Constantin’s servants had prepared dinner for them. It was later than Megame was used to, the sun having already set by the time they were seated, but it was to be expected given the nature of their host. Constantin had clearly gone out of his way to provide for them, with finer food fit for humans brought up from the town in order to serve them. From what Megame had learned, the servants generally ate at home and so there was rarely any real food in the castle.
They had been given a scrumptious dinner of roasted lamb and greens paired with a local red wine. Megame had been slightly worried at first but none of the others had hesitated for even a moment before digging in, and the rumbling of her belly for such deliciously prepared food meant that her resistance did not last long. Hachi still had something of a fox to her and had never learned how to use a knife and fork, so her eating habits tended towards the more feral, picking up a rib of lam with her fingers and tearing into it with sharp canine teeth. Kara and Cade, both being of the rougher sort, had similar eating habits. Megame wasn’t entirely used to western silverware, but she did her best to have her eating habits match the formality of the setting.
Constantin’s dining hall was a grand affair clearly meant for many more guests than what he currently served. The long wooden table was seated for five, but could easily have seated twenty. Long tapestries hung from pillars depicting the castle’s history and that of Constantin’s now long-departed family. The curtains had been drawn from the windows, allowing moonlight to shine in to meet the warm orange glow of the massive hearth built into the wall behind the head of the table where their vampiric host was seated.
Constantin himself had obviously foregone a meal, though he encouraged them to eat regardless. It was clear he enjoyed the company, even if it was predominantly Megame and Cade who spoke to him.
“I had always wished to visit Japan.” Constantin chatted as Megame worked to finish the last of the food on her plate. “Unfortunately your country was quite closed off at the time.”
“That was a long time ago.” Megame swallowed another mouthful of food. “Japan has been open to outsiders for nearly two hundred years.”
“Alas, it has been for nearly two hundred years that I have had my condition.” Constantin said.
“Before then I was a sailor, and I delighted in seeing foreign shores, from the Floridan marshes of the Americas, the white sand beaches of Brazil, to the mysterious coast of darkest Africa. I traveled with explorers and merchantmen whenever I could, though I never made it by sea to the Far East. Once, I had the opportunity…but I’m afraid I never arrived for the boat.”
“Why would you be a sailor when you have a big fancy castle?” Megame asked.
“I was something of a family oddity.” Constantin admitted. “I chose to forgo the family tradition of aristocracy and superiority in pursuit of a life outdoors. I know many of my relatives hoped I would die on some godforsaken distant shore so I could forfeit my inheritance to them, alas the great irony was that it would be home in Romania that I would find immortality.”
“You were turned into a vampire in Europe?”
“Quite so, on shore leave before an expedition of mine was to begin. I met the most beautiful woman I have ever known, dark-eyed and intoxicating to the senses. Little did I know she found my blood as tempting as I found her. One night of passion and my sailing career was put to rest.”
“Why couldn’t you go sailing anymore?” Megame asked.
“The sun, of course, was no longer mine to see.” Constantin said. “And while there is beauty in the moonlit sea, there are many burdens to being one of the undead.”
“Vampires of Constantin’s breed can’t cross water outside of their coffins.” Kara said. “Constantin here couldn’t so much as leap over a stream if he wanted to.”
“The lady is right.” Constantin nodded. “I could travel by ship but I would spend the duration of my voyage in a box. I could never sentence myself to a life as so much cargo.”
“Ah…” Megame’s face fell. It was easy to get caught up in the possible upsides of being a vampire. She hadn’t considered that eternal life and beauty might have very high costs.
“Still, I can journey to the shoreline.” Constantin said. “I can stand upon the cliffs and hear the crashing waves, but it is a hollow experience. I can feel the wind on my face and taste the salt but these senses lack the…substance they once had. If any of you are seeking immortality, I cannot say I recommend undeath as the way to go about it.”
The vampire glanced around the table. “Of course, this is already somewhat blessed company in that regard. I am sure Miss Kara can live for many centuries as a Valkyrie, Lady Hachi as well can live for more than a thousand years if your stories are true. I know my friend Cade certainly has another century or two in him at least.”
“Yes…I think I’m the shortest-lived person here.” Megame said with a note of disappointment.
“Ah but the candle that burns shortest burns brightest.” Constantin smiled. “A human life is full of energy and vigor compared to the grey eternities of immortality. I would trade five centuries as a vampire for one year as a mortal man again.”
“Really?” Megame blinked in surprise.
“In a heartbeat, given I still had them.” Constantin smiled. “Though I feel the point may be moot. If our Lady Valkyrie has her way, then vampire or not my time seems to be finished.”
“Nothing lasts forever, Constantin.” Kara said. “Not even you.”
“I had no intention of seeing time till time ran out.” Constantin smiled. “It seemed like a dull proposal anyway. That said, I am still curious why a Valkyrie has marked me for death.”
“I didn’t do it.” Kara shrugged. “I’m just the instrument of fate in all of this.”
