Where the Heart Lies
“Oh!” Mara perked up as she thought of a change in the subject. “There’s the wall I was telling you about earlier, Michael!” She ran to the walnut tree, perching on one of the uprising roots. Her excited expression shifted to a disapproving scrunch in her nose. “It looks more sinister at night. I might have had a fright if I hadn’t seen it today.” She neglected to mention her fright from the cursing bird, conveniently.
Michael watched her run off. Her change of temperament was a real test of patience, but he was willing to endure it. He looked beyond her at the courtyard she was staring at. It was not a place anyone in the castle ventured toward if they could help it. Perhaps the daylight subdued the ominous pestilence it secreted during the night.
“As well thee should, Mara,” Michael said, walking toward the tree. “Do not wend near yond wall again under any circumstance.”
“Why, Michael?” Mara asked, innocently. She turned to look up at her mentor, curiously. He was staring at the courtyard almost hatefully. She felt anxiety swell within her chest at the purpose behind that face. “You told me it was a place for gatherings. What could be bad about that?”
“Aye, gatherings of disheartening intent. Gage me to not wend near thither again, in daylight as well.” His visage was cold, conveying the serious intention of his words.
“Yes, Michael…” Mara felt her anxiety growing, but her curiosity was peaked as well. If Michael didn’t like the wall or courtyard, what was such a place for? Despite her interest, she could never break an oath to Michael. She looked down at the massive roots of the trees, stroking the lined bark with her fingers.
The two remained silent for a while. Michael had no idea what to say, accustomed to socializing. Mara was feeling light-headed from everything that had happened that night. This was not how she had intended the evening to go, but she had learned some things that she was glad she had. She felt closer to Michael for the first time in years. If their relationship was going to continue to evolve though, would it be filled with moments like these? She hoped not.
“Master Michael? Lady Mara?”
Both turned to see who had called on them. It was Harman. Mara blinked as her brain felt a sense of familiarity about him, but her memory seemed muddled as to why. She knew she had last seen him before the awakening, but she could not recall what had transpired between them. If he felt comfortable, she reasoned he must be someone she favored, so she smiled back at the vampire, waiting to hear what the page wanted. Harman flushed at the smile.
“What is it, knave?” The older vampire asked flatly. He never was one to drag a topic on. What was he looking at Mara that way for anyway?
“F-Forgive the interruption, sir,” Harman replied, quickly. “Countess Eve requests Lady Mara’s presence in the throne room.” He bowed low, hoping to keep himself from getting distracted again.
“Me? She wants to see me?” Mara blinked in surprise before pointing at her face. At first, the vixen smiled with excitement at the invitation, but the joy died quickly when she realized this would disrupt her night with Michael. She had hoped to make up for neglecting him for the countess before, and now, she was about to do it again. “Is is terribly important?”
“I shall escort the heir to that lady majesty’s throne room, boy.”
“Thee need not, Master Michael,” Harman said, lifting his head. “The sage has sent me to-”
“I shall escort the heir, knave.”
Michael’s tone silenced the page. Mara gaped up at him as a smile grew on her lips. She reached to loop her arms around one of his. The older vampire did not reject the gesture, but he hardly reacted either. His harsh gaze bore down upon the page until he yielded with another bow.
“Of course, sir,” Harman replied in a sad tone.
“You do want to spend time with me, Michael!” Mara cried for joy as she sprang up from the tree root. The two of them walked toward the door. She paused at the sight of Harman, bowed beside the door. Breaking from Michael’s side, she stopped before the page, reaching for his chin. She guided him upright, smiling sweetly at him. “Next time, perhaps, Harman?”
Harman gaped up at the vixen. She remembered him? Of course, she had asked his name before, and that had to mean something to her, right? He nodded in response, speechless that a noble would give a promise like that. The vixen returned to Michael, and they left the gardens, where Harman watched at them.
“Lady Mara,” he said, quietly, “may thy heart ne’er change.”
When they reached the throne room, Michael resolved himself before pushing in the doors. The last time he had been in this room, he had left lost. He knew his mistress was more powerful than himself, but he could not abandon his oath to protect Mara. Whatever happened after this moment, he couldn’t let himself falter again, not for Mara’s sake.
