10

Shades of Gray

Black and white, black and white,

The world is in sharp contrast.

Night and day, day and night,

There is dark and there is light.

I cannot see another way.

I cannot think in shades of gray.

I was raised to know the world in two colors only; black and white. Any other ideas could and would get me killed before I was seventeen, for I lived in a world where a second's hesitation could kill. A thought ranging into gray, a doubt about the rightness of the situation or what needed to be done – these and more could easily mean death. A grave might not have been even dug yet, but all the same, death would hang in the air, waiting.

Death is patient, waiting for a moment of pity or weakness. For a vampire hunter, death makes its home by the door.

Radi and Siron brought the girl in one evening, a girl who I had never seen but knew nonetheless. This was a success I had never expected, and an oddity for me. Like my mother before me, and her mother before her, I preferred not to bring a vampire into my home. My mother Séa had likened it to letting an adder make its den under the bed; it may not strike at once, but sooner or later there will be fangs in the flesh.

My gang, the Xiané, had made it our duty to exterminate the vampiric court nearest to us, the court of ShadowGlade. We were behind the death of the current ruler's father and brother, along with others of his court. We'd gone after his partner Eve as well, failing. I'd thought we had him, once, when his sister was near to death by the hand of a killer we hired. It would have been so easy… offer her life for the abandonment of ShadowGlade. We had trapped him in a vampire's club, but our guard was too lax. With that failure, I planned another type of ransom. Crio had a child, a girl, named Tobias, and it was she who struggled in Siron's grasp.

Muffled profanity brought me out my musings, and I turned to stare at our captive. So, this was the daughter. She was tall, with her father's raven hair, her eyes the color of stone. She was bound with ropes of hemp and spun witchsilver; there was a gag stuffed in her mouth. She fought the bonds with the ferocity of a tiger, though they dug deep into her wrists, burning her skin. If she had been any older, any stronger, she might even have broken them. Had she been any older, I might have feared for my life that night.

Duenna, my second-in-command and closest friend, took charge of Tobias from the other two hunters. She was stronger than the vampire, though only just, and in a few moments had the girl tied to the rings set in the stone wall. She jerked the last knot tight, and turned to me, saying, "I can't believe they got her. Nothing short of a miracle, really, getting in and out without being seen. She's tied tight, Jao. Need me for aught else?"

"Not at the moment, no. I'll find you if I do, no fear." She bowed, just a little, and then turned and walked towards her quarters. We tried to keep old laws intact, and the Xiané gang functioned as much like a court as it could; at the moment, I held the throne we didn't actually have. My family – Lianas – has led this gang for centuries, both in the Old World and the New.

I turned again to the girl, who stood trembling, blood already soaking through her bonds. Despite her helplessness, she watched me impassively, just waiting for a chance to leap for my throat. She was a predator; she could wait for her chance. As soon as she saw me looking at her, her eyes chilled, their color now that of the marble within a tomb. The look made me shiver. Even bound and bloody, the girl was formidable. But she was young, as young as I had been when I had first come to leadership. Killing children was against even our loose laws, but I know better than anyone else that even a child barely into their teens can strike the deathblow.

The girl's voice, deep as a growl, brought me out of my musings. She'd somehow worked the gag from her mouth. "Do you not understand what I am, human? I could kill you with one blow. Release me."

They were bold words, and exactly what I had expected. She was stalling for time, waiting for her father's aid, trying to bluff her way out of a situation she didn't yet fully understand. I leaned in, close, my face only inches from hers. We locked eyes; when I spoke, my voice was low. "Would a human know to bind you with hemp and witchsilver? Unlikely. Would a human have been able to capture you, or even get near you, for that matter? Never. You know that as well as I do. Think about it. Who else wants you dead…?"

Silence stretched as her eyes widened. "You…" she whispered. "I know who you are. I'm going to die, aren't I." It was not a question, for she knew it would prove true, in the end. She had ripped her gaze from mine now, and was leaning back against the wall, all hope shattered.

Shifting my weight, I said, "We're not going to kill you, girl."

"Yet!"The word exploded out of her, but there was no other sign of emotion.

