by Darth Stitch
DISCLAIMER: Trinity Blood was created by Yoshida Sunao (R.I.P.) and is now an anime directed by Tomohiro Hirata and produced by the studio GONZO. I'm just a poor schmuck who wanted to see more romance amongst the all the high adventure, action and intrigue. Yes, the title IS taken from the anime's ending song. How to inspire Stitch – stick DVD in player, watch end credits, squee silently and start writing.
The idea of making Tatiana Romanov and Rasputin (both known historical personages) as vampires isn't new – I have been inspired by the novel I, Vampire by Michael Romkey. Keep in mind that I am not using the precise situation/universe portrayed in that novel and I'm running on my own ideas here. And hey, with Sunao-sensei's penchant for historical nods in the Trinity Blood universe, I just HAD to make my own homage to it.
AUTHOR'S WARNINGS: Trinity Blood is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the Roman Catholic Church/the Vatican is portrayed as a military power as well as a spiritual one. The series also strongly implies major and controversial changes in the Church, such as women being bishops and cardinals as well as romantic relationships and quite possibly marriage between members of the clergy. If this disturbs you, do not read any further.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Yep, we're back to the Massive Plot – the next installment in the Milk Tea & Thirteen Sugars series. YAY! Oh and kudos points will go to the reviewer who guesses exactly where Seth picked the name Elric from and no, it is NOT Full Metal Alchemist (much as I love that anime). And if I've let it slip to some of you – shhhh! – hey, let the others guess, that would be so much fun, eh?
Earlier stories in the Milk Tea series can be found on my FF Dot Net profile.
DEDICATION: Again, this is dedicated with much affection to my officemates, especially to faithful readers like Star, who was actually one of those who started spreading the word around about the stories in the office (hehehe), Ces, who keeps inspiring me to write Teh Romantic Fluffeh, to Jian, who drew me wonderful fan art of Abel and Esther and to Aaron who's also joining in the artwork craze (yay!). This is also for those who've just recently joined in the fun like Mommy Cristy, Ethel, Tintin, Christian, Neren, Precy, Vinch and Peppermint Patty, who helped me out some when I was tweaking some scenes. And of course, to Mommy Jeai who gave fashion advice for Esther (whee!) because trust me, she's gonna need all the advice she can get when I post up the next part!
This is also for the friends I've made out there in the fandom like Peredhiel and Sammie-Ma who have also created gorgeous fan art for me (squee!), Arallion, Weaver, mentalmentos, Advi and all you wonderful reviewers, especially those who told me they're putting the stories on their faves list (OMG!). Please bear with me if I don't always reply to all your reviews but they are all definitely appreciated and inspire me to keep on writing!
Watch my LJ for linkages to the fan art from those who've lovingly contributed to the madness that is the Milk Tea series, as well as the fan art done by Jian which I'll be posting for her. I'll be putting those up as soon as I have the time to get everything scanned and ready. Whee!
Author's Postscript: Because there are now a lot of people reading this who aren't even aware of the anime, here's a shortlist of the merry crew in the Trinity Blood universe who are appearing in this story and some of the original characters spawned from my demented imagination. Yes, in real life, there IS an Abelcrombie the Crusnik Turtle. He's quite popular among my officemates, even the security guards! One of these days, I'm putting up a picture of my baby on my LJ. Hehehe.
Abel Nightroad (Nightlord) – Crusnik 02, Vatican priest, Enforcer for the Vatican's Department of Ecclesiastical Affairs, which is also known as AX - "Arcanum cella ex dono dei" (Latin: Secret Chamber in virtue of the gift of God). Also now saddled with the alter ego of His Imperial Highness, Prince Artorius Elric Vradica, brother to the Empress of the New Human Empire, Augusta Vradica. He's not too happy about that but those are the breaks. He is also hopelessly in love with Esther Blanchett, which was rather an unexpected happening for him. Abel's usually the sweetest scatterbrain on God's green earth and enjoys letting others think he's nothing but a featherbrain, but he's all business when duty calls (and how!).
Esther Blanchett – Vatican nun, member of AX, often partnered with Abel Nightroad on official missions. Her name also means "star" and it's also probably drawn from the fact that she has a star-shaped birthmark on her body. She's brave and impulsive, also a pretty good shot and generally good-hearted, sweet and kind. The kind of person who sees the best in people and brings it out of them, as a certain Featherbrained priest and a certain Methuselah nobleman can attest. Falling in love with Abel Nightroad was also an unexpected happening on her part but she's dealing with it in a slightly better fashion than he is.
Caterina Sforza – Head of AX, Cardinal Prince of the Roman Catholic Church, Duchess of Milan. Also best friend to Abel, which can get complicated as she's also his boss but they manage the line between friendship, almost-sibling closeness and the whole boss issue quite splendidly. She's far more tolerant and open-minded than most of the peeps in the Church (read: her brother Francesco di Medici and the Inquisition) and strives to bring peace between the Church and the New Human Empire.
Tres Iquus – a.k.a. Gunslinger, Vatican priest, android, Enforcer for AX. Tres is THE bad-ass gun-kata guy in the AX team and the one Abel trusts to rein him in if (God forbid) his Crusnik side goes out of control. Tres shouldn't be possessed of a sense of humor but apparently he does and it is believed that Abel should be blamed for that latest development.
Seth Nightlord – a.k.a. Augusta Vradica, Empress of the New Human Empire, Crusnik 03. Abel's baby sister still looks like a little girl even after all these centuries but don't let that fool you – she can and will kick serious ass if she has to. She's warm, down-to-earth and quite mischievous and is in agreement with Caterina Sforza about bringing peace between Terrans and Methuselahs.
Astharoshe Asran – Duchess of Kiev, the Tigress of Odessa. The lady is definitely worthy of her name as she can be a ferocious fighter. Astharoshe is pretty direct and no-nonsense and has a mostly low opinion of ordinary humans, although her friendship with Abel has made her rethink some things. She first met him on a joint mission between the Vatican and the Empire and came to accept him as her "tovarishch" or partner, realizing that he's a pretty good man to have at one's back.
Ion Fortuna - Count of Memphis. Ion's the classic golden boy of Imperial nobility – so beautiful that he's sometimes mistaken for a girl (which annoys him to no end), deceptively looks like a very young boy (although he's already an adult), charming, gracious, proud, courageous and very impetuous. He has a serious crush on Esther but has woefully realized that her affections lie elsewhere. Alas, he can't even hate Abel because he also looks up to the guy, even Abel's featherbrained persona does leave him baffled at times.
Tatiana Nicolaeivna Romanov – Grand Duchess of Russia. The last of the Romanov dynasty from the 20th century, Tatiana survived the massacre of her family by the Bolsheviks and became a vampire in the classic sense. She now rules Russia and is a very serious contender for power in the New Human Empire, should she choose to take that up. Coldly elegant and beautiful, she has nonetheless brought peace and prosperity to the New Russian Empire and is well-loved by her people for it.
Grigory Efimovich Novykh – a.k.a. Rasputin, the Mad Monk. He now functions as Tatiana's advisor, although he is quite aware that he is far from being the power behind the ancient and reclaimed Romanov throne. As always, he is strangely charismatic and compelling and it is said that he dabbles in the ancient and darkest arts of magic.
Bell – A little four-year old girl, currently a ward of the Catholic Church under the care of Sister Esther Blanchett.
Abelcrombie – Crusnik 02 and ½. An adorable stuffed toy turtle in the care of little Bell.
Listen. This is the tale as I know it.
That's how I always begin the story – not just with "once upon a time" or "a long time ago." Sit by my side and I will tell you the tales that I know. And I know many of these.
I will tell you of the brave Prince who came to the Tower of the Revenant Lord and brought him down.
I will tell you of the beautiful Princess who so charmed the Great Wolves of the Forest that they swore to serve her and her Prince forever more.
And how did the stories end? Why, they ended as they always have, with true love and evil overcome and happily ever after. And so their tales are done.
