Edition 5: Azurewrath by Esme Carpenter
Werewolves and vampires make unusual dinner companions, but in a time of truce, dinner at Azurewrath is for the purposes of peace. Thomas Cromley knows that somewhat is amiss, but cannot figure it out. A story of genteel society, where not even mythological creatures can resist intrigue. Esme Carpenter is one of the youngest authors in our catalogue, but her recent young teen novel, Against the Elements, is definitely a testament to her skill as a writer. SY
Watch your back.
That’s the only piece of advice I was ever given. It’s served me, for the most part. If you don’t watch your back, things can happen back there that you wouldn’t ever see. Dodgy dealings, snide comments. Stabbings. And suchlike. But it’s the piece of advice that I draw on when I’m invited to Azurewrath.
I couldn’t tell you why my Order sends me there. I hate the place, I hate the company, and worse besides they hate me too. Common courtesy, I guess. Keeping the peace. Whatever peace there is. I don’t trust the smiles they give me at Azurewrath. I don’t trust the cutlery.
But even vampires know not to stab a werewolf at a dinner party. I suppose, with the cutlery at least, I’m safe. If I watch my back.
Sunset arrival is the norm. As I approach on my stallion, I can see black boxes of carriages on the horizon and ravens circling the castle (the horse is a formality rather than a requirement; I could run to the castle faster than I can ride, and the beast is a terrible bore). The sunset is a glorious honey oozing through tar-clouds. I even crack a smile at it. Then I dig my heels in and canter onwards, to the house they call Azurewrath and the company of devils.
I’m dressed in my best. Vampires expect that of you. No tunics or tabards or the like, no; white shirts with billowing sleeves and ruffled breasts; cravats of crushed silk or ties of fine weave; velvet coats with gold buttons and thread. Tonight I am wearing a long, black coat with gold trim, a wine-red waistcoat and a blood-red cravat, and cream trousers. My hair is tamed and coiffed, tied in a simple style with a simple ribbon.
I feel ridiculous.
Still, duty calls.
The castle looks wonderful from the hill. Pointed like vampire teeth but in solid black against the bright bronze, with grand gaping arches. It looks cruel up close. Carved with gargoyles and darkness, all gothic in black rock. The sunset manages to look menacing as it strokes the architecture.
There’s a boy waiting in the shadow.
“You here for the party, good sir?”
“Why yes I am, young fellow.”
“Can I take your name, for the lady?”
Ah, the lady. Lady Vanessa. All fangs and breasts and malice.
“Thomas Cromley, of Fernhill Hall.”
“Sir Cromley, Fernhill Hall. Can I take your horse, sir?”
“You may, good lad.”
He leads my horse to the stop, where I descend. He stays in the shadow, but I can see a burn mark on his cheek, and one on his hand.
“Been out in the sun?”
“Yessir. My mistake, sir. I’ll stable him up and show you in.”
I think it’s cruel, what vampires do to their servants. It isn’t enough they have to be like their masters; they have to perform tasks of a certain calibre that they wouldn’t perform themselves.
“Be more careful next time. I’d like to see you again one day.”
“I will, sir. This way, sir.”
The entrance hall is a thing of grandeur, even with a vampire’s taste in decor. All gold-brown marble with honey-glazed wood panels, a sweeping staircase with rich carpet adorning it and the most exquisite crystal chandelier. There are unnoticeable marks in unnoticeable dust on side tables where, I assume, silver candelabra normally sit, moved away with courtesy for my arrival; a maid, at my glance, sweeps a vase of tall white lilies in the vacant space and curtseys at me with a faint blush.
“Ah, Sir Cromley.”
At the top of the stairs is the Lady Vanessa. She is wearing, as is her custom, a black dress with red lace (such a thing unheard of on other vampires, reserved only for her) and a choker of rubies tight in her throat.
I bow low.
“Lady Vanessa. A pleasure once again to be in your presence.”
I hear with my attuned senses a low, mocking laugh that I suppose she thought I would miss.
“And I in yours, Sir Cromley. You are the first, I am afraid to say, and we are not quite prepared for guests. Please, follow me to the main parlour. We shall find you a seat and some refreshment.”
The vampire boy bows to me and leaves my side, presumably to welcome the rest of the guests, and I am left to Lady Vanessa and the parlour. She seats me on the chaise longue and hesitates with a smile about refreshment.
