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If you haven’t read it yet, the previous excerpt is over here at Literary Nymphs.
Now, here's an exclusive excerpt from Rhi Etzweiler's Blacker Than Black.
Chapter Ten: Garthelle’s Entertainment
The evening swiftly descends into a blur of vampires hailing from every conceivable corner of the country and beyond. They’re Garthelle’s equals in most cases, by my estimation. His cordial addresses lack even a hint of deference. From his chosen post behind the couch across from us, I doubt his keen gaze misses a single detail. He smiles occasionally, with all the warmth of the dead of night on winter solstice. For him, the curving of his lips is a weapon, not an expression, and he uses it to lethal effect.
Mademoiselle Ferdinand, a lithe, willowy woman with short blue hair, is dressed in a startlingly conservative gown shrouding every inch of her body from chin to toe. The billowing pleats of black lace overlaying the pale blue satin, though, are embroidered with the most obscene contortions of the human body I’ve ever witnessed.
Monsieur Kent sports a garishly loud suit in the most visually offensive combination of bright colors imaginable. It’s difficult to look at him. His idea of laughter, to which he subjects us upon observing Jhez and I perched on the couch together, is equally galling to the senses.
The two sitting on the couch across from us, to whom Garthelle doesn’t fail to introduce us, are siblings. The Durrams are far from reserved, but soft-spoken, much as their host is. I don’t much care for the way their twin dark gazes regard us, though. Bad vibes.
And so the evening goes, for the most part. Ferdinand can’t resist reaching out and hovering a spread palm over my stomach, where the core of my energy simmers like a hub. She probes me with a swift, harsh penetration resembling needles on my skin. As she withdraws her hand, she offers Garthelle a simpering smile of anticipation. Her probe isn’t so swift to recede, however; at least, not without nibbling along the edges of me and snatching a tendril of energy.
Garthelle’s gaze hardens as he watches her.
She isn’t the only one who takes liberties. And I’m not the only one subjected to it.
Finally, the female vampire withdraws. Her reluctance is blatant, but her gaze lowered to the floor as she glides past Garthelle drains the offense from it. Until she brushes her shoulder against the side of his arm. Challenging, in a passive-aggressive fashion. Garthelle doesn’t step away; no doubt that would be viewed as a retreat, a sign of weakness, to another vampire. Instead he leans into the contact, catching her off guard, unbalancing her. Ferdinand stumbles, catches herself, sketches a shallow curtsy. Not daring to turn her back on Garthelle until he looks away, focusing his attention back on us.
I watch her spin away. She throws a glare over her shoulder at Garthelle before scampering off like a rabbit given respite by a hawk too full to do more than toy with a potential meal.
Vampire politicking at its finest, I guess. I doubt I’ll ever understand them. I may have welcomed Ferdinand, had she not been the first. If the mademoiselle made me uncomfortable, it was only because I didn’t have the next lyche to compare her to.
Skin as fair as porcelain, her features are about as expressive. There is nothing to read in her face, or her eyes, which are as black as her hair. The ivory folds of her loose, flowing gown billow against the side of my arm as she comes to a halt. Doesn’t touch or probe, though. Not this one. She just stares.
There is something both disturbing and familiar about her. I can’t say what it is, but my skin crawls, gut clenching, and my desire to hide, to escape her scrutiny, is almost overwhelming.
The strange vampire turns to study Garthelle briefly over her shoulder before focusing her attention back on me and Jhez. “Seems like such a waste, Leonard, given your Modere strictures.”
For a brief, tenuous moment, I wonder who she’s addressing—another vampire, or a human lurking out of sight nearby? But one look at Garthelle makes it obvious. At the sound of his name—not his surname, not his title; what else could “Leonard” be?—a startling transformation occurs.
It’s as though the sound of his name releases him from a spell. “The Monsieur of York” falls away, a too-large coat slipping from his shoulders. His features relax, the line of his shoulders and spine loosening. Each movement no longer measured and calculated as he steps closer. Is he embracing the freedom she offers, the comfort of stepping outside his role of ruler and host? Or is she forcing it, demanding? The blindness frustrates me.
“Soiphe, Madame. So glad you came.”
She holds her hand out, hovering in the space between them, amber-orange aura haloing down her forearm to extend a few inches beyond her fingers. The tendrils remind me of what I’ve seen Jhez do on occasion, except Soiphe’s aura is completely steady, still. Almost solid, ethereal become corporeal. Less an extension of aura as an extension of self.
Garthelle doesn’t hesitate to reach out, holding his hand beside hers, palms facing but not touching. Not physically, at least. His aura—colors shifting and shimmering, pearl and platinum, gold and daffodil and the hundred shades of yellow I saw in his eyes—tangles with hers along the fringes, melding together in that one spot.
To me he is Garthelle—vamp, john, unknown and potentially hostile entity. But here in this intimate moment, despite the slightly public venue amongst all these other vamps, he isn’t the Monsieur, the ruling vamp, or even an employer. He is simply a friend greeting a friend. So beautiful I want to cry, and at the same time it’s strange he’d let us witness this.
“Not all resources need be expended, Madame. Surely you would agree with that sentiment.” Garthelle stares down at us, then returns his focus to the Madame. Leonard. The shift, the transformation, fascinates me. Not just that he switches roles. It’s a glimpse of what he truly is. Not the masks he wears or the roles he plays. I can’t help but watch him, follow his sharp gaze as it flicks back and forth along the length of my reclined form, over my sister’s arm draped across my chest like a shield. “Some are more valuable as assets.”
