Chapter 1: Joanna's Party Begins
(Maraké 29, 2131; early evening)
The entire house was aglow like a giantess’ jewelry chest in the brilliant light of the early sunset, and Joanna knew that-- if everything worked out the way she wanted it to-- she was going to have more fun tonight than she had at almost any birthday party since the first one that had been held at an event when she had been ten years old.
The times in the past when Amelia had felt moved to set up a birthday party were usually extremely elaborate affairs, with many guests and facets, and tonight was clearly no exception to the rule, Joanna thought as she stood on the receiving line at the door to greet her guests as they arrived.
But, at the same time, Joanna knew that this one was going to be special, in that it was more than just a celebration of Joanna’s birthday, or even any one of the others who shared her birthday; it was more like four parties in one, actually. And it was definitely far more than simply a celebration of Amelia’s Mother-- Jayne’s-- birthday, though that was part of what Amelia had considered when she had been beginning the elaborate planning for this occasion five months before.
Amelia’s birthday was technically in early Janus, and Raven’s in late Teborarius, and Joanna and her sister Cordelia had been born in late Maraké, on Jayne’s birthday, but that didn’t mean that they couldn’t share a birthday party, as far as Amelia was concerned. And even though Amanda was only 98 this year, they were sharing the party with her, because Amelia and Joanna knew that she would feel left out if they forgot to mention the fact that her birthday was in Augystian when they were planning the celebrations.
But Amelia and Raven had both agreed that this party was to be for all of them, not only to celebrate their collective birthdays, but to celebrate the four youngest of them reaching their first century together, even though it was to be held for the entire year they turned 100.
Joanna, Cordelia and Jayne’s shared birthday was a special day, but only one of many party days for them to celebrate this year.
Earlier that day, Joanna had been in her office, working on the latest in a string of stories when she had paused, momentarily stuck for an idea of where to go with the one she was working on. This one was a fantasy, involving a woman who was passionately in love with a dragon, and Joanna wasn’t sure how she would explain the incubation cycle without losing the inherent mystery of the people who shared the bloodline with true dragons.
It occurred to her as she thought about it that the best way to explain it was to not explain it at all; her readers’ imagination would always make it more complex than it was, and that would be all to the good as far as the true dragons, and the dragonblooded were concerned, she knew.
And she had just been able to get focused a little bit better on what she was doing when she thought she had heard something right outside the door of her office.
Glancing quickly around the room, she sighed, and shook her head again, wondering when Vlad would be back, knowing that she would be somewhat more distracted than usual until he had returned safely to her once more.
After all, he was supposed to be coming back for the start of the party this afternoon, and he hadn’t gotten back yet, so far as she knew. The continuation of the party that day had started without him, and she knew that he still wasn’t back when she had gone upstairs to dress for her time on the receiving line at the door this afternoon. He had had to leave unexpectedly late last night, after the party had wound down for the night.
After a second, she decided against reaching for his thoughts, knowing that he wouldn’t intentionally endanger her and their guests and family by involving her if he was in trouble. But at the same time, she fervently hoped that he wasn’t.
When she had asked him why he had to go, he had claimed that it was on Council business, which she took to mean he thought she should try to go back to sleep and not worry about him. But after being married in their hearts for so long, she knew that he should have known better. She was going to worry about him every second that he was away from her, even if they were almost never out of mental contact.
But this time, they were—for reasons best known only to her husband.
When Vlad had left their suite after having kissed her goodnight, she had sighed, crawled out of their bed and gone back to her office and once more began working on the story that she had momentarily abandoned that morning to help with prep for that night’s edition of the Party From Haven.
Amelia had termed it that sometime during the first week of Janus, when, instead of dying a natural death, the party had continued to gain momentum. And it was still going. But she knew she still hoped he was going to come back soon.
No one there knew how long it would be able to go on, but Joanna knew that Amelia had planned activities with guests for each night of the rest of that year, so perhaps the party would be able to go on all year long, and would have to encompass holidays and other people’s birthdays as well.
But she knew too that it wouldn’t be that hard for herself, Amelia or Raven or even Vlad to work out something that would be entertaining and amusing each day for everyone who had been invited to share their celebration with them.
But none of that speculation changed the fact that Vlad was still gone, and she sighed as she tried to focus her scattered thoughts enough to work on the story she was currently trying to type into the computer on her desk. But at the same time, she knew she wasn’t going to be able to continue the effort much longer without a nap.
