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The apartment's window opened on the nicest view the ten-story building offered. Down below, the gray of the city was brightened by a splash of green. The city's largest park, these days, doubled as one of the gardens that helped provide fresh food to humans. On the horizon, far beyond the walls, the mountains seemed purple or blue, depending on the time of day or the weather.
However, it wasn't because of the view that this apartment had been assigned to Wilhelm, or that all vampires' quarters were located on this same side of the building--the north side. As much as the human members of the Guard sometimes complained about it, they understood the sheer necessity of these quarters' assignments. Good fabric and good wood were sparse, too much so to waste on completely blocking direct sunlight.
"What good is that view to me?" Wilhelm had once heard a vampire protest to some human friends. "Give me a windowless room instead, and maybe I'll sleep better."
Wilhelm had long ago ceased to need much sleep. As a fledgling, he had heard from Masters that, in time, he would learn to forego sleep altogether. He had thought then that they were simply trying to impress him, but with passing centuries, he had started to need less and less rest to feel refreshed. He had rarely closed his eyes for more than four hours at a time since the demons had appeared. It often seemed like a much longer time than that.
After going to bed an hour or so after sunrise, just long enough to hear the preliminary reports for the night, he usually woke by midmorning--if he managed to sleep at all. Some mornings, the news was simply too dire for him to even fall asleep; on these mornings, it wasdifficult to refrain from calling Bergsen and telling him that it was over, Wilhelm was quitting. He had never wanted to take such a great part in the fight, had been quite content with helping where he could, but little by little over the years, Bergsen had pushed more and more responsibilities on him.
He had protested, of course, more than once. The last time he had let his exasperation pierce through had been a few weeks earlier.
"If I had known when I helped you organize the Guard that you'd trap me with all these duties, I'd have left town instead."
Bergsen hadn't even shown the hint of a smile. "If you had, this city and its people would have died within months."
The worst thing was that he meant it.
Day after day, the same routine unfolded. Wilhelm got out of bed, used his allotted four and a half minutes of hot water in the shower and fed, all of it so automatic that he didn't need to think. The blood in the fridge was always human. Some weeks, the turn out of volunteers at the blood bank was too low, or the number of human casualties needing transfusions too high. Animal blood was distributed to the vampires in the Guard when that was the case, but not to Wilhelm. He hadn't requested this privilege, but he also hadn't requested to be treated like the other vamp recruits. Sooner or later, Bergsen would need to cave in and make the blood donations a mandatory part of the war effort.
Only after finishing his first glass of warmed blood did Wilhelm go and pick up the sheets of paper someone had pushed beneath his door. Returning to the small kitchenette, he warmed a second glass of blood in the instant-oven and sat down to look at the numbers. On good days, the first line, the line for human deaths attributed to vampire activity in the last twenty-four hours, would be zero. This was not a good day.
"Damn it. I knew I should have looked for that lair last night."
His mutter seemed louder than it truly was in the silent apartment. When he put down his glass, some blood sloshed over the side and stained the table red.
The second line showed how many new vampires had arrived in town in the same twenty-four hours. Today's report showed none, but the reports from the previous two nights had showed four and seven respectively. Wilhelm was ready to bet that there was a new clan in town, one that either did not care about the rules or had unruly fledglings amongst its members. The city could use more vampire recruits in the Guard, but it had no room for vampires that killed to feed.
Picking up the phone on the wall, Wilhelm dialed the headquarters' number.
"What are your orders, sir?"
He didn't bother with civilities. The soldier who had answered knew who was on the line, just as he knew Wilhelm wouldn't have bothered calling if he did not need to.
"Prepare a map with the locations where the bodies were found. See if you can pinpoint where they were last seen alive, too. And send MPs to question people near those points, see if anyone noticed new neighbors."
The request was a routine one, and the soldier did not ask for clarifications. Wilhelm hung up the phone and returned to his study of the bleak numbers.
The next lines identified the vampires that had been killed during the skirmishes with demons the previous night. These numbers were never as high as the ones on the second sheet of paper, which were human members of the Guard killed or seriously injured, but added together they always weakened the town's defenses too much for comfort.
