The Rose's Thorns
“I found you!”
Michael felt a light form pounce him from behind. Arms wrapped about his torso quickly. With his superior sense of balance, his only response was a pause in his stride. Turning his head to look at his excited assailant, his empty eyes observed familiar, blonde hair.
“Mara,” He said flatly, “I see thou art full of vigor.” The vampire shifted his shoulders just enough for his student to slide off his back. Despite his cold reply, he felt a different weight lift from his chest. Could that be relief?
“Ah!” Mara didn’t let his comment disrupt her pleasant mood. Planting her heels on the floor, she plucked something from her belt as Michael turned to face her. She held up a white rose to his chest. “This is for you. I got it earlier today. The flower made me think of you, Michael. It’s my apology for last time. Forgive me?” She smiled sweetly. There was no sign of the perversion displayed in the throne room.
Taking the stem in his gloved hand, Michael thought a smile of gratitude would have been appropriate. This token of remorse was a good sign to him. It meant Mara retained her own will. When he had recalled Lady Eve’s kiss, he had thought the worst. After the previous night, he thought the countess had taken her from him forever. The flora meant so much more to him than an apology. For the first time in ages, Michael felt something close to hope. Unfortunately, he could only express it with a vacant stare.
“The gesture is noted.” He blinked, wondering why he could not think of anything more grateful to say. Exhaling, he decided to change the subject. “Has thy training lost value to thee? That lady majesty, the countess, does not warrant idleness on thy part, Mara.”
“Oh, Michael! I’m so glad you’re the same as always,” she giggled. Covering her face as it flushed red with amusement, she peeked through her fingers. “I’ll go, but only if you’re there.” He stared down at her, a silent ‘or what’ question in his eyes. “I won’t do any training unless you’re there! You’re my teacher, aren’t you?”
Michael continued to stare at her. What did being her teacher have to do with missing training? She had trained without him before when he had business to attend about the castle. A furrow of disapproval formed on his brow. If Mara was still childish as ever, what had Lady Eve done to her? Many ideas sprouted in his thoughts, but he could not be certain of any of them. He would have to keep a close watch of the vixen’s behavior. He hoped it would not be anything degenerative.
“So, what’ll it be, Master Michael?” Mara put her hands on her hips. Raising an eyebrow, she smirked up at him, waiting for his answer. She had a feeling she knew what he would say already though.
“Disappoint me not.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it. Hm-hm!” She chuckled as she covered her lips with her fist.
Michael felt no threat from her aura, so she genuinely was being playful with him, not even flirtatious. This was very odd to the elder. It was if she were the little girl he remembered all over again. Instead of fear though, she was blissfully happy. He made note of the detail for future comparison. He knew there had to be something worse in-store with this transformation. No one was well after a kiss from Lady Eve.
“Shall we then?” Mara linked arms on his left side.
“If it be true we will.”
The two walked arm in arm the whole way to the training room. Mara was quiet, seemly content to be with her mentor. Michael had nothing he wished to discuss, and so maintained his silence. When the pair entered the training room, eyes gaped in their direction. Neither of them were fazed by the attention as they walked toward the sparring floor. Mara was clinging to Michael’s arm with the purist smile anyone could remember seeing on her face. Michael seemed surprisingly less disgruntled than normal, despite Mara’s affectionate mood. She finally broke away to lift one of the training blades from the wall.
“Now then!” The young vixen announced to the entire room, whirling the hilt about her palm flashily. “Who will be my sparring partner tonight? No need to be shy now! Ahahaha!” Her laugh lacked its usual wicked twist, making the onlookers gawk. This was not the Mara they knew. It was a happy version they didn’t know how to engage. “Any volunteers? I won’t bite!”
“I shall test thine art.”
The entire room turned to see who the challenger was. The click of spurs echoed through the silent room. The crowd parted, revealing the crimson-crowned vixen, Ruzha. Mara felt a sense of dread as the taste of copper swelled in her mouth. Her eyes narrowed. Michael did the same. Though not as stirred as Mara, he felt a sense of foreboding. He did not desire the vixens to cross swords.
“Ruzha,” he spoke carefully, “do not tempt discord within the countess’ halls.”
“Discord?” Ruzha eyed the other vampire with amusement. “I would ne’er dare to dream of such, Michael. I only desire to witness if it be true the wench be worthy of serving mine own mistress. Not less but exceptional should be granted at that lady feet. Do thou disagree?”
“Thy tongue does not sway one without emotion to prey upon.” He stared back at her coldly. The moon above would fall before he fell to her games. He only needed one bite to know how to handle a serpent.
“Then let us duel.” Michael looked back at his charge. Ruzha grinned, flashing fangs in a silent threat. “I am more than worthy of serving my mistress.” Turning to replace the practice blade, the younger vixen retrieved a real saber. This was her chance to knock this vixen into next week for speaking poorly of Michael.
