Madame Mervin, Hammer of Sues (das_mervin) wrote,
Madame Mervin, Hammer of Sues
das_mervin

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The Darkest Hour: Part VI (1 of 2)

One more day and then we're done! I love all of your requests for Laveau to lay the smackdown. :D Hyde does, too. You all have reacted so perfectly to everything, you know. You're a marvelous audience. Thank you! Hope you enjoy the final installments.

*bows out*



Part VI

It had clearly been raining earlier; the passers-by on the streets were as often as not carrying folded umbrellas and were still wearing coats and hats despite the warmth of the evening. The night air was sultry with freshly fallen rain, and puddles gathered in the dips and cracks of the streets and sidewalks. The sky was still heavily overcast, ominous clouds obscuring the stars and the moon and looking as though they might open up and drench the town again at a moment’s notice, heavy, rain-filled swells hanging in fat swags that were stained orange by the lights of the city below.

And down these streets, in the open and among the public for all to see, strolled three vampires.

Edward was spitefully pleased to see and feel that James was so obviously rattled by their current situation—so obviously scared. When Laveau had first announced himself, he’d seemed to shrink, dwindling down to near half his size—a paper tiger. Edward, on the other hand, spurred both by his spite and his pride, had stood straighter, ready to meet this challenge head on and face whatever there was to come. If they were to be punished, then they deserved it—for Nancy.

“Now then, boys—just who might you be?” Laveau had asked, his deep voice warm and his dark face friendly, but his eyes were hard, two glittering chips of mica in his face. Edward had been forced to bite his tongue when Laveau first turned his expectant gaze to James—because he looked like the one more likely to spill at that moment, Edward knew, but he also knew that it was on some level a subconscious choice on Laveau’s part—asking the elder of the two first.

James had forced out his name, his eyes cutting desperately away, and Edward could hear his thoughts running ‘round in circles, tumbling over themselves in a desperate whirl, trying to think of some way—any way—out of this.

Edward met Laveau’s eyes when he turned; with a deferential tilt of his head, he’d calmly introduced himself. “Edward Cullen,” he said, and extended his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Laveau’s eyebrows bounced a bit to hear a full name on a vampire, but he smiled, surprised by the courtesy, and took the proffered handshake all the same; Edward’s slim fingers were engulfed in his huge, ringed grip.

“Well, then, fellas,” Laveau said when he let go, “I take it you’ve just arrived in New Orleans?” He drawled his words, sliding them together such that the city’s name on his lips sounded more like “Nawlins”.

With a disgusted glance at James, who was fairly cowering, Edward answered, “Yes, sir. Only just tonight.”

“You all’s first time here?”

“Mine, yes. I’m from—” The name “St. Louis” lodged in his throat, but he went around it and forced out, “Chicago, originally.”

Laveau looked expectantly at James (Edward was briefly worried that he wouldn’t have the wherewithal not to mention the city from where they’d so recently fled), who just grunted nervously, “Jersey.”

Laveau’s smile widened, and he shook his head, clucking his tongue. “Yankees. Might’ve known.” He gave a small chuckle, and then hefted his walking stick in his hand and moved, his motions deliberate and easy, and came to stand between them. An arm like a tree trunk fell heavily across each of their shoulders; Edward staggered, and James cringed. “Well, then—let me show you my fair city, and give you both a dose of much needed Southern Hospitality.”

And so they walked, the three of them together, away from the dockside warehouses and towards the north, into the heart of New Orleans.

Edward actually found himself relaxing marginally on the trip—at least with regards to any potential danger they might be in. As they walked, he heard not the slightest whisper of suspicion from Laveau’s mind. He’d received no notice from Masterson, had been sent no message to be on the lookout for two renegades who’d broken Imperial Law. In his mind, he was merely doing his duty as the head of his Imperial seat, protecting his city and the interests of its vampires in his own way.

Edward did not feel any pressing need to share this information with James, who was growing more and more panicked as they wended their way through the city, convinced he was being taken to some horrible ultimate destination where he would face the wrath of the Imperium. Rather, he took quietly vindictive delight in watching James squirm as Laveau dragged them around New Orleans.

He took them northward, but on quite a circuitous route along the way. Edward was vaguely perplexed by it all, not to mention uncomfortable; rather than stick to the shadows, Laveau took them right out through the busy streets. Not something that was normally a problem for Edward, but tonight was not a normal night. With the thick, clotting pig’s blood seeping through his veins, it was very near to throwing a starving man into the midst of a banquet. He was forced to keep his mouth shut on his fangs, not to speak, lest someone see his clear lack of control.