"Not at all, if luck's on your side. You're a prisoner, a pawn. Killing you is not part of the plan, but if Crio refuses to leave his throne…" I trailed off as she raised her chin to glare at me. Her voice was a snarl.

"My father will never step down. He knows his duties." She swallowed hard, her first sign of actual fear. "My death won't change that. My kin and I live risky lives; we know that true death waits for us around corners."

"But of course. So it is with those who hunt you. But the ones dying aren't usually his only daughter, now are they…?"

She flung herself at me, but the shackles checked her back violently. She knew the difference that made as well as I did, and it infuriated her that I had her and her father in this position. Tobias bared her teeth at me, a blatant – and useless – threat. Then she half-lidded her eyes, which I took as a sign that she knew she was running out of options and was planning to call for help. A long moment passed, then she looked up with horror in her eyes and whispered, "What have you done to me?"

I didn't answer. She tried once more, eyes shut, the strain evident in every line of her lean body. Finally, spent, she slumped back against the wall. Tobias looked up at me again, and repeated, "What have you done?"

Pity stirred in the back of my mind, and I clamped down hard on the emotion. I knew that for a vampire to lose her powers was a catastrophe. After all that was why the Xiané had learned to block them, to a certain extent. Few of us could hold that binding against an older, stronger vampire, but Tobias, barely sixteen, posed only a slight challenge. It was a skill I'd learned before I ever held a knife, and I'd never felt guilt at using it before. I shook it off and explained curtly. "You've got more than one set of bindings – one holds you to the wall, one stops you calling for help. Don't try escaping; it's useless and you'll just exhaust yourself."

She nodded, though agreeing with me went against her nature. Fighting the bonds had already drained her and she was in no shape to argue. As she shut her eyes and leaned her shoulder blades against the cool stone of the wall, I turned to search the courtyard. I found who I wanted quickly; her wiry red hair made her distinctive, even in the dimming light of early evening.

"Duenna?" I called, softly. Some of the gang would still be asleep. "Come here a minute, would you?"

She looked around; seeing me, she smiled and called back, "Coming."

As soon as she was close enough, I pulled her aside to talk to her in relative privacy. "Do me a favor? I need to talk to Radi and my brother, or I'd do it."

"Aye..."

"Move our pretty young pawn somewhere safer – the wood paneled room, I think, if it's open. I don't want her escaping; if you need help, Moira's up."

Duenna made a face, and I didn't really blame her. Moira has no fondness for Duenna, though she hates vampires even more. She has a liking for killing, for shedding blood and causing much more pain that necessary. I turn a blind eye most times, for no vampire deserves mercy, but I keep tabs on her. She is a dark girl, beautiful in her own way, but sly and just a little more vicious than I am comfortable with. She's useful, a born fighter and smart to boot, but again, she bears watching. Moira was found, and I watched as together the two women untied the spirit-broken vampire and dragged her away. She made no attempt to escape, the loss of her powers still weighing heavily on her.

Half an hour later, I was leaning back in my chair, my feet on the desk, listening to Radi as she filled me in on the details of Tobias' capture. She pulled it off quite well for the child she still is, much better than I had been expecting or even hoping for. She had the wisdom to bring my brother, Siron, with her. At six foot five and as quiet as a deer, he is an asset in anything requiring brute force and utter silence. As she spoke, Radi flipped me a knife, then another, and another. I caught them expertly, by the handles, and examined them.

"Took 'em off the girl," she said, casually. "We made sure we found 'em all."

"Good. We'll keep them, I think. There's good workmanship on them." I lay two of the knives on the table, but kept the third in my hands, turning it over and over as Radi continued to speak.

"Your brother went in through the window, put a witchsilver blade to her throat before she could wake, and I did a quick and dirty power-bind on her before she could scream, mentally or elsewise. He dragged her out of the window; I rearranged everything and left the note. We brought her here and finished binding her. You know the rest."

I nodded, fiddling with one of the long blades as Radi ducked a quick curtsy and trotted out to the practice courts. The more I thought about the situation we were in, the more worried I became. There was a way it could all fall down around us, and quickly at that. Moira. I knew I could trust Duenna with my life, and to stick to a plan, but Moira…

I had made a mistake bringing her into the gang at all. She was power-hungry, an opportunist. She was too eager to kill, and Tobias could be the key to bringing down ShadowGlade. If she was to find death at Moira's hands… I swore. My pawn would be useless, and I'd have the whole of the vampire court on my tail. It was not a situation I wanted to have to face.

