New Year’s. The occasion always did, and probably always would, make him think of Father.
Once a week, against the better judgement of Straud’s posse, Caleb joined the young woman Rini Endymion for lessons.
Though she’d asked him to stop calling her that.
Would sister be there?
Caleb hadn’t seen his sister Lilith in, what was it, half a year? More? Since before he’d started his weekly visit with the Moon Priestess.
But who cared?
Lilith had left him to care for Father’s trees all by himself. He had recruited a distant auntie but she was advanced in years and seemed to spend more time talking to the plants than pruning them.
His role as of late had been to provide Cedric’s parties with refreshment.
So much for being his father’s “Little Prince”.
Though, he’d always been envious of Father’s nickname:
// VATORE ESTATES //
SIERRA, WHAT DO YOU THINK WE HAVE FOR THE PARTY THIS EVENING?
ARE YOU STILL GOING TO THAT DEN OF DEBAUCHERY TONIGHT?
YOU KNOW THEY DON’T VALUE YOUR FATHER’S MISSION.
Caleb looks up from his notebook, taking a moment for a dramatic pause before again speaking.
NO, I KNOW THEY DON’T, BUT IT’S MY DUTY TO DELIVER THE FRUIT THIS YEAR.
IT WAS AN OLD AGREEMENT BETWEEN MY FATHER AND STRAUD.
WHAT’S THE POINT IF THEY JUST PARTAKE OUT OF A FEIGNED POLITENESS?
WE LOSE A GOOD PART OF A SEASON’S GROWTH JUST BECAUSE IT’S A TRADITION WE’RE TOO AFRAID TO OPT OUT OF. A CHARADE OF –
I DON’T LIKE IT ANY MORE THAN YOU DO BUT I’M NOT GOING TO BE THE ONE TO END MY FATHER’S YEARLY GIFT OUT OF AN INSTINCT TO MISERLINESS.
MAYBE THEY’LL COME TO THEIR SENSES ONE DAY.
ARE YOU GOING?
ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
ME, GO TO STRAUD’S LITTLE LOVEFEST?
I DON’T THINK SO.
YOU’D HAVE TO DRESS UP.
When Caleb walks over to the Straud Mansion, the party is already in full swing. There is no telling exactly who is inside these doors. Few drove themselves, so the carpark was of little use.
He rings the doorbell. And waits.
HOW GOES IT?
He always appreciated a chance to use Father’s catchphrase.
IT GOES DARKLY.
AS ALWAYS, THE MASTER APPRECIATES THE OFFERINGS YOU BRING FROM YOUR GARDEN.
PLEASE COME IN.
HOW HAS YOUR YIELD BEEN THIS SEASON?
RECOVERING FROM MY COWARDICE.
OH, DON’T BE SO HARD ON YOURSELF.
SOME OF US HAVE MADE A CAREER OUT OF BEING REBELLIOUS.
I HARDLY CALL MY RUNNING AWAY FROM HOME ‘REBELLIOUS’.
Mandarc twice activates a counter in the palm of his hand, cupped as if to hide it from view.
WELL, WE’RE GLAD TO HAVE YOU BACK. AND NOT JUST FOR YOUR GIFTS.
Caleb tries to conjure a smile but doesn’t succeed.
DOESN’T HURT THOUGH.
DOESN’T HURT, BUT Y’KNOW.
WE LIKE HAVING YOU AROUND.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, enough of the effusive shows of affection for your dealer.
IS MY SISTER HERE? OR –
NOT YET. THOUGH,
I AM THINKING IT IS LIKELY THEY’LL BE IN ATTENDANCE THIS YEAR.
DO YOU WANT ME TO MAKE SURE YOU KNOW WHEN SHE ARRIVES?
NO NEED; I’M SURE I’LL NOTICE WHEN SHE GETS HERE.
IF I MAY BE SO BOLD, WHAT IS THE STATUS OF YOU AND YOUR SISTER’S…
What, you trying to mack on her too?
I HAVEN’T TALKED TO HER SINCE SHE LEFT FOR BROOKLYN.
Caleb’s tone is low and distant.
I’M NOT BOTHERING FOR ANY PARTICULAR REASON –
JUST WANTING TO STAY ABREAST OF THE CURRENT GOSSIP.
I’M SURE SHE IS QUITE DEDICATED TO HER ROMANCE WITH THE FOREIGNER.
I’M SURE SHE IS.
He stops as if having stuck his foot in his mouth.
