She sat at the head of the table, regal and seductive without even trying to be. She was one year my junior but in her eyes was a weight I could scarcely comprehend. She also seemed a bit sad, even though her laughter was bright and airy. I wondered what she’d been through that made her so depressed. Riel flirted with her often, doting on her as if it had been his lifelong wish. Which it may just have been. His sparkling green eyes glowed and I could see his energy bubble over in his delight and excitement. He’d grab Aeryn’s hand often and kiss it gently, then rapidly work his way up her arm. She didn’t seem to mind it until he turned her palm face up. He gave it a tiny lick before kissing it and I was shocked to see her blush. She snatched her hand away and flicked his ear as if saying “heel, boy”. I felt like I was missing something. I guess the placement of kisses meant something to vampires. I’d have to ask Davis about it later. Riel gave a big grin and started drumming on the table to occupy himself. Aeryn leaned back in her chair and regarded us one by one. A smirk came to her face as she looked at Jesse. Jesse had one hand propping up his head and his other held my hand. He smiled right back at her. Jack sat across from me fiddling with his pager so that it would project, in a much calmer mood than earlier. Ashley leaned over to help him as Cal brought in a tray with two blood drinks on it. Shaking a bit, he set them down in front of the two visitors and then took his seat on my other side.
“Thank you, Calorado. Say, that’s quite an interesting name you have,” Aeryn complimented him.
“Th, thank you, Queen Aeryn,” he replied as if he was really saying, “Please don’t drink my blood!”
I snorted, tickled by the notion. The queen’s eyes fixed on me with interest. “I find it fascinating that you’re English,” she mentioned to me and Stan.
“And I find it fascinating that you’ll be the leader of all vampires. What’s that like?” I asked.
“Terrifying. Fantastic. I can’t wait. And Riel here has taught me so much,” she shared. She told us about her life in Nevada. Her life story was complicated. She’d always been a bit weird but a little over two years ago she’d been found by two vampires who revealed she was their reincarnated queen. She still lived with her human family even though she was a vampire. She couldn’t leave yet because there were so many preparations to make to ensure her transition into power. There was also an additional barrier; her human boyfriend was insane. He was also her dearest friend and understood her in a way no one else did. The others simply wanted to kill him but she forbade it. I sensed her thoughts take some dark paths as she told us that she’d run away and married Riel for a few months, only to return home when her other best friend died. To commemorate their short-lived but highly enjoyable marriage, Riel had promised to bring her back to Colorado every year at roughly the same time. They were a few months’ late this year simply due to the way her schedule was set up.
“My life is nowhere near that exciting,” I remarked.
“Oh, please. There’s a real-live ghost standing right behind you!” She pointed at Evin.
“I’m not quite ‘live’ but I am real most certainly,” Evin cut in.
“Oh, I think you’re brimming with vitality,” she countered.
“Come closer and I’ll show you just how much life I’ve got left in my co-”
“Shall we get started? We have a lot of information to go over,” Ashely interrupted to get us back on track.
“Ah, yes. Let’s stay on task. There’s so much…interesting energy coming from all of you,” Aeryn said.
“Understandable. I suppose we’re simply postponing the flirting,” Ashley grinned.
In turn, each of us presented our findings. There were mostly only preliminary findings on containers. Each container had unique but fairly unknown abilities. Jack and Jesse’s special bond was one example. However, all containers had some ability to influence moods. It wasn’t a coercive thing; rather, they served as dampeners or amplifiers for one emotion or another. Many of them could calm others down or induce a feeling of happiness or joy. Since they were sensitive to others’ moods they were usually fully aware of how their actions would affect others. That didn’t necessarily make them kind, however. There were these humans called the Soulless. They were people, like the Hunters, who did horrible things to people and Others alike. Containers could sense who was Soulless and who was not. They could also often tell what type of Other someone was. They were also masters of disguise; it was nearly impossible to spot a container so many of them slid under the radar. Aeryn also informed us that when gathered together in large numbers containers went a bit stir-crazy and would cut down Soulless left and right. If they weren’t stopped they’d search for the next worse group. This would continue until there was no one left at all. Containers corrected and it was very difficult to control when they grew in number.
