vi. Aubrey

Dr. Stone slept for quite a long time.

The magical ritual he had performed had apparently taken a great deal from him, if the level to which he'd allowed me to assist him afterward had been any indication. Usually he was impatient with me, assuring me in no uncertain terms that he was quite capable of taking care of himself, and asking if I did not perhaps have something else that needed my attention instead of playing 'mother hen' to him. I tended to ignore his sarcasm, since my long association with him had assured me that he did not mean it personally; rather it was just his way of keeping others from getting too close to him, but I was usually obliged to leave his chambers without having been of as much assistance to him as I would have felt proper.

Today, though, it was different. He was too tired to protest when I drew his bath, then busied myself preparing him a light meal, a pot of tea, and turning down his bed. When he emerged from the bathchamber half an hour later, looking tired and only somewhat refreshed, he did not even have the energy to aim a cynical barb about my 'hovering' in my direction; he merely picked a bit at the food I put before him, finished a cup of tea, and allowed me to herd him into bed. Drawing the curtains against the early-afternoon sun (it was a rare pleasant day today), I quietly crept out with my tray, satisfied that I had done my proper duty for a change.

I worried a great deal about Dr. Stone, more lately than ever before. Possibly it was because he came home more often in the past year or two than he had previously, so I saw the effects of his other life on him more frequently. I wasn't sure I approved of this friend of his, Terry, who always seemed as if he was ready to snap his thin tether of sanity at the merest provocation. I didn't even know where that thought had come from, either, since the young man was pleasant enough in a quiet, standoffish sort of way. It was just a feeling. Dr. Stone had once told me that the two of them worked together in Seattle, but he had left it at that. As it was not my place to inquire further, I did not do so, but I was curious nonetheless. When Terry visited, it was not difficult to be polite to him, but getting any closer than that was even harder than it had initially been with Dr. Stone himself.

As if that weren't enough to worry about, I was feeling uneasy (no, that was the wrong word; I was feeling terrified) about the whole situation with Nigel, and especially with Ann Barton, former jilted fiancee and current murderous vampire. The scene in Dr. Stone's study last night had affected me deeply; I still wasn't sure that my heart had recovered fully from the sight of Lord Stone of Stone Manor (much as he hated the title, that was what he was) lying there with his throat torn and his blood spilling out onto the floor. I had been so ineffectual then; if young Terry had not had his wits about him, Dr. Stone would have died, sure enough. I had that to be grateful to him for, if nothing else. But what were we to do now? The ritual (and that horrifying thing Dr. Stone had put in the refrigerator last night) had been for the purpose of finding where the vampire had fled, and it apparently had been successful. Would the two of them now go after her? What about Nigel?

There were too many questions, and I was far too upset by the situation to think clearly about them, so I went back downstairs and continued with my duties. No matter what problems might be plaguing me, I always found solace in working in the garden and on the grounds, making minor repairs on the house, and, when Dr. Stone was in residence, preparing meals for him and his guests. It gave me immense pleasure to be useful. The great house always felt silent and lonely when its master was away; even the young people I sometimes hired to help me with the heavier work or the occasional lady guest whom I brought back to my apartment over the garage (generally to cook for and play cards with) didn't add the spark provided by Dr. Stone's quirky, irreverent sense of humour, amusing anecdotes, and collection of odd friends. That was a good portion of why I was so disturbed about what had happened the previous night: I had no idea what I would do with myself if he died, and especially if he died without heir.

For close to three hours that afternoon, I forced myself to work outside, mowing lawns, trimming flowers, pulling weeds, and trying to forget. I hadn't seen Terry when I went downstairs, so I assumed he must have gone off to his room to rest too. It was just as well, since I wanted to be alone then. I finished the work outside about an hour prior to dinnertime and went back into the house to wash up and begin preparing the meal, not knowing if anyone would be partaking of it.

I was just preparing to cut up some vegetables for a salad when I sensed a presence in the doorway. Looking up quickly, fearing that the vampire had come for me, I was surprised to see Dr. Stone standing there, leaning against the doorjamb, hands in his pockets. "Aubrey," he said in greeting, his voice low and somber.

"Hello, sir," I said, endeavouring to sound cheery but not too cheery. "Did you sleep well?"