LISTEN, I’D PREFER SHE INVOLVE HERSELF WITH A LOCAL.
Mandarc becomes animated, raising his eyebrows and leaning in to speak more quietly.
SURELY YOU DON’T BELIEVE THE RUMORS…
THAT HE’S TRULY AN ALIEN?
WOULD REQUIRE THE BELIEF THAT SOME OTHER CIVILIZATION’S BEEN SPACEFARING BEFORE US.
THAT WOULD BE SOME HUMBLE PIE TO EAT.
NOT ONE I’D BE TOO EXCITED ABOUT CONSUMING.
YOU PRIVY TO ANY KIND OF INTEL I’M NOT?
WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THE FERENGI?
YOU THINK THE MASTER IS LOQUACIOUS?
I DON’T KNOW. MY SISTER’S NOT BEEN PARTICULARLY FORTHRIGHT ABOUT HER…
WASN’T IT TRUE THAT THE COUNT MADE FRIENDS WITH FERENGINAR DURING THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION?
I THINK THAT TERM “INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION” WAS ONE USED BY THE MORTALS TO DESCRIBE A TIME PRIOR –
YES I’M WELL AWARE –
ARE YOU THOUGH?
I HAD TO ADMIT WITH MY STUDIES WITH THE PROFESSOR, THAT SOMETIMES WE MUST CONCEDE TO THE ELDERS THAT WHICH IS THEIR DUE,
PRIMELY THE CHIEF STEWARDSHIP OVER THE LORE OF THE PASSED AGES.
THE TERM “INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION” BEING ONE I ENCOUNTERED MORE OFT IN THE MORTALS’ TEXTBOOKS THAN IN HIS PROPER LECTURES.
THE COUNT LECTURES AT YOU?
FROM TIME TO TIME.
NEVER MIND THAT, IT’S TIME I SHOULD SERVE.
SURELY YOU DON’T NEED ME TO SHOW YOU TO THE BAR.
YOU CAN IF YOU WANT TO.
Mandarc shoots him a dubious look. He was getting prideful due to his mentorship. He follows him to the modest serving counter set up in Straud’s sitting room.
Suddenly the very pungent smell fills his nostrils. The smell of lavender, of rotting meat, of a childhood lust for charred hotdogs…
KEVIN?! THE COUNT STILL –
ONE CAN HARDLY REFUSE ENTRANCE TO THE ESTEEMED SON OF THE LATE VINCENT MARSCAPONE.
I JUST… HARDLY THOUGHT HE’D RISK HIMSELF –
THE YOUNG MASTER IS CAPABLE OF A NUMBER OF IMPRESSIVE INCANTATIONS. I’M SURE IF HE FELT ANY WERE IMPINGING ON HIS FREE WILL, HE’D HAVE A SHOW FOR US.
The smell is invasive, intrusive. If there was anything that could be said of Straud’s parties, it was that they’d be entirely devoid of anything to… arouse the senses.
[whispering] Some son of his father. Forsaking the Gift.
[whispering] Stupid. Short-sighted.
Caleb begins to bring the fruit from his basket. He absent-mindedly cores the fruit and squeezes it into glasses.
Mandarc, as if a ghost, slips in to deliver his commentary.
I AM SURE HE FINDS THE TRADE…
What are you clacking at, you piece of –
BESIDES, WASN’T IT YOUR FAMILY THAT PROCLAIMED AN ALTERNATE EXISTENCE?
AND YET I’M AT A PARTY WHERE I KNOW MY VIEWS FALL ON DEAF EARS.
NOT ENTIRELY, CALEB.
The two sit in silence a few moments, allowing the din of the refracted chatter to saturate their attention.
ANYWAY, I HATE TO LEAVE YOU SO SOON BUT I NEED TO WATCH THE DOOR.
GUESTS ARE ARRIVING ANY MOMENT.
Caleb has nothing meaningful to say.
Not expecting such a terse response, Mandarc lingers for a moment.
WELL, AT THE VERY LEAST, IF YOUR SISTER ARRIVES, I WON’T LET HER STARTLE YOU.
Caleb returns his focus to preparing the fruit drinks. Each is spiked with a healthy dollop of strong liquor. It was true that the vampiric undead resisted the poison, but they were not immune to it. He had been told a splash helped encourage proper digestion of the fruit’s pulp and had no reason to believe otherwise.
He’s been squeezing the fruit for a few minutes, alone after Mandarc’s leaving, when two familiar faces show themselves.