That news sobered us up a bit. Stan, who had nothing to add but was eager to learn, was uncharacteristically silent. He was squeezing Areillo’s hand as if he’d pass out. Jack ran to get him a glass of water as Davis and I shared our research. No one was completely sure exactly how many types of Others or realms existed. There were millions of species of Others. And there were lots of realms, at least one for every religion. We’d traced colds and mediums back to witches. At one point in time there were only witches but eventually they’d split into witches like Ramailo (who couldn’t come along on this trip because he had to tend to his coven), mediums, shamans, wizards, necromancers, and colds. Normally, only witches and shamans had access to these other realms on a regular basis. Mediums usually only accessed one or two realms to talk to the dead. Wizards used power gained from one of the higher-level realms to change reality. There weren’t too many colds, apparently we were very rare, but the most talented ones could uncover new realms and in some cases create them. It really depended on how talented they were. Necromancers mostly dealt with bending the laws of life and death. While witches, wizards, and mediums tended to be born with their capacity and some abilities, colds and shamans tended to be chosen and trained. They were picked from exceptional humans who maybe had a touch of witch, wizard, or medium DNA in their family trees. I’d been delighted and shocked to discover my ancestors may have been witches. I felt pretty special.
“Once we develop a more comprehensive catalog of these realms, it’s our goal to check each one to create a complete map of realms. That way, in the future, young others can know about their history, their future, and exactly how they’ll be held accountable for their actions once they die,” Davis finished up with.
“Do you mean to say you’ll visit each and every realm?” Riel questioned him, seemingly impressed by his knowledge.
“If need be,” Davis replied quietly. “I’ve been to some of them before.”
“You definitely have to tell me about that,” I let him know.
“Some other time, sweetie. But you’ll see why we have to lay low as colds. People want power.” He gazed pointedly at Queen Aeryn. “Like she needs to stay safe, so do we. The wrong person finds out about what we can do and we’re done for.”
“Anyone want a bit of wine? I think wine would be good right now,” Cal suggested, almost stumbling as he went to grab a bottle.
Everyone relaxed a bit and settled into side conversations. I turned to Jesse and asked, “What happened to you earlier? Jack damn near dragged me upstairs because of what he picked up from you. This kind of thing has to stop. Just the other night we all agreed that the best way to deal with it is for you two to approach me together. But we both know things had to get heavy for you earlier today. I’ve never seen Jack so…blazed.”
“I know, Ani. I know. I explained to him as soon as I got back. I apologize I wasn’t able to tell you beforehand. I only went to the other cabin to ask them to dinner. But Ani, Aeryn is so amazing. I actually think I interrupted them during a, um, session. Because when she opened that door all I felt was her hunger. I really like her, Ani. At first we talked but then the energy kept building and building. It’s not an excuse. I’m not saying what I did wasn’t wrong. I didn’t expect anything to happen and I certainly never expected it to escalate so rapidly. I was with her and it’s the best sex I’ve ever had. Riel sat watching us and he massaged me afterwards. She’s a little beast.” Jesse shook his head. “If I’ve betrayed your trust in me I’m very sorry. But I’m not sorry that it happened. I only regret that I couldn’t let you or Jack know first.”
“Well, it’s not like I cleared it with anyone when I made out with Aeryn in front of everyone yesterday,” I said wryly.
He glanced down at our joined hands. “True. How do we proceed?”
“No more surprises. We know her a little better now. But she needs to understand how you and Jack work. If you…pursue anything with her Jack needs to be taken into consideration. I’m not very happy with you but I can’t exactly cut myself off from you without cutting myself off from Jack, too,” I groaned.
“You want to dump me?” he fretted.
“No, Jesse. But if you’re agreeable to it I think Davis and Jack can help me punish you,” I lowered my voice even further as I put forth my playful suggestion.
One brown eyebrow rose and his glasses glinted. “Are you suggesting what I think you are?”
“Think on it and let me know,” I informed him, sitting back to accept my glass from Cal.
“Thanks for taking another chance on me.” Jesse squeezed my hand before releasing it to accept his drink.
Aeryn moved to stand behind me. “Ani, is there somewhere private we can talk?” she asked.
“Oh, sure. Follow me.” I grabbed my drink and we relocated to my room. We sat in two high-backed chairs next to the large window overlooking the mountains. Her large brown eyes gazed at me with curiosity and a keen intelligence. There was also some mischief thrown in. I gave her a smile and asked what she’d like to talk about.
“Oh, simply girl chat. I’m usually surrounded by men. Even my child is male,” she sighed, sipping on her blood.
