Sanguinity: First Blood

It probably said a lot that the trip to have Caesar drink the blood of an executed criminal was made into a family vacation, but they all went, strange as it was, Caesar and Albert and their mother and father and two maids, all together. It was their first and last trip to the North, because the North was the only place that still beheaded its criminals; hanging was in vogue anywhere more pleasant. So his mother pretended not to mind the cold, and Father pretended not to mind the lack of civilization, and they went.

Apparently, there was a whole business of it, though Caesar, only nine, hadn't understood much of what was going on. But apparently they'd scheduled an appointment and everything - on the first day of the trip so that the rest could be given over to leisure - and had a representative, a liason to the company who would walk them through the whole process. The man was waiting for them already when they arrived at the house that they'd taken for the week.

Caesar, for some reason, remembered the man clearly. He'd been chubby, jolly, a salesman incarnate, with longish white hair wreathing his head and a shiny bald patch on top. He'd spoken their language with only the barest accent and had smelled of tobacco and - though this might have just been Caesar's mind confusing things - he thought blood. When he was older, it had occurred to him to be surprised that the man wasn't at all doctorly, was instead a representative of the business side of death.

At the time, though, he'd been terrified of the man, hiding behind Albert's legs even though he knew he was too old for that. Just this time, Albert forgave him, reaching out to rest his hand atop Caesar's head comfortingly.

"Lord Silverberg, Lady Silverberg," he'd greeted. "I'm Gregor Malkov. I trust your journey was pleasant?" And he didn't even wait for a response before squatting to look at Caesar, ignoring Albert and the maids completely. "And this must be poor sick Caesar."

And Caesar had been inordinately pleased when Albert spoke up. "Yes, this is Caesar, and you needn't be so facetious."

"Albert," their mother had hissed, and their father had glowered at his rudeness, but Caesar couldn't have possibly wished for a better brother than this one, who was not only keeping Caesar from having to speak to this awful man but chastising Gregor for treating Caesar like a child. In spite of the cold and the long journey and the fact that Albert himself had made fun of Caesar for being childish that very day, he couldn't have been more pleased.

And Gregor himself wasn't too offended, giving a great laugh from his belly and straightening to look at Albert. "Oh, my, aren't you a precocious young man," he said. "Albert, was it?"

And Albert didn't even bother to respond; he just tilted his chin up imperiously. "Neither my mother nor my father have been able to justify all of this to me. Explain the merits of the procedure."

Their mother had cut in, bobbing her head apologetically. "Forgive him," she'd begged. "He's only just gotten back from Soledt Academy. He won a few awards, so the boy thinks he knows everything." Then she'd glared over at Albert; Albert had glared back, and once again Gregor had given one of those enormous laughs.

"Oh, quite all right," he'd said to their mother. "He's hardly the first young man who's been drunk on his own knowledge." And Caesar had looked up to see Albert's neck tensing and his back straightening, and had grinned a little to himself. There was nothing Albert hated more than being talked about to someone else. Caesar had been quite pleased that now, Albert would powerfully hate the very man to whom Caesar had taken such a dislike. When Gregor turned back to Albert, Caesar could almost feel the contempt gather around his brother in a cloud. "We don't know why it works," Gregor said. "It just does. It's miraculous. One time - " He leaned in conspiratorially, but Albert leaned away to keep the distance between them and their father frowned deeper and their mother buried her face in her hands. "One time," Gregor went on, heedless of Albert, "we had a little girl having a fit right before her turn. We dropped just a little blood in her mouth, and right there, it stopped! Never came back again. It's miraculous."

Albert stared motionless at Gregor a moment, then looked over at their parents. "The man is a charlatan," he said clearly. "Mark my words." Then he looked back to Gregor, who was for the first time starting to show signs of anger. "Or do you have something more convincing?"

"My boy," Gregor said, the twist of the words in his mouth deliberately insulting, "you're hardly the one I care about convincing."

That statement did what Albert could not: their parents, for the first time, looked less determined and more uncertain. But Albert, in challenging Gregor, had challenged their decision as well. Their pride wouldn't let them back down. So even though the tenor of their father's perpetual scowl changed a little, and even though their mother wrung her hands furiously and looked back and forth among Father and Gregor and Albert, neither said a thing.

And when Gregor stepped back and looked at them and said, "Milord and lady, are you nearly ready?" their father had nodded.

But Albert wasn't done. "And what guarantee is there against infection? This is the blood of a criminal. Are those the humors we want going into a child?"

"I assure you that it's safe," Gregor said.

"Your assurances - " Albert started, but their father cut in harshly.

"Be quiet, Albert." And Albert immediately fell silent, dropping his protective touch away from Caesar. "I want you to stay here."

For a moment, Albert tensed, as though he were going to protest. Then he slumped back. "All right," he said quietly.

Caesar looked between his brother and father. He reached up to grip Albert's sleeve and said, "I want Albert with me."

