In the forested hills above Baudobriga, Amleth’s departure hung over us, heavy and hollow. The sudden loss of his silken voice was deafening; my shoulders felt bare without his arm constantly slung around them.
“You have questions,” Godrik said, toeing the grass. No doubt he felt my inner turmoil.
“Will Tarquin be angry?”
“In due time he will be relieved. Amleth has many gifts, but communicating clearly through his maker’s bond is not one of them. Tarquin won’t know it was just me straightening out his child until Amleth reaches Constantinople.”
“I meant about us.” We had both blood bonded with the raven-haired slip of a night walker.
“No. If anything, it is a reassurance. Our blood pact is a declaration of solidarity with Tarquin’s bloodline.”
“But why give him your blood now? After all this time?”
“You wished to be like blood brothers. Does it not make the illusion seem more real?”
“Come on. You didn’t just do that for me,” I said, unconvinced by his deflection.
Godrik stared at the ground for a long moment, as if it might yield up an answer. He let out a long sigh. “Amleth’s existence is entirely because of me and not because of me at the same time. It haunts him…haunts us,” he corrected. “Sometimes a journey is overshadowed by a bad start. Amla and mine, ours has never been a simple path. You have opened old wounds, min son.”
The meaning of this jumble of strange aphorisms was lost on me, but the sadness that rang out through our bond was clear as a bell. “Forgive my ignorance, maker.” I slid down to sit, head hanging. “Please explain.”
He shuffled around the campfire, staring up at the stars before wandering back over to where I sat. “Tarquin brought that poor boy to me as a gift. He thought it would please me to have a pet that resembled…” Godrik swallowed nervously and scanned the area. “…that resembled the one who made me.”
It dawned on me that Tarquin must have known my grandsire. I was desperate for him to continue.
“He even supposed I might turn him. I was not pleased. Not one bit.”
An involuntary shiver worked its way down my spine. ‘Terrifying’ was too mild a word to describe a displeased Godrik.
“Why Tarquin believed I would want a pet I will never understand. I do not keep humans and neither shall you. It is an extraordinarily dangerous habit. We are not meant to play house with our food. We are predators of other predators. Weaker and mortal, yes, but they are predators all the same. Do not ever forget this.”
I quickly agreed. “What happened when you refused Amla?”
Godrik caressed the waist-high weeds with open palms. The weeds danced in jagged currents along with the breeze, rustling against his leggings. The gesture seemed almost gentle. Then he tore off handfuls of the green tips and scattered the ruined shreds to the wind.
“Tarquin and I argued bitterly. Words were said that cannot be unspoken. Memories dredged up that should have long been forgotten. In a rage, I drained the boy.”
“You meant for him to die.”
“Yes. But Tarquin revived him and saved him after I stormed off. Some time later, I came upon him in our local brothel. Imagine my shock. He was feasting like a piglet on one of my regular meals and turned to me and said ‘she smells like you Master Godrik’ with a big bloody smile. I wanted to be furious, but he was so new and naïve.” Godrik closed his eyes at the bittersweet thought.
“He was lucky you didn’t destroy him. Tarquin took a bold risk in turning him.”
“Aye. He was worthy of the dark gift, in the end. I saw at once how well the transformation suited him. He doesn’t mean to spellbind others, you know. His irresistibility is simply part of his nature.”
“Do you regret that he is not yours?” I ask softly.
Godrik gave me a ferocious look. “Never,” he replied, nostrils flaring. He dropped down on crossed legs beside me. “I could never have had a child that wasn’t of my own choosing. That is why Amla may have my blood now. Our bond will never be more or less than one of fellowship. He understands that fully at last.”
‘He chose you. He will always choose you.‘Amleth’s pained words return to me with full force.
“I cannot imagine living so long in the shadow of your rejection,” I admit.
Godrik scoffed. “It had nothing to do with him. He knows this.”
“A rose can never be a thistle, no matter how many thorns it grows. Amleth is too lovely to be so unfavorably compared to the bloodrinker that gave me this life. He did nothing for me; he meant even less to me. Tarquin was a fool to think I should want a reminder of such…worthlessness.”
His words were angry and pained. I did not dare speak.
Godrik lapsed into downtime, deep in thought, a hard glare burning into the sky overhead. Only the creeping slide of the stars overhead marked the slow turn of time as I waited for my sire to confess his secrets.