I sputtered. “Wait, you have a kid?”
“He’s not my biological child. Although one day he may be. Amada’s working on it… He’s the son of one of my lovers and the friend that died. It’s…complicated.” Her smile was sad and her expression darkened.
“Why are you sad?”
“That lover. The father of my son… When I first chose my vampiric side he…he forced me. That’s part of the reason I ran away and ended up with Riel.”
I took a few sips of my wine and tried not to cry. “He’s still your lover? The one that raped and hurt you?”
“Yes. He’ll never do it again. It was an aberration. I’m meant to be his official consort some day. He’s slowly earning my trust back. I was even able to have sex with him again starting a few months ago. That said…one day he will feel the pain he put me through,” she said gravely.
I shuddered. “Why take him back? After all women have been through, why suffer men who can do such awful things?” I couldn’t keep from asking.
She turned in the chair and propped her legs up over the edge. “It’s not just men hurting women. It’s people hurting people period. But let me give you the rundown of the other men in my life: I’ve got one obsessive boyfriend I only ever wanted as a friend, a lover from a previous life that murders assholes and has anger issues, another lover from my past life who doesn’t want to set me free, and one partner who fucks so good it makes people hate sex. But unlike humans they are capable of so much more and they strive for it. Whatever their faults; they did not originate naturally. Something has happened to all creatures. We were meant to hold humans accountable. Several of my loves are suffering under the influence of something dark. They’re not perfect but they are working to save themselves. Where most humans are stuck my loves expand. They may have an affliction but it will not rule them. From the outside I may look a fool for forgiving them or remaining by their side. I don’t care; I know the truth. But isn’t that what every victim says?” she laughed heartily. “Perhaps I’m simply crazy. I see a better way, a better world, through them.”
“I suppose I’d have to meet them all to fully understand. I…have a habit of holding it against women for putting up with anything that seems abusive. Seeing you and learning about you confuses me. You are immensely powerful. Even if you might have pain from what some of your partners have done it doesn’t define you. You are untouched. You’re still whole. You’re not broken. I can’t imagine how that’s possible.” I shook my head, awestruck. “You’re nobody’s victim. You’re you. I bet you could survive anything.”
She let her head fall back, soaking up my admiration. “You shouldn’t blame those whose best form of fight is unknown to you. My fight is always apparent and easy to see. For some it’s internal and subtle. Besides, who is really in the wrong? The one who never learned they could fight or the one taking advantage? I want to create a world in which people are warned, are educated, and are enabled with the proper tools to ensure their defense is strong. The knowledge will be made apparent; it is then their informed choice if they wish to ignore it.”
“You’d like to make everything obvious,” I posited. “I can get behind that.”
“Yes. I abhor lies and secrecy that don’t directly contribute to survival through well-being. Though I must admit I have no qualms manipulating people to get what I want.”
“You hypocrite,” I called her with a great amount of affection.
“You, too. You claim to decry abuse yet have no compassion for the victim,” she replied with a grin. “See what I mean about there being something wrong with us creatures? I need to find the source and rid us of it.”
“I hope you do.”
“So about Jesse…” she changed topic.
“I’m not angry. A little hurt but I fully understand. After all, even I wanted to kiss you. Er, I wanted more than that but thankfully Davis pulled me away.”
“Have you ever been with a woman?” she wondered.
“No,” I admitted.
“Oh, it’s the best! You must try it at least once. It’s better than blood,” she gushed, closing her eyes and teasing her hair.
“I like you, Aeryn. I’d like to hang out with you again. I know we’re kind of nobodies compared to you but I’d personally love to be friends with you and see you again,” I told her.
“Me, too. We’ll stay in touch. And I’d love for you to meet my friends. Amada knows a lot about vampires but next to nothing about ghosts or, what do you call yourselves? Colds.”
“You mean Amada Valejo? Ashley’s been following her progress on containers.” What a small world!
“This is hilarious. It’s settled then. We’re totally coming back to see you,” she decided.
The notion excited me. But I also felt a bit of sadness for the way my life was evolving. The simple life I had imagined was gradually giving way to a journey of rare discoveries. Could my plans for my life be wedded with the ever-increasing uncertainty that I was being drawn into? What effect would this queen have on my life, on my soul? She was destined for greatness. She was a powerful ally. And one hell of a woman.