"I don't remember," he said. "Probably not." Moving across the room to the small kitchen table, he sat down wearily and stared down at his hands. Wearing a heavy black fisherman's sweater over a white T-shirt and jeans, he looked younger than his thirty-six years, except when I caught a glimpse of his eyes. His expression was serious, almost haunted.

"May I get you anything?" I thought perhaps if I could head off his mood before it got a chance to take hold, I could help him.

He shook his head. "No. I just—I've just been thinking about some things." Idly, he picked up a piece of paper off the table without seeing it and began folding it into a smaller and smaller package. When he finished, he began unfolding it again. Then he looked up at me. "Aubrey, I need your advice."

I put down the lettuce head I was pulling apart. "I'll try to help, sir. What is it?" Moving slowly so as not to make him consciously aware of what I was doing, I placed a plate of muffins and a glass of icewater near him on the table, then went back over and continued preparing the salad. From past experience with him, I knew he tended to be more willing to discuss his feelings if he thought his audience wasn't paying rapt attention to him.

Twisting the paper nervously in his hands, Dr. Stone didn't look at me. Instead, he seemed to be looking through the table down toward the floor. "What if he really is my son?" he asked quietly. I waited, and he added, "What if he is? Then I'm going off to destroy his mother."

"Do you think he really is?" I asked in the same soft tone.

"I don't know," he whispered. "I don't know. But if he is—I—I treated him abominably. I'm quite a fine father, aren't I?" he ended bitterly.

There was little point in berating him about his lack of responsibility now. "You did what you thought was right, sir. It was all a bit of a—well, a surprise."

"Yes, it was, wasn't it?" The bitter edge had not left his voice. "I don't know if I want to kill her, Aubrey."

My eyebrows rose unbidden. I willed them back down, hoping he hadn't seen my expression. "Do you—still care about her, sir?" The after what she did to you? was apparent in my voice.

He laughed, a short, harsh sound that held absolutely no mirth. "Care for her? Of course not. I may not have been terribly gentlemanly to her all those years ago, but people get over it, you know? Normal people do, anyway. They don't get themselves turned into vampires and go off trying to rip the throats out of their errant suitors." Involuntarily, I winced at his graphic description.

As if the outburst had taken with it all his reserve energy, Dr. Stone slumped back in his chair, tossing the twisted paper back from where it had come. Leaning one elbow on the table, he bowed his head until his face was half-covered by his hand. "I learned something in that ritual, Aubrey. At least I think I did. And it changes things a bit." His voice was now so quiet I had to lean forward to make sure I heard him.

"What did you learn?" I asked gently. It was hard to watch him like that, but I did so nonetheless, salad forgotten.

With effort, he raised his head to meet my eyes. "I started thinking about why a ten-year-old boy would be filled with such hatred for someone he'd never met that he would be willing to be an accomplice to a very bloody murder. He seemed a pleasant enough child, hardly the type to get any pleasure from watching anyone killed, right?" At my nod, he continued, "Well, then, I had to figure out his motives. It's obvious that he was the one who let her in, because if she'd come in as mist, she would have been stark naked, which she wasn't. She might have lied to him—I wouldn't put that past her. But when I did the ritual, I sensed another presence with her when I found her. Since I wasn't looking for the boy, it wasn't clear, but there was something odd about his aura."

"Odd, sir?" All pretense of making dinner abandoned now, I moved around the island in the center of the kitchen and took a seat opposite him at the table. "In what way?"

His tortured blue gaze followed me around as I sat down, never wavering from my eyes. "I wasn't sure at first," he admitted. "In fact, I'm still not sure. That's what worries me. But if I'm right—" He trailed off, dropping his gaze back to the table. "If I'm right—"

Silently, I waited.

Taking a ragged deep breath, he raised his head once more. "Vampires are strange creatures," he said in an odd tone, low and conversational, like a lecture meant to be heard only by one or two people very close by. "Some of them are more strange than others. They have the ability—it's quite rare, actually—to create slaves. Pawns, they're called. People dependent upon something only the vampire can provide for their life-force. I'd heard about it, but never actually seen a case. Usually no one finds out about it while the pawn is alive, because it's in everyone's best interest that the relationship not be discovered."

"Why not?" I asked quietly, afraid to hear the answer.

