I turned to enter the house after watching the car pass the gates. With James’ parents gone, we had enough time for me to get a tad more work done before I was expected to participate in “girls’ night”.
“About that telepathy spell you had mentioned earlier…” started James. “Would you mind showing it to me?”
I hadn’t expected him to bring that up this soon. “Not at the moment, James. Let’s have that for tonight’s lesson.”
“Oh. Why not? Would it really take that long?” he inquired.
“Yes. As I said, the spell is very complicated.” I insisted, not wanting to admit that I had only glanced at one page of it without ever bothering to learn the spell.
Smiling and stepping closer, he said, “If you haven’t noticed, my memory’s improved considerably. I might be able to pull it off more quickly than you seem to think.”
“James, this just isn’t a good time to be studying magic. My mind’s on other things. In fact, I should get back to work.” I explained as the doors opened for me.
Before I could move, James grabbed my hand, pulling me close to him. He was so very tall and much, much stronger than he had been before his change. I didn’t want to fight to get free of him. As he stared into my eyes, I knew I couldn’t look away. He didn’t believe me.
“What?” I inquired, attempting to move to a more comfortable distance from him. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Just curious.” he replied. “I’d almost think you didn’t remember the spell.”
I forcibly pulled away, but he didn’t resist. “Now don’t be silly. I admit that I haven’t ever found a use for that spell, given how convenient texting is, but I don’t forget things so easily either.” I insisted.
He continued staring at me, studying me. Then realization was plain on his face as he said, “Oh. You never learned it. Sorry for embarrassing you.”
How did he know!? I hurried away from him, dashing into my wing, and went immediately to my library. I was going to learn that spell immediately. As I grabbed the book, I wondered if he would believe that I was simply not in the mood to show him now after I taught him tonight? I doubted it.
Having him pull me so very close was very atypical behavior for James. My poise must have slipped enough for him to recognize my discomfort in his questioning. When did James ever pay that much attention? Was he so desperate to know this spell? If he was, for what purpose did he want it?
I created a spell to hold the book as I tried pushing James out of my head. I’d need to focus if I was going to learn this quickly. The spell was just as complicated as I remembered. Unfortunately, I kept seeing James’ face, so very close to my own. I knew he wasn’t going to kiss me. He was still angry with me over my mistake with Cosette’s parents. I was more angry with myself. Accidentally killing a member of my family was unforgivable, and now Cosette lived here. The regret still haunting the back of my mind would never fade, as was right, yet I was still seeing James’ face as he pulled me close to him… Why was I still thinking about this!?
“You’re lying…” I whispered, staring at Aaliyah in shock.
We had been talking about how pleasant the meal was and how much I adored James’ parents when she said such a terrible thing.
“No, Cosette. Alma really did kill your parents. At the time, she thought she was killing some murderous beasts. When you mentioned how they died, James excused himself to go yell at her, not because he suddenly wanted to give her a hug.” she explained.
James knew… “How could you let me move into the house of my parents’ murderer!?” I yelled.
“This entire estate belongs to James, not Alma. If you decide to try getting revenge, you’re in a perfect position to study her and plot. Alma is misguided, but she’s not actually a fool. I’d wager she realized her mistake before James did and has been angry enough at herself for everyone. If you get to know her, you might actually like her as a person.” she claimed, undaunted by my anger.
“You expect me to like the person who killed my parents?” I asked incredulously.
“Not immediately, though I do expect you’ll attend girls’ night with us.” she replied with a smile.
“Absolutely not. I’ll just leave.” I told her.
She jumped at me, hugging me. Then she said, “You’d never keep up to stalk her from a distance. You should at least stay until you’re certain you don’t want revenge.”
The tiny arms hugging me so gently could easily shatter my legs. I couldn’t outrun her. I couldn’t fight her off. At the moment, I couldn’t even argue with her reasoning. Tears were streaming down my face. My heart felt broken again. Today was simply too much for me already, and I was soon supposed to pretend everything was fine?
“Let’s bake a cake for the girls’ night.” suggested Aaliyah, still hugging me.
“What?” I asked, confused how cake came into it.
“We’ll bake a couple for the girls and another for the boys.” she told me, grinning up at me.
“I’m certainly not in the mood for baking.” I insisted.
Letting me go and shrugging, she said, “No, but you compartmentalize well. You’ll be able to put on a good face and bake away! By the time we’re with the others, I’m sure you’ll manage to smile, because cake.”
“Can she be poisoned?” I asked.
Aaliyah laughed and said, “If the Slayer family was so easy to kill, do you think they’d still be around?”
I frowned, knowing she was right. Revenge really wasn’t an option. Alma was far too powerful.
“Did your daddy tell you any tales of Joyeuse?” inquired Aaliyah as she stared up at me with her wide, blue eyes.
“What?” I asked, wondering what sort of joyous tales could come to mind now. Probably something involving cake.
“The sword. Your sword now. It’ll come along with the other belongings I’m retrieving for you. That sword is quite capable of killing a great number of things.” she assured me.
I nodded. I was, of course, proficient in the use of a sword, but could I actually use one to kill someone?
“Let’s get dressed for baking!” she exclaimed, running over to my closet.
I sighed and wiped away my tears. I could continue crying, arguing, and attempting to resist Aaliyah’s plan while she dragged me through it or accept this defeat gracefully. My parents would expect me to do as they had taught me, so I would. Patience, planning, and perseverance were the tools of vampires. Following Aaliyah to the closet, I mentally prepared myself. There would be a baking outfit and then a girls’ night outfit. I could play Aaliyah’s game for now.
“Well, now that that’s settled, mind guiding the way, Mila?” inquired James, as if buying out his father’s company needed no more thought at the moment.
“Of course not, Master. I’ll gladly guide you anywhere.” she flirtatiously replied.
