Masks – Karen Chance

There were no dungeons in Venice, but they made do. Mircea sat against the freezing stone wall of a small storeroom, in the home of some condottiere who hadn’t bothered to introduce himself before turning half of Mircea’s face to mush. He had been able to feel the bones shifting under the skin for almost a day, before they finally managed to orient themselves in what he hoped was the right direction. That was especially true considering that now was not the time to look weak. His ran his eyes over the three figures slumped around the small space. It looked like the paid thugs of Venice’s vampire community had tended to them as well. They were dirty, their hair was matted, and the minimal clothes they’d been left after everything of value had been stripped off them did little to cover signs of rough treatment. If they’d been human, they’d likely have been dead by now. Fortunately for them, they’d already taken care of that. Unfortunately, the condottieri didn’t see fit to feed their prisoners, and young vampires are always hungry. Even enough to attack one of their own who is thrown into their cell bloody and beaten. They’d fallen on him before he’d made it all the way through the door. With three to one odds, it should have been over quickly. But as a professional gambler, Mircea knew that odds didn’t always tell the whole story. And as a former professional soldier, he knew how to fight.

Unlike the three in question, who had been left to starve until their eyes were gaunt and staring and their flesh was shriveled on their bones. So now they sat, a day later, each in his own corner of the small space. Battered and broken, no longer having the strength to heal. And silent, since no one seemed interested in conversation. No one except him. Every once in a while, Mircea rasped out a question, on the theory that their lousy chances were slightly less lousy together than apart. He even tried different languages because you never knew where someone was from in Venice. Half the population, it sometimes seemed to him, had come from somewhere else. But none of his efforts had sparked a response, and after a day, he’d mostly given up. He was now recounting the story of how he came to be in their august company out of sheer pigheadedness.

And because he was furious. “It never occurred to me that my biggest problem as an undead monster would be money,” he said bitterly. “I hardly even thought about it as a human. I had other worries, many of them. But whatever funds I needed were always there, without question.” Nobody said anything. No one even moved. Except for the one who put his head down on his knees in utter boredom. Mircea decided he didn’t care. “But then I died.

And discovered that you do, in fact, need to take it with you! Or you can expect a very unhappy afterlife.” He’d been forced to spend most of his money on extortionate bribes just to get to Venice. It was the European vampire community’s only open port, and therefore the only place he could live without violating another vampire’s territory. But once there, it hadn’t proven to be the sanctuary he’d been expecting. The vampires that washed up on Venice’s beaches like the tide had come to be viewed by the locals as just another industry. The wealthy were fawned over and flattered, and given huge gifts they didn’t need as a way to curry favor with them or their powerful masters. Whereas the poor . Mircea had quickly discovered that the poor, the unwanted, and the masterless might technically be allowed in in the city, but that didn’t mean they were welcome. “Go to Venice, I was told; it’s a free territory.” He laughed.

“That word must have a different definition than in my country!” Nobody replied, but one of the vampires nodded slightly. Or maybe he was nodding off. Mircea decided to take it as encouragement. “They subject us to bribes just to be able to live without constant harassment. Or the fear that someone will open a window one morning, and cook us as we sleep! It’s as if they expect us to give everything we make to them, as if we have no reason to exist but to make them money!” And as if he had no other expenses. Yet Mircea had discovered that death was many things, but cheap wasn’t one of them. Especially in the not-remotely-serene republic. On top of the bribes, he’d had to buy clothes for himself and his elderly tutor, who had followed him into exile. And then there were the expenses he’d never thought about before, which had always simply appeared as he grew up. Things like candles for his tutor’s fading eyesight.

And food, for the man was human and needed sustenance. And a roof over both their heads so that Mircea’s newly cursed body didn’t burn up in daylight. “I finally turned to gambling out of desperation,” he told his captive audience. “And discovered to my surprise that it’s much easier with vampire senses. An elevated heartbeat, slightly quickened breathing, heavier than normal perspiration—humans have a thousand tells. I thought I had finally found a way forward.” One of the vamps, the same one who had nodded, was already shaking his head. Damned right, Mircea thought savagely. If there was a way forward in this godforsaken city, he had yet to find it. “And so we come to last night,” he said viciously.

