"Lower the lamp, son, or else the humans will see you."
The youth shot a glance toward the man standing next to him, expectant blue eyes registering a flicker of nervousness while the hand holding the fire lamp lowered. A shadow cast across his face, darkness cloaked the fresh fang marks on his neck as his head bobbed up and down slowly. "Aye, Master. I din' think they could see us is all," he said, his voice a whisper, just like he'd been ordered.
"Oh, they can see us just fine, lad." A smile crept across the tall, well dressed gentleman's face, his own gaze fixed on the choppy waters of the English Channel. A gust of wind blew the dark hair on his head around, and would have inspired a chill to crawl the length of any man's spine, if Mitchell Livingston had been a normal human. He crouched and lowered his voice. "We can see the length of a field and still pick out the correct color of your jacket. Remember that the next time you try to flee"
The young boy shivered as though the nonexistent chill had jumped from the elder man to him. Pulling the tattered fabric of his coat closer to his body, he swallowed hard and turned his attention to distant figures still well out on the water, coming in from France. Mitch raised an eyebrow when he noticed the boy shuffle in his periphery, and sighed as he glanced at another man standing opposite the waif of barely thirteen years. This gentleman resembled Mitch, only with brown hair to Mitch's black, and nineteen human years to his credit when Mitch first chanced upon him two hundred years ago.
His head turned the moment he felt the weight of his maker's stare. Elliot Taylor furrowed his brow as Mitch smirked and nodded toward the youth. "I think the chill is getting to be too much for young Bartholomew to handle, Elliot. Would you kindly take the lamp from him?"
"As you wish, Master." His gaze softened as it shifted from Mitch to the boy. "To the carriage with you, lad, before you catch your death out here."
Bartholomew nodded, passing the fire lamp to Elliot and folding his arms across his chest while dashing up the dirt road to the waiting horses and buggy. Elliot chuckled as the boy disappeared inside the carriage. "Haven't trained this one yet, have you, master?"
"The carriage is going to reek of street urchin now." Mitch's eyes darted toward the waters briefly. "Before he catches his death? You mean before I eventually bleed him out?"
"You and your thralls." Elliot grinned, looking at Mitch again. "Still sipping from them until they lose their minds instead of granting them a proper, lucid death?"
Mitch waved his hand dismissively. "You are still too young. Haven't weathered a time yet when you've had to be mindful of your next meal."
"I think two centuries have been enough for me to know such seasons, thank you very kindly." Elliot pivoted enough to face Mitch. "I'll have you know I still remember everything I'd been taught before I left your side. Your lessons aren't easy to forget."
"Be careful, Elias. I might be tempted to put your knowledge to the test right here and now."
"And what would our guests say to that?" The two men shared a lingering stare before Elliot broke his gaze. Cocking his head toward the approaching boat, he lowered his tone of voice as he continued. "Of all the people in this god-forsaken world, why did they want to bring in a Knights Templar?"
"Damned if I know." The mere evocation of the olden order chased the smile off Mitch's face. "I didn't much care for the holy war when Richard was waging it and I don't much care for opinions of religious drones today. Still, we need to know if we are headed in the right direction. One slip up could cost us England."
"It might be lost already."
A pensive silence fell between them, neither able to acknowledge the comment with more than a frown. The tide lapped against the shore, in rhythmic pulses which became louder the closer the boat came to land. Two men became more visible; one crouched with hands folded on his lap while the other rowed steadily, his eyes fixed on the lamp light.
The one not rowing seemed to be lost in thought, a pale-skinned man who resembled a human of twenty years. The wind blew the top of his brown hair around, tousling it as though attempting to match it to the scruff of facial hair on his chin. Handsome in a youthful manner, he still looked the part of religious mercenary to Mitch, hearkening back to a time when Mitchell Livingston had been an aristocrat named Thomas de Plantagenet. "I swear those men looked just as deep in prayer when they held a sword as when they took communion," he whispered beneath his breath.
Elliot raised an eyebrow, but didn't respond.
Mitch squared his shoulders once the boat hit land and the rower dug his oar into the soft dirt beneath his vessel. The pensive man stood and clapped the rower once on the shoulder, digging his hand into a purse and producing five coins he immediately handed over to the human. "I believe this should cover what I owe you," he said.
The man nodded, clasping the money in his palm. "Aye, five pounds, sir." His gaze flicked warily toward Mitch, before acknowledging Elliot on its way back to his boat. "I take it you won't be needin' my services back to the mainland?"
"No, you are free to go about your business." The pensive man permitted the ghost of a grin to tug at the corners of his mouth, an expression which lingered as he cast his sights on Mitch. Walking closer, he nodded while adjusting the folds of his cloak. "Mitchell Livingston?" he asked, a purposeful gait bringing him closer to the two other men.
