“Did thee slumber in thy chair?”
It was Michael. Michael had taken her all those years ago. Why? Why had he kidnapped her? Had she been in danger of something? Was she already someone’s prisoner? No, there had to be some mistake. Her memory was flawed, right? Michael would never hurt her, but the figure in the night had held her the same way Michael would when he used to carry her to bed as a child. She stared back at him for a while before sitting up. She curled her knees up to her chest as she gaped back at him.
“No, Master. I woke up some time ago. May I ask why you have come to wake me? You usually don’t.”
“The awakening is upon us,” he replied, observing her body language. Her heart was racing. Her eyes were tremulous. What could have roused her this way? Was it the awakening, or had something more happened since he had left her in the gardens? “Art thee well, Mara?”
“Yes!” She replied quickly, a bit too quickly. Pausing to collect herself, she stood up to walk further from the door. “I’m fine. I doubt I am needed yet. You may call upon me when the time has come. I need to prepare myself to return there.”
Michael watched her closely. Her footwork was interesting. It seemed she wanted distance between them. Why? He had become so accustomed to her fawning that the new behavior set off warnings in his mind. She almost seemed afraid. What reason did she have to be intimidated by him? There was no reason she could have... unless... If she remembered that, he had best watch himself, or she might retaliate, badly.
“Mid night the countess shall awaken,” he said softly. “I shall collect thee a short time ere. Does that suit thee better?”
“It does, master,” Mara replied in a weary voice. “Still, I am not prepared for the night. I would appreciate my privacy once more.”
Her crimson eyes locked onto his amber ones. It was clear that something had changed between them. Michael tried to fathom what could make her distrust him so, but he would require the counsel of another for the answers he needed. The air became so tense after only a moment that the vampire eventually bowed at the waist before turning to leave. Once the door closed, Mara could be heard exhaling, heavily. Her teacher took one step before pushing off the floor to fly to the central tower of the castle.
His glazed gaze watched his surroundings as he contemplated the scene he had just exited. Mara had been afraid of him. It had been some time since he had seen those reactions to his presence in her. Now that he reflected on that time, he recalled that the eleventh anniversary had past days before.
Could Mara actually remember that night? There should be no way she could remember. He had watched her closely all these years. The hypnotic suggestion had not been broken, for her memories were still hidden from her. Still, if she remembered that one night, even just a fraction of it, she might recoil from them all. The sage desired her presence at the awakening, so he would obey that order. Stopping before the tower room, Michael banged his fist against the large door once, waiting for permission to proceed.
“Enter.” The vampire forced the door open, stopping in the threshold. The lone person in the dark chamber turned to receive their guest. The hood over their face showed only the lips and jaw of their visage. The flat line proved how grim they found this visit. “What troubles thee, Michael? Mine own thoughts are on the awakening.”
“I fear mine own charge did start to recall. That lady safety is at risk. Master, can the lady not be excused from the ceremony?”
“Peace, Michael. Thou do not know fear. Thy thoughts muddle to dissemble thee into believing so. Mine own spell has not broken. Mara could not accomplish thus without mine own knowledge. Mine own oath to thee would not breach so.”
“The awakening…” Michael paused. He was not looking forward to it himself, but he knew that Mara’s fear of the unknown to come was far worse than what he already felt. If he could feel, he knew his body would be paralyzed with terror at what was about to happen tonight. “Mara fears it in that lady heart anon. If it be true I have fallen from grace, who can the lady trust?”
“If it be true thee has fallen, thy import holds merit,” the sage said as he walked up to the vampire. “An escort shall be sent in thy stead. The knave from ere should doth. Thee shall accompany me to the cubiculum. The lady shall be expecting thee.”
“How do thee know the countess shall accept Mara?” Michael’s tone was dark. He had sworn to protect that child before her birth. The countess held such power over him though. He wondered if he could fulfill his duty should the fate of the Sun Dwellers fall upon Mara tonight.
“I shall see to thus, Michael,” the sage replied with a small smile. “Have thee forgotten mine own oath to thee ere we did start down this path?”
“What can save that lady if it be true we cannot?”
“Verily, Michael, I gage upon mine own immortal life the countess can ne’er grasp Mara’s heart ’gainst that lady wish.” Michael stopped his protest immediately. The other vampire’s smile widened more as he grasped the broad shoulders. “Do not forget that oath again, mine own cousin. Allow us not speak of this again as our own mistress returns. The countess has at each moment been jealous of thy bonds with others.”
“Aye.” Michael looked down at the floor. “Mine own mistress is possessive.”
“Lady Mara,” a familiar voice made Mara look away from the balcony of the private dining hall. “Master Michael has sent me to bring thee to the awakening.”
Mara blinked back at the young vampire. It was the same one that had taken her down the last time she went to that chamber. He looked less shy this time. There was a look of respect in his eyes that she could only wonder where it came from. Finishing off her goblet, the vixen rose from her chair. She felt her noble upbringing settling in. With her head held high, she rounded the tall seat to stand before her escort.