“I was orphaned,” he admitted finally. Even as he constricted his end of the bond, an indescribable despair leaked past his iron-clad shields. I edged toward him and rested my head in a crooked arm.
“It happens, maker. It is not shameful,” I offered, thinking of the many Norse children raised in adoptive families.
“Not through death.” Godrik’s eyes narrowed. “Abandonment. The night I was turned.”
I felt something constrict in my chest where my human heart used to beat. Perhaps it was simply some leftover human habit- I cannot know. I reached for him, but he yanked his arm away.
“You never have to be alone again. Ever,” I swore.
At that he relaxed slightly and his features stilled into an unreadable mask. I did not know then that this was the look Godrik gives as he strings his deadly bow – right before he snaps.
“Save your empty promises,” he hissed in the same terrifyingly low tone he had used the night before, moments before he’d leveled me with the worst beating I had ever endured.
“Maker?” I hiccupped in shock.
“Your words are meaningless when I have a progeny who won’t last a full year, let alone outlive me.” Contempt roiled off him in waves. I decided I much rather liked him yelling. Yelling meant I’d only annoyed him with my foolishness. This…this was dangerous.
“Don’t say that,” I stammered, instinctively backing away.
He sucked at his teeth, a sure sign that he was about to do something frightening.
“We still have the little matter of your punishment to resolve.”
My mouth dropped open. “I…I thought…”
Godrik’s eyebrows raised in amusement. “Oh, you thought you were absolved? My good graces are not so easily won.”
“But the lashes….”
He snickered cruelly. “The beating? That was just to get your attention. Have I got it now?”
I dropped my face into my hands and took several pointless breaths.
“Tell me what I must to do make this right.”
“You are going to kill Kaspar.” A malicious glint flashed in his eyes.
Who in Hel was Kaspar? A possibility dawned on me.
“Please tell me this isn’t your ‘friend’ in Mainz,” I groaned miserably.
“The very same.”
The elder nightwalker would destroy me like a fly. “It’s a suicide mission,” I declared.
Godrik tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Hmm. It would seem so. Not unlike running around whoring and hunting in the territory of your maker’s enemy after explicitly being told not to do so. Tell me, how would you have defended yourself had Kaspar or one of his cronies got a hold of you?”
“I…I would have relied on Amleth to get us out of it. He said no one crosses him since he represents the Consul.”
It was an ugly thing to admit. I had planned on hiding behind the same friend I had purposefully endangered to cause him trouble. The very same creature whose dark looks and secret smiles and hysterical laughter I now greatly missed.
“Coward,” Godrik jeered. The word stung in my ears and I could not bear to meet his gaze. “That was your only play? The first thing you learned about Amleth was that he came running to me when someone rifled through his sock drawer. What if I were unable to reach you in time? How do you know Amleth’s title would shield you? Do you even know what the Consul does or whether their authority is respected by Kaspar?”
The questions cascaded in a downpour of my shortcomings.
“No,” I murmured.
“No. You don’t know the first thing about anything. So you are a coward and an ignoramus.”
His disappointment was physically painful. I felt positively ill. “Forgive me, maker. Please…”
He was on his feet now, towering over me with balled fists. “Eternity is yours to lose, yet I am the one who gave it to you. Are you in such a rush to leave me for Valhalla? To toss away the greatest thing I could bequeath another?” he spat hatefully.
“Then figure out how to kill an elder and maybe you’ll appreciate why what you did was so incredibly, staggeringly stupid!”
“Well are you in such a rush to send me to my true death?!” I retorted. “I’ll be killed!”
“Now you are starting to see my point.”
“Then you will help me?”
“Why should I? It is not my punishment.”
“Fine!” I cried. “At least tell me where I can begin recruiting others for a militia.”
“Oh, my dear, dear Eirikr,” he sneered. “Putting the sharp end of a sword into your opponent is far from the only solution. Brains will win over brute force nearly every time. You’re going to have to learn about finesse and discipline. And as it stands, you stink at strategizing.”
He taunted me with a laugh and shook his head. The stench of dried blood encrusted into his matted locks assaulted my nose and I suddenly felt irate that he demanded so much of me when all I wanted was for him to bathe regularly.
“I stink?! You smell like a butcher’s block! How dare you insinuate that I am anything less than a warrior prince of…”
“A ‘warrior prince’?” he mocked, clapping his hands in amusement. “With a track record to match! You chased a ragtag band of sea pirates in circles for a few years until you were uneventfully cut down in your prime. The only thing you were going to reign over was a grave. Call that victory, do you? You lost your silly human crown the moment you gained it.”
