Tenth Walker, No Choice

To The End of Night

8. The Temple

   

Gold and red. The silk flowed like water under her fingertips as she pushed the heavy curtain aside, and stepped over the threshold. One foot touched the painted-on stone, polished and smooth as glass, then the other. Maira's eyes followed the Patterns of the thirteen glyphs, a dozen steps away, carved into the center, one after the other – a path to the heart of the Council.

No – the heart of the Temple, now. Empty halls, this early in the night, but the walls themselves hummed with restless energy.

With expectation. Joyous, thrice-damned expectation.

And she could do nothing to stop it – not for lack of trying.

The silk rustled again, and Maira glanced back. "Acolyte," she greeted, inclining her head; the forced gesture closer to a bow then a simple nod. Traitor, she wanted to shout. "You called me here?" Bastard. Teeth bit down on her lower lip to keep the words from bursting out – a habit of the past two years.

Gold and red silk – loose pants and a sleeveless tunic, held by a wide belt of intertwined metal rings. Maira had never seen one of them wearing anything else inside the Temple. Why call them the Robes, then? They made a mockery of the priests of old, her ancestors – this hypocrite in front of her, Hurst, most of all. Her hands would have curled into fists at the thought, if she had allowed them.

The silk bunched and wrinkled as he sat on the bench next to the wall. A finger beckoned her over. She bit down – a flash of pain – and her tongue darted out, over her lip, to lick off the blood before the wound closed. She allowed this calculated lapse in her guard – he liked seeing her on edge. She'd give him that – for a price.

Fathers of my father, grant me wisdom and patience.

Maira could smell him, now. The stench of fresh sweat clung to him, as if he'd run all the way to the Temple. Impatience – a trait of children and short-lived humans.

"It is decided," he said. The words made her stomach drop. "The Council has agreed."

"The Council?" Momentum carried her forward. "No decision can be valid without a quorum." Calm, composed words, while panic ate away at her, inside. She came to a halt two steps away from the bench. "The heads of four Houses knew nothing about this vote." Maira had been with them, an hour ago, before Hurst's summon. Her voice rose. "I knew nothing about this vote."

Hurst smiled, lips stretching over perfect teeth she wanted to smash in, and shifted on the bench.

Maira's skin heated and flushed with borrowed blood. It couldn't be. All her hard work – months of negotiation, gifts, bribes and threats – flushed down the drain in a moment. Those four Houses would have voted 'no'.

Hurst gave her a solemn – gloating, the son of a bitch is gloating – nod, hands folded neatly in his lap. "Five of my brothers cast the vote in their place," a pause, "in your place."

Brothers… Low-born Robes dared to speak for the Clans! For her Clan. The Council must had gone mad to allow that to happen. Maira started to speak, blood boiling, but a tanned hand rose, a ring on his finger glinting marred silver in the reddish light. "We followed the letter of the law."

And spat on the spirit. Maira's hands yearned to wrap around his throat. "Council members choose their representatives. I never gave my voting rights to anyone." And neither did the other four – she was sure of that.

"The law grants us the right of discretion in… troubled times," he said.

"The law?" She spat the word out. Hurst had no right to speak of vampire law. "Not the law of the Clan Fathers." They stood inches away, now. "Who are turning in their graves as we speak." Screaming out their rage in the Underworld. The Robes had rewritten – fouled– the scriptures of the Thirteen Houses, soon after the Awakening. One such change had cost Maira her chair on the Council – for a while.

Hurst's eyes locked on hers – his hand reached out to touch the inside of her wrist, body leaning towards her. The cool metal of the ring brushed against her skin. "Sanaya hadn't thought so."

Before she could stop herself, Maira flinched away. This man knew her too well. "You pushed the Council to put her in my place because of it." Maira hadn't forgotten – never would.

A shake of the head. "Convinced would be a better word. If anyone forced the Council's hand, it was you." When she sided with Galliano. "Besides, your mother didn't last long."

Maira's throat dried. Bastard. She'd never thought the day would come when she'd be thankful for her father's death, but at least he'd not lived to see what became of his wife. To see Sanaya turn away from the old ways, trample the memory of their forefathers into the ground, and embrace the Robes' cursed religion. Pledge her soul to the would-be god that killed her husband.