But he managed well enough. Truly, Laveau himself did a great deal to alleviate his distress. Not merely by his imposing presence, but by the way that he led them through the town, keeping Edward’s attention on things other than the warm flesh and beating hearts of the passing humans. Laveau took them all over, starting with a leisurely stroll around the Garden District, in amongst the stately old homes. And he talked, too—told them all about what they were seeing. Took them by George Washington Cable’s house and the Antebellum sprawl of the Buckner Mansion, and then led them up St. Charles Avenue, the streetcars rumbling past as they walked. He was very nearly playing the part of an attentive tour guide, and Edward was almost beginning to relax.

Almost. His outward demeanor may have been all welcoming pleasantness, but the heavy arm that never left his shoulders was clearly not some simple gesture of camaraderie, but a restraint. Edward knew that they were not being asked to join him—they were being ordered to, and they had no choice but to comply. This was Laveau’s town, and he was seeing to it that things were quiet.

The crossed into the Central Business district—it was clearly an older part of town, but Laveau still scoffed at it, at this “new” territory, the American Quarter, as he called it. “Vieux Carré—that’s the real New Orleans,” he said. “‘Round here in the Faubourg you have them Johnny-come-latelies, all looking to be part of the city but not wanting to mixed with those what lived here first—didn’t want to be mixin’ with the Creoles, ‘cause, well now, we’re colored folk, aren’t we?” And he shook his head with a sort of wry amusement. “There’s their church,” he said, pointing with a finger the size of a sausage towards the massive stone building that rose up above the street like a brooding giant against the lowering sky. “St. Patrick’s, naturally—where all the Paddies go.” He gestured northward with the hand near James’s cheek, where he gripped the enormous brass knob of his walking stick—which Edward knew was heavy enough to crack a skull, and the blade inside was a very efficient stake to the heart. “Up there is our church—the St. Louis Cathedral—the oldest in the city. I’ll take you by it.”

Edward winced at the mention of the name, a flood of unwelcome memories welling up in his mind, and he forced them back down, not speaking—he clearly wasn’t meant to—but still listening closely to Laveau. Just because he wasn’t aware of their previous activities didn’t mean that he wouldn’t learn of them in the future. Just because he was playing the polite and charming host didn’t mean that he still wasn’t Imperial. And Edward wanting nothing more than to get out of here as soon as possible. And that meant that he had to play along.

They soon crossed Canal Street, and Laveau paused, taking a deep, satisfied breath, as if smelling sweeter air. “This is my home, boys—The French Quarter, they call it.” His mind brimmed over with fondness, rosy nostalgic memories mixing in with visions of future glory. “I run all this town—but this—this is New Orleans.”

He walked the streets, knowing every building and cobblestone as if they were his family, with his two unwilling companions dragged along. His steps were slow, but so long that Edward and James nearly had to scamper alongside him to keep up. “I was born here,” Laveau said as they walked. “and I loved it so much that I stayed—been here all my life—both of ‘em, for over a hundred years.” His smile took on a slightly feral quality. “There was some two-bit pretender that tried to set up shop here once, declare himself head of the town. I wasn’t about to stand for that—so I took him down, and down hard. We Laveaus are this town. My mother’s buried just up there off Rampart Street,” he said, pointing, “and to this day people still visit her crypt hoping for miracles.” He chuckled. “She always did know how to work the crowds.”

Passing humans parted like water to let them through, despite the heavy crowds of early evening, strangely ignoring them rather than shying away in fear, even when Edward felt his eyes involuntarily tracking them with helpless hunger—something that had previously never failed to unnerve a human, but here went unnoticed. But even more shocking was that Laveau didn’t just ignore all of them, but rather actually spoke to some of the humans. And while their eyes seemed to widen, as though shocked to see him, before the false attraction and innate fear filled their eyes—they spoke back. They knew him here. He called some by name, even asked one young man about his mother. And despite their obvious terror—compounded by the fact that there were three of them, and lingering past that initial instinct that warned that they weren’t human—they would swallow and answer back, all politesse and smiles, and would wish him a good evening and thank him for his time.

Edward had never heard of such an attitude from another vampire—much less an Imperial. Laveau had clearly meant it when he said that he loved this town, that he belonged to it.

At least all this gave Edward some idea as to why he hadn’t noticed Laveau coming up on them at first in the alleyway down by the docks. When Laveau would speak to those humans, and they would first register something like surprise at the sight of him, despite his being right there the whole time, and not at all inconspicuous. It was during these exchanges that Edward was able to pluck from his mind the fact that he had a very, very powerful variant of the masking gift—that if someone wasn’t looking for him, it was as if he simply wasn’t there. That was certainly a useful talent for someone running a city from the shadows. Edward would have to be on his guard—if he kept a look out, knew he was there, he could hear Laveau’s mind easily. But if he didn’t, if he wasn’t paying attention, Laveau could sneak up on him again.