At the same time, Joanna knew that she wouldn’t be able to sleep very well, if she was alone, and Amelia was too busy to take a nap with her right now, as was Raven. Or even just lay down with her for a little while, Joanna reflected sourly. She never had been able to sleep well by herself, Joanna reflected as she tried to focus her attention long enough to finish even one thought, but the focus she needed seemed intent on eluding her. And she wondered if that was because she might be getting hungry again.
After all, Joanna knew that she hadn’t had much sleep for the past couple days-- nor had she been much interested in food-- and that—in combination with Vlad being away—made certain that her concentration wasn’t what it could be, she thought as she patted gingerly at the fancy braid her hair was in today, and she thought about going downstairs to get some breakfast before it got too much later. At the same time, she knew that she would be in trouble with Holly if she disarranged what had been the work of almost two hours to accomplish with her thick hair, so she avoided touching it as much as she could.
If the reason for the lack of sleep had been more... physical, she would have been happier, but she knew that beggars couldn’t exactly be choosers in this instance.
And Joanna was glad that Holly had made sure that even though Joanna wasn’t sleeping well, she still looked her best for her birthday party, as she had sat still so that Holly could finish applying the miniscule amount of makeup that was all that Joanna would allow her to use.
The outfit Holly had chosen for Joanna to wear for the day was not what Joanna knew she was going to be wearing tonight—not even what Joanna would have chosen to wear to the party that night-- but it was still a nice choice; a day dress with a slightly higher neckline than Joanna usually allowed-- a cream colored bodice that matched her eggshell underbust corset, triple tiers of peach ruffles around the hemline of the wide, full skirt, peach and sirivium bustle, puffed sleeves and loads of argentum and sirivium lace trim-- that was comfortable enough for wearing around the house, but not really anything special as compared to the rest of her usual wardrobe.
But today, Joanna knew that people would be coming to her, not her going out into the public sector, and she was glad she was staying home for a while, and this dress was fairly easy to move around in without worrying about splitting any of the seams, Joanna knew.
However, she knew that the outfit that she planned to wear this evening was far more elaborate; similar puffed sleeves, but the entire gown was argentum in color, as was all the trim, and decorated in arcs of light colored stoneclouds, creamy stoneflames and pearls, creamy yellow warmstones, and pale crealstones and clear sevastones all around the hemline of the skirt and the cuffs of the sleeves. And of course, she would have her pale pink stonecloud circlet in her hair tonight, but that was hours from now.
The panniers on this one were only of moderate width, so she knew that she would be able to dance tonight, and that had made her very happy; she knew that Amelia had set up musicians for that evening in particular because Joanna loved to dance. And Joanna knew that she was very glad that she had been able to dissuade Randy from holding a book signing today.
After a while, the nearly continuous rounds of book signings got a bit... tiring, Joanna had discovered, though she wasn’t about to tell her agent that yet. She wasn’t going to speak to him about it because she didn’t want to have to deal with his—predictably-- grudging response that she could take the time off if she really wanted to.... Then he would sigh, like she was imposing on his better nature by asking for a little time off.
And Joanna knew that she didn’t want to have to deal with that today, of all days out of the year. So, she kept quiet about the book signings, and went about doing the things that she needed to, to stay sane enough to be able to write the books to be signed.
As she looked around the room again for a little bit of inspiration while she worked at her desk, her eye caught the edge of the curtain over the recessed and sirivium lined alcove that hid one of the smaller secret doors in the room; the one that led to the niche where she kept the smaller of the three jewelry chests that she had access to.
And she wondered if she would have the time to try to work on the puzzle that had been bothering her since she had returned from Cantadia the most recent time for a few minutes. The bulk of the other pieces were all locked in the main safe downstairs in the depths of the UnderManse, in a spot only Joanna and her Father knew how to get to, but the pieces she needed to study to work on that old puzzle were up here.
Deciding that the time had come for a little break, Joanna stood up and walked across the room to the hidden niche in a swish of rustling cloth as her corset creaked slightly in protest as she rose.
Joanna knew that there were great treasures in the chests that she and her sisters were guardians of, but only a few of them were known to her. Standing with a stretch, she walked over to the place on the wall where the curtain hung and lifted it aside to reveal a small door with an antiquated brass lock hanging from it on a sturdy hasp.
Reaching into the collar of her blouse, where an antique key hung on a stout, braided cloudweave cord, she slipped the cord off over her head and carefully unlocked the door, then she re-hung the key where it had been.
The whole operation had taken less than five seconds; anyone who had been with her at the time would hardly have even been aware that anything out of the ordinary had happened if they had turned away even briefly. But she had been alone in her office, as usual when she was working, and she knew that there would never be a better time to try again to solve one of the family mysteries than right now.
But, at the same time, she knew that she had to work out what of her jewelry she was going to wear to the party tonight. And that could be a difficult decision, Joanna knew.