And what of the Child? Who was the Child who traveled with the Prince and Princess, who stayed by the Princess' side to comfort her when she believed her Prince was lost forever more?
Oh, but she lives and wanders the world still, though her beloved friends are gone. She lives forever, the eternal child, the sorceress, the very last of her kind. She lives so that she can tell their tale, that they did not die in a sterile laboratory, stripped away of their humanity, their dignity, their flesh and blood stolen from them by those who call themselves men of science.
The Prince and the Princess were saved and they lived happily ever after.
I am the Storyteller. Listen – for this is the tale as I know it.
Astharoshe Asran, the Duchess of Kiev and a strong Methuselah in her prime, had seen many strange and wonderful things in the course of her long years. What she was looking at right now had to be one of the strangest things she'd ever seen in her entire life…and perhaps, one of the most beautiful.
Despite her outwardly tough exterior, she was not immune to romantic sentiment and it wasn't as if she'd never seen a courting couple before. Except that things just had to be different when it came to a certain bumbling silly bespectacled priest – who also happened to be her very dear friend
It was close to morning and while she was actually used to keeping very odd hours, she had woken up early, just like a Terran, for once. It was a good thing that the private train car Ion had rented had windows tinted against the sunlight. She had been passing by the smaller compartments and was startled to see that Sister Esther had apparently spent the night in one of them. The little redhead was comfortably ensconced on Abel Nightroad's lap, held quite securely in his arms. Her head was pillowed on his shoulder and she was fast asleep. Abel himself was sleeping as well, his cheek resting lightly against Esther's hair.
Now that in itself wasn't the odd thing and in fact, it was rather cute. The really strange part was that Abel had somehow shifted partially into his Crusnik form, dark wings folded protectively around Esther. Strange how peaceful he looked now, even with his rather aristocratic features sharpened and the barest hint of tiny white fangs peeking out from his closed mouth. Astharoshe had not known that her clumsy, well-meaning tovarishch concealed such a power and having seen him in battle for the first time, she had finally understood why he chose to hide that.
Night Lord. Astharoshe had learned that this was the true name of their Empress and her kin and looking at Abel now, she realized how truly the name fit them. He might deny it and choose to go about the world in the simple black cassock of a priest but Astharoshe knew that he was indeed a Prince among their kind.
She'd meant to leave the couple alone, really. Astharoshe was aware that Esther had been unable to sleep well since they had returned from Castle Alyardi and she well understood the horror of seeing the man one loved die before one's eyes. Astharoshe herself would bear the scars of her own memories forever, was reminded of it each time she looked in the mirror and saw the single lock of her hair that was still stark red against the white strands. Esther was only fortunate that Abel had not actually died but the horror of those two days would not be fading away from Esther's mind anytime soon.
Astharoshe was about to slip away when Abel's eyes opened. Instead of the frightening blood-red, the Crusnik's eyes were a glacial blue and they pinned Astharoshe with a lethal glare before they shifted back to normal and widened with recognition.
"Shhh, my lord Prince – we wouldn't want to wake your precious now, would we?" Astharoshe said, surprised that she'd somehow managed to find her wits. Abel truly did not know how terrifying and protective he looked in that moment.
Abel flushed, his features now softening, looking more recognizable as the gentle Terran priest she'd first met. "I wish you would stop calling me that – I'm not your Prince. I'm still really just a simple priest."
No, you're not, Astharoshe wanted to say but instead, she replied pertly, "But of course you are. How many Catholic priests have I seen who sport such lovely black wings?"
Abel twitched and of course, those wings comically twitched with him as well. "Oh. Good Lord. That's never happened before… just a moment." He closed his eyes briefly and the wings vanished immediately.
Esther chose that moment to mumble a sleepy protest as a source of warmth disappeared. Astharoshe choked in her laughter as the little nun's eyes flew open, saw the Methuselah noblewoman and turned into a lovely bright scarlet that rivaled the color of her hair.
"Lady Astha!" She tried to stand up, if only for propriety's sake but she found herself held back by Abel, who had wrapped a rather possessive arm over her waist. She opened her mouth to protest that, took a rather good look at her beloved's face and forbore to say anything more.
And yes, there was nothing mild-mannered in Abel's expression as of that moment.
"Oh, don't mind me, the two of you – I actually came to get some breakfast. You're both welcome to join me," said Astharoshe, managing to stop her laughter but quite unable to prevent her broad smile. It was just too amusing, honestly. She stepped back out into the narrow walkway, not wanting to intrude on them anymore but she hadn't gone farther than a few steps when her rather fine hearing allowed her to inadvertently eavesdrop on the couple's conversation.
"You could let me up, you know," Esther was apparently telling Abel.
"Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, I did, thank you, now I'd like to get up now, please?"
"No," Abel answered pleasantly.
Astharoshe could well imagine the look on Esther's face. "What if Ion and Father Tres walked in next?"
Once again, Astharoshe's very sharp ears allowed her to decipher Abel's mumbled, "I don't care" and she almost lost it at that point.
"Silly love." A soft sound followed that was most likely a kiss and then somebody sighed and Astharoshe began walking again, hearing Esther's light step. But then, she was startled by a loud crash and turned around to see Abel sprawled inelegantly across the walkway, right at Esther's feet.
"Abel!" Esther exclaimed.
"Eheheheh," Abel said, with a sheepish grin from his position on the floor. "I suppose my legs have fallen asleep."
Talk about redefining the phrase "head over heels!" Astharoshe couldn't help it anymore and burst out laughing.
This was getting to be ridiculous.
What made matters worse was that Abel was perfectly aware that he was no longer acting like a complete featherbrain, he was now well on his way to really becoming one. It wasn't as if he'd fallen in love so many times but he was a priest and he'd seen the phenomenon in other people and he was quite sure they weren't acting as crazy as he was.
First was that very fierce protectiveness he felt over Esther and Abel was suddenly quite sure that he'd probably managed to scare poor Astharoshe half to death when she walked in on them that morning. That was saying something, considering that Astharoshe Asran, the Tigress of Odessa, was one of the most formidable women he'd ever known.
He wasn't sure how he managed to shift into his Crusnik form while asleep but apparently he did because it wasn't as if he woke up everyday to find himself sporting fangs and black wings. Thank God he didn't manage to frighten Esther at least. When he'd been startled awake then, Abel had reacted on pure, gut-level instinct - he just knew he had someone very precious that he was looking after and the unknown presence who had wandered too close to them was classified immediately as a threat which the Crusnik would deal with accordingly.
And then, there was that irrational possessiveness as well, which had Abel wanting to snarl at any male who looked at Esther with a little too much interest. Thank God he'd managed to squelch those impulses very firmly. Well, most of the time. It was stupid and he knew it and he really didn't have any good reason for that kind of atrocious behavior. Abel was still a priest and he was used to self-examination and this wasn't just the typical insecurity one felt around one's love. He knew perfectly well he didn't deserve Esther, found himself trying to figure out what on earth did she even see in him and yet, despite all those self-doubts, he could still catch his breath at the sheer wonder at the notion that yes, indeed, she loved him very much. He already knew that he would never truly be able to deny her anything, even to let her go, if she ever chose…
No, that thought was unworthy of him. He knew Esther and she would probably hit his knuckles with a ruler if she ever found out what was going on in his head sometimes. Caterina was right; his little love did know her own mind very well and was more than likely to drag him back into that shack in the middle of nowhere by the hair if only to shake him into his senses.
It was simply enough to be aware that seeing her happy was the most important thing for him.
So this wasn't quite normal jealousy but Abel was almost afraid to find out exactly where these feelings were coming from…
"Abel? If you'd be so good as to join us for the meeting?" Caterina's voice, rich with irony and exasperation, forcibly brought him back to the present, which was in their private train car's main compartment. The amusement was quite clear on her face, even as a holographic projected image.