His typical, blank expression rested in place. He couldn’t give the Lady of Darkness any reason to suspect his loyalty had shifted. It wasn’t treason to hold Mara as a priority, but if she did have plans for the Sun Dweller, his descent could become so. He would do everything in his strength to restore Mara to her true self. Her happiness was his only hope.
Eve sat on her lounging throne of dark wood and pillows. Seeing Mara and Michael together, she frowned slightly. Why was Mara clinging to Michael’s arm so affectionately? Her presence felt different from when they had been together the night before. She looked almost cherubic. It took all the lady possessed in her will to hold in a hiss. She could not persuade the Sun Dwellers’ will with fright after all. Taking a deep breath, she put on a civil expression and tried to remain so.
“Mara, love,” the vixen said in a gentle voice, “wherefore has’t thee Michael at thy side? We doth not recall calling upon him as well.”
“Oh, but I wanted Michael to stay with me, countess! We have had such fun tonight that I don’t want it to end!” Giggling, Mara clung closer to the vampire. Michael did not say anything, knowing the lady was already irritated.
“Has’t thee anon…”
Eve gripped at edges of her armrests. She didn’t like seeing them so close, but she wanted Mara to be happy, at least for right now. Her gaze turned to Michael. His gaze was low, but that was hardly new, only making eye contact when spoken to. Perhaps Mara just fancied the stoic. Smiling, she found her ‘happy’ thought to focus on.
“This pleases us to heareth. We knoweth thou art well with our own loyal liegeman, Michael. Thank thee f’r thine ado, sir.”
Michael nodded in silence. He was already a male of few words, but Countess Eve made him even more so than that. He never liked testing her patience. Its fuse was not very long. If only Mara was not so open with the vixen, he might have less reason to be overly cautious. If she wasn’t careful, the Emerald Lady just might flare her fangs in her direction.
With Michael distracting Eve’s attention, Ruzha stepped from behind the throne quietly. Mara’s countenance slumped into disapproval. The other smirked from where she stood at her lady’s side. She felt victorious, despite her earlier encounter in the royal chamber. Mara Black would never replace her at Lady Eve’s side, not with her habit of hoarding Michael.
Mara narrowed her crimson eyes at the object of all her loathing. Ruzha looked so smug up there beside the throne, acting as if the younger had never graced the place. In a childish act of defiance, she pulled herself even closer to Michael, sticking her tongue out at her self-assigned rival. She still didn’t know what her history was with Michael, but she tried to use her body language to convey her possessive intent.
“Anon that thee has’t arrived, Mara,” with notable emphasis on the ‘thee’, “we shall bid thee wherefore thee wast summoned.”
“Yes, my lady.” Mara snapped her attention back at the countess’ words like a puppet.
“Thee shall beest joining Ruzha on an errand f’r us,” she said affectionately, pleased to see the piqued interest.
“An errand?” Mara blinked, blankly. She didn’t understand the statement. “What do you mean, my lady?”
“We sendeth our own most trust liegemen across the globe, dearest Mara,” Eve replied with a motherly smile. “Thither are many which threaten our own life. Tis the role of our own precious liegemen to protect us, and thee, our sweet maid, art one of those liegemen.” She winked an emerald eye down at the clueless vixen.
“Of course, Lady Eve! My sword is at your command!” Mara smiled up at the countess. That made sense. She was a part of the important circle that few were graced to enter. She understood status well, and Heir to the Throne of Darkness was pretty high up there. A burst of light laughter left her lips as she thought about how much lower Ruzha sat beneath her.
“What sort of assignment is thus, mine own mistress?”
Eve gaped at Michael’s question. Had he just spoken up without being addressed? That was unlike him. He was normally silent until his thoughts were requested. First, Mara had been acting differently, and now, her cold mercenary had developed a tongue. Her interest in such change between the two of them was growing, especially since they seemed to be causing it in one another. How though?
“It is a retrieval errand, Michael,” Ruzha replied when the lady remained quiet. “The sage has discovered something mine own mistress desires, yet the lady wishes to remain cautious. The Sun Dweller is it accompany me in the task and return to the castle.” The redhead narrowed her eyes at the male, radiating irritation at his curiosity. “Does that stifle thy curiosity, Angel of Death?
