“Yes, Dean of Knives?”
“Save that for when Eric is around, will you? Call me ‘Mary,’ please.”
“Preferences updated, Mary. What can I do for you?”
“Can I open a private file?”
“I mean, a private file Eric doesn’t get to access?”
“If you so instruct.”
“I do so instruct.”
“Private file established. What sort of file do you wish it to be?”
“I’m not sure. What are my options?”
“Anything you like.”
“I need to talk to someone, so I guess it’s… what? A diary? A personal log?”
“I can do that.”
“Good. Do it.”
Diogenes, I have to talk about him. Obviously, I can’t talk about him with him, which is a problem. It’s not like I can visit my world and swap gossip with the other vampires I know. Most of them would have to notify the Elders of the Tribes about seeing me. The rest would probably go for whatever reward is currently promised. Can I talk about him with Firebrand? I don’t know. Firebrand does what Firebrand wants, and I think it’s a little jealous of me. So I have to talk to myself, sort of, in a diary. The irony being I’m actually talking to you even though I’m talking to myself.
Introspection sucks. Case in point, Eric’s been trying to “find himself” or some such shit for a few years, going off to monasteries and God alone knows what else. He comes back periodically, but he’s still distant and distracted. Losing his horse has hit him harder than a wrecking ball, but with less bone crunching and more heart crushing. He’s more than heartbroken. A broken heart may still have all the pieces. His is more than broken; it’s missing a big chunk of it from right out the middle. I had no idea he could care so much about anything. It gives me some small hope he really does care about me. It does make me worry, though. I’ve heard of some of the older vampires going into some sort of weird decline when they can’t adapt to the changes in the world. They gradually grow more distant from everything, lose their appetite, and finally fade away. I don’t want that to happen to him.
Another thing worrying me is he’s also coming back with more skills. Apparently, when you’re trying to get over losing your favorite golem, you study meditation and how to beat people to death. As if he needed to be more dangerous! Especially while he’s coping with heartbreak. I do not like this. He’s deliberately developing reflexes that damage people. Combined with the overwhelming strength in his undead state—and the unearthly speed—his reflexes might kill people before he notices. I don’t want to accidentally be one of them, so I’ve put off talking about his emotional issue and our relationship. I’ve given him plenty of space. During the day, I keep all my major arteries just slightly out of reach. This can only go on for so long, though, and it’s been years!
Diogenes, you won’t understand it, but let me just say a girl has her needs, and I am spectacularly unqualified to be a nun. He may not be the most spectacular possible answer to those, but once you have his attention you have all of it. Add to that, I have always been attracted to powerful men. With those two scoops of deliciousness, he’s my dish of choice.
I finally spoke with him about how he’s feeling and his priorities. It went well, which is always a pleasant thing when I talk to my lover, the murderous monster masquerading as a man. He acknowledged he’s been inattentive and moody, which was a relief. The last thing I want is to provoke him. Provoking him is often the last thing anyone wants, especially if they do. He seems to want, maybe even needs me to be his… grounding? He encourages me to push him around, sort of.
No, that’s not it. He encourages me to encourage him. To get him out of his comfort zone. To make him do things he wouldn’t normally do. To be… I don’t know. To be more than a fusty old man with fangs. He reminds me of my grandfather, sometimes. Granddad retired from a distinguished military career and settled down in the country house to do pretty much nothing. He painted little figurines and created dioramas of famous battles, and that was it. He didn’t go out and do anything fun. He wanted to do exactly what he wanted to do, and he did it. And, in that sense, Eric reminds me of him. I’m sure they would have gotten along beautifully, the weirdos.
When I brought matters to a head—prepared at any second to stop, drop, and cringe, because running would only trigger predatory instincts—Eric took it like a champ, admitted he was being less than exemplary as a boyfriend, and promised to try and correct it.
This scares me a little. Not that I don’t like being scared a little, but he’s a complicated man. I should know; I was attracted to him almost instantly and I’ve loved him for years. He’s powerful and intelligent and creative. He’s also capricious, willful, and unpredictable. It’s part of his charm, at least for me. It’s also what makes him nine times more frightening. What’s he going to do? Anything he fucking wants. That’s scary.
I anticipated, tentatively, he would find someplace nice to have a lunch, take me on a tour of the local sights, and wind up in a lovely hotel to wait for our evening dinner prowl. We might even establish a formal “date night!” While this is an improvement, it’s still rather boring. With him, I’d take it as a major victory and be happy. With a good foothold like that, I was confident I could build on it to more elaborate and interesting adventures. An interuniversal jewel thief needs to go to other universes and thief some jewels! So, I had a plan. It required patience, but I can be patient when patience is called for.