Mitch smirked. "And you would be Nathaniel Mortimer, I presume."
"Nathan, please." He glanced toward Elliot. "I didn't know we were to have company on the journey to London."
"This is my eldest immortal child." His grin broadened. "I can assure you whatever you have to tell me can be trusted in Elliot's company. After all these years, he has yet to prove himself unworthy."
"Glad to know it." Nathan nodded at Elliot. "Pleasure to meet you." Pivoting to face the path leading up to the carriage, he exhaled slowly, a gust of steam rising from his lips only to be captured by the wind. His eyes turned distant again, as though remembering why he was there. "We should be getting along. I don't know how long it takes to seek shelter, but I doubt we want to leave a carriage idle while burying ourselves for the day."
Mitch laughed. "Nonsense. There's an inn here in Dover where we can stay." His eyes flicked to Elliot quickly, a cock of his head accompanying the approach of the boat operator with a leather satchel in hand. Before Nathan could acknowledge the action, however, the younger man was strolling to intercept the human and Mitch was leading Nathan toward the carriage. "We could chance Canterbury, but I think we might be too close to dawn."
"No, staying here would put me more at ease." He glanced back at Elliot, and then focused his attention frontward. "How many days to London?"
"Two. We'll sojourn in Chatham tomorrow and arrive in London the following night. Our cohorts are waiting for us there."
Nathan frowned, yet nodded and walked in silence with Mitch. Elliot caught up within moments, passing Nathan his satchel and exchanging a quick glance with Mitch before hurrying along to where the carriage waited. The two horses secured to the vehicle reared and whinnied in protest, but settled when the carriage door opened and Bartholomew jumped from inside. The youth rubbed his hands together and took hold of the fire lamp, sliding it onto the driver's seat and hopping up onto the wooden bench afterward.
Elliot stood by the door. Nathan nodded at him and slipped inside, followed close behind by the two other men. It wasn't until the door shut that the tentative silence was broken. Nathan sighed just as the buggy jerked into motion.
"It hasn't yet been explained to me," he said, "Why the Primael need a religious advisor."
Mitch chuckled. "Funny. I know more about this than you and I still don't understand."
"What does that mean?"
With a sigh, Mitch turned his head to look at Nathan. "I mean you no disrespect when I say this, Sir Nathan, but I think the Primael have grossly overvalued the importance of religion in this mission."
Nathan grinned. "I wasn't a knight, I was a sergeant. You needn't call me Sir. As for the importance of religion, don't you believe religion to be important, Mr. Livingston?"
"Mitch, please, and no." He frowned. "But we seem to have bedded the Catholics in this one."
"For what purpose?"
"Our protection, ironically. I have no idea what has reached your ears, but the Protestants have formed alliances." Mitch paused. "Supernatural alliances."
Nathan raised an eyebrow, but remained silent for a few minutes, allowing the sound of the road to permeate the carriage while the uneven terrain jostled them like statues being violently shifted. Elliot sighed and knocked on the roof, but Mitch and Nathan remained locked in a stalemate, gaze never wavering. Finally, Nathan tilted his head. "What do you mean by that?"
Mitch smirked. "I wondered when you would ask." His posture relaxed, as though he'd been holding a breath he finally felt comfortable exhaling. "What were you told?"
"Why is that relevant to our discussion?"
"Because I am an aristocrat. You are not. I want to know what the Primael would have censored for your benefit."
Nathan frowned reflexively. "I didn't ask to be brought into this in the first place."
"And yet you were. Your maker must have some sway." Leaning back, Mitch folded his hands on his lap. "Start at the beginning if you must. How was it that your name entered this discussion?"
With a sigh, Nathan glanced away. "I was in Europe on a diplomatic mission for my immortal sister. I am the Princess of Kathmandu's second. Our maker is the queen of the region."
"So you're a royal. Or, at least bedded to them. Bodes well for you learning the rest of the story." Mitch extended a hand. "Continue."
"Is it yours to tell, Mitch?"
"It is mine to determine who can be trusted with what."
"I'll make certain to remember that." Nathan's eyes met Mitch's again. "A message arrived by courier two months ago stating some problems had arisen in England. The nature of the problems were not elaborated on at the time, simply that the monarchs of the mainland had decided to allow whatever solution the Primael devised so long as they sought counsel on all the potential issues that could arise as a result."
Mitch chuckled lightly. "And your maker presented you as a religious authority."
"I am at least a studied acolyte."
"I've known many men who once were."
"Ah, but how many of them still are?" The corner of Nathan's mouth curled in a grin.