Two years ago, Maira had stood in this very place, and watched her father burn. Along with twelve others – the stench still lingered in her nostrils.

One god, one master, one faith… the Robes had been shoving that line down her throat since then. Maira pursed her lips in disgust. She honored the gods below and her ancestors – no one and nothing else.

Let alone the war-monger that resides inside this Temple. The war-monger that made Maira snap the neck of the woman that gave birth to her and scatter her ashes to the four winds. Her father's Clan couldn't have a traitor leading it. Maira spat on the ground, a curse on her lips.

You are no god. She wanted to scream it to the high heavens.

The walls hummed. The light dimmed. Hurst rose to his feet, hands gripping her shoulders. Warm hands – the contrast had excited her, once – the sudden heat of the ring pulsed against her skin. "Quiet," he hissed out through clenched teeth. "He is awake today."

The humming made Maira's skin tingle, her head throb – one hand rose to rub circles at her temple.

Fear lit Hurst's eyes. "Don't say a word." A brand of twisted concern filled his voice. Before, she'd believed it to be real – even if she didn't understand it.

Maira didn't know whether to laugh or retch, but the latter wasn't an option, so she grinned through the pain, wide and feral, lips stretching over teeth. She had felt like this once before, in the moments after what remained of her father had crumbled to dust. We all did, they told her afterwards. Twelve sons and a daughter – thirteen Houses fatherless in less than an hour. The Clans forced down to their knees… and she'd had to side with the one that caused it.

Blood runs thicker than water.

The pounding in her head sounded like laughter. A tense moment – Maira pushed back her rising panic – and the silence returned. The light colored the darkened patterns beneath her feet. Her head cleared – blessed relief, before the worry returned, insistent. The vote.

Hurst bowed his head. Pale lips whispered prayers, quiet and reverent, just loud enough to be heard. Lids drifted shut over brown eyes that had stared at her, a moment ago, blinked and refocused. All an act. Hypocrite. He had no true faith in him, which made him worse than her mother had been. Maira swallowed – she had no mother.

The vote. The Council had agreed on declaring war on the Thirteenth House. Fathers of my father

She cleared her throat. "Do we need to be here?"

It took a moment before Hurst shook his head, stepping back. "Follow me," he said.

Silk rustled as they stepped over the threshold, into an empty corridor. Relief, to be away from the humming walls, away from all that restless power. Impatience was a trait of would-be godlings as well, it seemed.

Maira lengthened her stride to catch up with Hurst. A straight upward path, lit by electric lights, welcome after the unnatural light of the Temple, led them to a freight elevator. Hurst still muttered his prayers when they climbed in, and continued on the way up, even after a warm arm reached out to sneak around her waist. Hypocrite. She allowed it and whispered the names of her ancestors in her mind, lined them all up on a continuous string. Wrapped herself up in their presence while he fouled the air with his incantations.

A blaze of stars in the sky above greeted her when they reached the surface, but for the first time in years, the sight could not comfort her. Robes, dozens of them, crawled on the ramp leading down, all eager to serve their no longer slumbering master. Bile rose in her throat. Eager to make war on her kin.

A familiar face – Gavin, thank the gods below – came into her line of sight when they moved to let two men enter the elevator. Maira waited until crowd cleared, until he could see her hands, and signed out the agreed command. He would carry her letter, prewritten, to the right hands. To the last of her blood. The thought gave her new strength.

Hurst's arm remained snug around her waist as they walked uphill to a new, low building, fingers splayed over her clenched stomach. She forced it to relax, drowned out the tinge of heat she still felt when he touched her, and fell back into her memories.

The star on the far left, her father had said with a chuckle, centuries ago. When she had been young. Your mother wanted to name you after it. Maira remembered how she had straightened on that high balcony, surprised, had torn her eyes away from the bustling streets of Venice, away from the heat of the Carnival, to meet her father's smile. Venus? she had asked. She wanted to name me Venus? A nod had answered her, Now she wants to name your brother Ares, followed by a shake of the head. I have three months yet to dissuade her. Her face had darkened after the mention of a brother – her father had noticed and laced his fingers with hers. Enough of these troubled thoughts, Maira. He had gripped her hand and tilted her face up. You are the first of your name, and my heir. Nothing will change that.