“Bold words for one unseasoned.” Ruzha drew her saber, slashing it through the air with the force of a strike. A cry rang out as a male grasped his slashed side. The floor scattered, fearing to meet a similar fate. Only Michael, Mara, and Ruzha remained grounded. “Show me thy worth.”
Mara glared back at her opponent, lunging toward her for the first strike. Ruzha did not dodge. She rushed to meet the attack, parrying the blade and whirling about for a counter. Mara’s eyes caught the attempt, blocking with ease with a flick of her wrist, but she did not pause there, returning with a counterattack. The two vixens continued their clash, blow for blow. Back and forth, leaping and rolling, the two eventually took their fight to the air. Their skills were clear, but neither intended to yield to the other.
Michael remained where he was, watching. Mara had cast off any reservation he had seen in her previous spars. She was fighting as a true vampire with pride and hunger in her eyes, but something was not right. That hunger looked like it belonged to someone else.
Suddenly, on a particularly powerful clash, both sabers shattered. The pent up energy in the females was too much for even their weapons to hold. The room gawked as they both dropped to the stone floor again, metal shards raining down around them. Looking up at each other from their crouches, the vixens let out vengeful hisses at one another. The onlookers that dared to remain trembled at the display of dominance between them. Just before they could lunge to tear each other apart, a far louder cry echoed through the air. Both of them silenced to find the source. Michael’s lips relaxed when they gave him their attention.
“Enow.” His voice was cold and dominate. If they had continued, one of them would have killed the other. Unfortunately, he was unsure which would be the victor after that performance. “The countess would behold poorly upon strife ’mongst that lady valued liegemen.”
“Valued?!” Ruzha snarled at the word. “Yond pathetic wench is unworthy to serve mine own mistress! Lady Eve need only mine own saber at that lady side! The lady has nay need for worthless wastes!” Picking up her hilt, she spun on her heels to storm out.
The words made Mara snarl, tasting the copper stronger on her tongue. The whites of her eyes began to bleed to black. Standing, she kicked up the broken hilt her had dropped, catching it with a swipe of her right hand. Spinning in the same motion, she threw it at the vixen’s back. Stopping, Ruzha turned to catch the broken blade with her fist. It had nearly reached its target, and that only enraged her further.
“Tricks only a babe would attempt!”
“I’ll show you child’s play!”
Mara’s voice sounded like a snarling beast as she retorted, unnatural and guttural. As she rushed toward the vixen, Michael stepped in her path. Instantly, she stopped, pausing. Looking up at his face, her eyes cleared immediately. Quicker than she had started her tantrum, she smiled back at Michael.
“Hm? Was I being silly?”
Ruzha frowned at the dramatic shift that had just happened. Had the vixen not just tried to savagely attack without a thought? She should have torn through Michael without mercy to reach her. Had he used some means of restraint on her? No, he had merely blocked her path. She had heard the countess had kissed the vixen, but what worth did Michael have to her? Unless the vampire meant more than Lady Eve. She committed the detail to memory, planning to prove its validity later. For now, she would depart, dropping the hilt. She grasped her coattails as she spun about for a dramatic exit.
“Mara.” Michael paused. Mara’s mood had changed alarmingly sudden. The emergence of such primal instincts bothered him. She didn’t even seem aware of how strange her behavior was. Narrowing his eyes, he decided to continue to observe to see how drastic these changes would be. He needed to discover the purpose of Lady Eve’s kiss. There was obviously a specific reason.
“I think thy training for tonight has been satisfied. Are thy desires quenched?”
“You won’t leave me so soon tonight, will you, Michael?” Her bright smile faded to a vacant expression as she waiting for his reply.
“The night’s meal should be anon.” The vampire turned sideways. Gesturing for the doorway, Michael tried to be a gentleman for once. “Shall thee accompany me to the dining room?”
“Dinner? Together?” The ruby irises sparkled up at the invitation. Embracing him, Mara cried joyfully, “Yes! Thank you, Michael! I’m so happy right now! I could just burst!”
Michael stared down at the gesture of affection. He had pleased her this greatly over such a trivial thing as a meal? He wasn’t sure what could trigger joy about supping goblets of warmed blood over a table. Exhaling heavily, he brushed her off, but he offered his arm to her once again, which she quickly accepted.
The twosome walked down the halls of the castle, arm in arm. The childish one ranted on about the gardens. As the stoic one continued to stare ahead of them, he listened to his charge suggest plans to visit them after dinner. The tone in her voice expressed how truly happy she was. She was going to spend an entire night with Michael. This would surely make up for her lonesome day.