Already thinking about where he would start his search that night, he abandoned the grim reports and his half finished glass in the kitchen and went to lie on the battered sofa. Books were piled up just within arm's reach and he picked one up at random. He had read each book in these untidy piles dozens of times and could recite parts of each from memory. This familiarity was exactly what he needed at that moment. With his mind filled with numbers and death, the flow of words would stop him from thinking for a little while, and maybe even stop him from wondering if the fight was hopeless.
He couldn't have said how much time had passed when a sharp knock on the door startled him out of his reading. No one ever visited him, not even Bergsen, and if they needed him to go to the headquarters because of an emergency, they always called him.
His surprise only increased when he opened the door to find a glowering Ariadne behind it.
"You had no right to do that!" she began without warning. "I've wanted to fight with the Guard for six years, and with just a few words you robbed me of that!"
Her eyes were blazing with the same fire they had held when she had come to ask for his support almost two years earlier. The difference was that now she was tall enough to look straight into his eyes. Every time he saw her, it became more difficult to remember the young girl he had once found alone in a graveyard.
"I don't know what--" he started, but a snort interrupted him.
"Don't insult me on top of it."
The anger in her gaze only strengthened, and Wilhelm gave a small nod, acknowledging it.
"See," she started again, "the problem with putting me behind a desk is that it gives me access to my own file. And to the letter, signed by you and countersigned by Commander Bergsen, that requested this assignment for me. What happened to assignments in the Guard being decided at random?"
The initial outburst had calmed, but her voice was more compelling for it, her righteous anger giving it weight. Wilhelm had never seen her like this. He had seen her afraid, distressed, pouting, even happy, but never truly angry, and she seemed like an entirely different person in front of him. It made him realize that, even though he had kept a close eye on her over the years, making sure she was safe, then following her progress when she had joined the Cadets, he had no idea who the young woman in front of him was. All he knew was that her name was Ariadne, and he had pledged to himself to do his best to keep her alive.
"Come in," he said, shaking himself out of his torpor, and stepped back to give her room to do so.
She frowned at him but walked in, taking a few steps inside the small apartment and looking around her with undisguised curiosity. Wilhelm wondered briefly what she thought, whether she had expected grander accommodations than what she saw, but she didn't say anything and her face, when she turned to look at him, showed nothing but impatience.
Walking past her, he went to the kitchenette and picked up one of the reports he had been looking at earlier.
"Here," he said, giving her the paper. "Look at those."
She took the sheet, and Wilhelm watched as she scanned it. Her eyes tightened ever so slightly, even as she pinched her lips into a tight line.
"Some of these people were my friends," she said, her voice raspy, when she looked up at him again. "But it doesn't explain why you confined me to an office when I've trained for two years to be on the battlefront."
"You're stuck in an office so you won't end up on this list. That's all there is to it."
She blinked once, and her eyes widened in incredulity that soon transformed into indignation and anger.
"How dare you! You have no right ... I can't believe you'd even think you can play with my life like that!"
"I'm not playing, Ariadne. I couldn't be more serious. I told you before that I didn't want you to join the Cadets, and I feel the same about the Guard."
Her hand was shaking when she thrust the sheet of paper back at him.
"Too late for that. I'm in. And I'm not going anywhere, except to the front. And how well do you think I'll fight when we have a big attack and they call everyone to help? Do you think I'll still be able to fight, after spending my time seated behind a desk?"
For a moment, Wilhelm faltered; he had not thought of that possibility. He couldn't believe he hadn't thought of it.
"I'll leak the papers to the entire Guard," Ariadne continued when he didn't answer. "If you don't change my assignment, I'll let everyone know, and no one will ever obey your orders again without thinking twice about the way you show favoritism. Because you know that's how they'll interpret it."
Wilhelm's resolution hardened again. Couldn't she see he was trying to save her life?
"Threatening a superior is hardly the right way to have a long career in the Guard, child."
The edge of her smile could have sliced his throat. "You're not my superior. You don't even have a rank. You're just a man who thinks he knows better than the rest of us, and who ignores anyone he doesn't have a use for. But I am part of the Guard, I earned my rank and the right to fight, and while you can ignore me all you want, you can't take that away from me."
There was a final challenge in her wavering voice and eyes--a final reproach--and then she saluted him, her posture perfect, before she turned on her heel and walked out of the apartment. The door banged shut behind her.
After her parting words, Wilhelm was left to wonder what she had been most upset about--that he had arranged for her to have an office job, or that he hadn't said a word to her since he had, despite passing by her desk every day.