Madeleine is busy copying down last night’s notes into her mother’s book when there comes a knock at the door to her study.
“Come in!” she calls without looking up from her work. She already knows it’s Mina; the servants knock much more lightly than Mina does, and her father doesn’t knock at all. She still doesn’t move as the door opens and someone enters, closing the door behind them.
“Good afternoon, Princess,” the knight offers, bowing before her desk.
“Afternoon to you too, Mina,” she says, finally looking up once she finished her note about vampires being nocturnal. “What brings you here so early, I wasn’t expecting your company until suppertime.”
“I have a matter I wish to speak with you about, Princess,” Mina begins. “But I think it might be best discussed in private.” She eyes the guard standing beside the door. He’s under her command, but she doesn’t want to have to pull rank and lose his respect if he knows too much, so she drops her voice to a whisper. “It’s about you-know-who.” Madeleine instantly catches her drift and snaps her fingers.
“Bryson?” she asks and the guard turns to her. “You’re dismissed; I believe I am in more-than-capable hands with Mina here.”
“As you wish, Your Highness,” Bryson says, his tensed muscles relaxing the tiniest bit as he exits the room, once again closing the door behind him. The two of them alone, Mina takes a seat in the armchair across from Madeleine’s desk.
“The vampire,” the princess says, leaning back in her own chair. “What about her?”
“It’s more the information we’ve been getting from her,” Mina answers. “Forgive me for doubting you, but has any of what she’s given us been tactically advantageous? We still don’t know who sent her, why they want you dead, or if there might be others after you. I know you want to continue your mother’s research, but we need to be smart about this. It’s much easier to protect from attacks you’re aware of than ones you aren’t.”
“That’s true, but…” Madeleine starts to argue, but quickly remembers that when it comes to her safety, there’s no winning against Mina. “Fine. We can take that approach tonight. But if she gives us meaningless answers because she doesn’t trust us, I’m blaming you. Understood?”
“Of course, Princess.”
“Good. Now: when she said she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t die during the course of a day, do you think it's because sunlight hurts her, or she expected us to go down there and kill her? Personally I’m leaning toward the former, but I would like to hear your thoughts on the matter.”
When I wake up the next evening, there’s neither a princess or food waiting for me, and try as I might I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. My last stint in a cell, the only contact I was allowed with someone outside was the guard who brought my blood and occasional potion when I needed it, and he never answered when I tried to talk to him.
I’m ashamed at how much I feel myself perk up when I start to hear distant voices.
“…you’re being too nice to her,” I hear the knight, Mina, say.
“Perhaps,” Princess Madeleine responds, “but she’s still a person, and our prisoner. She deserves some decency.” The pair come into view shortly after, and I’m surprised to see Madeleine carrying a tray with a platter of food on it. My first thought is that she brought it down to torment me, eating it in front of me as a way to say “I’m allowed to eat and you’re not”, but then I remember she brought me food yesterday. Unnecessary food, but food nonetheless. Today’s “meal” consists of some green things I can only assume are some kind of vegetable, an off-white mush, and a small piece of MEAT. Thank the Goddess they’re finally giving me meat!
My eyes never leave the plate as she sets it down and slides it beneath the cell bars, though I do wince a bit at the harsh sound of metal grating across stone. Now that it’s closer, I can see that the meat I was looking so forward to is incredibly dry and (probably) tough. A far cry from the tender and juicy cut I was hoping for. Whatever; if there’s any blood left in there I’ll find it.
“I thought you might want something meatier, closer to your usual diet,” Madeleine says as I pull the tray back to my corner. “Was I correct?”