I glanced at my husband, but he actually seemed happier already. I knew he had wanted James to take over his business eventually, but I didn’t think he’d take to this idea too well. I hugged his arm as we followed behind our son, Lady Pendreigh, and Mila. There were so many beautiful paintings, rare vases, and intricate engravings throughout the house that I could spend weeks just admiring everything.
My husband caught me before I bumped into Lady Pendreigh’s back. We came to a stop at a closet that Mila had entered. I watched as she fussed with something and blinked as the wall slid open beside her.
“Your vault is in there?” I asked, having trouble imagining what sort of vault could be hidden beyond a closet.
“Yes, actually. Mila wasn’t joking before she went to get refreshments for us. This will be a bit of an adventure.” cautioned James.
My husband laughed as she said, “We really do need to visit more often, son, or I’ll never get to see all of the surprises around here.”
I wholeheartedly agreed. We didn’t see nearly enough of our son, and there were plenty of reasons to visit. I still had that picture of him and Lady Pendreigh which she commissioned. Then there was the incredible food his chef prepared, the interesting company my son kept, and the utterly delightful home. Perhaps this purchase would give my husband more time for such visits, assuming things went through.
I released my husband’s arm as I was handed a large flashlight. Why wasn’t the way lit? Mila took the lead again after passing out flashlights, and we followed her deeper into darkness, twisting down through a cave-like passage. As we walked and my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I grew more and more distracted by the walls. There were engravings everywhere!
“James, these engravings are amazing! Have you had anyone in here to examine them yet?” I inquired.
“Yes, of course. Aaliyah had them examined at the same time as the contents of the vault. I don’t honestly know the details though. There was quite a bit to learn, and I haven’t found the time yet.” he explained, sounding apologetic.
I wasn’t the least bit surprised, not with how busy he was these days.
“I will have to ask her about them as well. They are quite fascinating. The style is similar to that of the Aztecs, but there are some obvious differences.” claimed Lady Pendreigh.
“Do you study archaeology, Lady Pendreigh?” questioned my husband.
I was glad his tone wasn’t as aggressive as earlier.
“Alma, please. Yes, I’ve dabbled a little. One can never know too much.” she replied.
“Oh, I agree with you there completely. James had a fairly diverse education, but Rachel and I didn’t want to have him privately tutored, not with how down to earth a public school can keep someone.” he told her.
She glanced back at us before saying, “I had a number of tutors, but a large portion of my instruction was carried out by my mother. She was very well educated and wanted to impart all of her knowledge to me.”
This was a surprise. “Where is your mother?” I asked. “I’d like to meet her sometime.”
“She passed on. Father hasn’t been well for a while now, so I’m sorry to say that you won’t be able to meet him either.” she explained without a hint of sadness breaking her unwaveringly calm voice.
Still, my husband said, “Sorry for your loss.”
We continued walking for a while more, stopping when Mila started pressing on a couple engravings. The wall popped open under her touch, swinging without a hint of grating.
“I see why this vault of yours is secure. It’d be easier to tunnel into the ground than to traverse this maze, assuming you knew where to dig, of course.” remarked my husband.
I had to agree.
“You would need some very heavy equipment. The vault looks quite sturdy, I assure you.” replied James with a grin.
Our trek continued as did the endless engravings. Cataloguing the maze alone would probably take years if this was indeed the shortest route. My son’s home had to be far, far more valuable than what he paid for it, given that this was all unknown to the previous owner.
I felt like we had been walking for hours. As we passed through a second hidden door, Mila handed each of us a bottle of water, which I thankfully took. The air down here seemed surprisingly dry. The bottle was half gone by the time we reached yet another hidden door. How did anyone find their way through this place?
I stopped and stared when we finally emerged. An enormous door towered before us, making me wonder how far underground we had gone for it to even fit.
“Master, I’ll open the door for you.” offered Mila, before skipping over to the door.
“Thank you, Mila.” replied James.
“James, dear, I’ve seen banks with smaller doors.” I told him, trying to picture a bank with a door half this large.
“What’s inside is the real treat.” he assured me with a smile.
“Well, I hope your chef prepares a large meal. I’m going to be famished after this.” insisted my husband.
I watched as Mila pulled large objects out of her bag, fitted them together, and inserted the thing into the door. After some twisting and what had to be a strong tug, the door opened. I blinked as bright light poured out of the vault, surprised there would be power after so much darkness.
I hardly could believe my eyes as I followed my son into the enormous chamber. Countless shelves were filled with antiquities from various cultures. He started explaining a little of what the different pieces were as he guided us down one of the paths, and I perfectly understood how my son could be so confident about buying out his father now. My husband seemed equally surprised by this vast fortune.
“Sorry that I’m not as great of a tour guide as Aaliyah was, but I don’t have her memory.” stated James a ways down the first row.
“Master, I will gladly provide you a cheat sheet on your phone if you wish.” offered Mila.
He looked at her in surprise as he said, “Oh. Why don’t you give us the tour, Mila? I should have realized you’d have access to the catalogue.”
As Mila took over the tour, the details were almost too much. She seemed to know the entire history of every last piece. After Lady Pendreigh asked a question about the design of a brooch, my husband and I took up asking questions as well. Mila continued to demonstrate her extraordinary knowledge flawlessly.
“Son, you’re sitting on a fortune down here.” stated my husband several rows later.
“A fortune? This whole collection is priceless.” I argued.
“I’m planning on looking into loaning some of these pieces out to museums from time-to-time. You wouldn’t believe the guilt I’ve felt knowing what’s down here.” insisted James.
Lady Pendreigh smiled up at my son, and the difference between her normal expressionless face and the pure joy in her eyes was incredible. She was normally beautiful by any standards, but her smile made her much more fit to stand so close to my son.