I bit my cheek hard in outrage, filling my mouth with blood. No one had ever called me a loser before. Worse, it was true.
Godrik left me there to ruminate hotly on how little I had to show for myself in my undeath. I didn’t speak or move for over an hour. When at last he realized I was too arrogant and uncompromising to budge, he spoke from where he sat across the field in front of our small campfire, sharpening his sword methodically by its light.
“In this life, you have no lands, nor have you titles. Lands need defending, young one, and are hardly ever worth the effort. Titles? No more than an extra puff of air after your name. We have nothing, you and I, and so we are free.”
I spat on the ground at his words. Bloody spittle caught on my chin and Godrik clucked disapprovingly at me.
“You cling to useless human values,” he said.
“And you value nothing!” I barked in return, launching to my feet. It was too much. I felt insulted and useless and inept. Frustration thrummed in the base of my throat and my fangs shot loose. Bloodlust tore through my veins, hot as a flame, and every fiber of my being wanted to feed the bloodlust with violence.
Godrik was at me in split second, twisting my head with a handful of hair and dragging me to my knees before him. “Submit!” he commanded, pulling my braids hard. “Submit to me now!” I felt my legs turn to jelly and I crumpled at his feet.
“Do you think freedom is so worthless? That the luxury of a concerned maker is so stupid!?” Godrik hissed into my ear, fangs dangerously close to my neck. He jerked again at the hair caught in his iron hands. His anger rumbled through the bond like the pounding darkness of a terrible storm.
“Perhaps I should tell you of what it is like to be unable to go where you like and do as you please. To be chained like an animal for years on end. Maybe you would like to hear about the many, many rapes? How I was tortured and starved? Or…”
“Stop. Please, maker,” I implored. He whipped me around to face him. The look in his eyes was wild.
“I could command you to hurt me. Then you would understand the disgust one feels when ordered to do something against your will. Is this what you need to understand your freedom? I will make you hurt me! As your maker, I…”
“Godrik, no! Please!” I threw my arms around his shoulders and tucked my head into his neck. “You promised!”
He was quivering in fury, stiff and unyielding.
“I am sorry. I am sorry! I was a fool,” I sobbed into his belly, holding him tightly. Just as quickly as the tempest rose in him, it evaporated into thin air. He slumped against me.
“You could have been taken from me, Eirikr,” he whispered almost inaudibly. “I cannot…I will not allow it.” Godrik buried his face in my hair and took sharp breaths of my scent. “I cannot lose you.” I ran my hands over his shoulders and down his back, trying to soothe him. I spoke ardent words for him, of my absolute dedication and love. And the harder I tightened my grip on him, the more he seemed to melt into my ferocious, desperate embrace.
Unexpectedly, the pinching sting of razor-sharp teeth hit my throat. Godrik drank greedily from me, taking long, deep draughts that pulled at the core of my being. I felt too much at once – the total pleasure of his bite jumbled with the anger of our argument. Quickly he bit his own wrist and pressed it to my mouth. When the smoky honey of his blood reached my tongue, all was forgotten. We were one in the blood and it was the only apology necessary.
After several minutes, he released my neck and extracted himself out of my lap. Taking my large hand in his, he drew me to sit with him near the fire pit.
He licked his lips. A look of hard determination settled over his features. “It was I who promised you eternity, not the other way around. I owe you a far more aggressive education. I have had a millennium to make enemies. Your skills are good for one so young, but ‘good’ will not suffice with a maker such as myself, nor will it withstand the cruelties that this world holds for our kind. I need you to be superlative if you are to survive.”
I thrust up a haughty chin. Godrik gave a strange half-smile at my gesture and touched the curve of my ear with two fingers. One might be tempted to say he looked at me with something akin to pity.
“My verdict stands,” he said softly. “You must kill Kaspar.”
If I could have broken out into a sweat, I would have.
“Between your untimely human demise and this stunt with Amleth, it occurs to me that you are far too willing to go down in a fight for a quick taste of revenge. It is a weakness that will be used against you if you do not unlearn it. Immediately. I can already foresee ten different ways an enemy might draw you in if they had you spoiling for a fight.”
I set my jaw, seeing the pattern of my own defeat.
