The Wretched Heir
“Advance! Retreat! Retreat! Advance! Advance!”
A deep, Slavic voice echoed off stone walls, barking commands. In the center of the large room, two individuals were fencing, a man and a woman. As the orders commanded, the woman reflected as the man did the opposite. The man wore a full suit of armor, while the woman merely skipped back and forth in more slimming attire. Her form-fitting, black, pants were tucked inside thigh-high boots with a long-sleeved, cream tunic, embraced in an embroidered, black corset. Her blonde hair was bound behind her in a tight bun as she followed her cues. However, her crimson gaze looked bored.
“Enough!” She screamed, echoing her British accent above the commands. “I want a real fight!”
Her sparring partner cried out as she let loose with a full-strength strike with her sparring sword. He barely managed to parry the attack, but he used the momentum in her blow to jump backward and retreat. The onlookers lining the room had been waiting to see when this would happen. The woman pursued him, making a second strike for the neck. By some fortune, he managed to get his weapon up to block that one as well, rolling away. Snarling with irritation, she went for a blow to the side.
A live saber’s blade flashed before her, stopping her practice one. She froze at the interruption, looking up from the corner of her eye. The form of a tall, broad-shouldered man stood over her, staring back blankly with cold, amber eyes. His long, platinum blonde locks were bound behind his neck with a black ribbon. Sporting a brown, leather vest over a white, long-sleeved tunic, his long arms led down to black leather gloves. Brown, breeches were tucked into black, knee-high boots. His tone carried no emotion in it as he reprimanded her disobedience.
“Thee dare to disobey mine own instruction again, witting the consequence.”
“I know…” She dropped her blade to the ground. Patting the imaginary dust off her hands, she watched her partner for the night scurry away as a discovered rat in a storeroom. Sighing heavily, she replied in a blase tone, “My training for the night is over. Correct, master?”
He sheathed his saber fluidly, flipping the hilt about his fingers as if it were a baton. He turned to leave the hall. Mara crossed her arms as she followed him out of the room. She could feel the eyes of the onlookers, staring at her, but she ignored them. Watching the ponytail barely sway as her teacher walked before her, her thoughts were on what he might intend for her now.
She had overheard the whispers speak of how she was his responsibility, and his strict punishment only reflected that in his eyes. As long as she could remember, her mentor had been there, tutoring her, teaching her, telling her what she’d done wrong. As stern a man he was, he was the most important person in her world.
They walked the stone halls together. She twirled her some loose hair about her finger. Glancing up at him, she saw his face was blank as always, fixed ahead of him. She knew that his peripherals were sharper than they appeared though. His posture was as straight as a tall tree, accenting his height above her. He was such a lovely piece of eye candy to gaze upon, but when he paused his steady pace, she was forced to look away, seeing the door to her room. How typical to send her to her room...
“Why not come in for a moment, master?” Her voice was a bit playful, not wanting him to go so soon.
“The crimson in thy cheeks tell me thou art still flustered from thy spar. Peradventure thee should rest anon.” His voice maintained an even level of placid insensitivity.
“No!” She cried. Her face flushed more, knowing that he equated her blushing at him to her brief match moments ago. “I want you to come in with me. You’re supposed to do as I ask, aren’t you? I am heir, am I not? Then I order you to come in with me now!”
“Hush thy childish wailing.” His curt reply was all he said before turning to walk away.
“Wait…” She reached out for his right arm, stopping him. Looking up at him with a sad expression in her eyes, she pleaded this time. “I’m sorry. Please stay awhile. Please, Michael?”
“Mara,” he said without looking at her, “retire.”
Watching him walk away, she stood still. He was always like that. No matter what she tried, he wouldn’t stay longer than he intended. Once he turned a corner, she went back to open her bedroom door. Shuffling her boots over to her bed, she sighed heavily.
For years, Michael had been the center of her world. Although he had raised her, she wanted to be more than just his charge. Did he care about her feelings? Nope! He was so cruel to just turn his back to her when she just wanted him to sit with her for a moment. Wasn’t she supposed to have powers of seduction? Being a vampire was supposed to be empowering, so why couldn’t she draw the one vampire she wanted closer?