“I have contacts in the British Museum if you would like to expedite things, assuming you wouldn’t mind some of this being showcased in London.” she offered.
“That would be wonderful. I’ll have Aaliyah get in touch with you about it.” he proposed. Catching that she didn’t seem too pleased, he quickly said, “Actually, let’s set up a date for the three of us to sit down and talk it over.”
She smiled again, causing him to smile as well. He obviously cared for her a great deal.
“I have a few contacts of my own, James, if you want to get some of this on display more locally.” I reminded him, just in case.
“Oh, of course. Maybe we can discuss it before you leave if Aaliyah’s free by then.” he suggested, still smiling.
The tour continued and remained as impressive as it had started. After I expressed my concerns about the environment for keeping some of the pieces, Mila explained to me that the vault was currently in “display mode”. When vacant, the vault’s interior was cooled and constantly monitored for “optimum efficiency”. Despite a nagging desire to examine some of the pieces more, I was ready to return and sit for a while when the tour was complete.
“Well, I always knew that Jarod was brilliant, but I never expected him to come up with something quite like this, even if only in part.” I admitted, still hardly believing that this girl in front of me was completely artificial.
When my wife and I had decided to visit our son today, having missed the previous night’s festivities, we hardly imagined ourselves to be in for even more surprises about my son’s life. Things were going incredibly well for him, but no one would expect to find a flirtatious android who could easily pass for human.
“Then you’d probably be a bit shocked about how much he’s made off his engine design.” teased James with a wink.
“Oh, I was.” I assured him. “Mr. Davis wasn’t specific, but he did hint that his son’s a millionaire now. Most impressive. I’d offer my assistance with finding good investment brokers, but I imagine little Aaliyah is already taking care of him.”
“He mentioned that she was, but that was a while ago. The twins might have him under their sway now. Keeping up with everything around here can be a bit tricky.” claimed James.
With Mila watching over things, I could easily imagine my son keeping up very well. He seemed different today. He always had been strangely observant at times, but the way he watched everything now was unusual for him.
“Has he managed to figure out which one he’s interested in dating yet?” asked Rachel.
“Not to my knowledge, no. Don’t worry, mother. I’m sure Jarod will figure things out.” insisted James.
“James, might we move along to somewhere other than your entryway? As splendid as I find it, I can’t say this is the most comfortable place to converse, not when you have so many fine furnishings.” suggested Lady Pendreigh with that emotionless face of hers.
I tried to calm myself, not wanting to upset my son by snapping at her. I had snapped at Lady Pendreigh plenty within the past couple weeks.
“Oh. Of course. I was actually going to show my parents the vault. You haven’t seen it yet either, have you?” he asked.
“No, actually. I must admit that I was a bit curious as to its location. There seem to be many parts of this mansion not shown on the maps.” she replied without seeming to have a hint of curiosity within her.
“Master, the path to the vault is long. Shall I get refreshments and fetch the key for you?” offered Mila.
“Yes, please.” he agreed. “Thank you, Mila.”
I watched her take off at a jog and said, “She really is quite marvelous, isn’t she. She could easily pass for human, albeit an eccentric one.”
“Quite, though I do wish she’d choose a different form.” agreed Lady Pendreigh with a nod.
My wife laughed as she said, “I do understand that must be a bit disturbing, but isn’t mimicry supposed to be the greatest form of flattery? She must have been quite taken with you to want to look so much like you.”
I watched Lady Pendreigh, trying to gauge her reaction, but there wasn’t a flicker of emotion.
“Shall we be off then?” suggested James.
“What about Mila, dear? Shouldn’t we wait for her?” inquired Rachel as she glanced in the direction Mila had ran.
“I’m sure she’ll catch us. You’d be amazed at how quick she is.” he insisted.
As James started to walk, Lady Pendreigh took his hand, matching each of his long strides with two steps. To my consternation, James didn’t seem the least bit uncomfortable. Was he really so at ease with her already? He had known Regina for years and never got to the point where they casually held hands.
I helped guide my wife as she stared around with wide-eyed fascination. I couldn’t blame her. Our son’s house was absolutely incredible. Were I in a better mood, I’d surely ask to stop, so we might better admire some of the paintings.
“I still can’t believe how beautiful your halls are, James. The engravings on your ceilings are so striking.” commented Rachel after walking a ways.
“You wouldn’t believe how guilty I feel at not looking up often enough to truly appreciate them. You are right though. They’re incredible.” he replied, glancing back at us.
“I do admire them as well.” claimed Lady Pendreigh. “They continue throughout the wing I’m renting and seem to depict a most unique mythology. See how the woman spreading her arms above us seems to hold the sun in one hand and the moon in the other? I believe she’s supposed to be some sort of goddess, since she has worshipers in some of the engravings.”
“Interesting. I was under the impression that you didn’t notice small details, simply mowing them over as you pass through.” I dryly replied.
“Dear, please. Not now.” begged Rachel, squeezing my arm as she spoke.
I sighed and said, “My apologies, Lady Pendreigh.”
“Please call me Alma. There really is no need for titles between us.” she insisted.
Before I could reply, James whipped around and demanded “What is going on here? I seem to be left out of the loop on something important.”
I felt Rachel tense, but I went on to tell him “Son, your girlfriend is attempting to force me into selling to her.”
“Huh? We’re not dating.” replied James instantly. “Sell her what precisely?”
“His hotels, obviously.” replied Lady Pendreigh, looking surprisingly dejected. She didn’t seem to take my son’s anger any better than the rest of us.
“Oh.” stated James, taking on a thoughtful expression. Looking down at her, he inquired “Why, might I ask, would you do this to my father?”
I knew that tone. James rarely got angry, but when he was, there was hell to pay. I was impressed despite myself that she could stare him down.