As the door glided open on silent hinges, she reached into the hollow space behind the door and lifted out a large box that was shaped something like an old fashioned pirate’s chest, though it was much larger, and this had obviously not seen contact with sea air in more than ten centuries.
Her hands gently caressed the dark wood of the curved lid of the chest pensively for several seconds, knowing—as always when she had to take the chest from its niche-- that she was handling an object of great historical significance to her family. And she wondered if she should be wearing the gloves that museum workers always had on when they were handling artifacts.
But at the same time, she knew that she didn’t want to take the time to look for a pair of them in the cabinet beside the curtained niche, even though she should. Besides, the wood was darkened by hundreds of years of contact with human skin oil already, so she didn’t think one more encounter with it would do that much more damage to the thick wood of the lid.
Then she sighed, and paused, knowing that if she didn’t, she was going to be upset with herself for ignoring basic security, and that was counter-productive for her. So she turned and opened the cabinet, carefully withdrawing a pair of white cotton gloves a few seconds later. Drawing them on, she returned her attention to the chest she had removed from the niche and caressed the lid again with one hand as she closed the cabinet quietly with the other.
And as she did, she knew that simply touching the wood produced a light tingle of magickal energy; not enough to hurt, just enough to let her know that the defenses were still working to keep the chest itself from being the object of a theft. If someone-- unauthorized-- were to get hold of it, the chest itself would be able to deliver a jolt that would incapacitate the would-be thief long enough for the authorities to arrive and take them in hand.
She contemplated the contents of this particular chest specifically today, because this one held mostly her personal jewelry, not like the older one behind it that held mostly the jewelry that she had inherited from her female ancestors all the way back to the days when Lady Szuszanna and Lord Petr had brought the family to the lands that were to become Shadow Valley and eventually, Shadow County in the early years of the 3rd century of the current era.
Her sisters, Michelle and Cordelia had their own chests, with their own treasures from various family members, and even Amelia had a small chest of her own that she kept in the safe in her suite. But most of her pieces were from the proceeds of sales of some of the geologic formation on Lathom Manor lands known only as the River of Light.
Joanna had offered once to share her jewels with Amelia, and Amelia had gently told her that she would rather have earned them herself, but she was glad that Joanna had them, in case they were needed later.
But eventually, Amelia had relented and allowed Joanna to gift her some of the stones from the River of Light other than the ones she could wear; specifically the ones they kept in the small safe in the playroom.
That was where they stored the three specially crafted gemstone phalluses they counted amongst their most treasured possessions; two long, thick shafted stonecloud phalluses carved in the shape of forearms with clenched fists and one enormous one of lifestone that had been carved to resemble a green dragon’s member. They had found the stones that had become the phalluses themselves, and they had spoken to the most discreet gemcutter in Shadow County about the designs they wanted.
Each individual phallus had been carved from a single massive stone of each kind; one dreamseed colored stonecloud, one pink stonecloud and one deep green lifestone. But at the same time, Joanna knew that she hoped that one day they would find a bloodstone that was sizable enough to make one out of that stone as well.
And she wondered if there was any possibility of there being a skystone of the right size, though she knew that it was more likely that she would be able to find a fruitstone of the right size, than a skystone of the right size. Or maybe even a sevastone, Joanna had thought, knowing how common the clear to milky colored stones were.
But she knew that-- for the most part-- the largest ones were used in the transportation industry, to hold the super condensed charges that were used to power dirigibles. The crystals were housed in a high pressure cold steam engine, and the steam was released through high pressure jets to pass through the charged crystals, and into the mechanism that spun the turbines that allowed for directed flight in the aetheric streams that the dirigibles used like paddlewheel boats used the widest and strongest of the rivers on the ground.
She thought she had been discreet about the growing collection of precious stone phalluses, but she didn’t take into account the fact that her Father knew that they were in the lower safe, and at the same time, he knew of her fondness for bloodstones. And she didn’t know that he had something—spectacular—along those lines in mind for something to give her for her birthday.
Richard had done a little research a few months before Amelia had announced her intentions to throw a huge party for their century celebrations, and finally found something that he thought would be the ideal birthday gift for Joanna; one of the giant bloodstone crystals that were currently being mined on the third moon of Jovean, a small planet known as Agriopa.
It took a little bit of time to get things shipped back to Tellous from the colony on that small moon, but he knew that it was at least a possibility for something to add to Joanna’s collection. And therefore it was something that would make a viable birthday gift for his daughter.
After all, the stones that were being mined locally—in the nearby town of Bloodstone Falls—were not as large as the crystals that were being found on Agriopa.