The spires of the cathedral were rising sharply in the distance, and it wasn’t long before they emerged into open space of Jackson Square, the clear air a breath of relief to Edward’s nose, the smell of the humans not quite so overwhelming here. The broad expanse of green was flanked by the white, majestic church on one end, and on the opposite was the fittingly ironic Jackson—or “Jax”, as Laveau called it—Brewery. Even at night the square was crowded and full of talk and laughter, tourists and locals alike mingling in the balmy air, artists at their easels sketching busily, some for themselves and some for passing tourists for payment. Laveau regarded the bustle with the indulgent eye of a proud grandfather.

James and Edward soon found themselves dragged over to a nearby peanut stand. “Good night, Remy?” Laveau rumbled.

The pimple-faced young vendor started, his heart thudding rapidly in his chest, but then he smiled, albeit shakily. “Yessir, Mister Laveau, sir—folks is glad the rain’s lettin’ up, want to get out for the evenin’.”

Laveau chuckled. “I hear that—gimme three,” he said, loosing Edward from his grip to point to the greasy little paper sacks of roasted nuts. The boy hastened to comply, pulling out the three biggest and fullest sacks he could find and holding them out. Edward could hear that he wouldn’t ask for payment—but he expected to get it, and more besides, because Mister Laveau was always generous, and he was now, flipping him a silver dollar before taking all the sacks in one massive hand and then nodding his goodnight to the boy, who was falling all over himself to say thank you.

James was still tight in Laveau’s grip; Edward, freed momentarily, found himself on the receiving end of a hard look that told him in no uncertain terms that he’d better not try to go anywhere. And he didn’t, following obediently along, staying close and avoiding coming too near any humans, wanting to give Laveau no cause to suspect him of any misdeeds. They all paused for a moment under the statue at the center of the square; three filthy little boys were smoking cigarettes and trying to look tough. “Hey, there, boys—you stayin’ out of trouble?” Laveau asked them.

They collectively cringed, but then they straightened and all nodded with a solemnity that was rather lessened by the cigarettes jutting from their lips. But they did mean it, Edward knew, in their own peculiar fashions—they may have been up to some mischief, but they weren’t causing any real trouble, weren’t upsetting the city, because it was a bad idea to make Mister Laveau angry.

And they didn’t—he smiled, and said, “Well, then—here you go,” and tossed them the sacks of nuts. They pounced on them, trilling their thanks as they dashed off through the crowds, and Laveau chuckled amusedly as he swung his arm back up around Edward’s shoulders. “Well, I guess you boys have had quite a trip—why don’t we head on back to my place for a sit and a chat?”

He lead them back through the square and up along Bourbon Street, past the beautiful old Spanish-style buildings, with stuccoed walls and tiled roofs, and galleries lined with intricately curling ironwork. It was to one such of these buildings that Laveau took them. There was a uniformed doorman standing outside, who kept his face impassive as he opened the door for the three of them as if they were royalty, and Laveau ushered them inside.

They were met by a butler, complete with suit and tie, a stiff model of formality—and he too was warm and alive and fully human. Laveau dropped his coat and hat and walking stick with him, and then turned to Edward and James and said, “Drop your coats at the door, gentlemen, and come on in.”

Edward was vaguely uncomfortable with this arrangement—Laveau had humans waiting on him? That seemed dangerous—for the humans, at least. The man—Jules Cheval—had been serving Laveau for several years, and Edward knew that he was quite afraid of him—and yet he stayed, was well looked after, well paid, and all he had to do was keep the house running smoothly and quietly and take care of the master or any of his odd friends and associates who would drop by from time to time. He didn’t know what Laveau did, didn’t know what he was, but he didn’t ask. He just did as he was told.

Edward gave his somewhat battered coat to the man, who took it impassively, and James too dropped off his jingling jacket, the wheels in his mind still turning furiously. Edward caught his eyes quite by accident and deliberately looked away.

Laveau was waiting patiently in the foyer and gestured them to follow into the house proper. They passed down the hall, over the plush red carpets that lined the floors; Edward could see rooms off to the right and left, flooded with light from glittering chandeliers above, filled with stately furniture and art. A sleekly gleaming baby-grand piano dominated one room, and Edward felt his fingers itch at the sight; he hadn’t played in months.

James was looking around him with a positively stunned expression. It was impressive, to be sure, but Edward had always known—intellectually, at least—that the local governors lived in the lavish opulence afforded by Imperial backing. James, it seemed, hadn’t quite understood what that had meant. At least now he had an idea why the fellow he mentioned having changed him might have wanted an Imperial appointment.

At the end of the hall they met a young girl in a maid’s uniform; she froze as she rounded the corner and found herself under the gaze of three vampires. Her dusky cheeks first flushed at the sight of them, her mind filling with wild fantasies and helpless longing, before she went ashen, shrinking down into herself, and Edward could feel her sudden, paralyzing fear.

“Well, hello there, Felicie,” Laveau said warmly, stopping in the middle of the corridor and blocking her way with his massive frame.

The girl swallowed convulsively (breathe just breathe), fighting against her eyes trying to glaze with lust, and Edward could feel the dryness of her mouth, the way she forced her tight throat to unlock enough to say, “Good evening, Mister Laveau, sir.”