"Sorry, Miss Caterina," he apologized, tagging on the 'Miss' as he'd always done in company, a playful, gentle acknowledgement of the fact that his dear friend was his current boss as well.
Beside him, Esther rolled her eyes, "Honestly, Father Nightroad!"
Abel firmly stomped down on the impulse to tug her into his lap so he could nuzzle her. This really wasn't the time to be entertaining such improper thoughts!
They were all gathered to debrief about the incident in Drakovia to both Caterina and Seth, in a conference call on a secure communications line. As expected, his sister Seth was especially fascinated about this new information about their past, the fact that the apparently not-so-legendary Prince of Drakovia and the "Sorceress Child" were among those who provided the genetic material to create at least the three Nightlord siblings – Cain, Abel and Seth.
"Do you have any idea where we can start looking for Isabel?" Seth asked.
Abel shook his head. "All the werewolves could tell me was that Gavril had Isabel hidden away when Samael had broken from the pack. According to them, she has not yet awakened. There were at least four werewolves sent to guard her. No one could give us even an idea of what direction they set out in. Our best clue as of the moment is that portrait of her I found in the Castle – I've asked Tres to upload that image to Sister Kate so the rest of AX and Seth's own people can keep an eye out."
"The image has already been uploaded, Father Nightroad," Tres stated.
"Thank you, Father Tres."
"I'm sorry, Your Imperial Highness… but I must ask, do you believe that this Isabel could be dangerous, possibly even mad, as Samael was?" Caterina said delicately.
"Gavril did say Isabel wanted justice, not vengeance," Ion offered. "I get the impression that she may be angry not crazy."
"Can't say that I blame her," Astharoshe sniffed. "It's a wonder that we didn't actually end up facing her instead of Samael."
The Prince's memories of Isabel often showed a young girl about Seth's age, with a personality much like hers – merry, mischievous, warm-hearted and just a bit fey. There was the singing, of course – Abel could not forget the voice he heard back in Castle Alyardi, who sang with all the heartbreak and sorrow in the world.
"She was a Singer of Songs, a Teller of Tales," Abel murmured, not quite sure if he was expressing his thoughts or the Prince's. "She spun spells with her voice and yes, she can be dangerous… but she is not as lost as Samael is. But she mourns the ones she lost – the Prince and the Princess. They were not just her friends but her family."
He blinked as he found everyone staring at him. "Eh?!"
"While my brother comes back to planet Earth," Seth said, changing the subject. "Cardinal Caterina, might he be excused from his duties for awhile? Take a little vacation so he can visit his dear little sister?"
"Define 'awhile,' " Caterina answered, blue eyes beginning to twinkle with merriment.
"Just long enough so that my 'children' get used to having an 'uncle' around, as well as a 'mother,' " Seth said cheerfully. "I do have an idea that won't let him be compromised between the Empire and the Vatican."
"Uncle?!" Ion choked.
Astharoshe was holding her head in her hands. "With all due respect, Your Imperial Majesty, that mental image is just a bit…weird."
"You're not the only one having problems with that," Abel said, his eyes narrowing at his sister. "Brat – you and I are going to have a very long talk about this."
"Why, brother dearest," Seth said, batting her big green eyes innocently. "I'm going to look forward to that. How'd you like your new name? Isn't it neat?"
"Artorius Elric Vradica?! What on God's green earth were you thinking?!"
"It is a neat name," Esther mused.
"Esther!" Abel protested. "I thought you were on my side!"
"Ahem," Caterina said, clearing her throat theatrically. "Yes, Father Nightroad, you are allowed to go on a 'vacation leave' to visit your family and I shall also approve the same for Sister Esther and Father Tres. I trust that you will all enjoy yourselves."
"Yes, Lady Caterina, we'll keep Father Nightroad out of trouble," Esther answered cheerfully.
"Positive," Tres intoned.
"Hey!" Abel yelped.
"Then it's settled," Seth said happily. "I'll be seeing you all in the capital. Later!"
Caterina also made her farewells and signed off.
Abel groaned. "Why do I get the feeling that I'm doomed?"
Astharoshe patted him consolingly on the back. "Tovarishch, I thought you already figured that one out long ago."
The arrival of visitors to the New Human Empire wasn't unusual, although the presence of two priests and a nun from the Vatican most certainly was. The priests and nuns of the Roman Catholic Church were not always welcome in the Empire. But then, the Empress' subjects – both Methuselah and Terran – were aware that their Empress was now willing to extend diplomatic relations with Rome. For the most part, the common people were rather glad this meant the aversion of yet another destructive, possibly apocalyptic war between Terrans and Methuselahs. The presence of those who could vividly remember that time, even though it had been about 900 years since then, rather helped to keep the memories alive.
The sight of a young girl – one of the tea sellers in the marketplace – animatedly talking to a rather tall, blonde priest wasn't all that unusual either. What was unusual was their conversation and perhaps if the Empress' subjects could hear what they were talking about, they might have been enlightened on the latest mystery that had spread like wildfire throughout the Empire. And that was the identity of the Empress' previously unknown and unmentioned older brother.
"I picked the name Artorius out from the King Arthur in the stories and I got the name Elric from this really cool fantasy series. He had white hair just like you and the same black sword, which is way cooler than that scary scythe you insist on carrying around."
Abel sighed and pushed his spectacles up over the bridge of his nose. "Would you believe the sword is a family heirloom?"
"Is it vampiric?" Seth rolled her eyes at Astharoshe and Ion who both winced at hearing that word. "Don't be silly, you two. Well, big brother?"
"No, the black sword is not vampiric – what are you reading, brat?!"
"My reading is perfectly educational!" Seth gave him an arch look. "Be thankful I didn't decide to name you Aragorn…"
Abel facepalmed. "Oh dear God in Heaven…"
"Are they always like this?" Ion stage-whispered to Esther.
"She's your Empress – how would I know?" Esther retorted.
"Hey, he's your boyfriend – you should know as much as I do!"
Seth stopped short. "Boyfriend?!"
Tres was the one who confirmed that, the traitor. "Positive."
"You know," Astharoshe mused. "The words 'boyfriend' and 'Abel Nightroad' don't quite belong in the same sentence."
"Okay, so should Father Nightroad be referred to as the love of Esther's life? The light of her existence? Her Significant Other?" Ion was apparently enjoying himself.
Seth was looking from Abel to Esther and back again, completely flabbergasted. "Boyfriend?!"
"It's not my fault," Esther told her…er… 'significant other.' "I didn't steal your ribbon this time!"
Abel was feeling mischievous now and so he just smiled at her and answered, putting a special emphasis on the endearment: "I know, love."
Seth flailed. "Love?!"
Astharoshe shook her head. "You're a wicked man, tovarishch, teasing your poor little sister like that. And you a priest!"
"I'm still her older brother – I'm allowed to! It's in the rules!" Abel said defensively.
"I detect no such rules for sibling relationships, Father Nightroad," Tres stated.
"I'll explain that to you later, Father Tres."
Esther was startled when she found Seth suddenly standing in front of her, looking up at her carefully. "Um. Seth-chan?"
And then Seth suddenly beamed and threw her arms around Esther in a warm hug. She whispered something in Esther's ear that made her blush and then proceeded to walk ahead of the group, not quite dragging Esther along by the hand.
"Hey!" Abel protested, striding after them.
"Go away, big brother – this is serious girl talk. Shoo!" Seth said airily.
Listen. Here is another story.
The last Tsar of all the Russias was a good man, a kind, gentle soul who loved his Tsaritsa, their four little Grand Duchesses and their little Tsarevich. They lived in a fairyland full of enchantment and wonder and there was much joy and love in their lives.
But their happiness was bought at the suffering of the common people of Russia and it was said that their tiny fairytale kingdom slumbered peacefully on the edge of a great abyss.
But the Tsar's son and only heir was gravely ill and all the physicians had fruitlessly labored to bring the boy back his health. In desperation, the young Tsarevich's parents turned to a holy man, who miraculously brought healing to the boy.