"Because if the vampire is destroyed, or decides to deny the pawn its life-force, the pawn deteriorates and eventually dies. There's no known cure for the condition." He drew another deep breath and let it out with a sigh, his head dropping back down into his hands. "I'm probably just being paranoid. But if he is really my son and she's turned him into one of these pawns, then if I kill her I sign his death warrant."

For a long moment, I was silent, allowing the implications of what he had said to sink in. Then, hesitantly, I asked, "But you don't know if he is a—a pawn."

He shook his head. "I've no idea. It was just an insight—a hunch. There was something odd about his aura that I didn't see before, but that could have been anything. It could have been anything..." he repeated bleakly. Slamming his fists down into the table, he whispered in despair, "Aubrey, I don't know what to do!"

We sat there a moment, each alone with our thoughts. Then, at last, wondering if I was being too presumptuous, I reached out a hand and laid it gently on his arm. When he did not draw away, I continued: "Sir—" He did not look up. More gently: "Alastair. Look at me."

I had not used his first name without his title since he was a child. The sound of it startled him, as I'd hoped it would, into looking back up into my eyes. I didn't think I had ever seen him looking so hopeless. "You did what you had to do," I told him in a soft, firm voice. "And you'll do what you have to do after this. I know it isn't easy, no matter what you decide." I paused. "If you—decide not to pursue her, what could happen then?"

Closing his eyes, he lowered his head. "I don't know," he whispered.

"Is that true?" I leaned forward, hating to do this to him, but knowing I had to; it was the only way I was going to get through to him.

"I don't know," he said again, closing his eyes. Then: "She'll probably come after me again."

"She'll try to kill you again, won't she?" I brought my hand back to my side of the table and continued to watch him.

Without looking at me, he nodded. "Probably..." Then, defiantly, "But I was asleep then. She's no mage—no match for me when I'm awake."

"But you can't stay awake all the time, sir," I pointed out. "Can you?"

"Of course not," he said bitterly. "But there are watchers—"

"And you're willing to spend the rest of your life knowing that she's pursuing you? Could you live with that?"

"I don't know, Aubrey," he said, barely audible. "I don't think so, but—"

I nodded. "I know. I know. You're worried about the boy. I understand. But sometimes...sometimes you have to do...what you don't want to do. For your own good—for everyone's good." I took a deep breath. "If Nigel—if he is your son, and he is one of say there's no cure for it?"

He shook his head. "None. At least not that I've heard of, and I do keep up with the literature..."

"So he would be be her slave until she tired of him?"

He looked up at me, nodding slowly. He sighed. "Yes...bluntly, yes. He'll be dependent on her for the rest of his life."

"Do you think that's any kind of life for a child? For anyone?"

He slammed his fist angrily down on the table with a ferocity that surprised me given his morose mood. "Damn it, Aubrey, I don't want to make that decision! It isn't my right to decide if he lives or dies! I don't want that kind of power over him!" There was an edge of desperation in his voice that scared me, as though he was nearing the thin boundary that separated reason from hysteria.

"I know that, sir," I said, forcing myself to keep my voice calm. I wouldn't do him any good by getting upset too. "I know that. The boy...didn't ask for what was done to him, I'll wager, so it isn't his fault. But it isn't your fault, either."

"In a way it is," he muttered. "If I hadn't been so—if I hadn't done that to her, none of this might have happened."

"Possibly not," I agreed. "But I remember that woman. You treated her badly, yes, but she did not want to let you go. She was obsessed with you, almost. She may have done the same thing had you been more gentle with her about it."

He shrugged. "You could be right. I'll never know, though, will I? So here I am with the life of a boy who may be my son in my hands. Maybe." He sighed again. "I don't know anything, Aubrey. It's all speculation. Just guesses..." He rose heavily from his chair; the kitchen light caught the dark circles under his eyes that muted their normal cynical spark. "I just can't deal with it right now. That's all there is to it. I need some more time to think." Turning to leave without pushing the chair back under the table, he got perhaps halfway across the kitchen before stopping and slowly turning back around to face me. "Thank you, Aubrey."

"For what, sir? I don't think I was very helpful."

He spread his hands in a resigned gesture. "I'll think about what you've said." Then he was swiftly out the door before he could say anything else. I watched after him for a long moment, then got up, gathered the forgotten makings of the salad, and began cutting up carrots.

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