“You headed on home now, girl?”

She nodded, keeping her eyes on the floor (so close almost out why’d he have to come home early?). “You have all the guest rooms aired and ready, right?” he asked.

She nodded, daring to look up for just a moment before looking back down to the floor. “Yes, sir—I always do. Just like you say, sir.”

Laveau reached out one hand; she flinched back (ohno ohno ohno please no), but he kept coming, touching her warm, round little cheek with one finger and drawing her up to face him. “That’s a good girl,” he said, and his smile was wide and his eyes sparkling and Edward could feel the terror rolling off of her in waves even has her body cried out for his touch. “I knew you was a good investment,” Laveau said, and as his smile grew wider as he traced his finger along the line of her neck, where her pulse pounded out of control and despite the way his fangs pressed against his lips, Edward was an inch from jerking Laveau’s hand away, what is wrong with you, she’s just a girl, can’t you see that she’s scared to death, leave her alone!

But then he pulled away. “You keep things up how I like ‘em, and I’ll take good care of you—isn’t that how I work?” Laveau said, and Felicie nodded furiously, and he said, “Well, then—you run along home to your mamma like a good girl, and I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”

Nearly faint with relief, the girl fled, skittering down the hallway in an almost blind panic and flying out the door. Laveau just chuckled with a dark good humor and turned, beckoning James and Edward to follow him.

They found themselves in what looked to be a study; the walls were paneled with dark wood and lined with bookshelves; thickly upholstered chairs faced a massive mahogany desk that dominated the room. Unsurprisingly, that was where Laveau sat, his proportions more than a match for the desk, reclining easily in the high-backed leather chair and gesturing for them to have a seat.

Edward sat stiffly opposite the desk; James did the same. Laveau reached into a wooden humidor and took out a fat Cuban cigar; he didn’t offer either of them one. He lit it, filling the room with a sweet, woodsy smoke, and then kicked up his leather-booted feet on the desk. “So, now—you boys been travelin’ long?” he asked.

“About a week,” Edward answered, when it became (thankfully) apparent that James wasn’t going to, too busy cataloguing the magnificence of the room around them and, despite slowing cottoning on that they didn’t seem to be in any immediate danger, still very much interested in getting away from here.

“And you’ve been together all that time?” Laveau asked.

“Yes, sir—and some weeks before that.”

“Pretty rare to see groups come through,” he remarked with a sly smile. “You know, our kind tend not to get along too well.” And Edward could see in his mind the memory of their fight, tinged of contemptuous amusement, and he flushed slightly.

“Well, no—not always,” he admitted, reflexively giving James a dark look.

“Well, not getting along or no—there’ll be no more of your little slap fights while you’re here,” Laveau said, and his voice was suddenly flat and serious, and James looked at him this time. “This is my town,” he said, and he looked right back at James when he said it, and hard, and Edward knew that he’d overheard James’s childish insistence that he was taking over here, and he smirked as he saw James flush. “And I keep things quiet—everything runs smooth here, no gallivantin’ around tearing up whoever you please. That sort of behavior is the best way to get ourselves noticed.” Edward threw a nasty look at James, who returned it with interest before they both looked back at Laveau when he said, “As long as you’re here, you play by my rules.”

Edward nodded deferentially. James, on the other hand, looked mutinous. “I mean it, boy,” Laveau said, the warmth from his voice nearly all gone. “This town is mine, and so are the humans in it—you run off and eat whoever you please and make a mess, and you’re gonna pay.”

“But if they’re yours, why can’t you just eat whoever you please?” It seemed James couldn’t stand it any longer. “You own them, so why not use them?”

Edward felt his lips curling in disgust, and to his pleasure, Laveau’s were too. “‘Cause that’s the way an animal behaves,” Laveau said, and James’s face purpled with anger. “It’s the humans here what keep this city running, and I’ll not have my city disrupted. And while you’re in my city, you’d do well to remember that you aren’t an animal—you’re a vampire, a member of the most high and noble race on this earth, and while you’re here, you’ll behave accordingly. And you will be staying here,” he added. “I keep rooms ready for all of us that pass through. And you,” he leveled a huge, accusatory finger right at James, “will keep your hands off my servants—or anybody else in Vieux Carré, for that matter—for the duration. I didn’t spend all this time gettin’ ‘em trained up to be useful to have you ruinin’ it.”

A tense silence fell, Laveau unmoving, James seething. It was Edward who finally broke it. “Forgive me, sir,” he said, “but are you the only vampire in residence here?”

Laveau seemed to relax slightly. “Indeed I am, young fella. Don’t need no one else but me.”

“That’s certainly unusual. In my experience settled vampires are usually found in groups,” Edward said. “And you—you really have humans doing your necessary work for you instead?”