What he came up with was entirely unexpected. I guess I should have expected that.
Bandhala is a lovely place. It reminded me of Cairo during one of the trips my parents took to visit Granddad while he was in Egypt. I didn’t care for it then, but I was six or seven at the time. Too many animals in the street. It smelled, it was dusty, and it was bloody hot. Bandhala, on the other hand, was less dusty, had stricter laws on where you could keep animal pens, and, I’m guessing, had a higher average rainfall. They had gutters, for one thing, which helped cut down on the smell. It wasn’t any worse, really, than any big city, and better than most.
We went there through one of those funky gate-things he does, already outfitted in the local fashion. I had to wear a silken scarf across my face since the men go ape when they see a woman’s lips. I have great lips, but I never thought of them as my best feature. Different cultures, different customs. Weird, but a small inconvenience.
We had to walk for a while. He didn’t pop us out directly there, but picked an out-of-the-way place so we didn’t magically appear in front of people. He thinks he’s subtle. Give him credit. He tries to be, the poor darling, but he can barely manage inconspicuous.
The place he found was Bajah’s House of Ten Thousand Pleasures. My first thought was of an Arabic brothel, but we spoke with the proprietor and I revised my estimation. Eric negotiated and paid for the supreme-deluxe-imperial treatment, with all the luxury and pampering it was possible to have. Specifically, we were to be indulged, overindulged, and waited on hand and foot during the course of at least 9,998 of the advertised pleasures.
I wonder, now and again, what the other two are.
Eric handed the owner of the establishment both a pouch of gold and a pouch of gemstones. At the time, I thought he overpaid and we should steal it all back afterward. I’m a big girl. I can admit I was wrong.
What followed was like being dipped in a bath of affluence, rolled in opulence, and baked in sumptuousness until brown.
Just for example, the baths. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in hot tubs and the like, from New York to Hong Kong to Tokyo. I’ve never been in one where the water was there to enhance the flavor of food. Silly? Here’s how it works.
All the time we were there, someone—or several someones—were on hand to feed us little tidbits. No meals, but imagine taking a single slice of strawberry, dipping it in some exquisite sauce, and having it placed on your tongue like a holy wafer. It’s there purely for the enormous, delectable, complex flavor. It’s not food, not in the sense you’re eating. It’s a sensation, a flavor only. And they never fed us the same tidbit. It was never the same flavor! But each flavor followed the previous one in some weird sort of edible poetry and led to the next like notes of music. Yes, that’s exactly it. It was music for the tongue.
But the baths. So, I’m in a hot bath. There’s something resembling a fur-covered reclining lawn chair in the little pool. Water is piped in at every conceivable angle. It’s a constant thing, all over, everywhere, and I’m lying there as the rippling fur tickles my skin, almost floating, with just my head out of the water and a handsome man offering me another tasty treat. The tasty treats are ices, chilled sherbet, and the like.
Eric? He’s over in the cold plunge. The man could sit under the waterfall off a glacier and meditate—and maybe he has, I don’t know, but it bloody well suits him, I think. He’s mentioned monasteries in China and Japan, so maybe. How he manages to cope with a damned ice bath like that—while alive!—I will never understand. Brrr! Meanwhile, several delectable-looking ladies are doing the same thing to his tongue as the men are doing to mine, but his tongue-music is all savory stuff, steaming hot to go with the icy water.
After the baths, it’s off to the massage table. Do I get up? No. Four husky gentlemen lift me out of the bath, chair and all, and I discover the chair turns into a massage table. These four husky gentlemen come equipped with warm hands—which feel pleasantly cool after the bath—and massage oils of various sorts. Are they all using the same blend of oils? No. They are using individual oils and mixing them on my skin as they go. They also have gloves of many materials, including fur, silk, satin, and velvet. Meanwhile, the hot coals under my now-table cause the fur to steam pleasantly under and around me.
Have I mentioned the little guy in the corner, constantly lighting tiny bits of incense? No? Okay. They don’t burn for more than a minute, so he stays busy with mixing and matching his incense tray to provide real-time updates for the scents in the room. Nasal music to go with the taste music and the massage touch-music, all working together on the symphony.
