in the spotlight, the Duc and Master Leveque would catch us. In the best of circumstances, we would be executed on the spot. In the worst, we'd be publicly executed in the piazza in front of the Palazzo Ducale.
"Terrible, terrible news. But, why would a school teacher be involved in a vampire hunt? Should not official guildsmen be accompanying the Duc?"
Master Leveque looked a little embarrassed. "I was the column paladin before I retired for charity work."
"The Duc trusts you above all." Alexis had a glimmer of satisfaction is his eye. Lady Mendolia may have soused him out for quoting others, but here was the Duc's most trusted Hunter, completely unaware that he was in the company of two vampires — indeed, the two very vampires that the Duc hunted. That was much better.
Master Leveque, the complete opposite of Alexis, shrugged modestly. "Enough about my official business. Tell me about yourselves. What has brought you to Venezia?"
"Woe be to me if I didn't properly educate my nephew here. We have been touring the city states as well."
I breathed in sharply, making a hissing sound before I forced myself to relax. If he remembered who I was, he'd know it was quite impossible for me to have an uncle. Alas, he didn't.
"How long have you been here?" he asked.
"Do not worry yourself, Rosair," Lady Mendolia said. "I have already interrogated these two, and found neither to be guilty."
"Ah, I did not mean to imply…"
Alexis interrupted, "About a fort night as well. We were in Firenze before. Such lovely country there, with the most amazing statues. Do you not agree, Seraphin?"
"Yes, how are the galleries, Seraphin?" Master Leveque asked. "I have never had the opportunity to visit myself."
I answered quietly, "I liked Engel's Le Chassuer bestowing his shield on a girl."
"You Fallions," Lady Mendolia said. "There is life and beauty outside of the gods."
"Quite right," Alexis cheered. "But it seems our two friends here would disagree."
"Without Le Chasseur, Le Savant, Le Chirurgeon, and Le Commerçant—"
"We would have too much pleasure," Alexis finished. "I know, I am Fallion too."
"We will talk later," Lady Mendolia said, shushing the two of them. She looked at neither, but at the stage. The orchestra had struck up, and the red velvet curtain rose.
"As my lady wishes." Alexis said it with the voice he expected to make a woman giggle and swoon at his attentions, but Lady Mendolia shushed him again.
He complied, with an empty expression that meant he was sulking.
Lady Mendolia, for all of her eagerness, fell asleep in the second half, and before that, could barely sit still. The opera wasn't that poor, although tasteless. The protagonist, a chiselled man, had affairs with two married women at one time. He ran between the two in a comedic fashion, until he got one pregnant and finally married the other for the large size of her… well, he plead it was her dowry, but a married woman did not have a dowry. After her divorce, of course, which they allowed in Venezia. It was the sort of opera that Alexis enjoyed, and he did, although he had only put off his anger and not been entirely assuaged, only delayed.
"Really Alexis, they could have solved the whole thing in the middle," Lady Mendolia said. "If that husband had simply walked in on them instead of just lurking stupidly, he would have gutted that villain and we would have been done with it. It was simply ridiculous that he didn't. Everything that happened after that, as far as I am concerned, was simply unnecessary. The opera ended there."
As Alexis pouted at her, she added in a flat voice, "He was executed."
"Where is your sense of fun, my lady?" Alexis asked, aghast at her intolerant punishment. "It was about a man who lived for pleasure, without regards to silly contrivances."
"You sound like a vampire," Master Leveque said in a low voice. When my sire glared at him, he added in a louder voice, "I simply mean that there are more important things than pleasure. Only a vampire can so consume itself with pleasure, with little regard to the pain of others. That is why they must all be destroyed."
"You're so serious," Alexis whined. "Just like my Seraphin. Quick, we must leave before your seriousness infects us all."
He took Lady Mendolia's hand, and put his own on the small of her back, and hurried her off the balcony as she giggled and insisted that he behave. I hadn't thought it was possible for her to react as Alexis wished her to, but apparently I was wrong. It dimmed my regard for her.
I paused where I stood, next to my satin chair.
"Seraphin… is that your real name?" he asked. My eyes widened, but did not look at him. A moment's hesitation, not too long or Alexis would become cross, was so instinctual by now that I hadn't thought that it would leave me alone with Master Leveque.
I shook my head in a gesture that could mean yes or no. I couldn't lie to him.
"Because for some reason, you remind me of a former pupil of mine." He moved in front of me. "Nicodéme."
He did remember!
"I didn't want to bring it up around your… uncle? Was that not what he claimed? I didn't think you would keep such company."