Elliot raised an eyebrow. Mitch's soft laughter grew in volume until it drowned out even the sounds of travel; even the stir of humanity as they entered the town of Dover. He glanced at Elliot, pointing at Nathan while the undercurrent of his voice took on a condescending form of amusement. "Do you fancy that, Elliot? A Christian vampire."
Nathan shrugged. "I've not been given any reason to reject the cross of Christ."
"Where was your god when your maker drove her fangs into your neck?"
"Watching over our men on the field of battle." His gaze turned distant, his eyes focused on the corner of the carriage as though beholding a portal into the past. "I would like to think He had some plan in allowing me to be turned. All I know is that The Lord has kept me safe thus far." He glanced at Mitch. "It must not have been my time yet."
"Undoubtedly." The smile dissipated from Mitch's face, still lingering as a ghost, but given over to a much more serious expression. "I suppose we'll see how well your god protects you through this. Both sides claim he favors them, so I remain confused as to whose side he is on."
"God rarely favors either side of these sorts of quarrels," Nathan said. This time, he was the one smirking. "I am at least familiar with the battles over the human thrones taking place these days. Christendom was never meant to be so divisive."
"Then you favor the Catholics?"
"The Catholics disbanded the Knights, Mitch. At the behest of French debtors who decided to slaughter my brothers en masse many years after my death."
"I don't favor either."
"Wise. Neither side favors us."
"How does either side know we exist?" Nathan furrowed his brow.
Mitch sighed. "It would seem the Reformation brought more than religious quarrels with it. Those especially concerned with the English throne have other allies and this king especially knows things no human monarch should know." He glanced at Elliot, who frowned, before regarding Nathan with severity. "Do you know about the Supernatural Order?"
Nathan shook his head, his voice low and pensive. "No, I've never heard of them."
"They are vampire hunters, but calling them that understates matters greatly."
Elliot frowned and nodded, looking at Nathan as Mitch rifled through the folds of his coat. "They are psychic," he said. "We call them the green-eyed demons because their eyes are emerald-colored and ethereal. They manage to blend themselves in society, but only to find and kill those of us hiding in the same crowds. We are fortunate they usually target the weaker bloodline."
"Is the King one of these green-eyed demons?" Nathan asked, his expression turning perplexed.
"In league with them," Mitch interjected. "If not one himself. One of our brothers intercepted a letter written by James and addressed to the Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil. Cecil is responsible for matters of state security." His hand emerged from inside his coat with a rolled-up parchment clutched in his grip. "I will allow you to read this prior to entering your daytime slumber. The point is, it incriminates the King."
Nathan nodded, accepting the parchment in hand and reaching for his satchel. "I hope this isn't the original."
"No, a duplicate. Marius holds the original. At the same time, don't allow it to fall into the wrong hands. I would ask that you return it tomorrow evening."
"I will." Opening the leather carrier, Nathan slipped the parchment inside and secured it shut before setting it on his lap. He rested an arm atop it and smoothed out the fabric of his cloak with his other hand. "So, the king is conspiring with psychic vampire hunters and we are conspiring with the Catholics." His eyes met Mitch's, an eyebrow lifting as the question was issued. "What do we mean to do about it?"
Mitch held the gaze, allowing the expression to answer in lieu of any words he might have had to offer. The gesture seemed to suffice Nathan sighed and looked away, acknowledging the silent exchange only by saying, "We'll discuss this matter more at sunset."
Nodding, Mitch glanced at Elliot. "We'll have plenty of time on the road to Chatham."
Elliot frowned reflexively. A tense silence settled in the carriage, disturbed when the car jerked to a stop and not a moment before. Bartholomew jumped from the driver's bench and opened the door, looking nervously at Mitch while saying, "We reached the inn, sir. Will you be needin' me to make the arrangements?"
"If you could. Two rooms, one for Master Elliot and myself, and one for Nathan." As Mitch rose and alighted from the carriage car, he reached into a purse and tossed a coin at the young waif. "You are permitted a meal with the change. Return to the carriage after you're done and tend to the horses, but do not go anywhere or I will glamour a new driver and kill you on sight. Am I clear?"
Elliot and Nathan emerged from inside the carriage. Bartholomew nodded. "Yessir, Master." The youth bowed at the waist, then turned and ran into the establishment, leaving the chill of autumn behind him. Nathan stood in place, idly watching the small human disappear while securing the satchel's leather strap around his shoulder. In his periphery, he saw Elliot stroll over to Mitch, both men exchanging small talk. Their conversation faded into the backdrop.
The bag felt heavier than it had been, the weight of the world depositing itself alongside the rolled up parchment. Unaware he was doing it, Nathan rested a hand against the satchel, caressing the rough surface while remaining lost in thought. He drifted to his room when it was ready and lay out on a cot after shutting the door behind him.
It wasn't until he felt the warning call of dawn that he produced the parchment and read it at last.