Laveau chuckled, taking a long draw on his cigar, and Edward felt him enjoying the smell and taste of it, despite being a vampire. “Well—that’s what they’re there for, isn’t it?” he chuckled.

Edward shifted, a bit uncomfortable, but didn’t answer. James, however, was regarding the room—and Laveau—with a slowly growing spark of hunger.

Laveau didn’t seem to notice, just dropped his feet down to the floor so he could reach over for a tasseled bell pull to the side. “Now, then,” he said. “I’m guessin’ you boys would like a chance to clean up a bit after your long trip.” He eyed them critically, and Edward felt his face darkening horribly as he felt Laveau’s amused disgust with their smell. “Just how were you boys travelin’, anyhow?”

“Down the river. On a livestock barge,” Edward answered shortly.

Laveau chuckled. “Not surprised—well, I’m sorry to say it, boys, but you brought the atmosphere with you.” He raised a mocking eyebrow and theatrically wrinkled his nose.

James blinked, and then he turned a nasty smirk in Edward’s direction. James knew what it was (you are what you eat and you eat SHIT), and Edward felt his face prickling with embarrassment.

Jules had just entered the room. “Now—my man will show you up to some rooms. You boys can have a shower, and I keep some clothes on hand—surely you can find something that’ll fit you while we have your things laundered,” Laveau said, back to his warm magnanimity. “Jules, take my guests upstairs and show them to their rooms—they’ll be staying with me for a while.”

James and Edward both looked at him, and then briefly at each other. It was more than clear that as long as they were here, Laveau intended to keep them close. Despite their panicked flight, in the end they’d still found themselves under the watchful eye and restraining thumb of the Imperium.



Edward straightened from tying his shoes. His freshly-polished shoes; after emerging from the blessedly hot shower, the first he’d had in over a week, he’d found that his stained clothing had been taken away and his shoes clean and shined. He’d heard Jules come in and take them away while he was bathing.

The entire upper story of Laveau’s home was dedicated to guest rooms, and each one just as lavish as the two floors beneath it. Edward had been ushered into one overlooking the street below; he wryly noted that there was no way he could creep out the window overlooking the bustle of the city without being spotted.

At that point, he’d had little choice but to go along with things, to see how it all played out. So he’d stripped and headed for the bathroom, which was a study in brass and green marble. The bathtub was so enormous that he almost could have swum in it; as it was, he simply showered instead, scrubbing furiously at the traces of dirt and grit and filth that he’d accumulated in the barge—or in the alleyway by Hyde Park during his fight with James, when Nancy—

But he couldn’t get rid of all of it. Even the expensive soaps couldn’t mask the smell of himself. If anything, they made it worse, clearing away the filth that disguised it and letting his open pores ooze the stink of pig out into the air.

He furiously toweled his hair by the sink, and had a bit of a shock when looking in the foggy mirror. He looked horrible; his eyes sunken and shadowed, his cheeks hollow, his face ghastly pale. And his eyes—so dulled, their sparkle gone, the color dimming.

He turned away. He recognized that for what it was.

His clothes were gone, but the enormous wardrobe and hulking bureau was, as Laveau had promised, filled with clothes of all shapes and sizes. Edward had managed to scrounge up something that fit reasonably well. In hopes of further impressing Laveau into lowering his guard (and perhaps pricked by his pride a little), Edward put on one of the ties that were hanging inside, and neatened his hair as best as he ever could.

There was cologne and the like on the dressing table, and after liberally splashing himself to hide what he had been eating, he put on his shoes and ventured out.

As luck would (or wouldn’t) have it, James was skulking in his room just listening for Edward to emerge, not wanting to be alone here, and came flying out into the hall just as Edward did. Edward gave him a cold look, flickering a near unconscious glance of disdain at his rumpled and distracted appearance.

James didn’t miss it, and Edward felt his flare of fury just before in was quenched by a familiar barroom ditty. James leaned in and gave a dramatic sniff. “Boy, you sure smell pretty, there, queer-boy,” he sneered, his meaning more than plain, and Edward could smell through James’s nose the rank, rotting smell even beneath the cologne.

“I’ll thank you to keep your mouth shut for the duration,” he answered icily. “It is your fault that we’re in this situation, and now it’s up to me to get us out. For once in your life keep silent and let your betters handle things.”

A discordant burst of rage, like a jangle of piano keys, filled both their heads, but then Jules came round the corner and said, “If sirs are ready, Mister Laveau would like your company in the drawing room.”

And so, seething, they both followed the man down to the first floor, past the second floor ballroom and Laveau’s private suite—where he would see anyone going down from the upper story—and then down the hall, past the game room and the study and library and into the front parlor.

Laveau was sprawled out on an enormous settee, reading through the evening paper. Edward entered the room, and James stood just behind him, keeping to the shadows as much as possible, and away from Laveau’s stare.

The paper was dropped with a rustle, Laveau folding it and tossing it carelessly onto the table. “Well, now,” he said genially. “You boys don’t clean up half-bad.” (But that smell is still there, what have these boys been doing?)