Oh, but everything could have changed. In a year's time, whispers of a male hair had become too loud to ignore, and she would have been left with nothing. But Missal Cattaro had remained true to his word. A pretend accident later, and she had no brother either – as far as the world knew. Only Gitano Dragonetti had known better – and kept the blood of her blood close; as a favor to her father. Father's show of faith hadn't surprised her; Houses Cattaro and Dragonetti had been fast allies for centuries.

The door creaked and shook her out of her reverie – Hurst lead her into his apartment, sparsely furnished for the moment, but spacious, with potential for luxury. The lights stayed off. Maira remembered a time, not so long ago, when he'd had nothing to his name. When his life depended on her whim. All this, power and wealth, just because he was the first to bend the knee. Good sense, he had called it. Maira called it betrayal. Hurst had found it, that creature, newly awoken, still weak – and the spineless sack of warg dung had helped breathe life into it.

Or so Maira had heard. She'd been too busy, in the aftermath, to ask.

Hurst's fingers wrapped around the thick braid that fell half-way down his back, and tugged it over his shoulder. A boyish gesture – fitting for one so young. It stung to be brought low by a child, barely past his twenty-eighth year. A child high on power and ambition – with deadly backing.

He started to undress – Maira expected as much. Whether he wanted to bed her or unbalance her remained to be seen. "We can talk here." An all too familiar quality seeped into his voice, into his touch, now that they were out of the Temple. The difference struck her. As if he'd shed a role forced on him. Starlight danced on naked skin, a play of shadow and light, as he leaned in, fingers gripping her hips "Ask your questions."

And she'd get her answers – for a price. If the last two years hadn't stripped her of her pride, this night would. Maira thought about breaking his arms at the elbows and dismissed the idea. The brief satisfaction it would give her wouldn't be worth the fallout.

She asked her first question, instead. "Who will order the attack?"

The smug smile he gave her answered that, at least.

Nausea settled in the pit of her stomach; Maira fought past it, refocused. His hands twitched on her hips as she leaned into him, her lips next to his ear. "How long do they have?" she whispered. How long did her brother have? Hours? Days? She couldn't care less about the rest of Galliano Dragonetti's clan.

When she felt Hurst take a deep breath of her, Maira moved an inch away, so she could see his face. So he could see hers. He smiled that slow smile he had, the one that used to start a fire low in her belly. It still did – it made her hate him all the more for it.

"That depends." Hurst traced the outline of her jaw with his thumb and forefinger. Like nothing had changed between them. Like the past two years hadn't happened. "How long will you stay?" The soft words were a slap in the face.

Maira wanted to slap him back, make him remember how she could still snap him in two, with little effort. Instead, she kissed the nape of his neck. Bit his jaw in that way he liked. Quick and sharp, with her tongue darting out at the end. "For as long as it takes," she said. And she would. To buy Gavin more time to deliver her message, for a delay in the Council's sentence.

His hands... two years were little time, but she'd forgotten. She'd had him before – hundreds of times, in dozens of different ways – but this would be the first time he'd have her, on his terms. Hurst nipped her jaw, his breath hot against her cheek, but the remembered jolt of desire couldn't stop the nausea from welling up.

An Elder daughter, playing to a human's tune. Their roles had shifted; he had power over her, now. Maira prayed that her father couldn't see, from the Underworld, how low she'd sunk.

Hurst kissed her, once, all teeth and tongue, before going still and thoughtful. Before his hands fell from her hips, his quickened pulse still drumming in her ears. Before he took a step back. "Enough," he said, eyes never leaving hers, voice hoarse. His hands balled into fists, twitching against his sides.

Why had he stopped?

After taking one slow step back, he said, "They have a day, for all the good it will do them."

A reprieve – that easily gained? She couldn't have heard it right.

"There is nowhere on Earth Galliano can hide."

The certainty in his voice got on her nerves, even as meaning sunk in – a day. More than enough. Relief welled up inside her, side to side with resentment. "I thank you for that." Maira forced the words out, the taste of him still fresh on her tongue. Mercy proved a hard gift to swallow, from him. "And for…" The words trailed off.

Hurst shook his head. "For what?" A pause. "For not taking what hasn't been offered?" He stood before her, still naked. "That's what you do, Maira," he said. Soft words, with an edge of anger to them. "That's what you're best at."