But the holy man was not all he seemed and his very name meant degenerate and dissolute.
But the Tsar failed to govern his vast empire as he should and wicked and unscrupulous men had his ear and all of Russia cried out for justice.
And so Imperial Russia was shattered and remade anew and those men who came to power imprisoned the Tsar and his family.
And then, one day, they were brought to a little room and they were executed - riddled with bullets and bayonet wounds – the Tsar, the Tsarina, the four Grand Duchesses and the little Tsarevich.
All of them died on that day, except one.
Her name was Tatiana Nicolaievna Romanov, the Grand Duchess of Russia.
She was, in fact, the very picture of a royal princess – tall, elegant, with rich dark hair and deep gray eyes set in fine, aristocratic features. The portrait that Seth showed them was very old, showing her dressed in a long, elegant white gown with a diamond tiara on her head. In fact, the name and the title that this particular Methuselan noblewoman claimed rightfully belonged to a woman who had died in the early 20th century, the second daughter of the last Russian Tsar.
The Tsar and his family were killed by the Bolsheviks when the Russian empire fell and was taken over by the communist regime but even during those times, the legend persisted that one of the Tsar's family lived and that person was popularly believed to have been Anastasia, the youngest daughter.
Apparently, this was not the case at all.
The Grand Duchess Tatiana Romanov was one of the oldest and most powerful Methuselahs in Seth's empire. Indeed, she was not even supposed to be a Methuselah in the way Ion, Astharoshe and most of other Seth's nobles were. She was, in fact, a vampire in the classic sense – who had never been one of the Mars Returners infected by the alien Martian bacillus and had somehow made the transition from ordinary human to vampire all those centuries ago.
There were indeed Methuselahs who made that claim – most people thought them mad or deluded. But for the Grand Duchess Tatiana Romanov, no one quite dared to openly make that statement about her.
In any case, she had, for the most part, been content to rebuild and rule Russia after the Armaggedon. Her vows to Seth as Empress were simply of loyalty and friendship, rather than that of fealty and service. But she was not kindly inclined towards the Roman Catholic Church, especially in its emergence as a major military power and the stand of its more conservative leaders against vampires/Methuselahs. Indeed, she had become the leading figure for those who were not happy with Seth's decision to open diplomatic relations and make peace with Rome.
They were having this discussion in one of Seth's council chambers, rather in the grand throne room and aside from the recently arrived party from Drakovia, the only others present were Ion's grandmother – Mirka Fortuna, the Duchess of Moldova and Head of the Imperial Secret Council and Baybars, the Duke of Khartoum and chief of the Imperial Palace Guard. The Duchess of Moldova looked very much like her grandson – a blonde beauty whose regal demeanor had fooled most of the Empire into believing that she was the Empress. She had greeted the group from Rome quite warmly and had sketched a graceful curtsy for Abel's sake, blue eyes sparkling with mischief at his flustered reaction. The Duke of Khartoum had held himself a bit aloof, however, dark eyes skeptically skimming over Abel in his guise as a harmless priest.
"Do you honestly suspect the Grand Duchess of planning treason?" Astharoshe said bluntly. She truly had no patience with diplomatic folderol and intrigue and the recent assassination plot against Seth, led by a man she had highly respected, had left its own bad memories.
"I am not sure, Astharoshe," Seth sighed, folding her hands on the table. "Tatiana is older and more powerful than most of you think. But I've believed her to be a trusted ally for all these centuries – I really hope she hasn't turned against us. She's also one of the few people who actually know what I really look like."
"You are our Empress – we trust that you make all of your decisions in our best interests," said Ion loyally.
Seth smiled at him and there was a touch of sadness in her usually cheerful, little-girl face. "Thank you, Ion. It would be ever so much easier to just sell tea to people in the market, hmm?"
"Just as it would be easy to be a simple priest in a small parish, little sister," Abel told her gently and startled Seth by reaching out and tousling her short black hair, which somewhat scandalized Baybars and Ion and made Astharoshe and Mirka laugh.
Seth giggled at the unusual show of open affection and the understanding smile on her older brother's face. Abel had always been like this with her, even when everyone else had only seen the sullen, angry, quick-tempered teenager who was so unlike his charming and charismatic twin.
Cain had never been "big brother" for her – it had always been Abel.
"Well, that's why I need your help," Seth answered him. "We're going to have to get all dressed up and go to a party."
"Our Empress' birthday is coming up soon and the Grand Duchess has invited her to make that celebration in St. Petersburg, Russia. In fact, it's going to be a grand ball held in the Catherine Palace in the royal village of Tsarskoe Selo," Mirka Fortuna explained. "It's also supposed to be our Prince's formal introduction to the court. We're still going to hold a presentation here in the capital first but you will be introduced and meet everyone during that ball."
"Oh my," Esther gasped.
"So, you're going to have to get all dressed-up and look handsome and play Prince Charming for us!" Seth said gaily, clapping her hands.
Abel sputtered. "Prince Charming?!"
"This may yet well be the most difficult mission you have ever faced, Father Nightroad," Tres stated. An android wasn't supposed to have a dry sense of humor – apparently, Tres Iquus was the exception. Or maybe it was just because he'd been around Abel for far too long.
"That ball is also going to be a good opportunity to set up a major coup, yet another assassination plot or both," growled Baybars.
"So you are going to help out your little sister, aren't you, big brother Abel? Please please pretty please?" Seth was looking at Abel with big, imploring green eyes.
Abel glared at her over the rims of his glasses. "That look hasn't worked for you since you were four, brat."
"But you love me anyway and you are going to help me out, right?"
"Well, of course I am so if you could tell your poor older brother exactly what you're planning he would greatly appreciate it," Abel said dryly. "I am still a Roman Catholic priest and I assume you're not going to be announcing that to your court anytime soon?"
Baybars, the Duke of Khartoum chuckled, finally showing signs of a sense of humor in all this. "Now THAT would set the cat amongst the pigeons!"
Ion snorted. "The mind boggles – I can just see the look on some of their faces, especially the outright conservatives…"
Seth stood up and walked over to Abel. "The plan is simple, really." She patted Abel's shoulder. "Most people know my dear brother here as sweet, silly Father Abel Nightroad, yes?"
"The Lady Caterina would add the word 'featherbrain' to that description," Father Tres said blandly.
"Hey!" Abel yelped.
Esther giggled. "Father Tres! You really shouldn't tease poor Father Abel like that."
"I was not teasing, I was merely stating the truth."
"Tres, I'm going to drag you in for a systems check with the Professor as soon as we get back to Rome," Abel threatened him.
The android merely inclined his head. "Acceptable."
Seth rolled her eyes. "Are you two done with the comedy act here? I was about to explain The Plan…"
"I assume this plan involves me in some sort of disguise?" Abel asked.
Seth gave him a mischievous grin that sent chills running down his spine. "You know what they say – the best disguise is often the simplest one, especially when you've got a lot of acting ability…"
This time, she was the one who stole Abel's hair ribbon.
The nobles of the New Human Empire were rather pleasantly surprised when His Imperial Highness, Prince Artorius Elric Vradica was formally presented to all of them in the grand auditorium by the Empress herself in an elaborate ceremony fitting to his station. Few could comment on any familial resemblance as the Empress normally went about veiled but from what they could see, he was tall and blonde, like their Empress was, only that his hair tended to silvery platinum rather than golden.
He did speak for a few moments, his voice soft and yet commanding and his words were carefully chosen, concise and gratifyingly to the point. The story was put about that he had been lost during the last great war – the Armageddon, in fact and had gone into a centuries-long healing sleep because of the wounds and damage that he suffered. This alone spoke of his great age and the power he wielded, as the Methuselahs were well aware that their Empress was older and far more powerful than the rest of them were. She was eternal and it seemed so was their new Prince.