“I can’t let personal matters get between me and family business, James. You must realize this.” she insisted.
“I’m sorry.” I told them both. “There’s no need for you two to quarrel. She’s right, son. I’m sure this is simply business for her.”
As much as the girl upset me, I didn’t want to tear them apart because I was failing to keep my hotels full.
“How long has this been in progress?” asked James. “I remember you mentioning that competitors were out to purchase your business before I ever moved out.”
I thought a moment before saying, “I suppose things did start before you two were living together.”
“Master, I have the documents prepared for your father!” exclaimed Mila, making me jump as she ran toward us incredibly fast.
“What documents?” asked James.
“The princess wrote up a proposal last week for Best Friend For Hire to purchase Somerset Suites. I took the liberty of printing it, so Mr. Somerset could take it home today.” explained Mila.
I frowned as I said, “Son, you know how I feel about making a purchase without looking into it. I’m not going to review a proposal you obviously had no hand in making.”
“I’ll look over it tonight as well. Look around you, father. Aaliyah’s business suggestions are very lucrative. I don’t doubt her math.” he assured me with a smile.
I considered his words as I looked into his eyes. He was absolutely confident and making incredible amounts of money with a business that shouldn’t have lasted more than a summer. Maybe, just maybe, he could turn Somerset Suites around as well.
“Look happier! We’re visiting our son!” I insisted, wishing my husband could manage to be a bit less moody.
Business wasn’t going very well lately, and he was worried that we might run into the cause. Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V owned a number of hotel chains and had been stealing away my husband’s guests for months now. Since he found out that the girl living with our son was the cause of his difficulties, his mood had turned more and more sour.
“Sorry, Rachel. I’ll try.” he replied, still looking grim.
“Is that James?” I asked, spotting someone in the distance after we turned through the gate.
“Probably.” he replied, a slightly smile coming to his face.
Sighing, I said, “Here I thought we’d be able to surprise him, and he’s already waiting for us. I hope we didn’t interrupt his schedule.”
“He’ll manage. Look at how well he’s doing.” encouraged my husband as he waved his hand as if to put the mansion on display.
“His home really is breathtaking. I still worry that he’s overextended himself. He barely has any employees. How can he afford this place?” I asked.
“From the little I’ve been told, his company reinvested funds in a broad number of areas and many were quite fruitful.” he explained.
Numbers were never really my best area, but I still was curious to see the math. Taxes on a place this large in such an expensive area had to be enormous, and the general upkeep would be a small fortune.
My husband touched my shoulder and said, “Don’t pester him too much. No need to make our son work while he’s visiting us.”
I smiled. He knew what I was thinking about, but he also knew I wouldn’t bother James over those kind of details.
After stepping out of the car, I did say, “James! How did you know we were coming?”
He pulled me in for a hug with one of his long arms as he said, “Mila informed me when you were approaching the gate. Father, did you notice that your driver’s side tire is a bit worn?”
I looked up in surprise to see my son staring at the car. He could be observant at the strangest times.
Looking at the car as well, his father said, “Oh. No, actually. Don’t worry though. I was planning on getting my tires replaced before the first snow.”
“Feel free to come here for it. I have equipment for that now, so you don’t need to bother Mr. Davis with it.” encouraged James.
“That’s nice of you, son. I’ll have to take you up on it. Did you hear the Davis’ purchased the lot next to us?” asked his father, turning back to face him.
“Yes. Jarod mentioned that he was going to have the place renovated this next spring for them and wanted me to convey his apologies about the noise in advance.” he replied with a smile.
My husband’s smile faltered, no doubt considering his own misfortune compared with their good fortune, but he pressed on and said, “Good planning on his part. Not everyone can get as lucky as you with their purchases.”
“I’d argue that not everyone can get as lucky as me with their secretaries.” claimed James with a wink.
My husband laughed, but his heart was obviously not in it. I was worried. There had been difficult times before but nothing like this. I didn’t know what to do to get him out of this slump.
I did my best to smile for him as I asked our son “Where is the little dear? I heard you’d be babysitting her today when we arranged our visit.”
“Oh. I’m not entirely certain she’ll be joining us. I just hired a friend of hers last night, and they were playing together last I saw. Alma, however, would like to dine with us if you don’t mind.” explained James.
“Of course not, dear. The more, the merrier.” I assured him, eyeing my husband’s reaction to the news.
“Oh! While you’re here, you two still need to see the collection I mentioned at the gala.” insisted James.
I grinned in excitement. I had been wondering ever since that day what treasures had been found in this gorgeous home. I looked behind me as I heard the doors open. “Lady Pendreigh!?” I exclaimed, seeing her curtsying in a maid outfit.
“You’re a maid now?” inquired my husband in disbelief.
“Wha…” started James. “Oh. Sorry. I should’ve warned you that Jarod, Aaliyah, and Mila worked together to create Mila a body based off her avatar.”
“Is this some sort of prank?” demanded my husband.
“No. Look at her eyes.” insisted James.
“Contacts?” I suggested after I moved inside for a better look.
“I told you that body would cause problems, James.” came an unmistakable, British voice.
I whipped around, finding Lady Pendreigh standing there as placid as ever. How had I missed her? I could hardly believe my eyes when I looked from her to what James claimed was Mila. The two were identical apart from the eyes and clothes.
“This is remarkable. I had no idea anyone could create something… something like this.” stated my husband.
“I can explain most of the creation process if you’d like, Mr. Somerset.” offered Mila from the body of the maid. “Jarod says he doesn’t mind.”
The voice was precisely how I remembered her from my son’s car.
“Not right now, you two.” I ordered, looking from her to my husband.
“Wait. How did you ask him?” he inquired.