Duenna interrupted me, in a voice that was scaling upwards towards a scream. "Jao! Jao, come quick! I couldn't stop her! Oh, gods, Jao!" That normally smooth voice was rough with fear and pain. I turned around to see her running towards me. There was a line of blood running down her temple and she was cradling her left arm. Her copper-colored eyes were terrified. I didn't waste time with questions, the look on her face telling me everything I needed to know.

I took off towards the wood-paneled room as fast as my legs would carry me, but when I opened the door, shock froze me and I knew I was too late. Moira had her back to me, and the long witchsilver blade we all carry was in her hand, covered in blood. Tobias had retreated into a corner, her back to the wall. She looked up at me in pure terror, the pleading showing plain on her face. She was too proud to scream, but I could see the agony in her eyes.

I didn't bother thinking, knowing that if I did I would never do what was needed. I just did what my instincts told me, ripping Moira away from Tobias with all the force I possessed. For a second, our eyes met, and then I plunged my blade into her heart. I let her fall, and as she died, I turned to Tobias. I had to look away at first, feeling sick. Moira hadn't even deigned to kill her quickly or cleanly, and there was blood pouring out of deep gashes on her forearms. She whispered something, and I knelt to hear it, blood staining the knee of my jeans. The pain in her voice was almost tangible.

"I need to get home. Not much time…I'll be dead in half an hour. You know. Help me? Please…"

I nodded. I had to; I had made the decision to help her the instant my hand had closed on Moira's arm. Behind me, Duenna shifted uncomfortably. "Jao, wait – "

"I'm bringing her home." I stood up. "If I don't come back – and I might not come back – you're in charge. Tell Siron I love him."

"You'll come back. You have to," she said tightly, her hands clenched by her sides.

"No guarantees, Duenna. You know that." I hugged her gently, then tore two strips off of my overtunic and bound Tobias' arms. She couldn't stand, so I was forced to pick her up. She leaned her head against my shoulder wearily and said, "I'll get us to ShadowGlade, if you unbind my powers. I've just enough to get there. Blood is power, power is blood, and I'm running short of both."

"Here." I unbound her powers, and we banged out of and then back into existence. I could see the dim shape of ShadowGlade in the summer dusk. The power was gone from the girl in my arms and she sagged. I gritted my teeth and carried her through the nearby door. The vampire just inside stared at us, his mouth open in shock. Before he could speak, I had pushed myself to a run. Several seconds later, we stumbled into a huge courtyard.

"Tobias!" The voice was young, male and scared. A boy, no more than sixteen, came tearing across the courtyard. He slammed into me and pulled Tobias out of my grip and into his arms. I staggered, nearly falling, then began backing away.

"Tobias… Oh, gods, I thought you were dead."

"Shade – Shade, listen to me. Look." She reached out her clumsily bandaged arms to the boy. She was crying. "Shade, I am dying. Deep cuts with witchsilver; I'm not going to live through this. Get my parents, please."

A hand on my shoulder made me turn. A girl with dark brown eyes flecked with copper-red watched me anxiously. Her aura marked her as a witch. "Cousin in soul, run," she hissed. "If you're who I think you are, Crio will kill you without a second thought. Run, while you still can!"

I was too numb to listen to her, though I heard the words and knew the truth of them. I stared in silence at the boy racing back across the yard and the girl leaning weakly against a wall. There were two soft whooshes of air as a woman and a tall man appeared out of nowhere. The witch spared them a glance, and then turned back to me. "Last chance, cousin."

I shook my head. "I have to do this."

The man was holding Tobias against his shoulder, letting her almost-silent tears soak the cloth of his shirt. He said a harsh word to a stocky young woman with shaggy red-brown hair, who turned and headed toward me. She grabbed me roughly and twisted my arm up between my shoulder blades. She didn't twist quite hard enough for it to snap, but another inch or two and I would lose the use of my arm for a time. I stiffened in pain, biting my lip to keep from crying out. Tobias shook her head, and the red-haired girl loosened her grip slightly. The woman, Eve, was crying softly.