Edward inclined his head, partly in acknowledgement and partly to hide his flushing cheeks, and hurriedly said, “That is a fine instrument, sir,” nodding towards the piano.

“Ah—thank you,” Laveau rumbled. “A Steinway—had it shipped down from New York in 1888, when the boys down here started up that ragtime music. I don’t play, of course, but Mother always said that every house really does need a piano—just finishes things. You play?” he asked.

Edward nodded, but admitted ruefully, “I’m dreadfully out of practice, though. But we had an upright when I was growing up in Chicago—and my mother did enjoy ragtime herself.”

Laveau grinned proudly. “The boys down here in New Orleans—they have the ears of the whole world, with their music. We started rag, and now their jazz is sweeping the nation.” He hove a sigh, looking off into the distance. “I tell you, New Orleans is the essence of this country—the heart and soul—there’s nowhere I’d rather be.” He turned back at Edward and gestured to the keyboard. “Well, don’t just stand there—play me a tune, boy.”

“Oh, no.” Edward shook his head, smiling apologetically. “I couldn’t—really, I haven’t practiced in ages. I’d only embarrass myself.”

Laveau chuckled, kicking his feet up on the table as Edward sat down in the chair opposite him; James still stood, silent and watching. “I understand—most of our kind tends to give up the things we did as humans once we’re changed.”

“Ah—quite the contrary, actually,” Edward corrected him, ignoring the contemptuous mental sneering from the side of the room. “I did keep up with it—for years afterwards. I always found a way to be near a piano before. We even bought one when we bought our new house up in Maine, so I could play whenever I liked.” He looked down at his hands; Carlisle had made the down payment for that piano with his first new paycheck from the Bangor hospital. “It’s only just lately that I’ve fallen out of the habit.”

“We?” Edward looked up and found Laveau regarding at him with a raised eyebrow. “You two?” he asked, jerking a head at James.

“Certainly not,” Edward said firmly, and he felt the rill of anger that rippled through James’s mind at being so thoroughly dismissed. “I’ve only known him for a few weeks. No, before I lived with my…” he swallowed, but pushed on. “With the vampire who changed me—and his wife.”

“…I see.” Laveau’s expression was one of dawning comprehension—which was a mistake. Edward heard the sudden surety in his mind even before he straightened his posture, no longer so relaxed as he dropped his feet to the ground and leaned intently forward as he opened his mouth to ask, “What city was your protectorate?”

“Oh, no, sir.” A surprised laugh escaped him. “We—we weren’t Imperials!”

“But you’re bucking for an appointment?” he asked, his eyes narrowed and shrewd, his mind working furiously.

“No!” Edward held up his hands. “No—nothing like that. We just—they were my—” His throat worked convulsively around the words, and he looked at the black mirrors of his shoe tops. “They were my—my family, is all.”

Laveau didn’t believe him, that much was clear. Even if he hadn’t heard the whirl of suspicions and speculation and distrust in his mind, his carefully closed face would have told Edward all that he needed to know.

“Really—we’re not,” he said, but Laveau didn’t answer, just looked steadily at him, tapping one lip with his finger.

A rather uncomfortable silence fell over the room. It was finally broken when Laveau settled back in his seat—not quite as indolent and relaxed as before, still wary, but neither so rigid and formal—and he spoke. “Well, then—I suppose I’d be a bit remiss in my promised dose of Southern Hospitality if I didn’t offer you boys something to eat—I reckon you’re both pretty done in, after your trip.”

Edward tensed at the mention of eating. James, on the other hand, perked up from where he stood off to the side, his face showing more enthusiasm since all the time they’d been here before. Laveau saw him, too, and his expression hardened. “And that includes teaching you boys the ropes in my city—I’ve told you once, no tearin’ through the townsfolk like the Axeman. This town is runnin’ the way I want it, if you louse it up, you’re gonna pay.” He settled back more comfortably in his seat. “But stick with me, and I’ll keep you fed—we’ll just be doin’ in my way.”

Edward was hungry. The casual mentions of keeping them fed had made his mouth start to water. And yet…there was an unpleasant twisting in his chest. The last time he’d tried to eat, Nancy had…he couldn’t let that happen. Not again. Felicie’s face flashed across his mind. She was safe, because Laveau said so…but how many other girls were there like her out in the other districts of the town?

But he didn’t eat people like that. He didn’t eat good girls and hardworking family men. Only the scum off the streets.

…Like those boys who were smoking in the square, all from broken homes and who were already going down the path to turning out just like the kinds of people that Edward did eat? When did they stop being boys and start being that scum?

No. He didn’t eat innocent people.

But James did. Edward looked up, shaking himself from his unwanted introspection in time to hear James asking where they were going to go. “I’m starving,” he declared. “I want something young, fresh, and firm.”

