Prince Ahren’s reception room suited him perfectly. The main hall of the 19th century house featured a mixture of antique furniture and modern fixtures, fitting for one of Europe’s longest reigning kindred, a man who prided himself on being adaptable to change without compromising the traditions of the Camarilla. The Prince, himself, lounged in a heavy armchair of mahogany and horsehair, looking, to Yasmin’s eyes, like an aesthete of the 1920s, with his heavy-lidded eyes and a wide mouth that romantics would call sensitive. However, that appeared to be the only sensitive aspect to him, as he coolly regarded the situation.
Yasmin tried not to fidget. Her knees had started aching after a mere five minutes on the hardwood floor, and that had been some time ago. She was aware of Paul Viersan hovering nearby, his calm pose occasionally betrayed by a nervous movement of his fingers. Yasmin wondered for how long that mannerism had haunted him.
Aside from a tendency to ignore the niceties of physical posture, Ahren seemed to be free of such telltale signs. He stared at the woman kneeling before him, apparently quite unconcerned by her, or by her former Regnant - his childe. He had said nothing for a quarter of an hour, but had just sat, apparently motionless – although Yasmin suspected that he had been communicating silently with Paul for most of that time.
Eventually, he shifted in his seat, moving his weight from one elbow to another. “Leave me.” He said, in English - for her benefit, Yasmin assumed.
Relieved, Yasmin began to push herself up from the ground. “Not you. Paul.”
Keeping her eyes firmly downcast, Yasmin could only hear Paul’s surprise – a hint of an indrawn breath and then. “As you wish. I’ll wait in the salon.”
Yasmin listened to the retreating footsteps and breathed deeply, trying not to panic.
“You’re scared.” Yasmin nodded, not trusting her voice, nor sure if a reply was called for. Speaking to the prince out of turn was not the recommended behavior for former chattel. She shifted her position slightly, as her neck began to ache, apparently in sympathy with her knees.
“You know what Paul wants.” Another statement, another nod. “Why is that, do you think?”
She resisted the temptation to look up. Those human habits weren’t welcome in kindred circles, she knew. “Why do I know, or why does he want it, sir?” She asked the floor.
A moment’s pause, and Yasmin wondered if honest confusion had been mistaken for insolence. Then: “Why does he want it? Why you and why now? I might as well ask you all at once.” His urbane, polished, accent added a hint of irony – or perhaps it was boredom – to his tone.
“I wouldn’t presume to know his mind, sir.” The reply came automatically.
“Spoken like a true ghoul. Are you sure you’re free of his influence?”
Definitely a joke, albeit at her expense. Yasmin let it lie.
“I want to hear your thoughts on the matter.” He leaned forward, took Yasmin’s chin in his hand and brought her gaze up to meet his. “Your honest opinion.” Ahren’s presence bore down on her like a weight.
Yasmin moved slightly, appreciative of the relief to her neck and shoulders, even if it meant submitting to Ahren’s piercing stare. “You may speak freely.” He assured her.
Free of consequence from you, maybe, Yasmin thought, wondering how much of what she said would reach Paul’s ears. Of course, that was assuming she’d survive this meeting long enough to care about Paul’s opinion.
Yasmin noticed that Ahren hadn’t relinquished his hold on her. Cool fingers rested lightly upon her throat. This did nothing to ease her disquiet.
Finally: “I don’t know.” She realized that wasn’t a sufficient answer. “I have ideas, but it’s not like he’s ever said to me, Yasmin, I want to make you a vampire because...” She frowned slightly. “Or not so that I remember.” There was, of course, that first meeting in Paris, an honest memory of which she had given up for lost, some time ago.
“At first, I thought he just wanted a slave - or a pet. A weapon only he could wield. Someone who’d kill for him, indulge his strangeness and adore him no matter how close to the Beast he might go.”
“A ghoul.” Ahren commented, a little unnecessarily, she thought.
“But he wanted – still wants – me for a childe. I think he wants to protect me. I think he’s scared.” She blurted. Not something a vampire wants to hear about his childe, I’ll bet.
Ahren’s stony expression didn’t change. “Of…?”
“Of what might happen to me if I remain human.” This is only going to get worse. She took a deep breath. “I think he loves me. Or he thinks he does.”
“I’ve always been taught that the kindred can’t love – are simply incapable of it, but, what I’ve seen contradicts that. But…” she tried to pick her words with care. “But it’s a strange sort of love. Possessive. Calculating.”
“It’s part of our nature.” Ahren conceded. “Unlike humans, the kindred are pure predators. It affects every aspect of us.”
Yasmin considered this, and wondered if Ahren ever blinked.
“And so you think he loves you.” Yasmin suppressed a reflexive twitch as Ahren’s fingers moved across her throat, choosing now to rest on the rapidly-beating pulse close to her skin. “And it scares you.” He exerted a little pressure, briefly, and this time Yasmin couldn’t help flinching.
“You scare me. Sir.”
He smiled at that, clearly pleased. Predators, indeed.
“You left him, once.”
“It was a traumatic time. I hope he told you-”
“He did. But even still, you’re lucky he didn’t hunt you down for your impertinence.”