“I am sorry, Sir Cromley, it is not often I have to serve anything other than…well…something suited to a vampire’s taste.” She pulls a cork from a bottle of rather expensive port. At its side sits a black decanter. Its stopper is a thing of severe interest; it has two black fangs curving down the slender neck. I can smell the contents. She hands me a glass. “Port?”
“I have sent to the kitchens for a platter for you. You shall be the only person in attendance dining, I am afraid.”
It’s usual, so I give her a polite nod. After all, I would not offend vampires at my table by offering them roast duck and potatoes with the rest of my guests. And vice versa.
The vampires arrive in clumps and dribbles. The Durdens, Count and Countess, with their manservant; Olivia Wilding, dressed as an angel, with her newest beau (human or otherwise, I can never tell); the Manleys and the Connors give me contemptuous sneers as they pass, and I nod in return. Once everyone is present and correct, we retire to the dining hall, where the table is set for ten when only one meal will be served.
I notice I have been placed between Olivia and the Lady herself, near the head of the table. In my place sits a wonderful spread of hot meats and vegetables, and a gravy boat. I put down my second glass of port, pull out Olivia’s chair with a smile and a flourish, and then seat myself. The rest of the places have a single goblet in between the cutlery, and the black decanter with the toothy stopper has made its way to Lady Vanessa’s place.
I wait to eat until everyone is seated and the Lady has sent the decanter around. She raises her goblet.
“To good company,” she purrs, and we all raise our glasses and repeat, and she waves a hand towards me. “Our friend Sir Cromley here will be dining as is his usual. Pay him no mind. Do eat, good sir. We wouldn’t want that good beef to go cold.”
“It is very courteous of you to provide such a feast for a single man, my Lady,” I say, lifting my fork.
“Very courteous,” says Sir Manley, with a surly smile.
“Sir Cromley is a guest, as he always will be, as you are,” said Lady Vanessa with a dangerous flash in her eyes. “As I am often a guest at his table. There shall be no ill-manners towards him this evening.”
I give the beef a good, indiscreet sniff before I put it in my mouth. It smells unspoilt by arsenic, so I eat.
The talk begins with greetings, news about the manors and counties possessed by the company, and I sit quietly eating and absorbing the information. All of the vampires are in perfect good health—and wealth—and their estates mostly peaceful. There is no talk of werewolves dabbling in affairs; I wonder fleetingly if that is because I am present, or if there is no news to speak of.
“And you, Sir Cromley?” asks Olivia. “How fares your part of the world?”
The air feels very still. Olivia means well, I am certain of it. I swallow my final mouthful, put my cutlery down and offer her a smile.
“Fernhill Hall is comfortable and in good fortune, as always, Miss Wilding. We are particularly looking forward to our annual masquerade, which, Lady Vanessa, would be lacking of you were not in attendance. And, of course, any of these fine ladies and gentlemen at the table; you are all welcome.”
“And those of your Order?” asks Countess Durden.
I can’t tell if she’s being polite or not. I do not particularly want to discuss our growing number or our strengths—or weaknesses.
“The Order is solid and keeping to its own affairs. We have granted asylum for a fair few of your kind this year, and will continue to do so.”
“I heard the Keeper of the Order is growing old,” said Count Durden. “Will he be stepping down any time soon?”
“That, my good Count, I could not tell you.”
And would not; for the Keeper is indeed on his sick bed and yet to name an heir, and those of the likes of the Manleys and Connors would be very pleased indeed to hear that news. I fear they know that I am being untruthful. But I dab at my lips with the napkin and turn to Lady Vanessa.
“An exemplary meal, my Lady.”
“You are most welcome, Sir Cromley.”
I wonder what the real reason for my invitation is. Usually we have reached the point by now; this time last year was when we agreed to the asylum of vampires on werewolf territory and similar promises on the other side, and there is certainly a sense that we are waiting for something. Something I have not been informed of.
The party continues as usual. A music parlour sits on the left of the entrance hall, which we are ushered into. Sir Manley plays the piano and Olivia Wilding sings, as a ghostly nightingale would. I sit on a couch in the corner with my port and survey the company with a growing sense of unease in my gut. The Durdens’ servant has vanished; Olivia’s partner stands to one side, admiring her as the breath rises and falls in her breast. Lady Vanessa is sweeping the room, tending to her guests. The Manleys and Connors are whispering conspiratorially in the corner and glancing my way, which is normal, and I attempt to ignore them.