Edward’s stomach turned, and he was seized with such a strong desire to get away from James that he barely heard Laveau’s answer.

“Oh, don’t you worry about that,” he said, amusement creeping into his voice at James’s still-youthful overenthusiasm for eating—he’d calm down in time, but Laveau well remembered those days, when each meal was better than the last. “I’ll run you boys over to the asylum in Mid-City.”

Edward blinked at him. “What?” he asked blankly.

Laveau looked over his way as he shifted to stand. “Oh, the mental wards are always easy pickin’s,” he said, his manner casual, his mind still. “They’re healthier, too—maybe have bats in the belfry, but their bodies are just fine.”

Edward just looked at him, and then his jaw dropped. “You—you prey on people in hospitals?!”

Laveau looked surprised by his tone. “‘Course. I keep things quiet, like I said—nobody notices deaths in a hospital,” he said calmly.

“But—but—” Edward was sputtering, his words tumbling over themselves in an outraged rush. “Those people are there for treatment! They’re just people—they’re trying to get healthy—back on their feet—hospitals are places of—of trust—doctors ‘do no harm’—you can’t just—just eat them!”

Laveau was looking at him as though he had two heads. “What are you talking about?” he asked.

“You—you think keeping things quiet justifies slaughtering innocent people?” Edward demanded.

“What people?” Laveau countered. “They’re only humans. Why do you care?”

Edward’s mouth fell open, the words on his tongue dying, leaving his jaw hanging uselessly agape, and he stared at Laveau, who regarded him with a bemused sort of disbelief.

“Oh—Edward cares, all right.”

He’d nearly forgotten that James was there, jumping at the sudden sound of his voice in the silence. They both looked over at him.

James emerged slowly from the shadowed corner, a sneer cutting into his lip. “He cares,” he said again, his voice laced with contempt. “Edward here only eats the bad humans.”

Edward bristled at his mocking tone. Laveau, on the other hand, suddenly regarded Edward with something like wary approval, and Edward’s stomach churned. “Oh—well. There’s no harm in that—that keeps things running smoothly as well. Prisons are always good spots, too—or the occasional crook off the street. It’s all the same to me.”

No! It’s not all the same!” Edward whirled on him. “Those people are a menace! They prey on innocent people! People in hospitals haven’t done anything! They’re helpless! They haven’t hurt anyone!”

“Wrong,” Laveau said, leveling him with a steady gaze. “Do you know how much it costs to keep hospitals up? To make space for all the sick people clogging up the streets and spreading disease and discord in my city?” He stubbed out the tiny remnant of his cigar and stood. “I keep my city running, and running well—I foster the ones who serve a function, and cull out the ones who are a drain.” He chuckled down at Edward with the attitude of Socrates confronting a pupil. “You have a bit to learn about Imperial workings, if you really want that seat.”

Edward stared at him, appalled. “You—they—they’re people! You can’t just—who gave you the right to decide who lives or dies?”

Laveau snorted, his own confusion rapidly being crowded out by a patronizing sort of disgust and amusement. “It’s not a matter of ‘right’, boy—they’re just humans, and I’m a vampire.” He eyed him. “You have some strange ideas about humans, son—they’re livestock, not pets.”

“See, that’s Edward’s problem.” James’s voice was thick was spiteful mirth. “He’s all about the livestock.” Edward jerked around to face him, and he felt the vessels in his cheeks open wide at his look of vicious amusement, at the feel of the barely-restrained glee beneath the song rolling through his head. “Tell him, Edward—tell him about the livestock.”

“Shut up, James,” he hissed through clenched teeth.

James just chuckled darkly, turning to Laveau, who was watching this exchange with a sort of narrow-eyed detachment. “I’m not the one who brought the ‘atmosphere’ of the barge with me—it’s him.” He jabbed an accusing thumb in Edward’s direction. “See, he just couldn’t bear to eat the nice little humans—so he sucked down a nice fat pig instead.”

Laveau blinked, before appalled disbelief welled up in his mind. “You can’t be serious,” he said flatly, sounding rattled for the first time since they’d met him.

Edward’s face was near swollen with the blood pooling in his cheeks. James was going to pay for this, he silently vowed, but he gathered his pride about himself, straightening. “It was a matter of survival,” he said firmly. “We couldn’t just eat the people on the ship without arousing suspicion—so I chose an alternative means. Just to keep things running smoothly,” he added coldly.

But Laveau didn’t hear his insolence, he was just staring. “That ain’t survival, boy,” he said. “That’s sick.”

“No kidding, it’s sick,” James said. “The smell of him makes it obvious.”

Laveau’s eyes traveled over Edward, and his repulsion was swelling higher and higher, and it crowded into Edward’s mind on top of James’s black merriment. “What the hell is wrong with you, that you’d do something like that?” Laveau demanded.

“There is nothing wrong with me,” Edward ground out. “It’s a matter of choice.”