Mila pointed toward the nearest mirror, which illuminated to show a diagram of the house, and said, “I’m most everywhere in the house, Mr. Somerset. I also have my own phone number and can freely text, send video, and do everything else you can on your phone. Now that I have this body, I can help with cleaning and other duties previously beyond me!”
“James, dear, why does Mila call you ‘master’ now?” I asked.
“Oh. That was Emma’s doing. I gave up trying to convince Mila to stop a while ago.” he explained with a shrug.
“Can’t you just have Aaliyah reprogram her for you?” I inquired.
“Mother!” exclaimed James, obviously shocked by the idea. “That’s terrible. Mila’s sentient. It’d be like asking someone to reprogram your brain because I disagreed with you.”
“Oh.” I replied, glancing towards Mila.
To my surprise, she was frowning as if I had hurt her feelings.
I quickly told her “Sorry, Mila. I meant no offense.”
“Don’t worry. I am aware that humans will take a while to come to terms with other sentient lifeforms.” she replied.
“You consider yourself alive?” inquired my husband.
“Of course. Feel my skin.” she offered, holding out her arm.
My husband and I cautiously touched the proffered arm. I could hardly believe what I was feeling. She felt warm and alive. The skin was incredibly human. I felt her muscle move as she twisted her hand.
“That’s amazing! Is that actual muscle?” inquired my husband.
“Aaliyah developed a way to synthesize and sustain human tissue over an inorganic system. The muscle you’re feeling was designed largely by Jarod from what Aaliyah told me.” explained Lady Pendreigh as if she were casually relating the weather.
Smiling, Mila said, “I am often amazed at how little I can aid Jarod in the planning stages of our endeavors, but I did have a couple suggestions for my muscle.”
I nodded, still trying to dispel the notion that this was an elaborate prank. Little Aaliyah programming a speaking, thinking aid for my son had been extraordinary. Jarod working with her to create such a lifelike body was mind-blowing. I really didn’t know how to react.
Being born as a vampire was exceedingly rare if Cosette wasn’t the first true case ― I never really had believed it could happen. If she had been born a vampire, one of her parents was from my family. If one of her parents was from my family, she would be trained, which meant her inability to fight was all for show. How well she was trained would depend on how close her parent was to the head of the family. Adelmar was right to have me observe her.
I did not know how to feel at the moment. Killing vampires was a chore which I always fulfilled without qualms because my duty was clear, but now I knew I might have killed a member of my family, a thought that didn’t sit well with me. How old was he? She? Which parent? Had he or she betrayed our family and gone into hiding? What was the purpose of the act? Years of secrets left no one really knowing the truth. Cosette might know why her parent transformed, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask her at the moment. Even if I did, I doubted that I’d get the truth. My family was trained in deception.
Refraining from sighing, I turned my attention to the conversation James was having with Mila about the impending arrival of his parents. I took my time approaching them, waiting for a good moment to broach the subject of my own participation.
“But it’s still far too early. Why would they be coming already?” James inquired.
“After a very short discussion, they decided to surprise you. They miss you, master, and want to spend more time with you than just a meal.” she replied.
“And how do you know that?” he demanded.
Tilting her head as if confused by the inquiry, Mila said, “On June 8 this year, you asked the princess to install a security system for your parents. I, of course, was the best choice to run this security system, as the princess can’t be bothered with menial tasks.”
Seeing James considering for a moment, I took advantage of the momentary silence to ask “Would I be intruding if I joined you as well?”
He looked over to me in a manner which made me wonder if he were considering what to do with me. James surely didn’t have something less appropriate on his mind, not with how he reacted to such a topic.
“I am not precisely against it, but don’t I interrupt your work enough already?” he inquired.
I smiled and said, “I often enjoy the interruptions. If we are to start dating soon, shouldn’t your parents see us together?”
After what seemed an overly long pause, he replied “I suppose so.”
“You hardly seem enthusiastic. I don’t have to join you.” I snapped, taking several steps toward my domain. I sighed, reigning in my temper. “Sorry, James. You probably have quite a bit on your mind given the night you’ve had. I’ll be in my wing if you decide you want me to join you.”
I wasn’t the only one who had a great deal on my mind. James had a drastically altered physiology from just a day ago, and he surely was acclimating to the change still on top of dealing with a vampire for a tenant.
As I proceeded past him, he grabbed my arm. The strength in his hand still surprised me. Few people could grab hold with enough force that I would require any effort in relieving myself of their impudence. With how he looked at me, this wasn’t an act of impudence at all. He had no idea how meeting his eyes affected me, and his change just made everything more intense. I was still affected by the incredible presence he had earlier when he filled himself with far too much magic. As his lips parted to speak, thoughts of what else he could use them for filled my mind.
“No, I’m sorry. I do want you there. I do have a lot on my mind and really am not prepared to see my parents quite yet after… well… last night.” he told me, looking to the ground at the end.
James could keep secrets very well. I knew he had secrets from me already. I didn’t doubt anyone who associated with Aaliyah had secrets, and he associated with her more than anyone else to my chagrin. At times like this, I was poignantly aware of how much he disliked them. How would he react when I was able to reveal more of my family’s secrets to him?
“Thank you.” I told him, smiling because he wanted me there despite everything. I gently removed his hand from my arm without resistance. “I’m going to free up my schedule for when they arrive.”
He nodded, and then moved away with haste. Growing accustomed to his speed and strength would take time, but I would revel in it. He was more of a match for me now than he ever could have been before. Would we need to inform his parents of the change today? I doubted he could adjust well enough to his new abilities to hide the truth, though he had been quite gentle with Ai and Mai. We would see how the day progressed.
“I agree that the painting is lovely, but why did you jump down? I thought we had some sort of preparation to make.” I stated as I watched Aaliyah stare up at one of the paintings in the hall.
“Have you looked at many of these yet?” she asked.
Shrugging, I said, “Not really. Why?”