Something is wrong. The music sounds discordant and the whispers are grating. I wish the servant would hurry back. They are keeping something from me.
The vampire boy is at the door. His cheeks are flushed.
“My Lady,” he says, hurrying forwards, “my Lady, there is a messenger here from Fernhill Hall…”
Vanessa looks at the boy, then at me, and I get up. My heart pounds.
“I shall take it,” I assure her. “I may have forgotten something. Please excuse me.”
The vampire boy tags to my side. “He says he ran all the way here, sir…”
They have left the poor man outside, gasping, purple-faced.
“Thomas!” he cries. “Oh, Thomas, thank the moon…”
“What brings you here with such haste?”
He is a youngling in our Order, by the name of Harvey. He is covered in road dust and brambles. He must have been chasing me since I left Fernhill Hall. But his urgency is halted by the presence of the vampire boy.
“Boy, please could you fetch some water for my companion? I fear he may drop down any second.”
The boy bows and leaves.
“Now what is it, Harvey?”
“The Keeper,” he whispers, “he’s dead.”
I distinctly feel myself blink, breathe in, breathe out; my heart going thum-thum-thum, faster and faster.
“You must return, you are no longer safe at Azurewrath. Do you understand me, Thomas? The alliance, it’s doomed if they find out! They will be upon us like locusts! Where is your steed?”
I nod. It seems like a sensible thing to do. I feel sick. The port has rushed all up to my head and I feel woozy and faint and cold.
They already know. They already know he is dead and I am vulnerable. They have known since I arrived. Possibly before. They have been watching me like hawks all evening.
Harvey grips my arm tight.
“Your steed, Thomas!”
“In the stables. It will be quicker to run. Should I take my leave?”
“If you must, but hurry!”
I return inside. The boy passes me with a glass of water, watching it intently, trying not to spill. Olivia’s singing is harsh and tuneless in the hall. I pause at the door. The music ceases. The air presses on me.
They are watching me. They already know.
“I must excuse myself back to Fernhill Hall,” I say, as clearly, calmly and brightly as possible. “There is a matter with the younglings that unfortunately requires my urgent attention. I do apologise, Lady Vanessa. It has been an exquisite party. I leave Azurewrath with a heavy heart, it is most regrettable and a damned nuisance.”
There is light in their eyes like cold fires. They can see right through me. But Olivia simpers and says that she will miss me so, and the Manleys and Connors nod to me, and the Durdens wish me a safe journey and express their excitement at the masquerade, and Lady Vanessa, all fangs and breasts and malice, comes to see me to the door.
“It is a shame, Sir Cromley, I was greatly enjoying your company. We hoped to hear another of your wonderful jokes this evening, they do so lighten the mood.”
How about this one: a werewolf attends a vampire’s ball and they trick him with their hospitality. Lead-up and punch-line included.
I smile thinly. “It is a damned nuisance. I leave for a few hours…”
Harvey lets the steed loose and we ride it a mile or so out of sight of Azurewrath before we let it go and prepare to start our run. I take off my coat, waistcoat and cravat and fling them to the roadside. Harvey, the slower of the both of us, sets off at a werewolf-sprint towards the trees.
I look back but once. The moon is high, gentle like a treacherous kiss on black spires. There are black boxes approaching me on the horizon from Azurewrath.
Esme Carpenter started writing at the age of twelve and since then has never looked back. Despite completing a five-book series by fifteen, she couldn’t stop, resulting in a backlog of fantasy and science-fiction novels decaying on her hard drive, awaiting liberation (and possibly a good edit). An avid reader all her life, Esme always enjoyed stories. Her love of both writing and reading led her to the University of East Anglia to study English Literature and Creative Writing; she graduated summer 2011. Esme enjoys, amongst other things, comic books, video games and music, the latter of which gives her the best inspiration and is often used to drive her stories. At present she is writing a graphic novel. Against the Elements is her debut novel, written when she was fifteen and edited at the tender age of twenty-one.
Esme lives in York, England, with a ridiculous amount of nerdy memorabilia.