“And the thugs the vampire community employs to harass us. The same thugs I have been paying off for months to turn a blind eye to my activities. You can imagine, then, how surprised I was to see them. Although not as much as when they stole my money, beat me up, and dragged me here!” He’d been sitting forward, talking with his hands, but now he sat back against the cold stone again, exhausted. And disgusted. And hungry. No, more than hungry. A vampire of his age couldn’t afford to go this long between feedings. Not without paying for it, anyway. The pain would start soon.

And after that . Mircea swallowed, trying not to think about the days following his Change, which had been via a curse instead of a bite. He’d had no master to tell him anything, including that he needed to feed—and what would happen if he didn’t. He’d spent his first days as a vampire in sick, desperate, aching torment, until the madness overcame him and he’d attacked someone. He wondered how long he would last this time. “Three weeks,” a slight-built vampire said hoarsely, out of nowhere. It was the one who had been interacting with him, however vaguely. He looked more like a boy than a man, with large gray eyes, scraggly blond-brown hair, and delicate features underneath all the dirt. For a moment, Mircea regarded him blankly, confused at the apparent non sequitur. Until he remembered a question he’d asked some time ago.

And which he really hoped wasn’t the one the vampire was answering. “You’ve been here three weeks?” he asked cautiously. He received a nod. “And you were . fed?” The vampire just looked at him. Mircea closed his eyes. He was already starving; by tomorrow, he would be ravenous. He couldn’t imagine what he’d be after three weeks. He wasn’t sure he’d still be sane. Or alive, for that matter, since he usually fed twice a day or more.

He had the impression that some of his kind had less urgency, but then, most of them had masters to loan them energy in emergencies. He didn’t. He also didn’t see the point. “They bring us here merely to watch us starve?” he asked harshly. “No. To make a profit,” one of the others said. Mircea opened his eyes to see that it was a sallow brunet who’d spoken this time. In addition to yellowed, shriveled skin and filthy rags, he had been blessed with pock-marks and protuberant front teeth. The latter were visible because he was chewing on his remaining scrap of clothing, a long, dirty, stained camisa. Mircea couldn’t understand why, until he noticed: it had been spattered with a few drops of his blood in the fight.

Which the creature was now attempting to suck off. Mircea swallowed, and tried not to look as horrified as he felt. He tried harder not to imagine himself that desperate a week from now. God, he had to get out of here. The blond nodded, apparently oblivious. “That’s how the condottiere makes most of his money. He gets paid for patrolling the city, but he makes a lot more by collecting fines and selling off anybody that can’t pay.” Mircea didn’t bother asking how much the fine was, since his net worth at the moment was zero. And there was a more pressing question. “Selling off?” The vamp looked like he thought Mircea might be a little slow.

“You know. As slaves?” Mircea just stared at him. He knew Venice had slaves, of course, of all types and varieties. Ships regularly brought in everything from red-headed Russians to curly-haired Greeks, from bronze-skinned Saracens to Nubian beauties. Most were women and girls, sought after for domestic help and to warm their master’s beds. But there were always a few strong male backs resold to Egypt as soldiers or to the plantations on Crete or Cyprus as workers. But that was among the human population. Vampires had their own ways of acquiring the help they needed, and it was far more permanent than any slaver’s chains. Why would a vampire need a slave? “Different reasons,” the blond told him, when he asked. “The weaker the master, the worse the slaves he makes.