What was he yapping about, now? He'd been willing, always. "Hurst..." Her fingers reached out to trace patterns over his collarbone, nails scraping skin. To prove a point. The corner of her mouth quirked up when his eyes drifted shut. "When you begged for more, panting…" Her fingers trailed down; she breathed out next to his ear – he shivered. "Harder... fasterslow, now…" Her body molded to his. "Every time, you meant to say no?"

His quickened breath brushed against her cheek. She had power over him, still – a victory of a sort. Maira started to back away – she'd made her point – but Hurst's hands ran down her sides, wormed their way under her shirt. When he kissed her again, she allowed it and moaned into his mouth. After he drew back, her fingers wound into his hair to pull him back. Treachery, everywhere she turned – even in herself.

Hurst gave her a small shake of the head. "Pleasure means little." Tired regret seeped into his voice. "When you don't have a say in it." An old wound. "Can you understand that, now?" The distance between them grew. "You never asked, Maira. Not once." Miles where'd once been inches. "You just took."

You never complained. Maira bit her lip, seething. "Spare me the lecture." He'd been insolent all his life – a child, sold to the Clan in payment of his father's gambling debts, twenty short years ago. A boy later, barely remembered. It was the man that had drawn her attention.

For a split second, he looked so gods damned sad it made her want to claw his eyes out. "I care for you," he said. The bitter laugh that followed struck a cord in her that the words couldn't. "Always did. God knows why."

God? Maira forced herself into silence and focused on that. Which god did he mean? The human god that he had clung to, for years? Whispered his prayers to the dark when he'd thought her asleep. Or this new 'god' who had brought the Clans to heel in two short days? Which god had his allegiance? He'd gotten too good at pretending to tell.

A knock on the door stopped her questions. "Acolyte!" A woman's voice, unfamiliar. On instinct, Maira's head turned in its direction.

"A moment," came the immediate answer. When she looked back, Hurst already had a robe in his hands, one arm sliding into a sleeve. An ordinary bathroom robe. His face, the way he held himself – the sudden difference struck her. Gone was the glimpse of the man she'd known. A stranger stood in his place, features schooled into a calm, reverent mask – one he'd been wearing for the past two years.

Oh, yes. He'd gotten good at pretending. Perhaps he'd always had been. Maira stood back, while he swung the door open.

A woman – a vampire, Maira smelled it right away – clad in a gold and red silk tunic bowed low, one hand placed over her heart. Bowed down to a human. Her easy subservience made Maira wish she'd smuggled that dagger past the Temple guards. On second glance, she recognized the clan mark on her – Lanai of the Copra's. The name rang a bell – she'd been one of the first to join the Robes. The traitor's gaze moved past her – past a Council member – disinterested. If Maira had that dagger, it would have ended up buried in her throat for the insult.

"We did as you asked," Lanai said, pointing back. "What should we do with it?" Distaste carried in her voice.

It? Maira's eyes followed the woman's extended hand and found…

Gods below. It shouldn't have surprised her, but it did. The stone glyph of the Thirteenth House, already cracked and filthy, lay on the floor before the entrance. The delicate silver lettering, intermixed with flashes of orange and red – she would recognize it anywhere. She had seen it, not twenty minutes ago, inside the Patterns of the thirteen glyphs, undisturbed for an eon. Thirteenth in the row, but first in the Pattern; closest to the heart of the old Temple. Had they left the place empty, a tell-tale hole in the marble floor, or had they set the glyph of the Robes in its place? The thought made her jaw clench.

House Dragonetti – once the first among equals. Now marked for ruin.

Hurst smiled – a real smile that reached his eyes. "Destroy it." The satisfaction in his tone made Maira's eyes narrow to slits. "Give the ashes to me when you're done."

Lanai's eyes lit up. "A pleasure." She smiled back and sized Hurst up and down, one eyebrow raised. No surprise there – the Temple god favored Hurst above all. And Lanai wouldn't be the first low-born to try and up her rank between the sheets.

Hurst's expression darkened. "Just get it done," he said, and let the door shut in the woman's face. A moment, and a murmur of voices drifted in through the door.