“Aaah, fate.” Constantin steepled his fingers. “Would you mind entertaining a few of my questions?”
Kara made something of a show out of glancing at her watch, which Megame sensed with annoyance was entirely unnecessary.
“I’ve got time.” Kara said. “Can’t say I have all the answers though.”
“Of course, of course,” Constantin nodded. “First I must ask, was it fate that I become a vampire? Was that as pre-ordained as my demise at your hands.”
“Dunno.” Kara shrugged. “I wasn’t involved in that. Makes sense that it was though, or else I would have taken you out a long time ago.”
“Then I suppose I can blame fate for that, rather than any condition of truly execrable luck.” Constantin smiled ruefully.
“Do you wish you hadn’t become a vampire?” Megame asked.
“When I am alone in this castle with my thoughts,” Constantin said. “I often wondered how my life would have proceeded. The places I would have seen, the people I would have met. The women I could have married and the children I could have sired. These phantoms from a life not lived haunt me in my solitude. I am nearly three hundred years old, but the man I was died the instant my heart stopped beating.”
He stared for a long time into the empty wine glass that had held his “meal”.
“Other times, however, I am among the people of this town. They remind me what I have done for this place, what I have accomplished in protecting and serving them long after the quarrels and in-fighting of my apathetic family turned them into dust. I cannot say for certain that without me this town would even exist.”
His eyes turned back on to Kara.
“Perhaps one more misfortune of my condition is that it guarantees the inevitability of violent death. I have heard stories that truly ancient vampires fall into eventual derangement and must be torn apart by their younger kin, and of course the ever-present threat of vampire hunters is coupled by the annihilating rays of the life-giving sun. There are no peaceful endings for a vampire, are there, Miss Kara?”
“None I’ve ever heard of.” Kara said. “If it helps any, it’s not going to hurt.”
“Small comfort, seeing as I have forgotten what pain feels like.” Constantin smiled coldly.
Megame’s face had sunken with the depressing conversation. She turned to Kara as well.
“Is this really what needs to happen?” She asked. “This feels like a drawn-out execution.”
“Because that’s precisely what it is.” Kara said. “Far too drawn out for my tastes.”
“And nothing bad has happened!” Megame objected. “If there are no consequences a day from now, a week, a year, how can his death really matter in the long run?”
“That’s speculation.” Kara said. “None of us can hope to grasp the full consequences of leaving him alive. Like a ripple effect, the smallest disturbances can quickly escalate to enormous size.”
“But it’s not fair if he doesn’t even understand what he’s dying for!”
Kara snorted slightly into her wine as she took a long drink.
“Life isn’t fair, Megame.” She said. “And most people die for no reason. Trust me when I say that death is far more fair than life can ever be.”
“How is death fair!?” Megame asked.
“No exceptions, no refunds, no do-overs. Everyone gets the same thing.” Kara said. “A single lifetime to call your own. That’s fairness.”
Megame’s brow furrowed. “So it’s fair because he dies like everyone else?”
“One year or a thousand.” Kara said. “Nothing lasts forever, like I said, and the time has run out on this vampire.”
“That can’t be the source of the paradox.” Megame said. “What if he just needs to leave? Or change his name and identity? Just to not be around anymore, wouldn’t that be enough?”
“If that was enough” Kara said “Then why would they have sent me?”
“…” Megame found herself at a loss for words.
“I can’t say I like how she’s going about it.” Cade said. “This is a pretty grim way to do her work, but I can’t say I’m as high an authority on who lives and who dies as her boss.”
“I don’t like that someone else can decide it at all!” Megame said. “No one should be allowed to choose who lives and who dies.”
“No one does, Megame,” Hachi said, “Kara’s employers, if they are truly what they claim, aren’t people who get to judge others. They are the forces that binds the world together. I can’t say I understand or agree with it, and I’m not sure that they truly are who they say they are…but what can we accomplish by getting in the way?”
“You’re all taking Kara’s side…” Megame said, feeling as if both of them had physically struck her.
“It’s not a side.” Kara said. “I don’t like doing my job, but it is the way it has to be.”
“If I may speak…” Constantin said. “Miss Megame, I am truly grateful for the compassion you have shown towards what many would dismiss as a monster, but I am afraid your pleas will go unheard. I will not beg and grovel for my life, as I am sure I won’t receive it.” He turned to Kara, who nodded in cold reply.
“I merely ask for some time to get my affairs in order.” He said. “If this is truly to be an execution, then I should be afforded the right to ensure that all of my debts and affairs are settled, if Fate can abide this small favor in exchange for all that it has taken from me.”
Kara’s face fell into an expression of tired irritation as she thought for a moment in silence.
“Thirty-six hours.” She said. “You have thirty-six hours to settle everything you need. After that, it’s lights out. No exceptions, no extensions.”
“Thirty-six hours.” Constantin mused. “I suppose I had best get to work.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=42&sl=437