“You’ve no motive for killing this old blood drinker, other than I demand it. Such a thing is counter to all reason, just like your rash attempts at revenge. Let us hope you consider this plot with better forethought.”
I mustered a grunt in response.
“Your default position on elder blood drinkers should be one of wariness and extreme caution. I am almost universally viewed with suspicion and disdain by them.”
“But why?” I demanded.
“I realize you were barely alive at the time, but what part of being called Death by most of our kind did you miss? It’s not exactly a vote of confidence from a people whose star quality is avoiding death.” He started laughing. “Gods, I’m beginning to sound like you.”
“You mean witty and alluring?” I tried, seeing him soften slightly.
He rolled his eyes and brushed off the hand I had placed on his thigh. “I cannot be bought, lured, or provoked into doing anything I do not wish to do. I have always been unpredictable to others. No one likes someone who seemingly lacks motivations.”
He was still an untamed madman to me too, but I saw his point. As a maker, he now had one enormous, blond motivation.
“I make you weak,” I stated bluntly.
“No. I make you a target. You make me…more.”
I nudged the end of a log in the fire with my toe. “I miss the Baltic Sea. Things were easier then.”
“We can go back. We will go back. But not yet.” A conspiratorial smile spread across Godrik’s face. “We have only worked on feeding and passing among humans this first year. You must now learn the art of our politics. Why be good at it when I know you can be the best, Eiríkr?”
The compliment wrenched an unwilling smirk from me.
“If you deliver me an area without a lord, Norseman, I’ll teach you everything you need to know about the things you seem to value. But I warn you, you will not feel the same about territories and titles when we’re through.”
I was caught entirely off guard. This punishment was a lesson, another of his games. He had my undivided attention. “Teach me, maker. Teach me everything.”
“I say kill Kaspar. How do you begin? Not by rushing at him headlong with your sword, I hope.”
“Gather intelligence?” I suggest.
“Very good. How?” he pressed.
“Does he know your face?”
“No, but my reputation precedes me. My tattoos constantly threaten to reveal me. A slip of my tunic and I am easily recognized.”
“Then you cannot go with me. Will they have heard about the Denmark massacre?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
“I could go to Kaspar’s court and claim to have lost my maker in Roskilde. Ask for shelter. Spy upon them.”
“Clever, since no one your age should be running around without a maker nearby, but incredibly stupid by any other measure.” Godrik shook his head. “You would put yourself into their power by choice. That is the exact opposite of what I’m trying to teach you.”
“Damn,” I muttered.
“You must know everything that you can learn about a situation before you walk into it. Reconnaissance must be conducted with nothing less than absolute stealth. In these first few months, you will simply practice how to veil yourself from our kind before you go anywhere near that city again. You didn’t have the first clue that I’d followed you into Mainz and we are of one blood.” Godrik whacked me playfully up the backside of my head. “Dummy!” he added. “You’d better start by learning how to be aware of your environment and how to cover your tracks. The German courts were treacherous back when I knew them and I expect they’re no better now. You’ll need details. Lots of details.”
“Like what? Who supports Kaspar? Who holds grudges against him?”
“Yes, very good. Who takes orders from whom. Everything about their security setup. Who comes, who goes, where and why. And money. We need to find out where their money comes from.”
“Why is that?”
“Finances easily cripple those who hold the reins of power. People assume they can either buy loyalty or create the appearance of strength with material things. But bought loyalties run out the moment the coin purse does and gold thrones are only as good as the asses sitting in them. There are many pressure points that can be leveraged to create factures in a regime, these are but a few. Above all, if you can discover where any of them go to ground or what supernatural talents they may possess, their lives will quickly be yours to take.”
I nodded, hungry to learn.
“Write to Amleth. Do not reveal your task, but have him send you several texts from the things I’ve left with his maker. You’ll want The Deeds of Alexander and The Art of War – both are important works on strategy that you should memorize cover to cover. Political assassinations take planning and time if you have any intention of surviving the fallout.”
“And you need better combat training. You cannot rely on having superior strength anymore, so we’ll need to invent a more effective set of techniques suited to your height. Perhaps a combination of martial arts. I’ll think on this more.”
I started to feel excited by the challenge.
“Godrik, do you know how to play any tafl games?”
“Of course. I know a great many variations of chess. Why?”
“If I make us a board, would you teach me better gaming strategies?”
He gave a boyish smile and carded a hand through my hair. Impulsively, Godrik leaned over and pinched the dimple in my chin. I leaned into him and his lips found mine. He kissed me hard, tongue curling into the depths of my mouth.