Maira's brow furrowed. Interesting. She had heard that Hurst had taken five humans, familiars he'd known, and made them high-priests – called them brothers. None among the Robes had dared to speak against it, yet. An unwelcome thought surfaced. Had those been the brothers that took the vote today? Gods bellow... He'd dare put humans in the High Council?

A slap in the face. And the fools just bent over and took it. The Temple god probably roared with laughter – if only he would choke on it. Maira took a step towards him, suddenly sure. "You hate us all, don't you?" Vampires. She hadn't seen it before now. Hadn't bothered to see it.

The expression on his face proved unreadable. "I never hated you, Maira," he said. "Even after you gave me every reason to."

That didn't answer her question. "You've made an oath, I've heard." Maira pressed on, "They say you refuse to receive the Gift until the position of the Temple is secured." The gift of life and death… The thought of him as her equal had been both appealing and disquieting, then. But now… "They admire your… sacrifice." He couldn't miss the sarcasm in her tone.

He met her eyes, unflinching. "My loyalty is to the Temple." Spoken with a conviction that would have fooled her just yesterday, but not now – not after tonight. Hurst had his own agenda.

"And when will the Temple's position be secured?" The knot in her stomach returned. "After Galliano's death? After you wipe out his clan?"

Confusion made his eyebrows knit closer together. "For the life of me, I can't figure out why you're so invested in that sadist's survival." His fingers scratched the back of his head, then ran through his hair. "I had you pegged as the first in line for his execution. His fumbling with Ritual did wake the Ancients."

And brought one, the worst of them, back into the world. Killed her father by proxy. Galliano could rot in the Abyss, for all she cared. Habit forced the words out. "Kalista woke them," the lie rolled off her tongue easily enough. The lie that had held back the flood for two years.

Hurst's smile made her jaw clench. "You don't believe that yourself."

Maira believed what she had to. Did what she had to, to balance on the edge of the precipice. What was one woman's life – and an unnatural half-breed's, at that – against the certainty of all out war? Peace could have been kept, the Clans made to focus on the right enemy, if only the fates had allowed her more time. If only the Temple god hadn't been bent on war from the start.

"Why go after Dragonetti? Why now?" she asked instead.

A snort sounded out. "Because it's a war that at least half of the Clans will agree on."

And a war that would spread to the other Houses, as time passed. There could be no stopping that in a world of mixed loyalties. Maira had played her part in it – five Houses now stood by Galliano, including her own. Hurst had to know what she'd been doing, allowed it to go on. How else would he have known where to find her tonight? Her stomach dropped. Had he wanted this, all along?

Hurst pulled up a chair and sprawled over it. "Galliano sets a bad example, if you need more of a reason."

A bad example… That was a given. Galliano wasn't one to bend the knee – he probably wouldn't know how to. Maira pressed on, "After Galliano's death… Will you stop there?" She had to know.

Hurst's shoulders moved in a shrug. "Who can tell?" The wind outside picked up and sneaked inside through one open window. "New threats can always arise."

This is just the beginning. Maira suppressed a shiver. He'd pit them all against each other if he could, she didn't doubt it. But why tell her that?

One way or the other, she'd lingered there too long. Would he let her leave? Bring word to the other Houses? A part of her hoped he would stop her, imprison her – the alternative proved too dark to contemplate.

Only one way to find out.

Maira turned to go, without a word, hand reaching for the door.

"Stay."

The whispered words made her hesitate a moment. Perhaps she'd misread him… But, no. Still, he asked – never commanded. Did he think that she would find a lesson in that? Her fingers tightened around the doorknob. You never asked, Maira. Not once. If she'd asked, would he have said yes?

No regrets. She was the first of her name and an Elder daughter – best she remembered that. It's our way. With a shake of the head, Maira stepped over the threshold. The door drifted shut behind her. No one stopped her from leaving the building, walking across the open yard, no one jumped her when she found her car and turned on the ignition. No one followed her, driving away.

So, Hurst wanted a war. Tears burned behind her eyelids – she blinked them away. Maira could still keep the peace. There was still hope – how could they fight an enemy they couldn't find?

Heads of four Houses awaited her return.

There is strength in numbers.

Maira hoped she wouldn't have to use it.

~


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

   

In Challenges

Story Information

Author: Pen 52

Status: Beta

Completion: Work in Progress

Rating: General

Last Updated: 07/02/07

Original Post: 06/06/06

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