Some prefer to buy them to get better stock. If they end up being useful, they get added to the family.” “Or maybe they got a job they don’t want to risk a family member on,” the brunet said, more cynically. “It takes power to make a Child. A slave just takes money.” “Or sometimes they need somebody with special skills,” the blond said, ignoring him. “And if they can’t find him among the humans—” “And maybe you’re kidding yourself,” the third member of their unholy trio said, speaking for the first time. The voice was bitter and jaded, like the face that went with it. The filthy hair was half gray, the jowls were heavy and sagging with late middle age, the eyes had dark circles that turned the swarthy skin almost black, and the nose appeared to have been broken more than once. Like the creature’s spirit, apparently, because he looked resentfully at the hope in his fellow prisoner’s eyes.

But the blond wasn’t having it. “Convocation’s coming up,” he insisted. He was talking about the biannual meeting of the governing bodies that ruled the vampire world. Or failed to rule it as far as Mircea could tell. He hadn’t seen much that resembled governance in the years since he fell asleep a man and woke up a monster. “And that matters to us how?” the jaded vampire asked. “It’ll bring hundreds of vampires to the city, maybe thousands—” “Doesn’t mean any of them will be interested in us.” “Doesn’t mean they won’t, either!” “Go ahead and believe that,” the older vampire said. “Right up until you’re left standing at the end of the day, leftover again, unwanted again. And they come to slip a stake between your ribs since you’re not worth feeding.

Then maybe you’ll learn—we are nothing. We are no one. We have no family, no protector, no guide. Your master made you by accident or threw you away—” “He did no such thing! He died—” “—then his vampires threw you away. Does it matter? You ended up here because nobody wanted you. And you’ll die here. Just like me.” “I’m not like you!” the blond snapped. “I was wanted, but there were too many of us. Without the master’s strength, they couldn’t protect us all—” “So they left you to protect yourself.

Knowing that if you ventured into someone else’s territory, they’d kill you. And if you made it this far, you’d fall foul of the local constabulary, who are tired of their port being flooded by powerless vermin, and they’d kill you. Either way, they knew what they were sending you to. If they really cared, they’d have slit your throat.” “You take that back!” “Or what? You’ll kill me?” The older vamp leaned his head back against the wall, baring his neck. “Come on, then. It’s no worse than what they’ve planned for us.” “It is worse,” Mircea rasped, and the cynical brown eyes moved to him. “Name one way.” “It’s stupid.

” “Oh.” The older vamp smiled slightly. “Another optimistic fool.” “No. Just someone who wants to live.” “And where there’s life, there’s hope?” the vampire asked sardonically. “Give it up, son. We’re not getting out of here, any of us, except as corpses. The kind that don’t get back up again. And anybody who believes otherwise is—” A scream of rusty hinges interrupted the conversation.

The prisoners jumped, having been too caught up in their discussion to have heard approaching footsteps. And then the door swung inward and the bare, dirt-floored room was inundated with torchlight and filled with the flutter of silks and fans and the gleam of satins, their saturated colors glowing like jewels in the gloom. A moment later, still half blinded by the glare, Mircea was jerked off the floor and shoved roughly against the back wall. The others were getting the same treatment, as the soldiers lined them up around him, kicking the blond to make him stand up straight. He unfolded from a hunched position, looking miserable, and Mircea realized why. He was naked except for a layer of dirt, and the room had just been inundated with women. Mircea would have loaned him something, but he wasn’t much better off. His coat and doublet, belt and shoes had been stolen by the watch on the way here. Then his hosen and shirt, the latter—the only one he owned that was still without holes—had apparently been his jailor’s size. Mircea had been left with only a pair of linen mutande, the brief shorts the Italians used underneath their hosen, and which they purposefully kept thin and skin-tight to avoid wrinkling the outer garment.

It didn’t leave much to the imagination, and Mircea felt his face burn as one of the women came forward. She was in flame-colored silk and rubies, with a golden net holding back a weight of dark hair. A red veil, the kind most women wore in Venice to frame their face and shoulders, had been drawn across the bottom half of her face in the eastern fashion, concealing everything but a pair of liquid dark eyes. Which suddenly fixed on him. “Tell me about this one,” she murmured, as the condottiere bustled up behind her. And Mircea belatedly realized what the commotion was all about. A potential purchaser had arrived.

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