“You’ve been bored. I should have realized,” he breathed against my skin.
“Oh, I think you know perfectly well how to keep me occupied,” I gasped, hands wandering over his clothing towards the lacing and clasps I knew would free him.
He tilted his head back, exposing his firm neck to me, and looked up through his long, dark lashes with shining eyes. “You are intelligent and relish having goals. You need more stimulation.”
“Stimulation? Gods, how you seduce me, Godrik…”
“I do not,” he denied.
“You’re doing it right now. If you could only see yourself. You seduce me with your every word and glance.”
“You only see what you wish to see,” he chided.
“Mmmhmm,” I hummed, kissing his throat.
In a single leap, he tackled me flat on my back, pinning my arms above my head.
Kneeling over me, he whispered conspiratorially into my ear, as if to reveal his greatest secret yet. “I haven’t begun to teach you of seduction, Eiríkr Godrikson. We’ve no need of such lessons just yet. But do not doubt: you will know it when I do.”
His eyes found mine. When I realized there was no bluff in his admission, I shivered and swallowed hard.
“Now get up. We have work to do.”
Godrik was silent as we made our way down the hillside into town. The first time my large frame brushed past the dry, tangling fingers of some overgrown brush, they snapped loudly. Godrik stopped dead in his tracks. He said nothing and did not turn around.
When we emerged from the thick forest into the clearing of the sloping riverine meadow, our presence startled a slumbering sparrow. It screeched in surprise and flapped from its nest. Godric snorted and shook his head. “That’s twice your clumsy banging around has told another vampire of your presence. Twice you have already died tonight. Don’t make another sound until we reach the main road, or I’ll whip you again.”
It had been one thing to know intuitively that he was immensely stronger than me; it was another thing entirely to experience a tiny fraction of that strength- to know, indeed, that he might willingly use it. I took the threat literally and found myself walking in a slight crouch, stepping only in the slight depressions in the damp earth where my maker’s own footsteps fell. I traced his odd patterns, trying to appreciate how and why he moved just as he did, in light springy steps, toes first. Not a single leaf crackled or twig crunched.
“Now go back to camp and descend again, this time using your true speed.”
I’m certain my eyes widened.
“Remember: not a sound,” he warned.
Godrik waited while I made the trek again in short, near invisible bursts. When I arrived once more at his side without error, he offered no words of praise. He simply flipped up the hood of his dark green wool cape. I followed suit and we slipped out onto the broad, well-graded boulevard – an ancient remnant of the Roman’s engineering feats, Godrik explained.
“Head south,” he instructed. I felt the twist of hunger in my throat but said nothing. He fell behind me apace.
“Are you my servant, apprentice, or son?” I inquired, assuming he would choose our cover story for the evening.
We trudged at human speeds, the ever-present stone wall to our left. A few carts drawn by miserable donkeys passed us going north and we only needed to dip our heads in greeting to escape notice. Only when a fortified wagon drew up from behind us did Godrik hail the driver. He ascertained how far the man intended to travel.
Godrik produced a heavy gold coin and pressed it in his palm. “If you continue on to Brigantium–Bregentz and give this letter to a soldier named Amleth of Cumbria stationed in the old fort by the lake, the recipient will reward you with 10 more of these gold pieces.”
“So much?” the man gasped and tried to take the money. I, too, had not reckoned that mail would be such an expensive proposition as a night walker.
Godrik gripped the driver’s hand and pulled him closer. “You will not open the letter. You will speak to no one else of its existence. Do not fail in this task.” The man nodded, fully under my maker’s compulsion. The wood wagon lurched forward and, with it, the first letter I had ever penned.
At a fork in the road Godrik ordered that we turn left. We crossed the Rhine River by way of a rickety footbridge and continued due east, following a stream. It was not long before we came upon a large hamlet. The narrow lanes in the hamlet were deeply rutted with mud and pig excrement. Peasants sat on wood benches amidst the rot and stench, washing away the day’s labors with horns of ale. We kept to the outskirts where the stream divided the town from the dense German forest. Godrik paused at a maple tree situated on a hillock and, appraising its vantage point over the village and apparently liking it, leapt up to one of its low branches like a bird.
“Go feed. Bring me my meal here. Let no one see you.”
I hesitated. Godrik had never had me choose his meal. “Who would you like to feed upon?”
