Caught as I was in such a strange situation, I didn’t know what to do next. I stayed in place as she declared, “My Lady, please accept my deepest apologies. I accepted from you such a promise when I knew you would be unable to keep it. We vampires bear too great a burden to place additional burdens upon our compatriots’ shoulders.”
I blinked at her, confused. “You knew it?”
“One of us has to accept the other’s apology eventually, my dear. This old woman’s legs can’t last like this.”
‘This old woman’, my butt! You’re as fit as I am!
“I think we both need to, Aunt!”
She chuckled. “Then I shall accept your apology, My Lady. And what of My Lady?”
“Of course I accept your apology!” I declared, still bewildered, “but I don’t understand!”
She rose, as did I– my legs were screaming at me, because I had just spent nearly an hour doing deep curtseys– and we both resumed our seats.
“Well?” I probed. “What did you mean?”
After taking a sip of tea, she answered, “It’s true that I had hoped you could get at least a few years into your adulthood before it happened, but it would be unreasonable to expect you to never form a blood bond at all. So the truth is that I never thought you would be able to keep your promise.”
“But… I’ve never seen you with any blood slaves!”
“I insist that they live their own lives, just as you are doing. I have seven that are currently alive, and I have made two dozen in total throughout my life. I formed my first bond when I was twenty five. I was rather deeply in love with him and became confused.”
My shock at her answer was profound, but not just because of the fact that she had blood slaves of her own. It was those words, ‘deeply in love’. I had never seen her acting in any sort of affectionate way toward anyone, so the idea of her being ‘deeply in love’ was hard to imagine.
Since I had only stared back, she added, “Fortunately, the love was already mutual before the bond, but neither of us understood how the bond would affect our existing relationship. I took responsibility by keeping our promise to marry, and we had a half-vampire daughter who lived two hundred years. I still have descendents through her, but they are human and may not know about their vampiric ancestor. I haven’t acquainted myself with them.”
“How did it affect the relationship?”
“It changed it in a fundamental way that could never be repaired. It was no longer a love of mutual fulfillment,” she answered. “It was in its own way a happy marriage, but not the one that should have been.”
She sipped tea, then added. “Your mother let me in on the news of your betrothal, My Lady. Let me offer my congratulations, and my advice as well. Never do such a thing to your husband-to-be.”
“If you can avoid it,” she amended. “Which you probably can, if you don’t act stupidly like I did.”
She bowed her head for a moment, then said, “I hope you can forgive this vulgar subject, My Lady, but as you are to be married, it is a subject to which I need to alert you. Do not mix the activities of a vampire with the activities of the evening, if your partner is not already under the blood bond. That is how I became confused.”
Then she dimpled– a very unusual sight for Elianora– and added, “Although in our case, we weren’t married yet.”
I blushed deeply when I finally caught on to what she was talking about– look, Tiana really was a sheltered girl, so I think it took me longer to understand than it would have for Robert– and Tiana’s reflexes made me hide my reddening cheeks behind my fan.
Elianora’s reaction to that was weird. First she was amused at my embarrassment. Then she scowled.
“What is that fan?” she asked sharply.
Yeah, it was that fan. The one we retrieved in the mines, after the asura named Trisiagga dropped it. When we divvied up the spoils, the sisters insisted I take the fan. It wasn’t even vaguely a fair division, since it was worth more than the rest of the spoils put together, but they wouldn’t accept any other choice. I think they felt I was the biggest contributor and should have the lion’s share. So I kept it. I was kind of happy about it, since I had become a bit fond of the thing.
I was surprised at Aunt Elianora’s reaction, because I had asked Mother to disguise it a bit. It should have looked to her like a reasonably expensive but normal fan, the sort the daughter of a ducal house would carry. Elianora had vampire sight, of course, but not fairy sight. I didn’t think she could see through the disguise.
But I didn’t try to feign ignorance. “It’s something I took off a demon during my recent trip. But you shouldn’t be able to tell that it’s out of the ordinary. You can see through Mother’s magic?”
She gave me a tight smile and stated, “Do not underestimate me, My Lady. May I see it?”
I closed it and handed it over to her. I was a little mystified at her confidence, since my aunt was only a casual mage, to my knowledge. She did use some magic to assist her work as a physician, so she was not unskilled, but that didn’t explain being able to crack a top-rank mage’s disguise. Could vampire sight be used that way?
After running her fingers over it, she nodded. “You have it hidden, but the cord is bundled up to hide that it is a fighting fan, yes?”