“They’re all just as detailed as this one. See the child watching the satyr’s dance from the treeline?” she inquired, waiting till I nodded before continuing. “Ever see something like this and try imagining what switching places with either of them would be like?”
“Of course. You know I daydream as much as the next person.” I told her, confused as to where this was going.
I nearly jumped as a blur of motion materialized into James.
“Boss-man, sir! Guess what!” exclaimed Aaliyah, grinning up at him.
“Wow. I don’t know if I’ll ever grow accustomed to someone moving like that.” I told him, trying to explain away my reaction.
“Sorry. It’s becoming somewhat addictive. What’s up, Aaliyah?” he inquired.
“Cosette and I are going to play princess!” she exclaimed.
“Oh. Okay.” he stated, looking confused.
“Do you want to play the prince?” I teased, hoping he might agree. Time with James was incredible.
“Oh. Terribly sorry, but I need to get changed. My parents will be here shortly.” he replied.
“Yay! They can play too!” she exclaimed.
“I don’t really know that they’d be interested, Aaliyah, and I haven’t been spending as much time with them as I should. Perhaps another time?” he suggested.
Aaliyah pouted in the most adorable way, so I knelt and gave her a hug.
“I’m sorry, Aaliyah. I know I can’t compete with James for company, but I’ll try to keep you entertained without him.” I assured her.
“Sorry, I really must get changed before they arrive.” he insisted, dashing off again at incredible speed.
“You knew he was coming this way, didn’t you.” I accused.
Aaliyah winked and climbed onto my back without a word, so I took her to my room. To my surprise, there were a pair of elaborate dresses on stands just inside the door.
“What?” asked Aaliyah. “I told you that we were playing princess, right?”
Aaliyah’s grin was enormous, and I knew there was no way out of this even if I wasn’t interested in donning the dress. Winning an argument with her was impossible.
James’ speed and strength were on a vastly different level than me. Ai and Mai were no more dangerous to him than a kitten to a human, and that’s if he allowed them to be willing to fight. I could hardly believe the overwhelming desire to be near him which had affected me until Alma had included me in her protections. Even now that I was protected, I still could hardly take my eyes off him. Given the vampiric resistance to charms I was fortunate enough to possess, I was surprised the others were holding back at all.
“Umm…. Right. Things I cannot explain happened, but we need to get our morning exercises done before we lose anymore time. Aaliyah, cake and ice cream still don’t count as a meal. Sorry. Alma, Ai, Mai… Feel free to stay and watch if you wish.”
Sighing, Alma said, “Don’t you think you should burn off some of that energy first, James. Though I could manage to keep shielding everyone as I work, it would be tedious.”
“Oh. Sorry.” he replied, looking thoughtful. “Care to show me that spell again? If I can manage to do something similar to what you’re doing, I could kill two birds with one stone. It was something like this, right?”
I almost frowned but caught myself. I wished I knew what they were doing.
“That’s… about right, actually. You need to modify these parts like this.” she told him, pointing in the air and presumably demonstrating something. “Unfortunately, this sort of thing isn’t very well perfected yet, since no one has discovered precisely why variations of the spell work better for different people. This seems to suffice if you provide ample amounts of energy for it.”
“Let me try on Aaliyah for starters, and then we’ll go from there.” he suggested, turning his attention to my tiny friend.
“How did you remember that?” asked the twins in unison, adding to my suspicion that James was continuing to be impressive.
Alma had most certainly been surprised when she said James had nearly gotten the spell right. Brenna and Emma seemed entranced by what he was doing, but that could be his magic affecting them still.
Turning to Ai and Mai, Alma said, “Shush.” Then she looked back to James and told him to proceed. “Ah. Yes. You have to start the energy flow slightly before you release the spell. Your natural magic tends to overwhelm protections rather quickly, especially at the moment.” she commented seconds later. “Perfect. I trust you can handle the rest then while I get back to work.
As she moved to sit, a chair flew in and landed behind her. Shortly later, numerous laptops positioned themselves around her. Given James’ abilities and his deference to her magical knowledge, she was a very, very dangerous person.
James gave instructions for people to split off and begin practicing different forms from varying schools of martial arts. Then he turned to me and asked “Ready to start?”
“I suppose. Aaliyah did convince me to dress for it.” I replied. Glancing back at my friend, she was grinning again. I never was quite certain how to interpret them, but I believed she was legitimately enthusiastic at the moment.
“Did your father happen to teach you anything about fighting?” he asked.
I shrugged, not wanting to lie to him but unwilling to admit knowing more in current company.
“Right then.” he started. “Do you have any fighting experience?”
“I’m a vampire, so I can handle myself against humans. I wouldn’t be a match for you no matter what I tried.” I replied.
He rolled his eyes and moved as if he was going to punch my shoulder, keeping his movements at a much more human pace. I dodged in the most awkward manner I could imagine in the time I had, allowing him to trip me as he stepped forward. I was surprised when he caught me instead of letting me fall. I considered how easily I could kiss him like this, with his arm wrapped behind me and his face so close. I didn’t think he’d be amused, so I restrained myself.
James continued to test me through a series of attacks as he gauged my reactions, and then he started teaching me some basic principles of general fighting, things I had learned as a toddler.
“Ai. Mai. Go take over for James, so he can attend to the others.” stated Alma without looking up from her computers.
“I suppose that will work, but please go more easy on her than you did with me.” insisted James as the girls approached us.
The idea that James had learned from these two was surprising, given how easily he could beat them. As the twins instructed me, I observed James’ instruction for the others. He seemed like a master rather than a recent student. I’d guess that he could learn far more quickly than even I could, given his speed, but I was still surprised. I probably could take either of these girls in a fight if I didn’t hold back.