The spritely female with the bright expression is Roxanne Schwartz and the gaunt male with wandering, paranoid eyes is George Henry. Two individuals that’d shown little to no interest in subsistence habits that didn’t rob innocent Mortals of their livelihood.
Curiously, Roxanne has her arm in a sling.
HOW ARE YOU THIS EVENING?
SAME OLD SAME OLD.
WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?
She gestures at her limp arm with her chin.
I WAS OUT IN THE FIELD.
MISTAKES WERE MADE.
I WAS BEING TOO CAVALIER.
Caleb could see, as she stumbled over her words, that she was loath to reveal the true source of her injury.
Maybe it didn’t matter.
IT LOOKS PRETTY BAD. HOPE YOU HEAL UP SOON.
NOT THAT BAD.
I’M JUST KEEPING OFF IT.
EITHER OF YOU WANT TO TRY A PLASMA JANE?
YOU MIGHT LIKE THE LEMMIN’ PEPPA OR STRAWBERRY ‘N’ THYME.
BOTH PART OF THE RECENT CROP.
I’D LIKE ONE.
George Henry was usually quiet at the best of times. It was surprising to receive his request.
UH… YEAH –
WE’RE GLAD YOU CAME BACK.
YOU WANT ONE, ROXANNE? WHILE I’M AT THE HELM.
WHY NOT. MY INJURY HAS MADE HUNTING DIFFICULT.
I’M SORRY TO HEAR THAT.
IS IT TRUE THAT YOU DON’T HUNT AT ALL?
How much do these assholes gossip? His face tightens in irritation but he tries to resist; it was so rare for any of this crowd to fake interest, even if it was rude and ill-timed.
In the background, behind her head, he sees the Count Vladislaus Straud weaving in the crowd.
YES, IT’S REALLY TRUE.
THE FRUIT PROVIDES ALL THE NUTRIENTS I NEED, SO WHY WOULD I STOOP TO BECOMING A PARASITE?
THAT’S A STRONG ACCUSATION.
But the last words seem to fade out as who should come up but the last person – er – second to last – person he wanted to see. He arises from around the corner, stopping at the nearby sink to wash his hands.
A PARASITE CANNOT AFFORD TO BE PICKY ABOUT HIS PREY.
HE TAKES WHATEVER IS OFFERED TO HIM, REGARDLESS OF ITS QUALITY.
WE ARE LUCKIER THAN THAT.
YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY; THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH.
Shaking the water from his hands, Cedric approaches the bar. Caleb spies a number of the sprayed drops land atop the counter, now lined with glasses full of dark purple juice.
YOUR STUFF LOOKS GOOD TODAY.
THANKS FOR COMING OUT.
He lifts a glass as if to toast toward Caleb.
Baby steps… baby steps…
GO AHEAD. I BROUGHT TO SHARE.
Cedric lifts the drink to his lips and tilts back his head, the liquid disappearing in a single visit.
He slams the glass down emphatically upon the bar.
AND FRUIT’S ALRIGHT TOO.
He picks the glass up and goes over to the sink to wash it.
I THINK YOUR SISTER’S AT THE DOOR.
YOU’VE GOT A MINUTE OR TWO.
He leans over the bar and lowers his voice. Roxanne and George Henry each pick up a drink to inspect it, tilting the glass about to inspect its opacity. George Henry sniffs the drink.
YOU TALK TO YOUR SISTER OVER THE PAST FEW MONTHS?
NO, I HAVEN’T.
Of course everyone seemed more concerned with his sister than with him. Was this a matter of sexism? Everyone preferred the company of a pretty girl to any kind of man. It was an observation he’d seen time and time again over the years. Not the least of the examples had been his own –
Caleb thinks of asking how Cedric is doing after the death of Svetlana but thinks better of it. On the second thought, it seemed… cruel. So he’s left with nothing to say, an awkward pause in the flow of conversation.
WELL I GUESS YOU’RE NOT REALLY GONNA HAVE MUCH CHOICE.
I’M GLAD YOU CAME BACK FOR YOUR FATHER’S GROW.
IT WOULD HAVE BEEN A REAL LOSS IF THEY’D GONE FALLOW.
I TEND TO AGREE.
Cedric’s gaze wanders across the visible plane.
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL ~
From the right, accompanied by Mandarc, are his sister and the Ferengi.
IT’S GOOD TO SEE YOU.
AND YOU, BIG SIS.