All three adults looked down at Caesar as though startled to hear him speak up. Albert, though, didn't look down at him, just gently plucked his hand from his sleeve and walked away from him. "I'll stay," he said, and walked past their parents up the stairs. A moment later there was the sound of a door shutting. Caesar had balled his hands into fists and nearly cried.

They'd all gotten into a carriage and ridden across the city, much larger in Caesar's memory than it had been when he'd visited it once again as an adult. There hadn't been a private facility. Executions had been held publicly in the square. And the five of them, Caesar, his parents, Gregor, and the maid who had been told to hold Caesar's hand, stood in the prime spot, before all the crowds, with three other families with children only a little older than he had been. Caesar had nearly started crying again when they'd led the man onto the platform, feeling as though he was the one to be killed.

He hadn't been able to look away, of course. Between the terror and the anger and the wish for his brother there was the thought, in the back of his head, of how much this would impress the other boys back home, and how if he looked away he'd lose the best chance he ever had at popularity. So he'd been staring up as the man knelt down before the block. The man had met his eyes and - it looked as though in habit - had smiled grotesquely, his mouth gaping open as politeness proved unable to completely overcome fear. And Caesar had smiled back, confused and even more frightened than before. He gripped the maid's hand tightly, and looked up to see her eyes closed. He looked back. The man was now looking down, his lips moving silently. Then the executioner raised his blade and dropped it again, and the man's head came off into a basket placed for the purpose. Caesar had stared, too horrified to scream.

That was when the man of the company had sprung into action. The representatives sent to the families didn't get anywhere near the blood, of course; they stood back discreetly as a fifth man, rather thin and dirty with tired eyes, placed a goblet beneath the dead man's spurting neck. Within seconds he was kneeling before Caesar, gripping his face so that his jaw opened and tipping the blood into his mouth and watching to make sure he swallowed. Caesar didn't want to, but he couldn't hold the blood in his mouth, either, as bitter and fiery and foul as it was, so he just went ahead and swallowed and felt like he wanted to throw up. Then the thin man moved away to repeat the procedure on the other children. Caesar had started to cry.

When they got home, Mom had directed the maid who had stayed behind to get Caesar cleaned up. Normally he did anything necessary to avoid a bath, but he was too weary and shocked and horrified to try anything. He'd just gone along, sitting quietly as the maid had scrubbed him. Even she, who hadn't been there, had been silent. Maybe she'd understood his horror.

He'd lain awake that night, unable to sleep with the taste of blood and the memory of the dead man lingering. The walls were thin, and Caesar's room was right next to Albert's; when their father had gone in to speak to Albert, Caesar had heard.

"I'm ashamed of you. I had thought you were more mature than that."

There had been a long silence, and then Albert had said, quietly, "I'm sorry." Then a footstep, and Albert said, a bit louder, "This isn't going to work." There was stillness a moment, then he continued: "They didn't ask anything about when his sickness started, what caused the fits - they just wanted to collect our money."

Their father's voice was sharper than Caesar had heard it in a long time when he said, "I don't understand why you don't think I want the best for Caesar."

"That's not what I...I have a friend at Soledt. His father is a doctor. A Harmonian doctor. I told him about Caesar - "

There was another silence, and Caesar drew the covers up closer to his chin imagining how terribly their father must be glaring at Albert right now. Quietly, Father said, "I don't like you reminding people about this family's weakness."

"I know," Albert said, "but there was a reason. His father has treated cases of the falling sickness before. And I trust him. I trust that he won't talk about it." Another silence, and then, more confidently: "He says it's a matter of some - something in the brain, there's science behind it. He says his father knows a way...It's treatable, Father, I know that. And it wouldn't be difficult at all; you could send Caesar to me, and I could take care of him while he's in Harmonia and then send him back. I - "

"No," their father said.

Then, angrily, caustically, Albert said, "Yes, I do wonder why it is I think you don't want the best for your son." And Caesar gasped, quietly enough that they couldn't hear it, because Albert had never spoken that way to Father before. No one had ever spoken that way to Father before.

And evidently, there was a reason. "The more you speak, the more you prove that you're not nearly so smart as you think," their father growled with such intensity that even Caesar couldn't imagine even Albert withstanding it. "I won't do it because I have already treated Caesar, and because I have made a decision, and because it's an idea quite nearly as stupid as you have proven yourself to be." Then he'd walked audibly from the room and down the stairs. A moment later, Caesar heard the outside door slam, meaning that their father was going out on one of his walks. Caesar didn't know when he finally drifted off to sleep, but it was after listening to hours of chess pieces clicking against the board.

It was Caesar himself who validated Albert, the first time he'd done something truly helpful for his brother. In the carriage home, he'd had another fit and hit his head so hard he'd passed out and their mother had screamed, thinking he was dead. A month later, Caesar and his parents had traveled to Harmonia to see Albert's doctor. Albert had stayed discreetly behind.