His dangling legs swung happily. “Procuring well is about identifying the kind of blood other night walkers desire. It shows that you understand their most basic interests. Show me that you know what I like.”
“So another test. Super. I’ll see what I can manage.”
I set off into the village, darting down a shadowy alley, avoiding the intersections where torches lit the main paths. Following my nose and ears, the sound of giggling brought me to the threshold of a one room house with naught but a single candle lighting its roughhewn walls.
“Good evening, ladies.”
They were sisters – fraternal twins – and were quick to hurry the client they had been servicing out the back door, his trousers still unfastened around his buttocks. Perhaps their eagerness came from the expensive cloak pin I wore, or perhaps it was the promising way I filled their door frame.
“What can we do for you tonight?” they said in unison. One had yellow-spun hair of cornsilk and the other, golden brown locks and big, brown doe-eyes eyes.
“It is what I would like to do to you that we ought to discuss.”
With a quick glamour to keep them amiable, I fell on the blond and bit her between the thighs. She smelled of many men and her sister. Such wanton lasciviousness excited me, but her eyes held a vacant stare. She watched the ceiling in boredom as I fed and tried uselessly to please her. It soured the meal for me entirely and I gave up before finishing.
Turning to the prettier brunette, I was disheartened to discover that she was weeping in the corner. She muttered something about never being chosen first.
“Oh for the love of Odin,” I swore and glamoured them to forget me. I had thought to give the brunette to Godrik, but tears and melodrama were unacceptable. Back in the streets, a warm disgust gripped my half-filled stomach. If I couldn’t find my own decent meal, how on earth would I locate someone pleasing to my maker? He didn’t seem to have any clear pattern that I could discern. What did he even like?
I crept silently, lingering under eaves and observing the townsfolk carefully. The people lived in abject squalor. My supernatural senses could barely tolerate the incessant buzzing of flies and rank filth that permeated the place.
From the corner of my eye, the glint of a gold flashed in the dull night. A stumpy, wrinkled man was pocketing a coin from a boy. He kicked him back out into the street with a vicious slap.
“An’ don’t come back till you’ve got at least twice this, you dirty, whoring thief!”
Recalling Godrik’s painful words, I knew I had found my man. Like a breeze, I materialized before him. His sweat was acrid and his breathe even worse.
“An’ wha’ do you want then?”
“Invite me in,” I demanded.
He conceded, grumbling, “I ain’t got no more stock tonight. They’s all sold out.”
Glancing about the man’s dingy quarters confirmed he was no ordinary shopkeeper or tradesman. “The boy that just left…?”
“Ack! You’ll never catch him now. He’ll be hidin’ out till next Tuesday knowing the beatin’ he’s due to get. Cheatin’ little rat.”
A plan quickly formed in my head. “Then perhaps you’d be interested in acquiring something more…exotic.”
The old man pursed his lips. The straggly beard gracing his oily face screwed sideways in a grimace. “Go on.”
“I have a very talented young boy in my employ, just up the way. He’s learned the most unusual tricks while traveling in the Mediterranean. Shall you come see him?”
He dithered with a few objects on a shelf in feigned disinterest. “I suppose I could have a looksee.”
I must have grinned like a fox.
The greasy pimp huffed and puffed his way up the hill. When we reached the summit, Godrik dropped from his perch in the tree, startling the human so greatly that he would have tumbled right back down into the meadow below had I not caught him by his grimy shirt collar.
“This is the boy. How much?” I said.
The man gave a figure that betrayed the greed in his eyes.
“You wish to buy me?” Godrik asked, cocking his head. He scented the human through parted lips.
“Aye. Your master don’t want you no more. Now be a good lad and let me inspect you.”
Godrik’s tone dropped. He stepped closer, pupils blowing wide. “I wish to inspect you too. What do you think is beneath all that fat and gristle? Is there more to you than just…meat?”
“‘Scuse me?” the man stuttered, slowly realizing something was off about the boy.
When Godrik struck, it was untraceable. The pimp grabbed at a sudden, sharp pain in his neck. He was bleeding. The boy stood before him just as he was a moment ago, only now there was a stain of blood across his mouth. The man screamed and ran. Godrik watched him impassively, appearing bored by the predictability of his flight. He allowed the pimp to pant and flounder, gaining a little ground and a thread of hope, only to drag him back to the maple. He toyed with his prey for hours: wounding him in quick passes, letting him escape, only to further drain him. When he was done, he was not done, for he desecrated the corpse with a violence I had yet to witness. If there was anything human in me still, it was not present as I watched my maker strip muscle from bone. All that was left of the vile sex trafficker was a red smear upon the hillside. From the steaming sludge, Godrik retrieved a blood-soaked satchel of money – the proceeds of the dead man’s commerce – and chucked it at me.