“Master Michael said that he would be escorting me to the awakening of the countess. Has something come up?”
“Nay, Lady Mara,” he said looking up into her crimson eyes. “The sage has asked him to wend ahead thee with him. He has sent me in his stead.”
“I see then,” she said with disappointment. “We should go then.”
“Aye, mine own lady.” The vampire took note of her eyes. They were crimson, unlike his blue ones. As they walked back toward the chamber beneath the castle, he thought about how envious he was of her.
“May I ask thee a question, Lady Mara?”
“What is it like being one of the born?”
“What do you mean?” Mara glanced at him. What nonsense was he going on about?
“Thine eyes are blood red. Meaning, thee was born instead of made. I was made as a youth. Thus, I shall remain a youth for eternity. I recall the day I came to the castle in the arms of Master Michael, mine own savior. I recall the day thee came as well, and we have all seen thee grow. I have forgotten the sense of growth.”
Mara gaped back at him. As she thought about it, she realized how she had taken for granted how her body changed while those around her remained stagnant. Raising her palm to look at her gloved hand, she realized even more than that she had always been protected by her mentor. How could she treat him so coldly? Did he feel rejection? He had paused at her words. Had they hurt him? He was a man fixed in time. He could not feel, and yet, he had tried to help her when she needed it. A tear fell from her right eye to her leather glove. Grasping her fist lightly, she remembered that Michael had given her these very gloves.
“What is your name?”
“Lady?” He looked back at her, stunned. Why would she ask something like that? He gaped at the tear streak on her cheek as she looked back at him with soft eyes. “Mine own name is Harman, Lady Mara?”
“Thank you, Harman,” she said, sadly. “I had forgotten something very important until just now. You have reminded me once again. I only hope there is still time to remedy things.” She wiped the streak from her face with a small sigh. “To answer your question, I would tell you to look at the flowers in the gardens. They grow faster than the trees that surround them, but the trees grow as well. It just does not appear on the outside. Does that help?”
“Some... Thou art a strange one, Lady Mara.” Harman blinked back up at her. She laughed at his statement before ruffling his hair. His cheeks went red, and his original feelings of annoyance returned as they came to the stairs.
Mara didn’t cling to the vampire as she had the last time. Instead, she linked arms and walked down in silence. She could feel the tightening on her chest again, but she grounded herself, knowing that Michael had assured her that she was safe.
Harman admired her face as they walked. She looked like a true princess. If she acted this way more often than not, he knew she could sway anyone to her side. If only she wasn’t so childish the rest of the time. Once they reached the door, he knocked the required signature. As they walked in, Mara’s face became emotionless, sending a chill through him.
Inside the chamber, the hooded gathering was chanting something Mara didn’t understand. She chose to ignore it to keep her fears in check. She let go of Harman’s arm, silently dismissing him with a hand. He bowed humbly, turning to leave.
Surveying the room as she walked up to the fire once again, she found Michael and the hooded figure he had been with the last time, standing beside the coffin. Michael and Mara were the only ones not chanting. They were both staring at the glistening, black coffin. Mara noted that Michael looked worse than the last time she had seen him in here. Hopefully, they wouldn’t have to remain here much longer, so she could get him out of this place. The chanting continued for what felt like ages until a pulse came off of the coffin.
Silence fell for a moment as all eyes looked in the same direction. The lid to the coffin shot upward suddenly, whirling into the crowd. Mara gasped as cries rang out. Some were shocked. Some were fearful. Some were in pain. Mara tore her eyes back to look at what might emerge.
Just when she thought her eyes couldn’t gape any wider, her crimson pools swelled as a hand reached up. It was groping for something. Mara’s guise of calm shattered as she trembled. She looked to Michael, wishing he would protect her, but she saw that he too was gaping at the slender hand. Finally, the hand reached him, gripping his chest. The vampire unleashed a cry that made the entire chamber look toward him.
“Michael!” Mara screamed, running around the fire to reach her mentor. “Release him! Please!”
The hand retracted, immediately, silencing Michael’s voice. He slumped to his knees, but Mara caught him before he fell to the stone floor. He was soaked in sweat. His strong body was limp, but from pain or weariness, she had no way of knowing. His eyes were fading. The young vixen tried to get him to look at her, but even though they turned her way, she could tell he was almost gone. Tears welled up in her eyes. Were her fears becoming reality now? Was this countess going to take away everything she cared about?
“Oh... our own sweet girl...” A voice whispered down to her, soothingly. She felt like something was draping over her shoulders. It felt so cold. As it wrapped about her, she felt her body lose its strength. What was this? “Cometh... Cometh to us, our own sweet...”
“Mara...” The sage knelt beside Michael as the vixen rose up to meet the voice. Looking through the shadow of his hood, he took Michael in his arms. “Catch but a wink, Michael. Thee shall need all of thy strength henceforth.”