But those stones too were gem quality, and he knew his daughter well enough to know that she would enjoy a new piece of jewelry made from some of them to match the piece her husband was giving her. So, in Janus, he had spoken to a friend in Bloodstone Falls at the mining consortium office about buying several large rough stones of various kinds in a color palette ranging from clear to deep red to use for the project. Then, a week later, he had had the stones delivered to one of the better jewelers in Barney’s Mountain with the money for the commission of the piece.
And a few weeks later, the piece arrived at his office by official courier; a wide pectoral that would cover from the bottom of her chin to her shoulders with aurantium and argentum wire, garnets, stoneclouds and bloodstones of all sizes and shapes. And Richard knew that Joanna would be delighted to have such an elegant and beautiful piece of jewelry in her collection. After all, it would just match the delicate jeweled and tatted parasol and glove set Cordelia had given her the year before, he reflected.
She didn’t know that her Father had discussed it with Vlad, and they had pooled their gift ideas to get one of the largest of the bloodstone crystals they could purchase from the miners of the colony above Agriopa, and Vlad would have it carved to suit. They were hoping that it would be ready to be presented to her tonight, but by the time the sun rose on the 29th of Maraké, the stone still hadn’t arrived from the carvers. And Richard and Vlad had begun to be worried about it.
In fact, Vlad had gone to the carver’s shop this morning to find out what had happened to delay their gift’s completion. But Joanna had almost found out what her present was to be when she found out that Vlad needed to go out early that morning. He had told her it was Council business, and she should go back to sleep, but he knew she wouldn’t.
So, Vlad wondered if their surprise was already known. But he knew he would only be able to find out when he went to give her the gift they had bought for her. He had gotten back to Richard a few minutes ago to let him know that all was well thus far with their surprise for Joanna, and he would be back in time for the start of the party for the day, but he was planning to present the stone to Joanna in a more... private setting.
◊After all, on the dancefloor isn’t the place to see her unwrap a giant bloodstone dildo. It would make the other guests wonder what she is into, at the very least. And I’m sure she doesn’t want her love life bandied about in so public a forum.◊
Richard laughed and said in Vlad’s thoughts, ◊No, brother, I agree. That sort of gift should be between husband and wife.◊ and he knew that Vlad was laughing too as he headed back to the house with their gift for Joanna.
Meanwhile, Joanna was still involved in contemplating the contents of the safe in her office.
But in the small safe in Joanna’s suite, there was another gem quality phallus; this time, it was made of warmstone, and it was one that only Joanna used. She had been in the process of getting one like it made for Amelia when Amelia had announced the start of her plans for their century party in Novem of last year.
So, since it was completed in time to be given as a gift on Amelia’s birthday in Janus, Joanna had given it to her that day, and she knew that Amelia had been using it nearly every day since then.
However, that didn’t do anything about the fact that some of the oldest pieces in the oldest chest in Joanna’s possession were rumored to have been at least 2000 years old before they had arrived in the Valley in the protection of Lady Szuszanna and her family, but Joanna knew that even Vlad couldn’t be completely confident of that claim.
In the back of her thoughts, Joanna thought she recalled something about him having been there, but she knew she couldn’t be certain. She knew that if he had been one of the founders of the Valley, he would have told her, but not until he thought she was ready to know.
Besides, Joanna thought, I know that some of the pieces in this one are older yet. They belonged to Vlad’s Mother, and that was over fifteen millennia ago. And I’ve even gotten to wear some of those! So I know they’re real. Not to mention that I know they’re genuine gemstones. But that doesn’t get anything constructive done for me today while I’m waiting for my party to get started for the night.
But, thinking about the contents of her jewelry chest made her think about many of the pieces of jewelry that she had seen in the castle that she, Amelia, Vlad and Raven had explored all those years ago when they had gone on that year-long hike into the wilds of Cantadia. And she wondered again if that castle had been one of the places she had lived in a past life.
It had felt so familiar, so comfortable—other than finding out about the vampiric ice dragons that had taken up residence some four hundred li away from the castle-- being there... again, her mind insisted as she slowly opened the chest that was under her hands and lift out the first tray to look at the gems there in the light from her desk lamp again.
But she needed to be able to focus her attention on the here and now, Joanna knew, even though she wanted to be able to go back to the castle once again and explore it properly this time. However, that wasn’t going to happen right away.
Any proper explorations would have to include Vlad, and he was so busy with Council business of late that she wasn’t sure if he knew whether or not he was coming or going half the time. The last time she had been to the castle, all they had had the time to do was to bring a few bolts of cloth and a few skeins of yarn back for her employees to be able to work with, as well as a few of the skeins of special goldthread fibers for her to work with in her free time.