Sitting on her bed, she looked out the window of her room at the night sky. She reflected on the times Michael had been less aloof from her. As a child, he would go with her almost everywhere she went. He supped with her at meals. He had taken her to the gardens. He had been so patient and protective.
After she began to physically mature, he rarely remained at her side for anything outside of training and studies. She had attempted to make up excuses to try convincing him to stay longer, but with every rejection, she got more desperate. If he didn’t want her companionship, he could at least tell her that, but it was always a cold shoulder. A knock at the door broke her from her thoughts.
“Lady Mara?” An anxious woman’s voice called. A handmaiden assigned to her tonight perhaps?
“What is it?” She groaned back as she sulked.
“I… I hast brought thy dinner, mine own lady. Master Michael hath said thee would be eating in thy chambers tonight.”
Mara wanted to beat the vampire in the chest with her fists. Some might feel privileged to be allowed to eat dinner in their room. Mara, on the other hand, knew this meant she was confined to her room for the remainder of the night. Why was he was wicked? Was he that irritated by her failed attempt to woo him? It would be several hours before sunrise, and her room had very little source of entertainment. Slumping to the pillows, she yelled back at her door.
“Oh, come in then! See if I care!”
Once the maid set the warmed blood on the table in the vixen’s room, she hurried out. With the door closed, she felt free to sigh with relief. That girl was unpredictable. Though she had never actually harmed anyone, the entire castle had seen her tantrums. Considering her station, they all feared what might happen the day Master Michael could not keep her in line.
“Hold,” the maid gasped as Michael appeared from the shadows beside her, “did the mistress loose that lady temper upon thee?”
“N-Nay…” She stammered.
He was likened to a ghost in the castle, seemingly appearing out of nowhere with how quiet he was. It was said he did not bleed, and his heart stopped cold centuries ago, leaving him emotionless. As chill a touch from a vampire could be, he was by far the coldest. He nodded his head, dismissing her. She hurried away, not wanting to be seen as idle. He did not watch her go, turning down the opposite corridor instead.
He made his way to the gardens. They took up a good size of the castle’s courtyard, nearly half of it. With several hours before the sun rose, he retreated here during his alone time. His eyes found the moon, waning in its last quarter. If he possessed emotion, he might have been moved by the celestial satellite, but he had not felt ‘moved’ in centuries.
He reflected, briefly, on the last time he had felt an emotion. He couldn’t recall what it had been, but he knew it had been the last he had ever felt. Some might look back on that night and weep, but he didn’t shed a single tear of sorrow. He did not remember how the anguish felt to stir him. However, a face looked back at him from the surface of the moon.
“Thou art gone.” He spoke flatly. “I know thus. Doth not haunt me anon.”
Glancing over his shoulder, he noticed hurried footsteps nearing the entrance behind him. A young-looking, male vampire paused at the doorway. The stoic turned to see what he wanted. His guard did not drop as he waited for the other to speak.
“Master…!” The winded vampire gasped as he tried to speak. He seemed anxious about the news. “The lady…! The time… is almost hither...! The sage… calls thee… to the cubiculum...!”
Michael’s lips parted only slightly at the news, but that was still a reaction as he stared back blankly. He was unsure if he considered it surprise or hesitation though. This news could only mean one thing...
“Lady Mara! Lady Mara! Thee will accompany me, Lady Mara!”
Mara swung the door open, glaring back at the vampire that had been banging on her door. He cringed at the crimson gaze. He had heard the whispers that the vixen possessed powers. He wasn’t certain what they were, but he hoped he would not be finding out today. She let her eyes narrow a bit more before speaking up.
“What do you want?” Her tone was tired. He’d woken her up from a nap.
“Ma-Master M-Michael summons thee…”
He shivered at the thought of what she might say next. To his surprise, her weary eyes brightened. He had no idea why that statement had affected her that way, but something told him he did not want to know.
“Thee will come with me anon.”
“Then, by all means, whisk me away, you devil.”
She grinned down at him excitedly. Michael wasn’t mad at her. Maybe he did just want her to cool her head. He might have been stern, but he wasn’t completely heartless… maybe. She liked to think so. Stepping out and closing the door, she waved her hand for him to show her the way.
To her surprise, he led her past the armory and dining halls. She didn’t remember going this far into the castle before. She had always had a somewhat limited access, despite her station. Had Michael asked her to come to his room?