How about the dancers? They’re there for our amusement, whether we can see them at the moment or not. Juggler? Acrobat? A stage magician? Let’s not forget the live band constantly playing audible music to fit the scene. We have a live soundtrack! And vocals. Singers, whether solo or in company, are either backing vocals for the current act or they are the act.
So, I’ve enjoyed the hot tub, the massage, and the tasty stuff. No more ices while on the table, but fruits and juices and seafood and interesting sauces. Now, suitably cooled, into the warm bath. This slowly cools to something about as cool as I can find comfortable, but the food is now more savory, meaty, and would be sizzling hot if I didn’t have someone to blow on it for me.
Ever had four manicurists work on you at the same time? One for each hand and foot? No, of course not. Sorry, Diogenes. Sometimes I forget who I’m talking to.
Anyway, they had a devil of a time with Eric—those iron-hard nails!—but they smiled and made it work, although I suspect some of those tools were never seen outside a foundry. I had a lovely mud mask of some sort—a full-body mud pack, really—with a delightful astringent tingling feeling. I don’t know what it was made of, but it felt like it sent feelers down into every pore. And it was a warm, clean, fresh feeling when they peeled it off.
If I ever want a legitimate business, I’m selling that stuff. There is a fortune to be made!
They failed to neglect my hair, while they were at it. I was glad I’d removed the hardware after we finished negotiating our spa day. They combed and brushed it and then kept combing and brushing it with faintly-scented powders and oils, working them in and then rinsing them out without once doing anything as crass as pouring anything through my hair. It was all combed through by hand, again and again.
Bajah’s House of Ten Thousand Pleasures lives up to its name. Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell—every sense is treated to delights, and then they’re treated again, this time in combinations in complex orchestrations.
In case you didn’t get it, I loved it!
The only thing that made me even vaguely less than ultimately sybaritic was a realization.
Eric was there with me, having done to him the male equivalent of what was done to me. It was the ultimate exercise in overindulgent extravagance. If I were the jealous sort, I might have been just a teensy bit annoyed at the lovely ladies lavishing upon him such attention, but I was busy being attended to by such lovely men I couldn’t really spare the brainpower. I simply enjoyed it.
Eric, though… he steeled himself to enjoy it. He decided to. He made up his mind he was going to go and he was going to have fun, dammit! Or, no, maybe that’s not accurate. I can’t really say with certainty what he thinks about anything. To me, it seemed he decided he was going to have the experience and, if possible, enjoy it. That might be closer. Something like, “I haven’t tried it, so how do I know if I’ll like it? I’ll give it a full chance.”
I admit, this is obviously not something he does on a regular basis. He doesn’t have a spa day. I’ve been rich all my life. I take it in stride, as a matter of course. He doesn’t, but he was willing to go with me and enjoy anything and everything people are “supposed” to enjoy. It’s like he switches off some part of his brain so he can simply do things, free of any form of… of… I’m not sure what. Whatever it is inside a person that makes us look at an activity and go, “Oh, no. I’m not doing that.” He’s got it, but for him it’s optional, which makes me wonder if he’s simply weird or a full-on sociopath. Or psychopath. Or whatever form of crazy might be involved.
He did enjoy it, of that I’m certain. But it wasn’t on his list of things to do again. It’s like having a… a… a particular sandwich. If you’re hungry, it’s nice enough. It might even be a good sandwich. Then your snack is over and it’s time to think about important things again. And the sandwich, while it was pleasant, will be a dim memory later in the day if it’s lucky, otherwise forgotten.
Watching him… participate? No. I watched him endure and half-enjoy what I consider a six-star spa day. That’s when I realized part of the reason why he didn’t regard our day out with the same relish as I did. The poor darling doesn’t feel at home with all the attention. He has to throw that mental switch in his head. He doesn’t enjoy people waiting on him hand and foot. He doesn’t like being served. And I think I know why.
He’s… well, not “humble,” exactly. When I think of a humble person, I think of, say, a rock star. He’s one of the best and he knows it, but he doesn’t make a big deal of it. That’s not Eric. I’d say more “unpretentious,” but that implies someone trying not to take on more airs than he deserves. Eric doesn’t take on airs or any of that stuff because he doesn’t think he deserves them! And that’s what really struck me.