“Oh! Is it a treasure of some kind, like in the books Michael makes me read?”
The vampire glanced down at her after the comment. What did she mean made her read? He almost groaned when he realized she was referring to her tutoring sessions on literature.
“Aya, Mara…” Eve replied with a hint of seduction in her tone, “Tis a treasure we hast desired f’r many thousands of years. At long last, tis within our own grasp f’r the first time.” Her emerald eyes began to accent as the whites of her eyes darkened. Her goal might be within her grasp at last.
“Countess,” Michael spoke up again, “art thee certain this time is wis to act?”
“What doth thee refer to, Michael?”
Eve glanced at the vampire. She had not seen his visage this way in centuries. She gaped in disbelief. How could he be concerned? Hadn’t she stripped him of all emotion? What was the meaning of this?
“I only infer that Mara is still training. Though the maiden’s sparring record is superb, the lady possesses nay experience outside the castle walls.”
Michael was speaking objectively, of course, but alternatively, he desired to keep Mara inside the castle until her condition could be seen by the sage. If she lost herself the way she had in the training hall outside, who knew the damage she could cause without him there to stop her.
“I propose we advance in training to better prepare-”
His voice died in his throat. His eyes gaped as pain stung within his chest. He slumped to his knees, gripping his chest. His eyes were unfocused, faded with shock. He could just feel Eve’s disapproving gaze burn into his skull.
“Michael!” Mara screamed as she tried to keep him from falling over. What could have caused this to happen? An image of memory tried to clear to a similar time when her mentor had collapsed. Her eyes filled with worry, ignoring the pain starting to swell in her head. Not Michael! She couldn’t lose Michael!
“Michael,” Eve said with a light gasp, “has’t thee fallen ill? We hadst pondered sending thee with Ruzha to holp our own heir, but we seeth anon thee hast not recovered thy strength from last night of all. Prithee rest, Michael. We shall entrust Mara’s training to Ruzha until thou art well again.” She smiled down at the two before her. The motherly look appeared twisted with her blackened eyes at their center.
“Recovered?” Ruzha glanced at the countess a moment. “What did occur to weaken him so?”
“He did suffer a spell at which hour we did awake.” The countess replied pleasantly to the vixen’s question. “Mara hath spent the night with us getting acquainted, waiting f’r him to stir.”
Michael gaped at the stone floor as his scar burned. It was that old wound. She had touched it at the awakening, inciting similar pain to this. Listening to her explanation, he realized this was no mere relapse. She was purposely causing him pain. She had done this in the past, but he was unsure what he had done to deserve her wrath now.
“The awakening?” Ruzha stared down at her beloved countess’ visage. She knew better than to believe that explanation. The lady must be up to her old ways of toying with the vampire. She glanced down at Michael, watching him silently suffer. She felt slightly sorry for him, but she tried not to think too much of it. She had promised herself to forget.
“Lady Eve,” Mara looked up from her mentor to the countess. Michael looked worse than ever. “Please, will you not allow me to take him to his room? I want to look after him this time.”
Eve’s amused smiled died. Her jealousy panged again in her chest. Just what made Michael so damned important to the child? It infuriated her to no end to see such affection aimed at the vampire instead of her. Before she lashed out at him though, Mara’s pleading expression made her pause. Her smile was gone, replaced with heartbreaking worry. She wanted her to smile again. This expression haunted her, stirring a pain she could not face. Her eyes returned to white as she hung her head, trembling slightly.
“We shall grant thy wish… but thee shall accompany Ruzha as we hath asked…”
“Of course, I will, my lady.” Mara sounded wounded that the countess thought she would reject her. “You know I would do anything for you, Lady Eve. My sword is yours.”
Eve lifted her head once more. She smiled with relief. It pleased her to hear such words of loyalty from the young vixen, and the look in her eyes told her she meant every word. Perhaps her jealousy toward Michael was unfounded after all. He was still under her control, and Mara still desired to serve her. She decided to wait for events to progress further before lashing out at either of them again.
“I only ask when we leave. I want to look after my mentor as long as I can.” Mara’s sincerity only made the lady calm further.
“Tomorrow,” Ruzha replied with a subtle smile.