She gaped, looking ahead nervously. She hadn’t meant to leave him with the impression that she wanted to do that with him, had she? Biting her knuckle, the vixen knew she wasn’t ready for that. She just wanted to spend time with him.
“How much further is it?” She asked, timidly.
“Master Michael awaits thee down yond stairs.” He picked up a torch from the wall before starting down a spiral staircase.
She paused for a moment. She had a bad feeling in her stomach when she looked down the stairs. What exactly was Michael calling her for? This wasn’t like him, sending someone to retrieve her. He had always come to get her before. Always. Was something wrong? This vampire had made the situation seem serious.
Finally, she hurried to catch up to her escort. The stairs seemed to be endless. At one point, she began holding onto her companion as her gut feeling steadily worsened.
The vampire stared up at her, suspiciously. She wasn’t nearly as intimidating as everyone said she was. It was kind of pathetic that the entire castle was scared of a frightened vixen like her. He felt foolish for his stammering earlier. Honestly, he wasn’t going to hold her hand when they reached their destination.
Once they reached the bottom of the stairs, large, wooden double doors loomed over them in the dimly light space. Walking up to them, the vampire knocked four times. It slowly began to open. A cold chill swept over them as the doorway opened. Mara froze in place, letting her escort go on ahead her.
“Come, Master Michael awaits within.”
“No. I will not go in there. Can’t you feel that?”
Her crimson eyes gaped as the doors completely opened. She could see shadows and silhouettes in the firelight, but the worse of all was her stomach had almost turned with anxiety. There was something in there that she did not want to see. Every sense of self-preservation told her to go right back up the staircase. Michael wouldn’t bring her to such a frightening place, would he?
“Greetings, maiden of the Day,” a voice spoke from within. It sounded smooth and genteel, but it didn’t ease her anxiety about the presence in that room. It felt displaced. “Come hither. Be not afraid.”
She shook her head with a mixture of defiance and terror. Where was Michael? That vampire had said he was in there, but she hadn’t seen or heard from him yet. She would not budge until she was told to by Michael. She refused.
“Mara...” Her mentor’s voice caught her ear, “Come...”
She gaped. He sounded strange, as if he might be tired or something. She straightened her shoulders, just as he had taught her to present herself, before stepping inside to look for him.
The silhouettes turned out to be cloaked figures, which only added to their disturbing appearance. She glanced about at them for Michael’s face, but they seemed to be so many that they formed one large mass. She swallowed a lump of nerves in her throat at the thought of them becoming a massive wave and crashing down on her.
Where was her mentor? She knew his voice. She stopped in the center of the room before the fire she had seen earlier. On the other side, she found Michael at last, standing beside a hooded figure.
“Michael!” She cried for joy, but her excitement was short-lived when she caught a glimpse of his face.
His head was bowed, and his shoulders slumped. His pale skin was almost gray and haggard, and his usual cold eyes were void now. He looked so weak. What was going on? Was he ill? How could that be?
“What have they done to you...?”
“Welcome, young one,” the figure beside Michael said. It was the voice from before that had called to her. Why did it sound so strange? “It has been many years since we have seen one another. Thy beauty has grown with thee, mine own lady.”
The comment made her lip twitch. What did he mean it had been years since they’d seen each other? She didn’t know this person. She would certainly remember a voice like that. It was like ripples on the surface of water. Then, she realized he did not have a noticeable accent. Just who was this person.
She glanced back at Michael. He looked even worse. Was it the room that made him so worn? Did he feel the same anxiety she was? She needed to get him back upstairs. Surely, he would recover once they got out of this pestilent atmosphere.
“I know not of what you mean, sir,” she addressed him in her regal tone. Michael had taught her how to speak properly in court affairs. This would be a test of her resolve. As their heir to the throne, she had to hold her ground even when she felt terrified. She couldn’t let them see her fear. “I would ask why Master Michael summoned me here from my chambers. He does not appear well.”
“Mine own lady,” the figure touched his waist before bowing, “I assure thee Master Michael is well. I shall grant thy request with pleasure. Nights from this evening, at which hour the moon’s visage has left the sky, a glorious nonce shall come upon us.”
“What might this event be?” She said curtly, trying to hurry things along. Michael needed to get out of this chamber. Whatever this person needed to say must be what she came here for. Once he said it, she was getting Michael and herself out. They could do without the ceremony.