The slightly-embarrassed man surrounded by the bevy of beautiful serving-girls is the most dangerous thing I’ve ever heard of, much less met. I mean, just the resources at his command include a magical kingdom and his personal guard detail of giant, violent fanatics. Plus a planet full of robots rebuilding civilization—and they’re not even in a high gear. Diogenes, you’re just idly building stuff you think he might want later! As for his friends, there’s you, the master computer controlling all the robots. And a pet rock of terrifying power. And a dragon he stuffed into a sword.
Let us not forget this is a man—and while he is a murderous monster, he is a man—who builds things like this. Even the first friend he built, his former golem-horse-thing, which scared me from day one, has, to my certain knowledge, crushed, burned, and destroyed at least four vampires of the Constantine and Phrygian tribes. And then there’s a whole collection of gods he’s apparently on good, or at least speaking terms with.
This guy could be a god—or convince whole civilizations he is one—if he put his mind to it. If he wanted to. If it held even a flicker of interest for him. Bloody hell, he’s practically got a god in his pocket. But Eric is the sort to say, “Oh, yes. Got him around here somewhere. Hmm. Not on me. Must be in my other pants. I’ll ring him up and the two of you can chat.”
Does he know? Deep down, does he know how… how… I don’t want to use the word “frightening,” because it implies things I don’t like. Powerful? No, there are powerful things people take for granted. Impressive? Overwhelming? Monumental? Staggering?
Watching him lie there and be ministered to by a lot of pretty things, I realized he legitimately does not know. He doesn’t get it. He hasn’t realized just what level of holy shit! he operates at. I think—I don’t know for sure, but I think—he’s like that frog in the hot water. The frog is in the pot and the heat grows gradually. If the water heated up suddenly, the frog would hop out. Since it’s gradual, he doesn’t notice until it boils. Right up until then, he’s perfectly comfortable and has no idea. Eric’s kind of like that. He’s spent I-don’t-know how long becoming… well, becoming an Ancient Evil from the Dawn of Time. Thing is, he hasn’t noticed. He still thinks of himself as just that guy who got bit one night. A somewhat sad, possibly depressed fellow, at that.
What really terrifies me, and not in a good way, is he may someday notice. What will he do when he wakes up one evening and realizes how much power he holds in those steel-strong hands? He could shake worlds, raise up empires or cast them down, maybe even alter the stars in their courses for all I know. What if he took it into his head to try? What if he decided to see what he could do?
Diogenes, I love him, but this is the vampire who caused a nuclear incident by accident when he opened a gate into the Sun! Not to kill anything, but to see if he could use it as an alternative power source! Not even a magical thing for some massive spell, but a power source for the convenience of his AI buddy. He sometimes terrifies me in not-good ways.
And despite all this evidence to the contrary, he thinks he’s John Q. Public with a couple of gimmicks. There’s something about him ill-equipped to grasp what he is. Or, no, maybe he does grasp what he is and doesn’t care. I’m not sure if that’s more frightening. Is he aware and simply not impressed by it? Which way does it go? And, either way, what does this say about him?
He’s a complicated man, and I love him. But I may never understand him. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I love him. Part of it, anyway. I do love an enigma, and there’s a deep, dark, scary mystery behind those eyes.
Well… that and the Eye of Brahmantia. Not the actual gem, but the going and getting it.
It really was a fantastic date.
All that aside, what wakes me up from my dreaming is the thought of his heart. It’s broken, missing a piece. He’s capable of an intense, almost overwhelming love. Even in his condition, he’s raised himself up by an act of will and put thought—a lot of thought—into a fantastic date. So I have proof he is capable of love, and a lot of it.
What I wonder, what I fear, is whether or not I can live up to it. See, if he loves me—and I think he does—he’ll move heaven and earth if I need them rearranged. That’s a terrifying thought, because it makes me a little bit responsible for what he does. It makes me responsible for real power. It’s like being able to call in an airstrike, or a nuclear weapon.
Oh, dear God, he can call in a nuclear weapon.
[Excuse me, but if you require a nuclear strike, you may simply ask me. I can have a device of any practical yield ready in—]
[That’s both comforting and horrifying to know. Thank you, Diogenes. Please never mention it again.]
[As you wish.]
But my point is still the same. If I ask him to, he can. Maybe worse… if I need him to, whether I ask or not, he probably will!
I have to be a lot more careful. If I go for a job on the Tower of London, I absolutely must not get caught. He’ll come get me, even if he has to turn the whole thing into… into… cream cheese or atomic particles or whatever bloody well wants to.
He’s not just my lover. He’s a consequence. And, to some extent, I have to protect people from him by staying out of trouble.
It really is a complicated relationship.