The ladies of the court took note of those fine, aristocratic features, the icy blue eyes, the innate grace of his movements and were all in agreement on how very dashing he was. Beautiful, even and the mystery surrounding him made them all the more interested. The game of marrying for political and economic gain was an old one and every single aristocratic woman readied their lures for the Empire's most eligible bachelor.
As they walked back to the Throne Room, Mirka Fortuna, Duchess of Moldova, in her disguise as Empress, could not help but wonder about her Lady's brother. Acting ability was a skill she had honed to perfection as the Head of the Imperial Secret Council and occasional decoy for Seth. She could not help but respect that talent in a man who was in a similar position as she was.
There was little trace of the gentle, scatterbrained Terran priest in the man who walked beside her now. Out of that cassock, dressed in the fine robes expected from an Imperial prince, standing straight and tall instead of his usual slouch, with his hair loose and without those ridiculous round-rimmed glasses hiding his eyes, Abel Nightroad – or perhaps it would be more fitting to call him Abel Nightlord at this moment – cut a far more regal figure, radiating power and quiet confidence.
He was indeed very much like his sister.
"Why is it that you do not choose to rule by her side?" Mirka found herself asking.
Abel gave her a faint, ironic smile. "The Founder teaches us that whoever wishes to lead is the one who must be the servant of all."
"And so you serve in an institution that is not exactly known for its love of Methuselahs?" Mirka challenged.
Abel laughed briefly but there were undercurrents of irony in that sound. "No one ever said the Church was perfect. It's a human institution – human and fallible as we all are."
Again, that little wry smile curved his lips. "Terrans, Methuselahs… even Crusniks, we're all just human. It wasn't an easy lesson for me to learn – I was a very stubborn student. But then, I had a good teacher." The icy blue eyes clouded over just for a few moments and Mirka could tell that Abel was briefly lost in some memory.
But then, he spoke again: "People fear what's different from them, what they don't understand. The Church has never been immune to that. But not everyone there thinks that way, just as not all Methuselahs are bloodthirsty monsters, hmm?"
He looked directly at her then and Mirka Fortuna, who was a Methuselah with many centuries of power and experience behind her, found it hard to meet those remarkable eyes – haunted, ancient and filled with sorrow.
So very much like and unlike his sister.
Mirka dropped her gaze. "I am glad that you have returned to us then, my lord Prince."
The denial was automatic. "I am a simple priest, Mirka Fortuna. I am not your Prince."
Mirka found herself smiling. "Do not deny who you are, Abel Nightlord. Priest or no, you are indeed our Prince and I am proud to serve you."
And with that, she gracefully sank into her best throne room curtsy, giving him the honor and respect she felt he richly deserved.
Despite her cares and the weight of running an Empire on her slender shoulders, Seth Nightlord – Empress Augusta Vradica, was definitely enjoying herself.
She had missed Abel terribly during all those long centuries they had been separated but he had been inconsolable, almost mad with grief when Cain had murdered Lilith. Perhaps they were all a little mad at that point, especially in light of what they had done to Cain.
For her part, she felt not the slightest twinge of regret for Cain's fate – the bastard deserved worse than being dropped from space to burn in the Earth's atmosphere. He had betrayed them all when he had turned on one of their own.
Seth had never liked Cain.
She had taken to Abel from the very beginning, even when everyone else had gone in fear of him and his hair-trigger temper. He was too tall for his age, too fast, too agile, too strong even for the other boys in the Martian colony. They named him monster and freak just as they'd done for the other "experimental test subjects" because Lilith Sahl and the three Nightlord siblings, Cain, Abel & Seth, all had no parents. They were born and bred in a sterile laboratory for beauty, intelligence, strength, stamina and longevity, in short, to be the ultimate humans.
It was Abel who had dried her tears when Seth herself was bullied by other children, patiently answered her questions, tousled her hair, hugged her, carried her on his shoulders and sung her lullabies in that gloriously beautiful voice of his that so few people ever heard. In those days, Abel, who seemed to wear a perpetual scowl on his face, would only ever smile and laugh when he was with Seth or Lilith. Sometimes, Seth found herself wishing that the rest could see this side of her brother, who everyone else branded as a troublemaker, unlike Perfect Precious Cain.
She could never figure out why it was that everyone else, except for Lilith perhaps, had never seen the falseness in Cain's smile or the emptiness in his eyes.
According to Mirka Fortuna, Abel had been perfect during that elaborate presentation ceremony. The court was now even more abuzz about their new Prince. Pity that Abel wasn't the least bit interested in ruling the Empire; if he only knew how well he could charm and beguile and finally lead that entire jaded and ambitious lot...
Right now, Abel was only too happy to shed "regal" trappings and return to his simple priest's cassock. Seth had been watching when Abel had entered her private gardens with Esther, putting on his glasses and trying to get his hair ribbon back from the little redheaded nun. Esther had laughed and danced nimbly away from his reach, teasing him.
Seth smiled as she remembered what she had whispered to Esther.
I liked you already before. But now, you've made my brother very happy, so I like you even more now. Thank you, Esther.
It was true – there were no traces of that old sadness in Abel's eyes as he playfully chased Esther around the gardens. Seth would forever be indebted to the little nun for that alone. Abel had lived with his regret and self-loathing for far too long…
It was then that Seth saw Ion step into the gardens, only to stop short when he saw the couple. The young Methuselah could not quite hide the sadness and wistfulness in his eyes.
Oh dear. Seth had forgotten about Ion's feelings for Esther. He looked so forlorn and unlike his usual bratty, arrogant self that Seth had to firmly squelch the impulse to bounce over and mess with that lovely blonde hair or hug him or tease him or something equally as silly.
To their credit, Abel and Esther had both stopped as soon as they saw Ion. Esther had simply handed Abel's ribbon back and ran over to greet her friend. While Abel busied himself by tying his hair back up in its usual ponytail, Seth decided it was time to join in the fun and sidled up to her brother.
"You do realize that you'll have to dance at this ball, right?" Seth told Abel sweetly.
Blue eyes blinked owlishly at her from behind spectacles that he didn't really need. "Dance?"
Oh it was ever so much fun to fluster him like this. Seth knew perfectly well that Abel had never learned how to dance – not that there was much call for that sort of thing with the life they had led way back when – but despite his show of clumsiness, she knew perfectly well her brother could manage.
So she gave him her best darling little girl look. "Yes, big brother – dance. You know, moving your body in a pleasing manner to the rhythm of music? That kind of thing?"
Abel flailed. "Eh?! I can't dance! I don't even know how!"
Time to go in for the kill. "That's why Ion is going to teach you."
"ME?!" Ion sputtered. Oh, that appalled look on his face was just absolutely precious.
"Consider it an Imperial command, Ion, dear," Seth said airily.
Ion sweatdropped. "Can I just pick being thrown into the dungeons for disobedience instead? He's a hopeless klutz!"
"I resemble that remark!" Abel said in mock-outrage.
"As if!" Seth snorted. "You just like playing the clumsy goof too much."
"It's fun!" Abel said defensively. "You like playing the sweet little girl too much as well!"
"It runs in the family?"
"Absolutely." And then, Abel swooped down, picked her up and tickled her as he hadn't done since they were children. And he knew all her weak spots all too well.
"I should be making some sort of protest about protecting the dignity of my Empress, right?" Ion wryly observed to Esther.
"You should but it's really not a good idea to get involved in a family squabble," Esther pointed out.
"Traitor!" Seth squealed. Abel put her down with a smirk and she stuck out her tongue at him.
Revenge would come later, Seth swore.
"Well, I don't know how to dance either," Esther now put in, dark blue eyes wide and sweetly appealing. "Will you teach me too, Ion?"
Ion fell like a ton of bricks.
Seth had to take her hat off to Esther's near-diabolical cleverness. That sweet little innocent redheaded nun could probably look into an alternate career in politics…
Abel was muttering, "And ye shall be as wise as a serpent, yet prudent as a dove." He promptly yelped when Esther tugged at his long ponytail.