Soiphe pins Garthelle with her dark gaze, and my breath catches in my throat as I watch her. Jhez flinches, a faint twitch that makes me conscious that I’m digging my nails into her forearm. I try to relax my grip, but the woman’s face in profile horrifies me.
That nose, the line of brow and jaw. It’s been many years since we saw our father last. Decades. But some memories never fade. I want to deny the blatant evidence. Coincidental similarities, nothing more.
“Do you see it?” I tilt my head back, desperately seeking the reassurance of my sister’s gaze.
She stares down at me, eyes wide, face pale. Sneaks another quick glance at the vampire. “How could I not?” Her voice mimics mine, barely above a whisper.
“I’m delighted you elected to attend this gathering.” Garthelle’s deep tenor slides along my frayed nerves like aloe on a burn. I watch his lips, the corners of his mouth, as he speaks with the stranger. This close, the edges of his aura tangle with mine. His awareness, his focus, diverting in my direction. It charges the mix of lust and fear in my blood. “For a while, I despaired of having your presence.”
Soiphe offers a faint, short-lived grin. “For a while there, I had no intentions of it. Things are rather unsettled of late.”
Just as Garthelle is about to respond, a rustle of fabric and sudden movement announce the arrival of a second strange vampire. A flawlessly attired woman flanks our employer, approaching from the left. Blindsiding him.
Her arrival sends tension through both Garthelle and Soiphe, and I wonder what causes the disturbance. Is it how she interrupts them, or who she is? She is Soiphe’s opposite, from the honey blonde hair to the willowy body clothed in a tailored pantsuit. Powerbroker straight off Wall Street. I imagine she fits in with the rest of the sharks rather well.
The tension originates from something more than Garthelle donning his role as Monsieur and host yet again. Though the transformation is immediate and thorough, like flipping a switch. One moment his aura tangles along the edge of mine, doing things I don’t want to think too closely about right now, while he frowns at Soiphe’s chosen turn of phrase. The next, his aura is as close as his skin, tight and still, quiescent, and the shutters have slammed down on any twitch of emotional communication.
“Madame Desmonde. How kind of you to join the festivities.” Garthelle turns only enough to keep her in his peripheral awareness as he greets her.
I see politics at play, subtle and nonverbal, flying between the three vampires. It’s not as though their auras are giving them away. Those, they hold tight and keep close. Like phobic men in a sauna, clutching their towels as a shield against exposure.
“Kind, Monsieur Garthelle? I think not, though that’s considerate of you.” Desmonde casts a pointed glance about the populated room. “I doubt anyone is here out of kindness.”
In the ensuing, stilted silence, Soiphe’s mouth twists down at the corners and her gaze drifts back in our direction. I keep my eyes focused studiously on Garthelle’s arms, folded across his chest, to avoid attracting her attention.
Deep breaths, Black. Nothing strange here. Nothing at all.
Soiphe stretches a long-fingered hand in our direction, aura relaxing to reach out and brush against the halo of our melded energy. Jhez’s hand on my stomach curls into a fist, scrunching my shirt. The material pulls uncomfortably over my ribs, and I stare at the ceiling to keep from squirming.
“Oh, Monsieur Garthelle. What a find; they’re absolutely beautiful.”
Soiphe sounds stoned. Or under the influence of something that would’ve been a controlled substance thirty years ago. If you want to score some narcotics, you can get uncut angel dust on any street corner for pocket change these days. An aspirin you won’t find, though. And Gaia forbid you go hunting for some antibiotics. Good luck with that.
Soiphe steps closer, fingers fluttering as her hand hovers a scant inch above Jhez’s clenched fist on my chest. Jhez flattens her hand, arm tense, as if trying to put as much space between them as possible. But she doesn’t pull away; her fingers splay out, and I wonder what she’s trying to shield me from.
It should be enough that her aura blends with mine, the ebb and flow of energy between us lessening the vampire’s pull as we share it. Should be.
Desmonde moves to sidle up beside Soiphe, all but shouldering the other vampire away. Her body language is stiff. Not in a tense way; more like an alley cat who’s caught another feline encroaching on its territory. She shoves her hand out next to Soiphe’s, knuckles white with the strain as she pulls on me. I grunt, stomach muscles cramping.
“Like trailing your fingertips through liquid silk.” The croon of Desmonde’s voice reminds me of stories about the sickly sweet sound of temptation: harpies singing sailors to their deaths. She should narrate audiobooks or something.
“Ladies.” Garthelle’s voice is firm; he slices through the tension with the decisiveness of a sushi chef.
Gaia, I’m hungry. I’m also more than just a little bit irritated at Monsieur Garthelle for insisting we do this. Given any sort of option, I would’ve declined as gracefully as possible. My body isn’t up to this—the rampant hunger is one of those subtle warning signs. That it feels like my stomach is trying to gnaw through my spinal cord, though, isn’t so subtle.
Too much more of this and I’m going to be beyond done for the evening.
“Give them some room to breathe, yes?” Without touching, he guides the two rivals away from our couch and draws them into conversation elsewhere.
Don’t forget to leave a comment with your email address to enter the drawings! Look for the next excerpt that picks up where this one leaves off, tomorrow on Riptide Ripples. Or, if you can’t wait, get your own copy of “Blacker Than Black” over here at Riptide.
For more info on Rhi’s writings:
Email address: RhiAnon.Etzweiler@gmail.com
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