I turned my head, ashamed.
"The last I heard of you, you were happy working in the factory. Now I find you in Venezia under watch of that… illicit man. How did this come to be?"
"I — I don't want to bore you."
He smiled gently at me, and touched my arm. "I promise, I won't be bored."
What could I say to him that wouldn't make him disappointed in me? He was already, I reminded myself. Alexis was a poor choice in company. Ah, that word again, choice. Choice, choice, it kept coming like the harvest, yet I never had any. I would be a terrible farmer.
How could I lie to him? "I'm his travel companion now. It's not — it's not the work I would like, but I get to travel. You used to talk about travel so much to us. It was a waste on us, who could barely afford to leave the city. I never imagined I could."
"Is he treating you well at least?"
Couldn't I just break down and confide in him everything? It wasn't my choice. "He buys me fine clothes and introduces me to important people."
"That's good." He shifted. "Are you happy?"
"I'd rather be working for the Guild," I blurted out. "Helping make your weapons. It's — it's good work. It's worthwhile."
He nodded. "It is. I trust you are continuing your prayers."
"I think of Le Chasseur every day." Things like me couldn't dare pray to him. The most I could do was recite his scripture and hope his power struck me down.
"Does he — do you —" He waved his hands, unable to say the words. Of course, I was horrified that Master Leveque could even attempt to talk about such a discrete topic, but this… I would have coloured if I could. "You see, some men are very, very wicked, and—"
"We're not — we're not —" Lovers. That would imply the capability of love. I couldn't say that word, though. It was like admitting that I'd been so tarnished as to even know it. Proper god-fearing Fallions needn't know such a word as 'lovers'. Le Chasseur told us to keep that act between man and woman, married to each other. He doubted Master Leveque even knew a word to describe it. He couldn't even believe he even knew the concept.
At my words, though, his face changed. I couldn't tell if it was a sagging in his eyes, or a tension at the side of his mouth. My hands clenched. I had said too much, eager for him to stop. That I even knew what he meant was like an affront to Le Chasseur's teachings. I wouldn't have, not the last time I had seen him.
"Nicodéme, I know this seems like an important opportunity for you. Not many boys of your stature get to travel, even with the benefits of the Foundling Hospital. However, to travel with a man like that…"
"He's a gentleman."
"Not all gentlemen are of a moral quality," he said. "I don't want you to lose yourself. You are a good, hardworking boy. This Alexis Braud is not a good man."
He didn't even know how true that statement was.
"He will lead you to temptation." If he hasn't already, said the disappointment in Master Leveque's eyes.
I opened my mouth several times, but none of the words were appropriate.
"If you'd like, you could come travel with the Duc and I. We could always accommodate a sweet lad like you. You could even help with Guild business."
I shrank back, horrified. That was the last thing on this world that I could do! If I could have, I would have wept.
"Am I that unattractive a companion? Do you think me that tiresome after all of your adventures with Alexis?" He was trying to turn it into a joke, to relieve the tension in the room.
"No! I just couldn't — I couldn't possibly impose on you."
"Let me ask the Duc. Let me do this for you. Alexis is not a good man."
"Yeah, but he —"
"Nicodéme, a yeah-but is a small furry creature that runs around the woods."
A small smile appeared on my lips. "I'm sorry."
He waved it off. "I will ask the Duc and send a card around after I make the arrangements for you."
I nodded because that was all I could do.
"Where should I send the card too?"
"Uh…" He couldn't send it to our casino. I didn't want to imagine Alexis' reaction. It would end too painfully for me. "Send it to Lady Mendolia. She can get a hold of me, under pretence."
"Ah, quite right. Still, if he worries you this much, why do you travel with him?"
How ridiculously I thought! I could never actually travel with Master Leveque. At the first sunrise, he would discover… No, I wouldn't even make it to the first sunrise. Alexis would discover that I had left and would attack the embassy to get what he considered his property back. Then the Hunters would take us both and I would be so grateful.
Ah, Master Leveque. Alexis thought him foolish, but his heart was good. He served Le Chasseur as a paladin, and then by teaching scripture to poor bastard children. I made my decision.
"Master Leveque —"
"Seraphin, why are you dawdling? Come, it's getting late!" My sire burst back through the curtain, without Lady Mendolia. He must have already escorted her to the dock and hailed her gondola. "Oh, are you still here?"
Master Leveque jerked into a bow. "We were discussing Engel's work."
"Ah. Seraphin, come."
I looked once more to my former Master, and then followed my sire. Who had choice? Certainly not me.