Since becoming a vampire, especially since I was brought here, time has little meaning. Christmas, however, always brings a special surprise.
The first year of my imprisonment, hot pokers were driven into my flesh so I would understand what my victims felt if I didn’t glamour them when I fed. The lesson repeated the next year, along with my first bath in holy water—in case the first time didn’t convince me to be kind unless there was cause to be cruel. The next year, I spent Christmas day chained in the garden, just within the shadow of its walls, where the sun could sear my flesh without destroying it so I would remember that no matter how strong I think I am, there’s always something stronger.
It was by those memories I counted the years here. A dozen so far, and judging by the decorations draped luridly about the place, number thirteen was fast approaching. I gave up begging for release after the first five years. Now I alternated between hoping to survive and praying for death.
Today, I leaned toward the former. I wanted to live…just not here. Not anymore.
There were no more lessons I could learn. Even if there were, I didn’t want those answers. I had enough nightmares to last me several centuries.
The stones of the hearth bit into my bare knees as I scrubbed at the marble inside the fireplace. Silver chains clinked at my wrists and ankles. Resting on my heels, I wiped the back of my hand across my forehead.
“You missed a spot.” Remus’s voice grated on the last of my frayed nerves.
Snapping would do no good though, especially not with Christmas and my annual “gift” right around the corner. So I choked on the retort and clenched my shackled hands into fists, trying to calm myself. “Where?”
“Don’t growl at me, Maxmillian. To your left.”
A faint smudge of soot marred the very edge of the marble. Movements rough, I scrubbed at the spot until it disappeared. “Is that all, Remus?”
“I’m tired of talking to your back. Turn around.”
As always, the order, issued with complete calm, made me bristle. Part of me wanted to defy him, but my back still stung from the last time he’d reminded me who was in charge. So I turned and stared brazenly at him. I’d tried playing the whipped puppy; it didn’t get me anything, so I didn’t bother anymore.
Remus lounged on a red velvet couch, his robe gaping open to reveal flawless pale skin. I knew he thought it made him look irresistible. I resisted anyway. And I never found it all that difficult. He twirled a finger in his hair, looking almost coy for a moment. I must not have responded the way he planned, because he sighed and lay back on the couch. “I’m chilled. Start a fire, would you?” He turned toward me, his gaze even.
I tried to stay calm, but my muscles bunched. And my captor simply smiled at me. Of course he would notice. He always noticed. “You just had me clean the fireplace, Remus.”
He waved a hand lazily. “Yes, and now I want a fire. Build it and you can be free for the evening.”
All I wanted to do was race across the room and sever his head from his shoulders, but I knew better than to try that again. The next time I tried to kill Remus, he couldn’t see it coming or I’d fail. “Right away.”
I built the fire and had it blazing in minutes. Then he had his guards take me below ground and chain me to the ceiling. “Enjoy your Christmas Eve,” one of them growled as he yanked the chains over my head and stalked out, slamming the door and leaving me with only the light of the moon filtering through the barred window.
This was my reward. Not freedom by any standards I used to know, but I was away from Remus for a few blessed hours. Sometimes that was enough. Straining against my bonds, I could just see the moon outside my cell. A connection to the outside world—tenuous though it was—like a cruel lover, disappearing when I needed her touch most.
My muscles taut and trembling with the agony, I muttered prayers as I did every moment I spent alone—for life, for the lives I’d taken, for release, for death, for the death of Remus, and for the ability to kill him myself.
“I cannot help you with the killing, but I can get you out of here.”
The tiny voice in my right ear jerked me from my meditation, my arms screaming as I stood upright. “Who? What?”
The voice by my ear laughed and in a flurry of wings revealed itself as a shadow in the moonlight. “I am Janiqua, and I can spring you from this prison, Vampire, but you will owe me a favor in return.” She fluttered back to land on my arm, barely five inches tall, with brown hair and dragonfly wings that glittered in the pale light.
As much as I wanted to jump at the offer, I had a hard time believing I wasn’t hallucinating from pain and exhaustion. “What sort of favor?”
She shrugged, more a movement of wings than shoulders. “I don’t know. That’s why you’ll have to owe me. Do we have an accord?”
I’d long since given up hope of Christmas miracles, but I nodded. In an instant, the shackles opened and my arms fell heavily by my sides, forcing me to stifle a groan of exquisite pain. She darted under the door, and soon enough it swung wide.
“Quickly, Vampire. The guards won’t stay asleep for long.” She flitted up the stairs. I raced after her, rubbing my wrists. The guards were indeed asleep at their posts, and I dashed out the front door.
I didn’t question my good fortune until I stood shivering at the gates of the estate. “Janiqua?” I called as she fluttered into the night. “How did you find me? And why the hell did you help me?”
Her pointy teeth flashed in the light of the moon as she darted close to my ear. “I like people being in my debt, Vampire.” She flitted away and called back over her shoulder, “As to who sent me? Consider it a Christmas present from your Fairy Godmother.” Her laughter echoed in the night as she flew away.
After that, I did the only reasonable thing—put as much distance between myself and Remus’s estate as I could before dawn lit the sky, savoring my Christmas miracle and plotting my vengeance with every step.