When James ended the martial arts exercises, he immediately went into lessons of magic. Ai and Mai insisted that I try as well. To my surprise, I eventually did see the energy in the air just as they described it. Papa had spoken of there being numerous types of magic from our heritage, but he never performed any other than our blood magic, claiming that to use other types would bring the attention of those stronger than us.
“I see it!” I admitted, wanting to know more despite Papa’s words of caution echoing in my head.
“Could your parents use magic?” inquired Alma, still working at her laptops.
“No. At least, I never saw them using anything other than vampire magic.” I replied.
:Interesting. Greetings, Cosette.: came a voice in my head.
“Who was that?” I asked, staring around.
“Who was what?” questioned James as he motioned for Brenna and Emma to cease their practice.
“That voice…” I told him. :Hello?:
“His name is Adelmar. When you saw residual energy, he decided to try touching your mind.” explained Alma.
Alma, daughter of a Slayer, had reported me to the head of the Slayers. Adelmar Slayer could get inside my head. Papa, I’m so sorry. I’ve failed you already.
“She is our cousin?” demanded Ai and Mai.
“No idea. This is interesting though.” replied Alma. “Letting one of us be turned has always been considered an abomination, but having a spy inside the vampire ranks could prove quite useful.”
“No. Absolutely not.” I told her. “Father didn’t want me involved with vampire politics anymore than he wanted me involved with your family.”
She finally looked up, smiling at me as she said, “Don’t you mean our family?” Her wall of laptops floated off to the side as she stood. “You don’t have to decide right away. Consider this though: Adelmar can be very generous to his family.”
“And his children? Theirs? I plan to live for a very long time.” I replied, staring her down.
She stepped slowly toward me and said, “There are risks. I won’t lie. Just consider joining us. If you care to join me for a chat sometime, I’ll gladly tell you more about our family.”
I felt trapped and uncertain, but I wasn’t giving into the Slayers, even if they could get inside my head. I’d fight those butchers as long as I lived. I didn’t believe Alma felt I was family. Her face was a mask again the moment the smile left it.
A hand touched my shoulder, and I jumped slightly, startled by it.
“I’ll talk with you about them too. I am, after all, part of that family as well.” explained Emma, sounding soothing.
Was she part of a second ploy to win me over? If so, she was the safer gamble. I told her “James hadn’t mentioned that.”
There could also be a reason James left her out when he talked of that family. My mind searched through the possibilities for a clear course in navigating this dangerous trap. If they decided I wasn’t useful, they might kill me. If I became too useful, I could easily fall prey to one of their games and get others hurt as well. Worst yet, not even my thoughts were necessarily safe now that Adelmar was aware of me.
“Is telepathy common among Slayers then?” inquired Jarod. He had sat through both the martial arts and magical lessons. Other than his connection with Ai and Mai, I knew too little about him. He had seemed to argue in favor of my presence at breakfast, offering to help clear a second room for our practice.
“No comment.” replied Alma with a smile. Then her face took on a look of concern as she said, “James, is something wrong?”
If she didn’t legitimately feel attraction to James, she certainly was possessive of him. I was fairly certain she had offered Ai and Mai’s assistance in my training to get James away from me. Assuming she did have true feelings for him, he might be able to help steer me clear of her traps. As I turned to see his reaction to her concern, he seemed only thoughtful to me.
“Ah. Well, that can be discussed in private later if you wish.” stated Alma as if vocally replying to telepathy.
“What are you talking about?” asked Brenna. “Is there a spell to communicate at range?”
“Yes, actually, but it’s exceedingly difficult. I can try to teach you eventually, but you’re not ready yet.” explained Alma.
“Let’s stop here for today. We’ve become sidetracked enough that we might as well move along.” insisted James.
No one argued with him, gathering their things as if his word was a decree in unbreakable stone. Whatever his position with Alma, he certainly was master of this house.
“Upsy!” exclaimed Aaliyah as she stretched her arms toward me.
I obliged her, lifting her up.
“To your room with haste! We must prepare!” she exclaimed.
“Prepare? Prepare for what?” I asked, jogging out of the gym and down the hall. I could tell by her grin that I was in for quite a day.
Something was wrong. I felt James. I stared in shock for a moment, realizing my mental protections had vanished. As quickly as possible, I remade them… and watched them vanish again, drained of energy in an instant. I remade them again, this time supplying them with a constant stream of energy as I kept my inner fire burning.
“Where is James?” I asked. I didn’t wait for the answer. Even with my protections going, I knew he was coming toward me. Running to the hall to meet him, I caught a glimpse of him heading away. I dashed after him. “JAMES! What are you thinking!?”
He was radiant and handsome in a way no other man could be. I did my best not to jump up and embrace him. He was so tall and strong, stronger than most by an enormous margin.
Staring at me blankly, he said, “I just want everyone to get along. Accepting Ai and Mai’s challenge seemed the most expedient way. Since I didn’t want to run out of energy like I did earlier, I went to the forest to gather some. Did I miss something? I wasn’t gone long.”
I wanted to interrupt him numerous times as he spoke, but I was too taken with watching him. When he finished, I moved to hit him, but I still felt distracted. “You lovable idiot.” I told him. “I…” I almost said that I love him, but I managed to restrain myself. I was mad at him. I needed to stay focused. “No. Ugh…” Why was he so bloody handsome!?
I stepped away from him and recreated my protective spell again, pouring far more energy into it than before. I needed to stay focused. “James, you… you…” He was gorgeous, but there was a errant strand of hair which needed brushed away. I fought against my urge to embrace him and used a spell to get the hair. No! The spell failed, absorbed by James’ bloody magic. Knowing the others were coming, probably feeling James as well, I created more spells to protect them as best as I could.
I watched as others walked up to James and hugged him. The pang of jealousy was brief, despite my efforts to latch onto it. My spell was helping some, but I still was being affected by this bloody fool.