"Not you, Tobi. Not you too. I can take the other deaths, but not you."

Crio, for that's who the man had to be, stood up and came toward me. I could see Tobias speaking frantically to Shade, her darkening gray eyes frightened. There was a knife in Crio's hand. I closed my eyes, knowing that I was going to die and dreading it.

Unbeknownst to me, Tobias had also closed her eyes, for the last time, and Shade had stood up. All I was aware of was the vampire's cool silver blade at my throat. The pressure increased suddenly, and I felt a line of blood slide down my neck. I bit back the scream that was rising to my lips.

"No."

I opened my eyes, as Crio turned to look at Shade. He wanted me dead, now, and was not pleased with the interruption. His voice was little more than the snarl of a beast. "What?!"

"Don't kill her."

"Shade,she murdered my daughter."

"No. She didn't. Tobias…she's dying, my lord, and she's asking for this. She says that she saw the whole thing. Moira was the one who wounded her so badly; when Jao came in afterward, she put her knife through Moira's heart without even hesitating. Then she brought Tobias here, when she could have just left your daughter to die." Tears were sparkling in the corners of Shade's ash gray eyes. "Let her go, Umbrae."

The stocky girl dropped my arm, turning away, and the knife left my throat. The clang as it hit the ground was the only noise as Crio went to his daughter, seconds from death. He kissed her forehead and, along with his wife, bent to hear her last whispered words. Then he silently turned and pointed to the gate, his face as hard as stone. Trembling, I bowed and fled, knowing that I had dodged death but unsure as to how.

I'm not sure how I found my way home. I don't remember any of it. But by the time I stumbled through our gates, it was past midnight. Passing Duenna, I opened the door to my room, walked in, and locked it behind me. I collapsed onto the bed as the world went black.

I woke to a gray, rain-washed world. My head throbbed sullenly, and the half-healed cut on my throat opened and bled as I moved. Moaning, I sat up. Somehow getting my body to its feet, I moved to the door, unlocked it, and peered out.

My room opens onto the yard, a small square of hard packed earth used for knife fighting bouts, and across it I could see a black-haired girl sitting under the overhang with her back to the wall. The rain was pouring down, and the yard otherwise deserted, but then, Radi had times when she needed to be alone. Looking down, I saw that I still wore the blood-spattered clothing I had worn yesterday and felt sick. Stepping back inside, I changed quickly into a soft, gray, V-necked shirt with flared sleeves and a long black skirt that was roomy enough to fight in, if need be. Even that made me blanch a little; fighting was the last thing I wanted to do at the moment. I stayed barefoot; the stones of my floor were fairly warm. A soft knock on my door announced Duenna.

"Jao…?" She sounded as wary as I'd ever heard her. "Can I come in?"

I nodded, but couldn't meet her eyes. Duenna entered, shaking the rain out of her dark red hair, and shut the door softly behind her. She sat on my bed, picking at the silver and gold threads outlining the constellations on my black coverlet.

"So–"

"I don't want to talk about it, Duenna." I sat down heavily beside her. She put her arms around me, and I leaned into her, feeling the tears slip unbidden down my cheeks. I hadn't the slightest idea of what to do. Though I wasn't sure if I should've come back, I was still the leader of a group of killers, and I knew half of them would not understand what I'd done or why I'd done it. There would be sideways glances and whisperings of mutiny. But had I had another choice?

I had seen unexpected kindness in the midst of evil…or what I thought was evil. I was no longer sure, even about that. Who was in the right? The vampires, or my Xiané? The hunter or the hunted? I don't know, not anymore.

I was raised to know the world in two colors only: black and white, for in my world there was no room for compassion or pity. I found out the truth of my mother's lesson the hardest way I could have. It's not only death that waits for us at the door; it's doubt as well. I dodged death, but doubt snared me, and I'm not sure which is worse. Things that I thought were clear as ice have become cloudy, and matters I thought of as being in black and white have shown themselves to be made up of half a hundred shades of gray.

Nothing will ever be the same.

White is black, black is white,

The world is clear no longer.

Night is day, day is night,

What is dark and what is light?

Now I see another way.

Now I think in shades of gray.