“A case of letting something go, if you really love it.” It was the only conclusion that had come to Yasmin, who had been similarly baffled by her survival.
“And you have returned.”
“I made a promise to him. I couldn’t break it.” Because then I might really have been hunted down. She remembered enough of her old life as Rachel to know how Paul delighted in a chase.
“And now you’re here, insisting that you be treated as something akin to his equal.” Yasmin stiffened at that, fear surging through her.
“I… had to. If I’m to be his inferior, I might as well stay a ghoul.”
“And do you want that?”
“I don’t think I have a choice. I know too much. I’m resistant to having my memory altered and given the choice between the Embrace, ghouling or death. It’s not much of a choice.”
“But you won’t accept the Embrace from him.” Ahren mused. “He could do it to you against your will.”
“Then he doesn’t love me and is a liar, too.”
“Nevertheless, he could do it. You mean so much to him.”
“And I’ll watch the sun rise the next day.”
Ahren regarded her closely, noticing the line of her jaw, the pulse under his fingers. She means it.
“Do you know why I Embraced him?”
“No, sir.” She knew better than to ask Paul such questions. He was intensely private about the history he shared with the Prince of Berlin.
Ahren carefully enunciated each word. “I loved him.” Yasmin couldn’t hide her surprise at that, but Ahren ignored her. “In my possessive, calculating way, I loved him. I still do, although things are a little different now, as you might imagine.”
Irresistibly, an image of the two kindred sharing blood, dignity in shreds, came to her mind’s eye. She wondered if it was her overactive imagination, or something put there by Ahren. That she found such an image at least slightly exciting reminded her that she hadn’t left her days of bloodlust all that far behind.
“Ms. Collier? I think I lost you for a moment.” The glint in his eye caused a myriad of suspicious thoughts to well up in her mind.
Yasmin looked away. “I’m sorry, sir. I was… distracted.”
Ahren hummed thoughtfully at that, refraining from more specific comment.
“And now he loves you.” He said, his voice flat.
Yasmin teetered on the verge of panic. Oh god, he’s jealous. He resents me and he’ll tear my throat out and convince Paul that it was for the best.
Ahren could smell her fear, and gave it free rein. She had a healthy respect for his position, and his relationship with Paul. Good.
“Has he fucked you?”
Yasmin blinked in surprise, shocked by the coarse language from the soft-spoken vampire. “I…” she bit her lip. “Don’t know.” She admitted, sounding far more sullen than she intended.
This intrigued him. “Oh?”
“He led me to believe so. But in fact…?” she shook her head. She didn’t just regain lost memories over the past two years, but also discovered that not all of what she did remember was genuine. “That surprised me, given our time together when I was Rachel.”
“Ah yes, the troublesome Caitiff. I know of her.”
“I was troublesome, sir, yes.” The fact that she had once believed the destruction of the Camarilla to be her holy cause no longer bothered her. It was a lifetime ago and long over.
“You’re backsliding into subservient ghoul mode.” He snapped. “Stop it.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“Your time as Rachel… There are reasons for what happened. But it’s not my place to share them with you.” Yasmin stared at Ahren, astonished. What could she possibly not know about Paul?
“Ghouls can be a handful,” he continued. “So passionate. So needy. Paul isn’t the first to resort to trickery to keep an amorous one at bay.”
So he did… Yasmin bit her lip and blinked back a spate of angry tears.
“You’re upset? Why?”
“I thought he was honest with me.”
“As I said, he had his reasons.” Another short silence. Yasmin wondered why Ahren felt compelled to have this conversation. “Do you know how long he was my ghoul for?”
She nodded. “Six years.”
“Yes. A very short apprenticeship, by the standards of the time. Even by current standards. You took Paul’s blood for how long? Four years, wasn’t it?”
Ahren took a deep breath and slowly released it, a gesture of pure theater. “I’m tempted to take you for a ghoul, myself.” He admitted. “Have you serve me directly for at least a year before I make a decision.”
Yasmin’s heart sank. “But, unlike Paul, I don’t have much use for a security specialist, or even a killing machine, no matter how pretty she happens to be. I suppose I could use you for cover,” he mused, the smallest hint of humor in his eyes. “But as I said, ghouls are so demanding. And I don’t think Paul’s jealous nature would deal well with the fact that I wouldn’t bother to plant false memories in your mind. You’ve learned first-hand the dangers of that. Far easier to give the ghouls what they want, I’ve always thought.”
Paul? Jealous of me? Yasmin had trouble accepting the idea.
“You have a week.” Ahren decided, finally releasing her from his grasp. “Put your affairs in order, and take Paul’s advice about how to best go about it. If you’re not here in seven nights’ time, I will take it as given that you have, once again, chosen to walk away from us. But if you do, don’t come back.”
Yasmin nodded, her heart pounding. “Tell Paul what I said,” Ahren finally returned to his usual sprawling posture in his chair, dismissing her. “And take it as given that I am the one you owe for this, not him.”
Dizzy with relief and new anxiety, Yasmin practically ran from the room.