“Our own countess shall waken from a century’s long slumber, young vixen, or should I say young Sun Dweller?”
Mara stared back at him. Sun Dweller? She had never been called that before. What was he on about?
Michael felt the air of the room grow heavier with every passing moment. How could everyone stand so straight? Could they not feel the pestilence radiating in this chamber? It was so great that he thought he might be crushed under its presence alone. Whether awake or asleep, her highness was formidable.
He had followed the sage’s orders to be present at this announcement. Mara would only remain there if he did. The countess must have sensed his presence, holding him in place, so he had been unable to leave to fetch Mara. That had been why he sent the young vampire that called him back up to collect her. He had no intention of leaving her alone down here anyway. She would lose herself in her fright, slaughtering as many as possible before they overtook her. She had such low-level control and patience.
As she spoke with the vampire beside him, he glanced up at her. She looked like the heiress they revered her as for once. Her crimson pools reflected the poise and nobility he had instilled in her over the years. Now that she wasn’t throwing a tantrum, he could see the potential she possessed to be the Heiress to the Throne of Darkness.
His chest twinged, liken to a skipped heartbeat. Was he trying to feel pride? Just as the thought came to him, he saw someone else in her face, someone he had been quite proud of. He would have wanted to embrace her, but the numb was far too strong to allow such affection.
For the first time in centuries, Michael wished he could feel. He wanted to be able to show his pride in Mara’s accomplishments. Even if it was only for a brief moment, he wanted to show the affection he knew he had for her that had been locked away.
A fearful shiver struck his chest at the thought. It was the countess. Was this her punishment for trying to break free, to desire, to feel? She knew his heart. She always did. He lowered his gaze again in defeat. Only a fool would think to defy her.
“The time shall come at which hour the two of thee shall meet,” the hooded vampire made a wide gesture behind him to a polished, black coffin, sitting against the wall on a platform. “The lady has awaited thy birth for such a long time, Sun Dweller. I believe the lady shall find thee most favorable. Come hither.”
Nothing he said made any sense. Sun Dweller? Countess? What did any of that mean? Her mind was rejecting it for some reason. This must have been what she had been groomed for her whole life, but something didn’t feel right about it. The knot in her stomach had grown so great that she thought this must be the most frightening experience of her life. No, there was a time in the far reaches of her memory much worse. Thinking on it now, flashes of distorted memory came to her.
Lying in a bed, someone was there beside her, but who? She couldn’t place a name or a face, but she knew someone had been in the bed with her. They had left. Why? She remembered wishing they hadn’t. Glass suddenly flying over her. Someone crouch over her, another lost face. Perhaps it was just silhouetted by the large moon behind them. She was too frightened to scream when they scooped her up. There was broken glass everywhere, but not one shard had touched her. She’d been covered in the figure’s cloak and taken into the night...
“Does something trouble thee, mine own lady?”
“I... I would prefer not to approach.” There was a murmur throughout the room at the passive decline. Michael found himself curious as to why she would decline. They waited to hear her out.
“If our lady is as you have said, I would prefer to approach when she has awakened. I would be quite discontented to have another hover over me as I slept, so I wish to extend the same courtesy to our countess.”
She tried to put on her poker face as the whispers grew louder after her statement. The hooded speaker lowered his arm, considering her words. Michael closed his eyes. That sounded just like Mara.
“A most gentle gesture, young Sun Dweller,” the hooded vampire replied, at last, silencing the rest of the room. “Thee make a valorous point. Prithee forgive our own haste. The countess would favor thy consideration. In wake of thus, we simply ask thee to be present at the awakening of our own mistress.”
“A reasonable request, sir,” she tried sounding as bored as usual, but it only sounded half as convincing as it normally did.
She was just relieved to finally be getting out of there. When he had stepped aside to present that coffin, something inside her lurched from fright. If she felt that way while she was asleep, the night that vixen woke up would not be something she was going to celebrate. For right now though, she had to make her escape with a worthy escort.
“With the matter settled, I desire Master Michael to escort me back to my chambers. The servant before did not satisfy my side. I require an escort of much higher standing at my arm.”
