An Excerpt from Vanities by Gail Z. Martin
First Published in The Bitten Word by NewCon Press
I followed Alard through the winding, cobblestone streets, taking every opportunity to twist my neck to see the buildings around me. I hadn’t existed for enough centuries to become jaded yet, and part of me hoped I never would. Even Alard, as old as he was, still managed to have a spark of curiosity about him. He’d told me once that the vampires who survived the changing times were the ones who never stopped being curious. Then he told me that by that measure, I’d outlive them all. I’m still not sure whether that was meant to be a good thing or not. I took it as a plus. So far, being dead (perhaps ‘undead’ was a better word) had been good to me.
Alard stopped in front of a small shop several streets behind the waterfront. A sign said “Vanities,” and, from the window I could see that it was one of the antiques and curio shops that Alard favoured.
“In here. Be quick about it.” Alard motioned for me to maneuver our bags through the narrow door. The shop looked closed. I was about to protest that breaking into a shop might attract the attention we were trying to escape, when a lamp flared behind us, its glow shaded to avoid making it too easy for passers-by to see.
“Alard. Come in.”
I put the bags where Alard bid and followed as Alard and our host continued, more than began, a lively conversation. Two things stood out to me: they were obviously old friends, and our host was clearly mortal.
“Drink this.” Alard must have known that after the voyage my hunger might endanger our host. I usually had good control, but it wasn’t wise to be in close quarters with such fresh, delicious blood when I hadn’t eaten. He handed me a goblet of blood, goat blood by the smell, and although while not my favourite, I was hungry enough not to quibble.
“I thought you might be hungry, so there’s a flagon for each of you.” For the first time, I got a good look at our host. He was an older man, perhaps in his late sixties. Spry but beginning to show his age. He had a bald head with wisps of white hair that refused to lie flat. He squinted like a scholar, and he wore a jacket that looked worn at the elbows. “I’m Carel. Welcome to Antwerp. You must be Sorren.”
Carel motioned for us both to take a seat. We were in a fairly large sitting room. Everywhere I looked there were manuscripts: old, leather-bound illuminated manuscripts, and such a multitude of trifles and treasures that I hardly knew where to look first. The books alone would have been worth a small fortune. Alard had been expanding my thiefly education to recognize value that the commoner might overlook.
“What do you see, Sorren?” Alard downplayed my guesses that he could, as my maker, at least partly read my thoughts. But there were too damn many coincidences for me to doubt. I’d learned to keep my mouth shut when I was mortal. Now, I’d learned to keep unflattering comments in the back of my head, where they hadn’t quite taken form as words. I was grumbling a bit to myself like that now, and if Alard read it, he didn’t respond.
“I see pottery, probably Greek, definitely ancient. The gold jewellery on the desk: Egyptian. I’d have to be up close to know the dynasty. The brooches on the shelf are ancient Celtic. Nice work, too. From the number of manuscripts, I’d guess someone ransacked a monastery. The inlaid box is a miracle, but I’ve no idea where it comes from.”
“India,” Carel replied offhandedly. “Not surprised you couldn’t place that.”
“You’re a collector?”
Carel gave a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Of sorts. It was dark in the shop when you came in, and we hurried you through, so you probably didn’t get much of a look around. I deal in treasures and antiquities, most legal; some not so much.”
“You’re our fence.”
Carel chuckled. “Really, Alard. You can take the thief out of the alley, but have you taken the alley out of the thief? I prefer ‘merchant,’ thank you.”
Before we could quibble more over wording, the door opened. Alard moved before the handle turned, and I was just a blink behind him. Without a word, we’d both flattened ourselves against the ceiling. Mortals rarely look up when they’re indoors.
“You’re at the shop late, aren’t you?” A young man walked into the room, and from his manner and the resemblance, I knew he had to be Carel’s son. To my surprise, he glanced upwards. “Hello, Alard. You need to change your hiding place.”
Alard grinned and drifted down to the floor. I followed him. “No one but you ever looks up in here, Dietger.”