“Michael?” Mara asked, looking up at him calmly for once, “Why is there a wall of holes across from the gardens? It looked like there was a courtyard in front of it, but why were there so many holes?”
“It is as thee have said,” Michael replied, flatly, “a courtyard for gatherings.”
“But what is the wall with holes for? Is it a game or something of the like?” She pulled herself closer against his arm. She was comfortable there, safe. Closing her eyes, she swore she could have curled up for a nap beside him.
“Nay.” He said nothing further on the subject. Fortunately, Mara was so lost in her mind that she dropped the topic altogether.
Ruzha paused at the sight ahead of her. She was in a crossing hall, so Michael and Mara didn’t notice her presence. She blinked at how intimate Michael was with the vixen. In all the time she recalled knowing him, she had never seen him attached to anyone. He had always been distant. Like a stone in a river, he never yielded to the current around him. Was it possible that this angel of death had at last found a companion? The thought was ludicrous to her, but she grinned with amusement nonetheless.
“Oh-ho…” The vixen snickered as she rounded the corner behind them to approach. “Ne’er did I dare to dream the moon would rise on a night the Left Hand would bite himself a vixen. Does our own mistress know of the affair, Michael?” She wrapped her arms about her torso, throwing her head back to cackle like a hag.
Michael stopped, stirring Mara from her daydreaming. He just stood there. Without the ability to be moved to anger, he could do no more than take in the crimson crowned vixen’s words. They were false, of course, but somewhere within his being, he envisioned grabbing her by the mouth.
“Prithee, bid me wherefore I would court a figure of thy creation, Ruzha?” He replied coldly, still facing away from her. “Has thy memory faded of the kiss that has left thee thus? I bethink thy betrothed would weep at thy withered state.” He looked behind him to see how she would react.
Ruzha stopped laughing immediately. She hadn’t seen that one coming. Thinking back before the countess, the blank expression faded as she recalled the one he had implied. A look of evil spread across her visage as she grinned. Her hand crept up to grip the flesh around her eye as she laughed, cynically.
“Ahahaha… that one? Those forgotten memories are dead as they, Michael. Thee know thus well.”
“Spoken as a true puppet…” Michael’s eyes narrowed.
“Back off.” Mara had turned to face Michael, stepping aside just enough to stare at Ruzha with her mentor. Ruzha noticed her gaze mirrored that of Michael’s, unamused and irritated. It was uncanny of similar they looked. What did she have to be upset about though?
“Prithee, wench, wherefore should I hark to thy threats? Hm?”
“Leave Michael alone. He’s mine.”
After a brief pause, Ruzha unleashed a burst of laughter that nearly knocked her off her feet. Michael looked down at his charge, who was still glaring at the vixen. The words themselves could be easily dismissed if she were behaving as she normally did. The tone she used to say them wasn’t her usual jealousy or selfishness. It was possessive, dominating even. Why did she feel this strongly?
“What is so amusing about that, hag?” Mara asked, coldly.
“Foresooth…!” Ruzha wheezed through her cackling. “Ask the husk thyself...!”
“Have you lost the ability to speak?”
“Nay…” Ruzha beamed back at the younger vixen as her fit calmed at the irony that escaped her.
“Well then, answer me.” Mara’s tone was as regal as the countess herself, which seemed to impress Ruzha a bit. Michael finally turned his head forward again. Mara glanced up at him as he did so. Had he just yielded?
“Michael is the mistress’ plaything, wench,” Ruzha replied with a victorious huff, “and Countess Eve ne’er shares what belong to that lady.”
Mara glanced up at the vampire beside her. A memory of him crying out as a hand touched his chest flickered like candle’s flame in her mind, but nothing she could fully recall in entirety. Her gaze softened as she reached for her head, groaning softly. Helpless red eyes turned to the floor.
“Michael… what does she mean?”
“Mine own mistress’ words are mine own to hest.” He looked down into her lost eyes, wondering what this new symptom could mean. He softened his voice as much as he could to address his charge, “One such hest is keep gaze over Mara Black.” Mara looked up at his cool gaze, wearily. “I shall at each moment uphold thus foremost.”
He raised his hand to show her the rose she had given him that evening, gingerly resting the stem between his fingers. A smile spread over Mara’s lips as her clouded eyes cleared once again. Instead of the childish sparkle though, Michael beheld the purest joy of a maiden on her face. This was the true Mara Black, untouched by the Darkness planted in her. He almost sighed with relief. She was still in there, waiting for him to resolve whatever that been done to her.
“Bare well thy neck, Michael,” Ruzha snarled at the purity before her. “Our own mistress does not take to change what that lady did not birth.”
“Verily,” Michael glanced back at her one last time, “thee would know all too well, Ruzha, or is that dead and gone as well?” Ruzha gaped back at his gaze, trapped by the reminder. The vixen silenced, and he looked away. “Come, Mara.”