She knew that she didn’t have the time to be lost in her memories of the castle again, though she needed to be at least partly there to be able to properly compare the ancestral pieces she planned to look at in the next few minutes.
The wall in front of her seemed to be made of smooth stone, and she remembered reaching out to stroke the stones in awe. “They’re so smooth.” Joanna had said over her shoulder to Raven where he stood behind her in her memories of finding the treasure chamber under the castle in Cantadia where she had found the heavy holy symbol that she was sure looked like one of the ones that had been handed down in the family for generations from Lady Szuszanna herself.
And she knew that being able to remember that room clearly was integral to being able to get back to it, once Vlad taught her how to teleport anywhere she wished to go, which he had promised a few days ago would be her next lesson.
Of course, in his next breath, he had added that he thought it would be a very important skill for escape from combat, nodding understandingly when Joanna had sighed and rolled her eyes at the thought of her ever having to fight for her life.
At the time, Vlad had said, “I know, you don’t want to have to fight anyone, and that is commendable, dilectus, but consider this. What would you do, if someone were to harm Amelia or Raven? Or one of the children? Or worse, one of your growing numbers of grandchildren?” he had asked quietly as she had growled in reply.
Then he added gently, “I’m sorry to bring this up again, but I’m sure you haven’t forgotten what happened with Mason, my darling...” Or his daughter three years ago... Vlad had thought, keeping the frown internal by force of will, knowing how Joanna would respond to him mentioning it again.
And as he had mentioned—even indirectly—what the kidnappers had done to her eldest son when he had been only a defenseless little boy, Joanna had felt a snarl ripple across her face, and found her fists clenched, and her body tensed as though to spring to the attack as she had growled, “I’d kill them if anyone hurt my babies again, Vlad! You know that.” and he had nodded grimly, satisfied with her response, though he knew the memories involved were extremely painful for her, and he hoped it wouldn’t make her cry again. “And I did.” she added with extreme satisfaction as he nodded.
Then he realized she looked a lot more feral... almost bastela-like in her sudden fury, and he wondered if she had been experimenting with the abilities that Raven had been teaching her regarding shifting her shape to something a bit more combat capable. But in that instant, he had known that he wasn’t going to mention it to her, in case that hadn’t been the case.
It had made her cry the last time he had felt the need to mention that incident to her, and he knew that he had to be prepared to comfort her if it did this time. He was cautiously relieved this time when there hadn’t been any sign that she was going to begin weeping again.
But now, he began to think that there might be reason to have hope that she would be able to defend herself and the children when he had to be gone the next time. Though he knew that he hoped he wouldn’t have to leave again any time soon; Joanna was still very delicate...!
And she had known that he was still trying to protect her, not only by teaching her the combat skills, but also teaching her some of the spells that he knew that she would never have been able to pick up at the Academy on campus.
And she was aware that he knew that her older brother David was teaching her a few of the other defensive spells that he had learned while he was in classes at the Academy himself, though he hadn’t asked her to practice those spell as yet. She knew that they would be useful eventually though, and that was why she had asked David to teach them to her, Amelia, Amanda and Raven.
This time—oddly enough-- Cordelia had sat out the lesson, though frequently enough, she paid extreme attention when David was giving one of his lessons on the combat uses of magick.
This most recent lesson wasn’t a spell, though there were spells that would allow one to transport ones’ self and others over great distance without making mistakes about the location, but those were well beyond her ability right now, and she knew it.
So, for now, Joanna knew that she would settle for what he was willing to teach that she could comprehend; the ability to use one’s own personal energy to teleport one person to one place and back again safely.
And she knew that that ability had been what had saved her life many times when she had been younger; the many times when Vlad had simply appeared at her side; when her need was grave and possibly beyond Amelia’s skill to fix, Vlad has simply appeared and helped Amelia in whatever way he could.
But at the same time, she knew that he was right to teach her the defensive spells as well as the spells that would allow her to escape from conflicts without damage. But she also knew that what she needed to know were the combat related spells and skills that he had acquired over the centuries.
And she was glad that she had been able to convince David to teach her a few spells too, even though she hadn’t been able to find the time to attend classes at the Academy herself as yet.
And she knew that if she decided to go back to school any time soon, taking a few classes in magick was something she was going to have to consider doing, to try to fill in some of the gaps in her knowledge.
After all, maybe it would even be something that she could use to help Vlad protect her from his enemies, Joanna thought, considering the idea a little more seriously as she studied the jewelry in front of her without really seeing what she held in her hands in that instant.