I took another look at Dietger. He was about my age, or at least the age I appeared. He had light brown hair, and his eyes were a cold blue, like mine. His jacket was newer and less worn than his father’s, and I noticed that someone had replaced its buttons with old Roman coins. A chain with an amulet hung around his neck. When he shifted his stance, it disappeared into his shirt, but I’d seen enough to know that it was Etruscan, and magic.
“I guess father didn’t tell you that I think he ought to cut down on the side deals,” Dietger said, directing his comments to Alard. “He’s getting too old for this kind of thing. It’s dangerous.”
Alard chuckled. “From my perspective, he’s still a young pup.”
Dietger rolled his eyes. “Easy for you to say. But it’s too dangerous. You and…” He looked at me and realized we hadn’t been introduced.
“Sorren,” I supplied.
“…Sorren can get yourselves out of a jam if a deal goes bad. You’re not what you appear to be. But father doesn’t have your defences. I thought we’d covered this last time you came.”
“But you’re back.”
Alard shrugged. “It was too good of an opportunity to miss.”
“I don’t want to know.”
“We’re going after the Black Dragon.” Carel spoke. Alard raised an eyebrow. I probably looked surprised. No one had told me anything except that the job would be big, dangerous, and worth it. Dietger’s eyes widened.
“No. Tell me you’re not.”
“It’s the best chance we’ve had in a century,” Alard said, and his voice had gone serious. He wasn’t trying to use his vampire powers to sway Dietger’s mind, so I figured he actually liked the young man. He was trying to persuade him. Obviously, we were going to do this the hard way.
“Seventy men have died trying to destroy the Black Dragon,” Dietger said. His tone had grown resolute. “I don’t want father to be the seventy-first.”
“Who said we were going to destroy him? The Black Dragon can’t be destroyed. He can be bound. He can be weakened. His alliances with mortals can be subverted.” Alard clucked his tongue. “My dear boy, I haven’t survived all these centuries picking fights I can’t win.”
“It only takes one.” Dietger was going to be stubborn.
“This might be a good time to tell the thief what he’s stealing.” Everyone had forgotten about me, but I knew that when it really came down to the wire, I’d be the one doing the real work.
“Now’s as good a time as any.” Alard withdrew a folded piece of parchment from his vest pocket and laid it out carefully on the cluttered desk. Carel and I clustered around it. Dietger gave a sigh and joined us after a moment. I took a good look at the drawing. It was of a necklace with a pendant made from what appeared to be a cluster of small gemstones set in an unusual pattern. Rather garish, but no one asked my opinion.
“That’s the Verheen Brooch,” Carel said in a low voice. “No one’s seen it in over a hundred years. I thought it was lost.”
“Not lost. Purposely hidden. We made a deal with the Verhoeveren family to be the guardians of the brooch once Edmund finally tracked the thing down the last time it got away.” I heard a note of anger creeping into Alard’s voice that made me look up. “The fools were supposed to keep it inside the magical wards and out of sight.”
“What happened?” Carel asked. He looked worried, too. Even Dietger appeared concerned. I was obviously the only one who hadn’t been in on the story.
“Their dim-witted granddaughter, Anique, found it after her parents died in that carriage accident a few months ago. I’d brokered the arrangement myself with the grandfather, and come back for good measure when he died to make my point to his eldest son. They understood how dangerous the brooch was. Obviously,” Alard said, disdain clear in his voice, “the girl’s parents never took her into their confidence. So we’ve got a debutante planning to wear the Verheen Brooch out in public at Lady Evelien’s ball.”
“The only thing more dangerous than wearing that…thing…is trying to sell it. Are you trying to get us all killed?” Dietger was angry now. I could smell his anger. Underneath it lay fear.
“I’m not going to sell the brooch,” Carel replied calmly. “Alard and I are just going to make sure it gets into the hands of a responsible guardian.”
“If the brooch is so dangerous, why not just destroy it?” As soon as I’d spoken, I felt like I must have sprouted a second head. Everyone stared at me. It was my turn to feel righteously annoyed. “How come the mortals here know all about this, and I don’t—even though I’m the one stealing it? You said this was a ‘big’ job. You didn’t tell me there was a dragon involved.”
Carel sighed and exchanged glances with Alard. “Perhaps we should all sit down. This could take a while. I’ll fetch more tea and blood.