“…yes,” I begrudgingly respond, adding a “thank you” before I can stop myself. Thankfully neither Madeleine nor Mina comment on that, but I do notice the latter’s raised eyebrow. Rather than stew in my embarrassment, I dig into my food to avoid her stupid stare. She watches me eat while the princess gets ready, and I can’t help but feel more humiliated as I pick at the vegetables. I know I’m just saving the best part of the meal for last, but I doubt she does. To her, she probably sees it as “Awww, the literally bloodthirsty monster is forgoing the meat to eat her greens, how cute.” Probably wants to turn me into some caged animal, tamed for her and her liege’s entertainment.
“Now, regarding tonight,” Madeleine begins, and my eyes flit up to see her watching me, “I’m sorry about this, but Mina has been insisting all day that I ask more ‘relevant’ questions during tonight’s… questioning.” I can’t resist a chuckle at her wording as I turn back to my food. If I had to pick a word to describe what she’s asked over the past couple nights, I don’t think “relevant” would be it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a failed assassin getting asked their life story and/or various questions about their species. Usually they just die, I think.
“Sure, whatever, ask your stupid questions,” I say, looking back down at my plate. Once again I consider lying in my answers, but honestly I’m not sure I can lie without knowing what her questions are. If they’re about how to kill vampires? Oh absolutely I’ll lie. If it’s about shit like who sent me? I dunno.
On the one hand, she’ll never know if I’m lying. I could say I received a prophetic vision from the Goddess, she can’t disprove that. I could tell her about the Council, but I don’t think they’d be particularly pleased about that. Although odds are they’ll probably be after me anyway; there’s what, a week left before my deadline? In all honesty I don’t see myself making it out of this cell and killing the princess in that time, so most likely I’ll be branded a traitor for abandoning my contract and other agents at the Council’s disposal will be sent out after me in addition to the princess, and I see that going one of two ways. Either they kill her and she doesn’t give up the existence of this secret dungeon, leaving me to starve to death down here, or they come after me first and find me like a fish in a barrel; trapped and waiting out my demise. Not really a fan of either of those.
“Let’s start with something simple; why do you want me dead?” the princess asks, now sounding like someone conducting a formal interrogation.
“I don’t,” I say simply, shrugging my shoulders.
“You… don’t want to kill me?” She sounds incredulous. I wonder how many attempts have been made on her life.
“No, of course not,” I say. I’ve finished the green vegetables and turned to the meat, which is just as dry as I thought it would be. “You’re too pretty to just off, I would’ve rather taken and used you for a couple nights’ pleasure before skipping town. Much more fun, for both me and you.”
“I– okay…” the princess says, and even from here I can see her flushed cheeks and hear her increased heartbeat. “Ig… Ignoring that, then why did you come and try to kill me? If you personally don’t want me dead.”
“Simple. Someone told me to,” I reply, using my fangs to tear off a hunk of meat.
“Ha!” the knight laughs. “You, doing what someone tells you to? I don’t buy it.”
“Yeah well, people tend to be more amenable if they’re offered something they want in return,” I shoot back with a glare. “How much does she pay–”
“Like what?” the princess interrupts. “What were you offered in exchange for my life? Money? Land? Power?”
She seems surprised by my answer, and I smirk at her reaction even though my last imprisonment was nothing pleasant.
“This isn’t your first time in a cell,” she ventures, and I shake my head before taking another bite of meat. “How long has it been since they let you out on this… this mission?
“Little under a month,” I say, “I was free for less than thirty days before you two–”
“Put you right back in,” she finishes. She buries her face in her hands, as if she’s ashamed of her actions. I almost feel bad for her, I wouldn’t be terribly comfortable with jailing someone so soon after they got out of another jail. Almost. “And… I’m almost afraid to ask… how long were you in that other cell?”
“67 years, if I counted right,” I grimly tell her, and she buries her face again.
“Oh Goddess…” she groans. “What have we done?” I raise an eyebrow as she abruptly stands, knocking over her chair. “I need to think.” With that she stalks off, leaving her knight to shoot me a glare before she hesitantly follows her liege. I’m tempted to call out and thank her for the food at least, but instead I keep my mouth shut and before long there’s the distant clang of the dungeon door.
