The Immortal Conquistador – Carrie Vaughn

RICK SLUNG HIS BAG over his shoulder, descended the steel staircase from the plane to the tarmac, and set foot in Europe for the first time in five hundred years. He paused a moment, taking a deep breath and wondering why this should feel so strange. It was only the ground, it was only the air. But this air did not have the crisp touch of mountain and plain that made Denver special. This air smelled of oil and urban sprawl, hummed with the underlying whine of aircraft engine. Orange sodium lights gave everything a burnt glow, and the night sky was all haze. This was not home. Hadn’t been for a long time. He’d left Avila when he was seventeen, such a small fraction of his life now. He barely remembered it. Now when he thought of home he thought of the desert, the American prairie, yucca and sagebrush standing fast in the wind, bright stars splashed across a wide night sky. This ancient city Rome wasn’t home. Everything about coming here felt unnatural. Maybe Kitty was right and he shouldn’t have left Denver. Kitty the werewolf, the alpha of the Denver pack, blond and quintessentially modern, so earnest and unlikely, not at all suited to the world of monsters and yet there she was.

Time was, Rick hadn’t cared much for werewolves. Turned out he just hadn’t met the right ones. Maybe he should have listened to her. But he’d insisted. “I have to tell them what happened to Father Columban.” “Can’t you call? Write a letter?” she’d said, some of her inner wolf coming through, as if she had a tail to wag even in her human form. “I thought it best that I tell them in person.” “You think you have to replace him in the Order of Saint Lazarus of the Shadows.” Kitty hosted a talk radio show where she dispensed advice to the lovelorn and others with supernatural problems. She was good at it.

Good at cutting through messes to the heart of the matter. Yes, when the vampire priest Columban had been destroyed, Ricardo had felt like something had been taken from the world and that he must replace it. “You’ll be back?” she had asked as he left. He didn’t know. He had lost so many friends. Her, he’d walked away from. He didn’t know where he was going, who he was meeting with. He’d sent a message ahead to say he was coming. He was riding into the unknown and didn’t know what would happen. But then, hadn’t he spent most of his existence doing that? He’d tried to explain all this to Kitty and was sure he’d failed.

He’d chartered a private jet to get here. Discovered that without really noticing he had become wealthy enough to be able to charter a private jet. Almost like he was a proper vampire, when for most of his existence he’d traveled by horseback and slept in whatever windowless closet he could beg an inn to rent him. But private jet was the only way to ensure arriving at night, with enough privacy to remain locked in the dark during daylight hours. However uneasy he felt about this journey, he needed to make it. A black town car waited for him down the tarmac, which was typical and entirely expected. These were proper vampires, comfortable with wealth and power. The small, prim woman standing by the passenger door was simply but elegantly dressed in a dark skirt, cashmere shirt, and jacket. Almost monastic, but not quite. She gazed at him steadily, pressing neutrally painted lips together.

She was a vampire, an old one, of Mediterranean heritage. This still told him very little about her. He was not so elegant. He wore a T-shirt and jeans under his long overcoat and had not cared what he was wearing until now. It didn’t matter, he decided. He was what he was. “You’re Ricardo?” she asked as he approached. She spoke with a British accent, one learned from the BBC news, so that didn’t tell him anything about her history either. “Rick is fine,” he said. “You got my message?” “We did.

The Abbot is anxious to meet you.” She opened the passenger door for him. “The Abbot. The head of the Order of Saint Lazarus of the Shadows?” he asked. This was the thread that had brought him here. “Who is he?” “You’ll meet him.” “You’re with the Order?” “May I ask how you heard of us?” “A vampire priest found me. Father Columban,” he said. “I didn’t believe him at first, when he told of an order of vampire monks. Then, I did.

Did you know him?” “Yes,” she said after a moment. “Not well. He traveled much, and I stay here and help run the abbey.” “He was killed. I wanted to tell you—the Order—in person.” Rick still wasn’t sure what he was doing. Meeting the man had upended much of what he believed about the world, and about what he was. “He wanted to recruit me. But I’m still not sure I understand.” “You have a lot of questions.

You’ll have to ask the Abbot.” “And you are?” She gazed at him coolly. “I am Portia.” A simple and elegant name to go with her look and manner. Also a Roman name. Could she be fifteen hundred years old or more? Could be. “Pleased to meet you,” he said. His own accent was as cultivated as hers, but pure, flat American. It made other vampires underestimate him—they assumed he was younger than he was. “The night is wearing on,” she said and gestured him into the car.

If Rick had still had a mortal heart, it would have been pounding. He should not be here, he should not have come. He ought to be home, he ought to be protecting his people in Denver—but he needed answers. A larger battle waited to be fought. Five hundred years he’d managed to keep out of the mess and tangle of vampire politics. Now here he was, walking into the middle of it. But he had information, which he hoped to trade for answers to questions of his own. The vehicle’s driver was not a vampire but had the smell of vampires all over him. A longtime servant, then. A loyal source of sustenance.

These people would have an army of such servants, some of them tucked away in government, law enforcement. In the Church, even? Portia sat in the passenger seat, glanced back at him now and then, but otherwise left him alone to stare out the window. They entered the city, and the road took them to a vista, a hundred lights set on ruins, cathedrals, ancient walls, the Colosseum, crammed together with a mix of other structures from across two thousand years. He’d never seen anything like it. If he’d still needed to breathe, his breath would have caught. He inhaled so he could speak. “Wait. Can we pull over here? Can I look, just for a minute?” Portia nodded to the driver, who pulled over at a likely spot, where a few trees framed the view. Rick immediately climbed out and just stood, looking. This was the weight of years made physical.

After a moment, Portia joined him. She looked at him, not the view. “Most of us who’ve been around as long as you have are more jaded than this.” He’d never been jaded, not once. He never tired of a good view. “This is my first time in Rome.” “As old as you are, and you’ve never been to Rome?” Portia said, laughing, a lilting sound, quickly cut off, as if she had not expected to make it. “What about Paris?” “No.” “London? Cairo? Beijing? Anywhere? How is that possible?” He shrugged. “Just never made the time.

” Which seemed a ridiculous thing for one who was theoretically immortal to say. His fists closed. Yes, perhaps he should have made time. He should have come to see Rome, Paris. Should have traveled the world, even if he could only see such monuments lit up at night. “Portia. Do you believe that vampires have souls?” “What kind of question is that?” “Saint Lazarus of the Shadows claims to be a holy order of vampires, which suggests that you all believe in God and the Church and the rest, which suggests that you believe we still have souls worth saving and protecting . and yet, I have met so many of our kind who are sure that we are damned. Who embrace being damned. So I wondered .

is this order a religious order in truth, or a mask for something else? Are we all soulless monsters trying to repent, or children of God doing His will? Or something else entirely?” “What does it matter?” He had stayed alone, mostly, in out-of-the-way places, and he knew very little of the world of the truly old vampires. He’d liked it that way. When he did meet them, they always regarded him like Portia did now, like he was a child who had said something hilarious. But not knowing about their games and politics meant he did not have to play them. What was he getting himself into? “You see,” he continued, “I look out at a scene like this and feel so inspired, I have felt such hope and seen such beauty and experienced such kindness, despite all the grief and evil in the world. Would such feelings be possible if I did not have a soul? And yet I cannot go into a church. I’m a demon. A monster who drinks blood. I just wondered if you knew the answer to the paradox.” Portia stared at him a moment and said, “The Abbot very much wants to hear your story.

” “I will be happy to tell him.”

.

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