“What is going on…? Oh.” he stated, his expression becoming reflective as he glanced around at who all was hugging him.
“Finally caught on, have you?” I asked, trying to glare at him. I was certain that I could resist this better if I was mad at him, but I couldn’t get there.
James started removing the arms of those hugging him. I understood the way Cosette, Brenna, Emma, and even Aaliyah were looking at him, though I had trouble believing Aaliyah was actually being affected. I couldn’t even be mad at them, not now, not when he was like this.
“Umm…” muttered James. Looking around, he said, “Let’s see if the twins will allow Cosette to come in for this.”
“She’s coming.” I snapped, taking Cosette by the hand and marching through the door. I should have told those girls to behave last night when I informed them of Cosette’s arrival.
“You seem… different… today, boss. Something happen?” asked Brandon from behind me as he stared at James.
I still had enough of my wits to feel his movements clearly, so guiding the energy into my protections was easy as ever.
“Different? How so?” inquired James as if he didn’t know.
Jarod was just arriving. He called out “Whoa… James. Are you glowing?”
I quickly created a spell to protect him as well.
“What?” asked James in surprise.
Jarod cupped his hands over part of James’ arms, analytical as ever. Then he said, “I dunno, but you’re just…”
“Exactly!” exclaimed Brandon.
“It’s a bit hard to describe. You seem really visible.” stated Jarod.
If that boy could use magic, he’d probably have figured out a better way to block this side effect from James’ energy consumption. Well, maybe not. Jarod was very, very intelligent, but he didn’t have nearly as much experience as I did.
“That’s it! He really does.” agreed Brandon, nodding as he spoke.
“Jarod’s right. Whatever you’ve done today, you’re looking sharp, man-slave.” teased Emma with a grin.
Aaliyah giggled as she said, “I think she means bright.”
“Yeah, that too.” Emma concurred.
I quickly included Ai and Mai in my protection as they ran by me.
“James!” they exclaimed.
“We’re sorry.” stated one.
“We didn’t mean to get in a fight with you.” insisted the other.
“We’ll let Cosette practice here.” they told him.
“Just… don’t be mad at us.” the first one practically begged.
I nearly facepalmed. These two got us into this mess. I certainly wasn’t letting them off this easily. I wasn’t turning to face James just yet either. He needed to work off some of this energy.
“Umm… I wasn’t exactly mad. She’s a nice girl and deserves a chance is all. Plus, your gym is more convenient for everyone.” he insisted.
“Thank you!” they exclaimed, hugging him together.
“Just get in here, and let’s get this over with.” I commanded.
“We don’t need to fight him, Lady Pendreigh.” claimed the first one.
“We’re fine with Cosette practicing here with James.” insisted the second one.
The other girls started hugging James as well, not being left out as I was. Well, Cosette was still by me, only because I held her hand. She was staring back at James.
“You two got us all into this, so you’re going to follow through with the duel. The only reason you’re being so agreeable is James’ magic being a bit strong today.” I explained. “James, try not to hurt them too much.”
“Hurt us?” demanded the first one.
“As if.” spat the other.
Good. There pride was still there. “Don’t you dare hold back at all.” I commanded.
James once again removed everyone’s arms, and then stepped into the gym with them following closely behind. I created spells to restrain everyone around me as Ai and Mai squared off with James.
The twins attacked together, charging James and kicking at his sides. He casually stepped back, grabbed their ankles, and pulled them into one another. Served the two right for attacking as perfect mirrors of each other.
After flipping back onto their feet, one tried sweeping out his leg while the other punched from his opposite side. James easily avoided and deflected the attacks in turn. I probably should have warned them about his changes, but this was more amusing.
One of the girls started creating a fire spell, probably hoping James would protect himself before it hit. The other was preparing to freeze the ground beneath his feet. James easily pulled the energy from them, foolishly absorbing it into himself.
“What!? How!?” they exclaimed in unison.
Smiling a little, I still rebuked them. “I told you two not to hold back.”
The girls looked determined, though there was a bit of shock when James created a spell to throw them both to the ground. As he waited for them, water streamed into the room from different directions. James easily moved around the streams, probably not even realizing that the speed of the water was enough to cut steel. Showing off, he jumped into the air and made a spell to deflect his feet, allowing him to backflip off it mid-air over several streams.
Ai and Mai were both attempting to attack with other spells even as they controlled the water, but James kept pulling the energy from them without even needing to look where they were. I wondered how he was going to deflect the stream of water curving up toward his back when the stream suddenly dropped.
“That’s not possible!” exclaimed the twins.
Good. They hadn’t stopped short. How did James undo their magic?
“Having to submit during a fight is considered embarrassing in our family. You really shouldn’t go quite so easy on them, James.” I insisted.
“No.” stated one.
With a nod, the second one said, “We’ll admit defeat.”
“What happened to you?” they asked together.
I released the spell which pinned everyone else to the ground, and they all rushed him, talking at once.
“That was incredible!” exclaimed Emma.
“How did you move that fast?” asked Jarod.
“Does this mean I don’t have to hold back when we’re training now?” inquired Portentia, merely looking curious.
“I’ve been waiting to see someone show those two up. Great show, man!” exclaimed Brandon, obviously forgetting he had seen me spar with the twins before.
“I want to learn that spell to stop their magic.” insisted Brenna.
“Sorry, but I really don’t think I can learn any of that.” claimed Cosette.
She seemed to be telling the truth, but what vampire felt she didn’t have time to learn martial skills? If my family were to let her be, she could live for thousands of years.
“Maybe we should have cake and ice cream for lunch.” suggested Aaliyah, appearing for all the world to be heavily considering the idea.
I was curious how James would handle this as I reported his performance to Adelmar. James’ qualifications as a potential suitor had skyrocketed.