"Silly love," she purred, ominous sparks in those deep blue eyes. "Behave yourself."
Listen. This is another story.
Four Great Wolves left the land of Dragons' Lair and in their care was a sleeping child. They were told to take her to a place somewhere that was safe and far away. Their alpha had a vision – a true dream and told them to find a dark angel and a bright star and that they should give the child into the keeping of these two. Then, the Great Wolves would know their quest was done.
But the way was long and perilous and danger dogged their heels. These Wolves were great warriors but even they would fall to those who were of evil intent, if they were strong and powerful enough.
One by one, the Wolves fell, defending the Child, whose tranquil sleep, brought about by great grief and sorrow, was disturbed by dreams of darkness and danger.
She awoke, only to find herself surrounded by death once more and her sorrow and rage knew no bounds.
She awoke and found there was at least one life that she could yet save, one that she would not fail.
It was a brief awakening but in the end, that one Wolf remained.
To find the dark angel, to find the bright star, to give the Child into their keeping.
And then, his quest would be done.
"On the occasion of her birthday, Her Imperial Majesty Augusta Vradica will be making a royal progress by train from her capital of Byzantium to St. Petersburg, Russia, where she will be the honored guest of her dear friend and ally the Grand Duchess Tatiana Nicolaievna Romanov.
With the Empress shall go her beloved brother, His Imperial Highness Prince Artorius Elric Vradica, where he shall also be introduced to the royal court at the Duchess' Grand Ball."
At least, that was how the newsfeeds had so pompously put it as it was proclaimed all over the Empire. Video clips of Abel at the initial presentation ceremony were being shown as well and it was probably a testament to Abel's acting ability that nobody recognized the tall blonde priest who was seen boarding the Imperial train with yet another priest and a redheaded nun. Everyone of course thought that the Vatican had sent their own representatives to the event, a sure sign of the good relations continuing between Byzantium and Rome.
There were perfectly good reasons for Seth to have chosen to travel to St. Petersburg by airship but the incorrigible younger Crusnik had never been afraid of adventure. Plus, it was a way for her to keep her tiny fingers on the living pulse of her vast Empire and how her people felt about the recent events. It was as easy to do that by train, with its frequent stopovers for supplies and such, as it was to run around the marketplaces of Byzantium disguised as a little tea seller.
It was most unconventional, but it was a good way to get things done and Esther couldn't help but applaud the little Empress' style.
The Imperial train had made a stopover in Esther's old home city of Istvan, one of the many it would take during this journey. The train would be there for the next three hours so she had taken the opportunity to buy some necessities and then, perhaps indulging an either morbid impulse or nostalgia, she found herself retracing her steps to what was her childhood home.
Not that Esther actually expected to find anything there; the Marquis' men had done too good a job at destroying the place. But it was here that her old life had ended and her new one began and who knew it would lead to her falling in love with a Certain Silly Featherbrain?
Poor Abel was certainly having a difficult time with this whole prince-in-disguise business although it was giving her revealing glimpses into facets of his personality that he normally kept hidden away or never had an opportunity to show. Abel's occasional fits of brooding, she now learned, was no accident. He did tend to be moody and it was made even worse by the fact that whenever he appeared as the Prince, he had to be this aloof, even forbidding figure at times. It was strange how simply seeing him in this other guise, more than the rare times she'd seen him shift into Crusnik form, that Esther was reminded that Abel Nightroad was not an ordinary man. As the Prince, Esther could now clearly see his kinship to the other Methuselahs, that he was both like and unlike them, in his grace (God forbid that the Prince act like a clumsy fool and trip over his own feet), his unusual height – more evident now that he wasn't slouched in his normal fashion, his unnatural speed and the quickness of his reflexes, his near-inhuman strength and the sharpness of his physical senses.
Esther sometimes found herself wondering guiltily exactly what it was did Abel see in her? It wasn't as if she had some hidden power, was some sort of an intellectual or scientific genius, inhumanly strong or was heartbreakingly beautiful or regal like the Grand Duchess Tatiana, or was anything special other than just being Sister Esther Blanchett of the Roman Catholic Church, a junior member of the AX's Enforcers.
And then, the possibility of Abel pretending to consider a dynastic marriage with the Grand Duchess had been raised while they were on their journey, if only as a tactical measure. For once, Abel had not been flustered but had been all business about the matter as he and Seth and the others discussed it, even as his hand had quietly crept under the table to find hers and squeeze it briefly in reassurance.
Esther knew that Abel believed himself unworthy of her but she knew that the opposite was true – what could she offer him, really, in return?
You made my brother so happy… Seth's voice whispered in her mind.
Esther had been so lost in thought that she had not at first consciously registered those panicked screams. Then, her combat-trained instincts had kicked in and Esther hiked up her skirts and took off towards the sound, readying her gun as she did so. The shrill quality of those screams told her that this was most likely a very young child and what on earth could such a one be doing in a now-forsaken place such as this burned-down church?
And then, it was finally proved to Esther the fact that Father Abel Nightroad was right – God did have a very wicked sense of humor.
Consider the predicament that she now found herself in – in the ruins of the church that was once her home, surrounded by rogue Methuselahs, trying to protect one tiny child and her dying or dead father.
Esther found the little girl kneeling in the area where the altar had used to be. The bloodied and broken body of a man was sprawled in front of her and the child's hands were fisted in his shirt. The child was already crying in short, harsh gasps now, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably – a pitiful sight indeed.
Not that it moved the hearts of the half-dozen or so Methuselahs surrounding the two of them. The rogues were clad in leather and spikes, hair ratted up or standing up in stiff points in impossible colors, teeth filed to razor sharpness and claws extended, obviously reveling in the whole "punk vampire" image.
Esther knew she was outnumbered and she spoke softly into her own communicator to get help – hopefully Abel or Tres could get to her as backup and soon. In the meantime, what she had to do was hold the fort somehow until the proverbial cavalry got there.
Esther took aim with her gun and spoke clearly: "In the name of His Holiness, the Pope, you are all under arrest on the charges of murder and attempted murder. Surrender now."
Naturally, they took one look at her tiny, fragile, ordinary Terran self and laughed. Never mind, she was used to that. In any case, the first one to charge her fell with a gaping hold in his chest.
So did the next one.
And the third.
The fourth got it first in the head and then the chest.
These fellows were just a tad slow on the uptake, weren't they?
And then, more of them appeared and a fellow with a single red spike of hair snarled and opened his mouth to speak incomprehensible gibberish.
Bright, red-violet lightning streaked across the ground, racing towards her. Esther dove out of the way, praying to God and all his angels and saints that she could still hold on just long enough…
There was the rustling of black wings.
A blaze of blue lightning.
Red Spike dissolved in a pile of ash.
Abel had such impeccably perfect timing.
Her Crusnik was most unhappy with the rogue Methuselahs and came down on them like the wrath of God. Esther didn't have time to just gawk there – she ran for the child – the father was clearly beyond help now and she sent a quick mental prayer heavenwards for his soul. All she could do was to scoop up the tiny trembling body in her arms and get to safety.
"Don't look," she whispered to the little girl, pressing the small dark head into the crook of her neck, not wanting her to see the carnage. It was bad enough that the poor thing would probably have nightmares about this for a long time to come without having to add seeing Abel in his Crusnik form shredding vampires into pieces into the mix.
But the child had miraculously stopped crying and had not hidden away. Instead, she was watching the scene before her with wide, wondering light blue eyes. She was so tiny; she couldn't have been more than four years old or perhaps even younger.
"Don't look, sweetheart," Esther crooned. "It's all right, you're safe now."
The child turned her gaze to Esther. "Mikhail gone."
"Mikhail" was probably the dead man. "Yes, I'm sorry. He's gone up to Heaven now. Was he your father?"
The child did not answer. Instead, she considered Esther carefully and then, gently patted her cheek and said, "Star."