Fans for use in combat have extra-long cords so mages can secure them to their wrists. I nodded.
She closed her eyes and filled the fan with a small amount of Wind mana– all vampires have affinity for Wind and Darkness– then let it loose as a light breeze that caused the drapes to sway. Then she handed it back.
As I accepted it, she stated, “You need to report that find to the Royal Knights, My Lady. They will likely allow you to keep it, since it is rightful salvage and you are one of their own, but they need to know about it.”
I tipped my head. “What do you mean?”
“That’s one of the artifacts that the demons stole from the Kingdom. It’s the Fan of Rephale.”
My mouth hung open for a moment, then I looked down at it, trying to process the information.
Rephale had become Countess of Atius shortly after the old Ostian Empire fell. She then conquered a few neighboring provinces and declared a renewed ’empire’ with herself as Empress. Her son was the one who decided to call it the Kingdom of Orestania instead of the Ostian Empire, but she is regarded as our kingdom’s founder. So it was as if I were holding a relic belonging to George Washington.
Or maybe more like an artifact of Alfred the Great. Rephale lived a millennium and a half ago. My father had not yet marched Orestanian troops into Doria and conquered half of it, making himself Duke of ‘Pen Doria’, Eastern Doria. Possibly, he was not even born yet This fan went way beyond ‘antique’.
“And you think they’ll let me keep it?”
A cracker dressed with caviar had just entered her mouth. She enjoyed it for a bit, washed it down with tea, then answered, “They’ll probably consider it safer in your hands than in a shrine, My Lady.”
I stared at the thing in my hands, thinking about how I had been blithely stuffing it into my belt or sticking it in my bag.
“Maybe I’ll give it back and ask for a finder’s fee. I would prefer that it was kept safe in the King’s Vaults.”
Elianora thought about it, then shrugged. “It’s your choice. So what have you arranged for your new Servants?”
I blinked. “New servants?”
I remembered that is what Ceria said that stregas called their underlings, possibly their blood slaves. Why did Elianora use that term?
With a dry tone, she noted, “Calling them ‘blood slaves’ is a little vile, don’t you think? Especially if you intend for them to live as free persons. Long ago, I heard an old-fashioned term ‘Bond Servant’. I didn’t use it around you previously because ‘blood slave’ sounds uglier, and would help make you wish to avoid forming bonds, which you should continue to do.”
I nodded and answered the original question. “Arken helped me equip them with bracelets. I gave them full instructions on what to do if the bracelets quit working or were lost.”
“Come as quickly as possible here, or to the Palace, or to the estate in Pendor. That’s what Father’s slaves are to do, right?”
She nodded. “And what else?”
“They may demand repayment if they need to pay to recharge the bracelet, or if they need to use money to come for help, or for any other situation created by the bond, and they may demand employment any time. We’ve sent instructions to the Palace and the estate in Pendor to alert me when they show up.”
She looked dissatisfied. “And that’s it?”
“Aunt Elianora, I don’t know what else to do.”
“You haven’t told them that they may come to you if they wish to feed you or serve you?”
“But I don’t want them to…”
“Then you shouldn’t have taken them, My Lady,” she said with the severe tone she had used as my tutor. “Now that they belong to you, it is no longer your choice. You may insist first on being certain the anti-slavery charm is working, but the bond has made an irreparable change to their life. If they now value their relationship to you and wish to feed you, and you have confirmed the charm is operating, then it is their decision and you must accept it.”
“… yes,” I answered, sadly.
“You will tell them, the next time you meet,” she instructed.
I nibbled on a sandwich– what we call tea sandwiches are those tiny things like you see on banquet tables, so it takes tiny nibbles to not simply eat them in two bites– and didn’t meet her eyes.
After a short silence, something occurred to me. “Aunt Elianora, how did you know about my fan?”
She contemplated the question for a bit, then stated simply, “I’ve seen it before.”
“How?” It had been kept in a shrine attached to Rephale’s tomb, hidden from public view, until a demon raid destroyed the shrine.
“Royal Mage Knights are occasionally allowed to borrow relics for work purposes.”
“And how does that relate to you?”
She gave her tight smile again, and stated, “I work strictly under cover, but now that you’re a knight, I can tell you. I am your senior in the Royal Knights by more than two centuries, My Lady. Although I’m officially listed as retired.”
I don’t remember what I answered. I think I just stared back in amazement.
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