“Oh yes, Michael,” Mara replied, returning to his left side and his arm. She was back to her blissful self. Michael took note that the purity had faded, but twice now, he had brought calm to her tonight. If that was the case, he would remain beside her as often as he as able. They went back to their walk.
Ruzha watched them go. Unlike Michael, she had all of her emotions, though she ignored compassion and mercy mostly. Michael’s words felt like a hot iron on her chest, guilt from the true meaning he intended. His face had been the last straw though.
“Sickening…!” She growled once they could no longer hear her. Her whole being trembled from rage. “That visage… I wish to rip it hence!”
Grasping her crimson scalp, the vixen’s head swelled with pain. She did not wish to think of those memories. She had begged the countess to take them from her. Curse that Michael! She needed to forget. She had to, or her mind would destroy her. Kicking off the ground, Ruzha flew toward the royal chambers in a desperate frenzy, slumping to the stone floor to rap at the wooden door like a starved dog.
The door opened inward to reveal the countess herself, Eve, staring blankly down at the mess of a vixen. Soft whimpers escaped clenched teeth as Ruzha looked up at the lady. Eve knelt to brush the flustered cheeks with her fingers.
“Our own rose,” she said in a calming tone, “what hast did stir thus distress?”
“Mine own mistress!” Ruzha reached to embrace the ruler about her waist, nestling in the lace at her belly. Eve allowed it, brushing the tossed locks with her fingers. “Michael does torture mine own soul with his visage and his words! I dare say he plots ’gainst me!”
“Hush, our own rose. Thee knoweth he is unable to feeleth. Prithee, Ruzha,” the countess reached to lift the vixen’s head to look at her face, gingerly, “what hast he done to thee?”
“He…” Ruzha paused as the recollection alone pained her to reflect upon. Eve’s emeralds were soothing though, coaxing her to reveal that which she did not wish to speak on. “He spake of mine own sins. Thee took these from me. I beseech thee to do it again.”
Eve paused, still and poised as before. She knew what Ruzha asked of her. It was only a matter of willingness to grant it. She blinked, tilting her head with a sweet smile. Ruzha gaped with hope, for she knew her mistress would help her.
“Ah, aren’t thee a greedy thing,” Eve said coyly. “We shall holp thee, for thee knoweth we cannot turn hence a weeping vixen.”
“The gardens really do look different during the day,” Mara giggled as she waltzed about the flowers.
Michael stood at a distance, following her moments with his eyes. Mara reminded him of a small child again. Bright smile and light laughter could only belong to an innocent youth. Had it already been eleven years since she had been brought to this castle? He recalled her frightened, crimson eyes, gaping up at him with tears. Was this whimsical child a taste of her life before her kidnapping?
“Oh, Michael look! The moon is smiling at us!”
She pointed up at the night sky and smiled back at him. He blinked as a thought came to him. Was that the answer? Had Lady Eve reverted her to a younger self? She could have suppressed her memory further to sway her loyalty. The vampire clenched his jaw at the thought of Mara’s mood swings being the fault of missing pieces of her mind. How could he restore her? He had to at any cost for Mara’s sake, for escape was no means to live.
“Michael, what are you doing over there?” Mara laughed, running over to his side. Grasping his large hand in both her smaller ones, she tugged. “Come now! We have to find your spot!”
The vampire walked slowly behind her as the vixen pulled him through the gardens. He stared at her, unsure of what she was talking about. Somehow, it amused him. He wished she could have done such things when she was younger. Would it have amused him more if she had? His limited imagination tried to see the little girl from all those years ago, smiling as she was now. He gaped in surprise. She was a true princess to be sure.
“Michael?” Mara waved a hand in front of his blank face. “Are you in there? Where did you go? Can I come, too?”
He blinked, returning to reality. Had he just daydreamed? He could scarcely remember the last time he had done that. He had been doing a lot of things he had not done in some time. Why? How? Was it the countess’ awakening? Had she done something to him that evening? He focused his sights on the young vixen smiling up at him, waiting for him to reply.
“You just went away somewhere,” she said quietly. “Where did you go?”
“Somewhere I have not been in many years.” He glanced up at the moon. “Many years…”
“Oh?” Mara tilted her head, curious about what he meant. Glancing beside her, she smiled again. “Look! It’s your spot, Michael. See?”
“White roses.” Michael’s eyes fixated on the rose bush. “I was once fond of white roses.”
“Really? Why was that? It is because they glow in the moonlight?” Mara asked innocently. “I think that’s why I like them so much. They’re really pretty.”
Doth they not gleam in the moonlight, Michael?
“Someone I once did hold precious did love these the same as thee.”
Mara gaped at the look in his eyes. Was Michael sad. How could something so beautiful bring out such sad eyes?