How strange. That was, in fact, the meaning of her name. Esther – Hebrew for "star" and for the brave Jewish queen in the Old Testament. And of course, there was that odd star-shaped birthmark on her body, the one that made the Reverend Mother call Esther special…
With a last flash from that enormous blood-red scythe, Abel had finished off the rogues. It seemed that Esther had only blinked for the briefest moment and Abel had shifted back to normal now, running up to them. How he managed to find his glasses and have the time to tie his hair back up was a mystery even to Esther.
"Are you two all right?"
The child's eyes welled up with tears again. "Mikhail gone."
Abel's eyes were gentle, even as he briefly stroked her hair. "I'm sorry, little one."
Esther shook her head meaningfully at him as he knelt to see to the man. Abel's lips moved in a silent recitation for the prayers for the dead and his hands sketched a graceful sign of the cross as a final blessing.
"I've asked Sister Kate to call in the police," Abel told her afterwards. The child had cried again and they had stepped back out into the street, not wanting to upset the little girl any more. She'd finally tucked her head into the crook of Esther's neck and Abel was rubbing the child's back soothingly. "We had better get you two seen to."
"I'm fine," Esther told him. "She doesn't seem to be hurt but we'll have her checked out anyway. How did you get here so quickly?"
Abel looked bemused. "I was actually on my way to find you; the train is leaving soon. But something was already leading me to the church when you called. Divine Providence, I suppose – thank you, O Lord."
"Amen to that," Esther answered fervently. She turned her gaze on her young charge, who had finally calmed down and was peeking up at Abel.
And then, she pointed at him and said questioningly, "Angel?"
Predictably, Abel stopped short and his eyes went comically round. "Eh?!"
Esther repressed a giggle. Instead, she smiled and said, "He's Father Abel Nightroad; I'm Sister Esther Blanchett. What's your name?"
"Bell," the child answered. She raised her head and looked in Abel's direction again and giggled. "Father Angel!"
Abel sweatdropped and Esther finally had to laugh softly at the look on his face. "It looks like she's made up her mind about you."
"It's just a miracle she's not frightened of me at all – she did see everything, didn't she?"
"Funny Father Angel," Bell crowed.
"He is, isn't he?" Esther told the child.
"Oh, haha, very amusing, love," Abel said wryly, even as he raised his hand to gently stroke Esther's cheek. "I pity those poor sods who tried to get between you and this little one – they didn't stand a chance."
The praise was genuine and the pride in his voice for her was unmistakable and had no hint of condescension in it. Esther found herself blushing.
"You still have the best sense of timing ever," she parried. "My hero – no, our hero. Right, Bell?"
The little girl nodded emphatically. "Father Angel. Ours."
The look on Abel's face was priceless.
Well, that settled that.
The cloak-and-dagger business they were currently engaged in was no place for a child.
In the end, they didn't have any other choice.
They had no idea why those rogue Methuselahs, known to be a pack of hired thugs, would be after the little girl and the man identified only as "Mikhail." There were no records found anywhere on the man as well as the child. That in itself was not much of a surprise as the Armageddon had destroyed many archival records and there were just as many people, if not more, who wandered all over Europe without proper paperwork, not belonging to any one country. The rogue Methuselahs were also known for thievery and extortion so perhaps Mikhail and Bell had simply been unfortunate enough to cross their paths.
In any case, Esther had been the one to put her foot down when the authorities tried to take the child with them to an orphanage. The little girl had formed an unusually strong and immediate attachment to Esther and Abel, perhaps because they had been the ones to rescue her and she was truly too young to understand what was going on. She'd cried and screamed when the well-meaning officials – strangers in the child's eyes – had tried to take her away. Esther had been the one to soothe the child and the officials were immediately sent away by Astharoshe and Tres.
"Don't wanna go 'way," Bell had sobbed into Esther's shoulder. "Wanna stay with you."
Honestly, Esther had tried. "They will take you to a good place – the people there will be kind to you and there will be children there who you can play with."
"Not safe," Bell had answered. "Monsters will come and get me. M'safe with you and Father Angel!"
"The monsters are all gone, you know," Abel had told her, sitting down next to Esther and Bell, who was being held on her lap. "We sent them away – they won't be coming back."
"No," Bell insisted. "They always come back. There's always more of them."
Abel blinked. This didn't sound like a simple childish fear – it seemed that the little girl was speaking from experience. Surely she couldn't be – she was much too young! And there was nothing in those light blue eyes but plain simple fear and terror…
"Did the monsters keep coming for you and Mikhail?" Abel asked her carefully, trying to search for signs, anything to confirm his suspicions.
The child nodded emphatically, utterly without guile. "They were scary! You'll keep them away, won't you, Father Angel?"
"He most definitely will," Esther assured her. She cuddled the child close and shook her head at Abel. "I think we'd better take her with us."
"Yes," Abel answered, knowing somehow that whether or not Bell was possibly who he thought she was didn't matter right now – the important thing was that it felt right that she come with them. "In any case, she's now a ward of the Church."
"I'll take care of her," Esther promised. She managed to form an impish grin. "Just keep us safe from the bad scary monsters, okay, Father Angel?"
Abel snorted but nodded in affirmation and gently tousled Bell's hair when she turned her teary gaze to him. He was rewarded by an exuberant hug from the child.
"If it helps any, she can also be made an Imperial ward," Seth said, coming up to them. She was holding something behind her back. "I asked Ion to get our new little guest a present so she can feel welcome here."
Naturally, that got Bell interested, like any sensible four year old would. "Present?"
"Yep," Seth beamed. She held out a stuffed toy turtle – an adorable little fellow with a soft cream-colored plush body, an affable grin and a tuft of white-blonde hairs on his head. Bell received the toy with a squeal of delight, tears all gone.
"So what are you going to name him, kitten?" Astharoshe asked Bell.
Bell looked at her new friend thoughtfully. And then, she looked up at Abel. She smiled. "Abelcrombie!"
Abel sweatdropped. "Eh?!"
"Looks like Father Angel, with the hair, see? Smiles the same too," Bell explained. "And his hair sticks up just like Father Angel's when he gets mad at the monsters!" She demonstrated, with a comically intent look of concentration on her elfin features, pulling at the soft hairs on her new friend's head.
Seth, Astharoshe and Esther burst out laughing at the nonplussed look on Abel's face.
Even Tres managed to look amused. "Perhaps we should consider Abelcrombie a Crusnik turtle then?"
"A Crusnik turtle?!" Astharoshe howled. "Good going, tovarishch!"
Seth was wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. "It's Crusnik 02 and a half!" Oh, revenge was sweet indeed – Abel owed her for that tickling incident.
Abel was clearly boggled out of his mind. "Crusnik 02…and a half?!"
"He shall smite his enemies with cuteness!" Esther giggled.
"Smite! Smite!" Bell crowed and squealed with glee when Abel took the turtle from her and made suitable "smiting" movements with it.
"I'm not going to live this down any time soon, aren't I?" He remarked ruefully.
"Are you serious? You won't be living this down for years to come! Centuries, even!" Seth chortled.
"I was afraid of that."
Esther's first sighting of St. Petersburg made her think of a city of ice, glittering, diamond-hard and coldly beautiful.
The city which had been intended by the Tsar known as Peter the Great to be the "Vienna of the North" had been almost completely destroyed during the Armaggedon. But when Grand Duchess Tatiana Nicolaievna Romanov had reclaimed her birthright, she had the city rebuilt brick by brick, stone by stone and bridge by bridge, intending that it would be even more magnificent that it had originally been. And so each building was an architectural masterpiece, every tower and spire glittered in the winter sunlight and the soft dusting of snow that now lay across everything in the city only served to enhance its beauty.
Once again, St. Petersburg became the capital of Romanov rule, the center of everything that was advanced and new, modern, rich and luxurious in all of Russia.