I stared dumbly at the purse in my hand and then to my maker, who strolled off as though nothing had happened.
“What is this for?” I called after him.
“A reward. And a reminder.”
I sighed through strained eyes, the bloody scene in my head too dizzying to make sense of Godrik’s puzzles. I could only trot after him, hoping for clarification. Godrik bid his time, as usual.
“You procured well tonight,” he offered. We were just rounding the bend where the stream fed into the river.
“I saw him shaking down one of the chattel boys for pay. I knew he was for you.”
Godrik hummed. “As I suspected. It was the gold that caught your attention. The fact that he grew fat off the sale of children was only secondary to you, though it was what sealed his fate. Remember that. Gold draws the eye. You never know who might be watching.”
I touched the wet leather satchel at my side, rolling its gems and stamped gold pieces in my fingers. The little treasure was dangerous, then. Another of Godrik’s tests. As it was, I was struggling to keep track of all the lessons I was supposed to be remembering.
“The pimp was a hypocrite,” Godrik explained.
“Men who torture and maim, who love to cause others’ pain – they need the fear of another to feed their own pleasure and yet they all secretly fear what they do. They fear receiving the very pain they love to give. Did you not hear that stinking bloodbag beg me for mercy?”
“He only shut up when you broke his jaw,” I conceded.
“Exactly. How many jaws do you suppose he broke in his pathetic little life? He was terrified of the same backhand when it didn’t come from him. They are all cowards in the end. Their violence is no more than an expression of need and fear. It is vulgar. Hypocritical.”
He had lost me completely. Abandoning any pretense of my success, I decided to be blunt. “So you didn’t kill the pimp like that because he was evil?”
“Evil?” Godrik snorted. “I obliterated him because I chose to. Whether and how one kills isn’t an ethical stance, child, it is a choice realized through brute strength. Nothing more.”
When he looked at me, his eyes were still pools of black, his fangs drawn down. “But…you are bloodlusted!” I protested. “How is our hunger and the violence we do to feed it any different?”
“Ah, young one,” Godrik said, lapping a splatter of blood at the corner of his mouth and rolling it sensually in his tongue. He threw an arm around my waist, staining my clothing beyond repair. “The only real monsters are those who do not fear what they do. Those who do not need to do violence, but simply choose it because they can. That is the power of a true immortal.”
“I don’t understand, maker. What the Hel does that mean?” I growled, thoroughly frustrated.
“Why do you think you brought him to me?”
I brooded over the question for some time, replaying the night’s events in my mind. I had presumed Godrik would want to hurt someone who caused similar trauma as he had experienced. That he would kill out of vengeance. I slapped my forehead in recognition. My mistake was blindingly apparent.
My feeding choices and the selection I’d made for him were driven by my own impulses – the beauty of the twins, the flashing wealth of a coin in the moonlight, the desire for revenge. The first three things that caught my eye. I had not made any choice. I let my desires choose for me. Procuring for Godrik was a trick. He had no type. He had no preference, at least none that he would ever allow dictate his actions. Somehow, he had divorced his need for blood from all emotion. He no doubt expected me to learn to do the same.
“I failed you,” I lamented in a broken cry. Shame blossomed in my cheeks.
A smile skipped breezily across Godrik’s mouth. “But now you have succeeded.”
How the devil had he manipulated me so expertly? Godrik had crammed in more instruction tonight than he’d offered in half a year! I couldn’t help but laugh. “You set me up like a puppet.”
“I’m glad you noticed. You’ll be mindful now of how others’ see you feeding? Take note when others feed in front of you?”
I grunted in response.
“See how much something so basic gives away? It is a great weapon.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Villain!” I shouted gleefully and unceremoniously shoved him off the footbridge into the river. He splashed against the current and I booked it for the meadow at the base of our mountain. He caught me halfway, toppled me into the weeds, hollering ‘you’re it!’ and disappeared up the path. I scrambled after him as fast as my legs could carry me.
“Remember, not a sound!” he called in the distance.
“But you’re yelling!”
“Your rules, not mine. Go!”