The onlookers glanced at the servant that had brought her a moment. He looked shocked by her statement. He seemed just as stunned at her demeanor. When the stares turned to Michael, the vampire stared back at the young noble. If he could have been stunned, he would have it written all over his face.
This was a splendid excuse to leave the room. He glanced back at the coffin over his shoulder. He could just see the form, slumbering within the casket. Those damned, emerald eyes were burned into his memory like a brand to livestock. He took a slow step to start walking toward Mara as dignified as he could manage with the weight on his shoulders.
“Verily, should thus extravagant talk cease, I shall escort thee.”
“If you find it unbecoming, master,” she replied as he came up to her, “consider it finished.”
She took his arm as he walked by. She could feel his body straining itself, so she discreetly tried to help him to the stairs. They walked in silence as they rounded the staircase. Michael had taken a torch to light the way, but unlike her first trip down, she did not feel anxiety with her mentor at her side.
He was such a comfort to her, but even his presence couldn’t ease the restless feeling she had about the chamber they had just left. There was something in there, an aura of some kind, that seemed to be engulfing everyone and everything, waiting for something. Maybe it was waiting for the countess to wake up. Maybe it was something else entirely. She wasn’t looking forward to going back down. She wished she never had to return there. When she saw the lights of the hall upstairs, she sighed with a smile.
“Michael, are you all right now?” She finally spoke as they left the stairwell. “I was terribly worried about you down there. You looked so ill...”
She trailed off as his arm moved away from her to put up the torch. She lost her train of thought, looking down at her hands. She didn’t know what she was trying to say anyway. What could she know about Michael? She didn’t know anything about him. How inconsiderate she must seem to him.
“I am, anon.”
Looking up quickly, Mara noticed the difference immediately. He looked almost completely himself now. Wrapping her arms about her waist, the young vixen smiled shyly. She was grateful to be of use for once. She knew better than anyone how much of a child she was. She had only just turned twenty-one days ago. Still, Mara wanted Michael to see her as more than a babe in his eyes. She wanted to show him just how much more she could be. If it weren’t for that spoiled nature of hers, he might not give her such a disappointed gaze so often.
As she had asked, Michael walked her back to her room a second time that night. This time though, the silence held a dreadful undertone. Their boots fell in sync to a rhythm that held them in a trance. It put them somewhere that only they existed in, away from the castle and its lower chamber room. Their thoughts revolve around that same thing. Both held concern over the awakening, and they both wanted to go back to the time before any of this had happened, back when things were simpler to address and cope with.
The cold numb was setting in once more within Michael. He knew this was inevitable, but all the same, he didn’t want to lose the fragments of feeling he had experienced moments before. Those words he had wanted to say to Mara down in the heart of the countess’ resting place did not leave him. There had been many times he had been unable to speak from his heart, but as he tried to recall the events fully, he found that his emotional barrier prevented him from truly remembering them. Once the cold set in, they slipped from him at last, and he stopped caring to try.
Once the two vampires neared the hall of her bedroom, Mara’s countenance reached an all-time low. After what she had just experienced, she didn’t want to be alone right now. The only person she felt she could turn to was her mentor. After all, no one else cared to stay near her longer than they had to. They feared her, so how could she convey her own fears to them? If only Michael would stay, she thought his presence could make up for his lack of empathy. She wanted to feel comfort now more than ever.
“Hither, thy chambers,” Michael said in his normal, placid tone.
Mara hung her head. How could she expect any different from him? She had watched him her whole, while short, life. He would leave her here just like he did every other time. As she reached for her door handle, sluggishly, she felt Michael’s glove on her shoulder. She looked back, shocked.
“May rest induce thee peace, Mara.”
Tears welled up in her crimson eyes. He had never done anything like this before. Did he sense her distress? If that was the case, could her gut instincts be correct about the awakening? Why else would he do something so unlike him after what had just transpired? All she could do was stare back at him, speechless.
He released her shoulder, walking away just as stoically as he had earlier that evening. Again, Mara watching him go until he was gone. She entered her room in a daze. Once she closed the door though, she rushed to her bed, burying her face in the quilt. Screaming, she wept from all the pent up fear. She wished someone would hold her as closely as that figure from the past had wrapped up safe in their cloak.
“I…! I’m…!” She gasped between sobs, “I’m frightened...! Someone... please... help me...!”