Well, that didn’t quite go how I expected, I think to myself. Kinda wish they’d stuck around a little longer, it’s going to be a quiet night with no entertainment again. Mother used to tell me not to play with my food, but I don’t really see what else I can do. And with just the off-white mush left, even that won’t keep me occupied for long.
But before I can do so, a skittering draws my gaze upward just in time to see a mass of black feathers flutter from the window down to the cell floor. As it calms, a large raven is revealed in its place, the bird an even blacker void in the already dark cell. It’s staring at me with beady eyes and I move to shoo it away, but instead it takes a couple of steps toward me. Stupid bird; can’t tell when it’s not wanted? At least it’ll have blood I can feed off of. I bare my fangs and am fractions of a second away from lunging at the thing when it opens its beak and an image flares to life between us.
The hazy spectre of a man suddenly stands before me, the deep purple of his clothes tinted a faint blue by the ghostly nature of his presence. His closely-cropped black hair is permanently stuck partway in the process of graying and his eyes are the dark red of dried blood, while his sharp features bear a scowl of stern disapproval. It’s not hard for me to recognize the Count Admer, one of the jackasses ultimately responsible for my current situation.
“Miss Valeria,” he practically sneers my name and I want to punch his stupid face so badly but even I know he’s not actually here, “as I’m sure you’re aware, the Council has been monitoring the progress of the task we’ve assigned you.” I actually was not aware, but it wouldn’t have really changed anything. “Even if you weren’t, surely you know how long it’s been since you were let out of your cell, and what that means; your time is running out, and yet the princess still lives.” I groan and lean back against the well as he straightens his stance. “We have already been incredibly generous in granting you a second chance, so any failure is simply unacceptable. Neglect your duties and you will be killed.”
“Yeah, good luck with that, you’ll have to find me first,” I mumble under my breath, but the spectre continues on without acknowledging I said anything.
“You have three nights to accomplish your goal. If the princess is still alive at the third sunrise, a bounty will be placed on your head and hunters, loyal hunters I should say, apprised of your location. You cannot escape the Council, and it would do you good to remember that. With that, I bid you farewell and good luck and I look forward to our next meeting, when your head is delivered to my home.”
His message delivered, the apparition disappears and the raven closes its mouth. Tentatively, it takes a couple steps forward, watching me with those stupid beady eyes again. It stops just before the plate of food scraps where it bends its head down but its beak up towards me. It’s a weird pose, but I’ve never pretended to understand how birds think. It almost looks like it’s– is it asking permission?
“Sure, go ahead,” I say, and it starts to eagerly peck at what remains from my mush. Huh. Who knew? Honestly I’d forgotten about it, and I’ve suddenly lost my appetite after receiving that message. “Whatever, knock yourself out,” I say, “not like that shit really does much for me anyway.”
The bird remains silent as it continues eating.
A few minutes later it’s had its fill and walks back to the center of the cell, ruffling its wings as it does.
“Oh, are you leaving me too?” I ask. “Fine, fuck you! Not like I wanted your company anyway.” Goddess, I sound pathetic. I’m going to die alone. Again. The bird squawks at me, probably doesn’t understand (or believe) what I’m saying, flapping its wings experimentally. I look away when it lifts off, not wanting to watch myself be deserted for the third time tonight.
“SKWUAAACK!” I open my eyes when I hear what sounds like a strangled scream, just in time to see the raven bounce back into the cell. Oh that’s right, enchanted cell. I can’t leave, but neither can it.
“Aww, I’m sorry poor thing,” I coo, standing as it flings itself at the window in a couple more futile attempts. Eventually it seems to realize escape is hopeless, just as I did however many nights ago, and I cradle it in my arms. What was it the princess said? The cell’s enchanted to keep living things in? Something like that. “Don’t worry little guy, I think I know how to get you out of here.”
Raven blood doesn’t taste as good as human, but I’ll take what I can get.