The Imperial party was brought to the great Winter Palace, greeted by rows of Chevaliers Gardes in their white uniforms and eagle-crested helmets and Cossack Life Guards in their scarlet tunics standing at attention. Ahead of them walked the Duchess of Moldova in her guise as Empress, followed by Abel as Prince and beside him walked Seth, who appeared simply as a maid of honor. Astharoshe as the Duchess of Kiev in her own right and Ion as the Count of Moldova had their own places in the procession while Father Tres and Esther, carrying Bell, simply followed at a distance as they were "honored Imperial guests."
Astharoshe had already briefed them that the Russians were rather fond of ceremony, which had made Seth roll her eyes heavenwards and Abel sigh because he was in effect, going to be part of all that "fuss," as he put it.
In her arms, Bell shivered. "It's cold. Abelcrombie's cold too."
Esther wrapped the child's scarf more securely around her neck and tucked the trailing ends over the toy turtle that the child was cuddling. "There, now you're both warm."
"Father Angel looks different now," Bell remarked.
"Shhh. You're not supposed to call him that right now, remember? I told you on the train," Esther whispered.
"He's being a Prince now," Bell answered just as softly. "He doesn't like it though."
Esther smiled. "No, he doesn't."
Thankfully, the welcoming ceremonies didn't take too long, on account of the weather. Esther's first glimpse of the Grand Duchess made her think of the Snow Queen, a tall, elegant, regal figure all in white and icy blue. Seeing her and Abel together made Esther sigh – both of them looked as if they belonged together. And what was it that the wolves had called Kyrys Alyardi, the Prince of Drakovia and Abel's "father" so to speak? Oh yes – the Winter Prince and the Snow Queen, both stepping straight out of a fairy tale and out of reach for a mere mortal like her.
For this occasion, she and Father Tres were dressed in their official, slightly more elaborate dress uniforms, rather than their simpler habits but Esther felt oddly self-conscious amidst all the fine silks and jewelry she was seeing the other guests, nobles all, were wearing. Not that nuns and priests were actually supposed to wear rich clothing and jewelry and it wasn't as if Esther was the most fashion-conscious person around but she still felt just a tad out of place here…
Okay, she was jealous and she knew quite well she was being ridiculous. She had a brief mental image of herself stalking over and dragging Abel away by the hair and found that she could smile at least, although it was probably a scary sort of smile, judging by the puzzled way Bell was looking at her.
Esther sweatdropped. "Eh?!" Was Abel's normal silliness contagious?
"Are you okay, Sister Esther?" Bell asked.
"Ahahahaha! I'm just fine, really." Oh Lord, Abel's silliness was definitely rubbing off on her!
Servants showed them all to their rooms so they could all rest for a while and freshen up before joining the Grand Duchess for supper. Seth, still playing the role of little maid of honor to the hilt, had stolen Bell away, claiming that her own room was so large that she would probably get lost and would Bell please come to make sure that didn't happen? So off the two of them went, giggling and running about, even if one of them was actually the Empress of the New Human Empire.
Looking around in her assigned room, Esther had to agree that Seth was right. The place was huge and would probably be considered a more than adequate studio apartment for ordinary people. And if she didn't get lost in the room, she would get lost in the huge bed, which was draped in rich linens of red and royal blue.
Esther then turned to the windows – well, at least she had a wonderful view of the city, glittering in the fading sunlight.
She heard someone come in without knocking, turned around to see who on earth could be so rude and let out a startled "EEP!" when she found Abel sprawled on the couch in her bedroom. Abel was still in his "prince" disguise although he was giving her his atypical goofy grin.
"What are you doing here?" Esther exclaimed.
"Oh, is this your room? I thought this was mine – there I was, trying to find my way out – it's such an easy place to get lost in – and then I end up in here! Isn't it amazing?" Abel answered cheerfully.
She raised a brow. "Shouldn't you be off trying to charm the Grand Duchess right now?"
"Eh?!" Abel gave her his best innocent look. "We Roman Catholic priests aren't exactly taught 'charm' in the seminary."
She rolled her eyes. "A lot you know about that, of course."
Abel sat up a little straighter on the couch, looking appropriately solemn. "You're not being 'silly' again, are you, my little love?"
Esther growled. "Little?!" Oh, how she hated it when he teased her about her height (and the Grand Duchess was so tall and statuesque), not to mention that other thing he was implying…
Abel ticked it off on his fingers. "Tiny, teeny, short, small, petite, cute… hmmm, that would definitely describe you."
Oh, she was SO going to get him for this. "ABEL!"
Too late, she missed the wicked spark in those normally guileless china blue eyes and when she'd stomped over to him, he pounced. Esther only had time for one breathless squeak before she found herself on the couch, partially pinned by her overgrown, playful Significant Other.
They were nose to nose and Abel was grinning mischievously.
"You are also precious, adorable and very much loved," he told her then, in the most matter of fact way possible, dropping a kiss on her nose.
Esther felt her eyes prickling with unexpected tears. "Why?" It was all she could manage at the moment, quite unable to finish the rest of that question.
"I might as well ask you that, you know," Abel murmured, understanding what she meant anyway. "I really don't deserve you."
"You're an idiot, Abel Nightroad," she declared.
"We make a right pair then, don't we?"
Then, he kissed her, a kiss which turned rather passionate very quickly and her hands found themselves tangling into his hair, pressing him close when he lifted his head to nuzzle her, pressing soft little kisses along the column of her throat, lingering briefly on the pulse point beneath her ear.
"You're making it very difficult for a man to conquer temptation," Abel whispered.
"And who, may I ask, started this?" Esther managed, proud that she could put that touch of asperity in her voice, even if Abel had done an excellent job of scattering her wits just a scant few seconds ago.
He laughed softly and eased away from her, although that was only so that he could sit up and then pull her onto his lap. "I've been wanting to do this all day."
"You were too busy playing Prince Charming," Esther reminded him. "Prince Charming and the Snow Queen, what sort of fairy tale have I gotten myself into this time?"
There was a faraway expression on Abel's face. "I do believe she really is who she says she is, you know. There's a lot of pain there – you can see it in her eyes. To see your entire family killed and be unable to save even just one of them…"
Now she felt guilty. "The Reverend Mother…"
"Yes," he told her gently. "We've both been there as well."
Esther sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I know I'm being silly and selfish."
He laid a finger on her lips. "Hush. You've got a perfect right to be 'silly' but you are the most generous person I know." He had the audacity to give her yet another goofy grin. "In fact, I rather like it when you're being 'silly.'"
Esther's cheeks were burning. There had to be some sort of payback for this!
"Oh really?" she began, her voice a dangerous purr. "So the next time you see me talking to Ion…"
Abel growled and then turned quite red. "Er…"
She poked him in the chest. "You behave yourself, do you hear me?"
Abel protested. "I am behaving myself!"
"It's an involuntary reaction!"
Esther poked him in the ribs.
Abel yelped and fell over. "That tickles!"
It was Esther's turn to grin mischievously. "That's the point, my sweet silly love."
And then, it was her turn to pounce.
- tbc -
Author's End Notes: I'm going to beg for your kind indulgence as my work life has been Hell on Earth. I work in a call center during the most unholy hours because the time difference between Asia and the US keeps us awake and working when most sensible people are asleep. So this will be my very first Trinity Blood WIP. Never fear, this WILL be finished because the next chapters are already being written – it will just take a while. Actually, I already have it all plotted out – it's just the time to sit down and WRITE the darn thing that's the problem. WAH!
Just so you know, I will be concluding the story in the very next post I make, okay?
There are about two more stories to follow in this series before I call it a day and I am seriously contemplating an unholy Sailor Moon/Trinity Blood meet-up. Can you imagine how well Usagi-chan and Abel will get along? Both very blonde, very sweet, very scatterbrained and also quite potentially the most powerful beings to walk the earth, aside from a certain Tux-boy/Prince of Earth, that is. Ehehehehe. Watch Mamoru and Esther sweatdrop and exchange commiserating glances about their respective Significant Others. Oy vei…..