“And just how long will that choice sustain you, boy? Right up until you go mad and attack someone in broad daylight? Or when you’re as slow and weak and sluggish as a human? Or when you just shrivel up from starvation?” Laveau asked contemptuously.

“Neither,” Edward said, his voice scornful. “My father is over two-hundred and fifty years old—and he’s never eaten a human in his life.”

Both Laveau and James’s jaws dropped, and they stared. Edward glared back, defiant. “What kind of sick freak does that?” James breathed.

“Carlisle is not a freak!” Edward snapped. “He is the best, most honorable man I’ve ever known! He has the self-control not to eat innocent humans—because he has the conscience to know that it is wrong.”

“Conscience doesn’t stop him from being an animal-loving deviant, though, now does it?” Laveau drawled.

“It’s not like that!” Edward insisted. “Do you think we enjoy it? No! But it’s wrong to eat people, so we choose to eat animals!”

“You didn’t a week ago,” James said coolly.

Edward felt all his air leave him in a rush, the words striking him with the force of a blow, and he had no answer. James gave a contemptuous snort. “They’re all humans, you stupid prick—they’re all nothing but dinner.”

“Enough of this,” Laveau rumbled. “Look—what you do for kicks in your spare time is none of my business.” Edward flushed, and James gave a disgusted snigger. “But this is my town—mine, as is everything in it, and I will eat what I please. You don’t have any of these sick ideas, do you?” he demanded, rounding on James.

James looked revolted. “Hell no. Why do you think I was coming down here in the first place? To get away from that pervert,” he said, jerking his chin in Edward’s direction.

Edward bit his lip to keep from calling him out on the lie—trapped, because he couldn’t deny it without exposing the truth about why they had left. So he fumed in silence, even under the withering, disgusted look that Laveau was giving him. “Well, then, boy? You gonna eat, or not?”

“I wouldn’t eat anyone here even if offered on a silver platter,” he answered frostily.

Laveau’s eyes flashed, but then a slow smile turned up the corner of his mouth. “Well, then—my gardener keeps a manure pile out back—while we’re gone, you can just help yourself to that.”

James guffawed appreciatively; Edward’s face purpled with mortified fury. “I am leaving,” he spat. At Laveau’s warning raised eyebrow, Edward added, “Leaving this whole city. For good. I wouldn’t spend another minute here if you offered me an Imperial appointment.”

“Good,” said Laveau. “The river makes the city reek enough as it is, without you adding to it.”

James hooted sycophantically, and Laveau too chuckled at his own wit, his amusement mingling with his revulsion, and James’s mind was a swirl of vengeful delight and vicious good humor, and he looked right at Edward and thought of Nancy.

Whirling on his heel, Edward stormed out of the room on the crest of their mocking laughter. Jules was standing by the door with his coat; he yanked it out of his hands so roughly that he almost knocked the man over, and he threw open the door on his own and stalked out into the street.

But he could still hear them, hear the derisive disgust in their minds, could hear them laughing. He snarled, and a passing woman gave him a nervous look and crossed to the other side of the street. He glared, and she hurried away, and he turned, leaving this place behind him, plunging into the crowds on the streets.

Which turned out to be a mistake. He was so thoroughly distracted by his own outrage and humiliation that he hadn’t thought of the passers-by until he was nearly run down by a passing cyclist, and stumbled back into a young fellow around his age (no, younger, he was twenty-six, not seventeen), and the scent of him filled his nose and burned on his tongue, and Edward nearly threw the bewildered young man aside in his haste to get into a nearby alley, where he wouldn’t see the long, dripping fangs poking out of his lips.

Edward pressed himself against the side of the building, taking great mouthfuls of air—which did him no good, because there were people everywhere, their smell was everywhere, and then he heard James and Laveau pass by, both full of good humor and anticipation as they strolled down the street, headed north, to hop the street car to the next district over, where they would find sweet, warm blood waiting for them—real blood, not filth like that madman liked, and Edward’s stomach clenched with both his shame and their hunger, and without thinking he leaped, desperately scaling the building behind him, crawling up to the roof and sprinting away.

He had to get away, get out—get to somewhere where the smells and the thoughts were behind him, where he could get a grip on himself before trying to leave the city. He leaped across the roofs of the French Quarter, finally coming to rest atop a tall building on Rampart Street. He threw his head back and stared at the sky, up at the low-hanging clouds that roiled above him, threatening rain again. He was better than this—he could handle this. He could control himself—not like those two, he thought in disgust. How dare Laveau talk as if he cared about this town? A town was the people in it—and they were objects to him.

Edward’s lip curled. He didn’t know who was worse: James, who loved to toy with and terrorize those weaker than himself, or Laveau, who methodically wiped out those he considered a detriment to his precious city. Who the hell gave him the right to make that call? Who made him judge, jury, and executioner—who made him God? No one had the right to decide who got to live and who got to die.

…No one.

And inside of him, something shattered.

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