Paper Starlings: a vampire in Oxford

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Paper Starlings is the first of six books in the not*the*same*river series. The books follow the life of Violet who, after a childhood in care, figures out that her birth family’s heritage is more complicated than she believed possible.

The series features vampires, angels, demons, werewolves, vaewolves and other vae breeds. It’s set mainly in Oxfordshire, England.

Context: Violet’s family reluctantly agree to let her meet Sean Morrigan, the vampire who raised her twin sister.

***

We’d arranged to meet Sean in Oxford, in a pub by the river. He and Amethyst were already there, watching the punts and pedaloes drifting beneath the willows. Patches of blue sky were reflected in the murky, green tree water, glittering like gemstones trapped under water. Amethyst and Sean sat at a picnic bench protected from the sun by a garden parasol. Eden sat several tables away on the shady side of the deck and, like she promised, she directed a scowl at Sean that could strip paint.

“Did Amethyst tell you about the mass grave at the river?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Now I know what you’re thinking, what with Mara waffling on about her queen and the resurrection, but she has no interest in any mass grave. And like Amethyst explained to you, we don’t leave skeletons. Besides, Mara hates it here. In fact, she’s left for a while with her … entourage.”

That explained the carefree Sean.

“How long will she be gone?”

“She didn’t say, but at least a week, I should think. She’s had one of her steroid junkies stationed at every exit for the last few weeks. For our protection, she says. Our protection, my arse.”

“Amethyst said she’s not obedient because you didn’t turn her yourself,” I said.

“Aye, now that was a mistake. I should’ve done the deed myself, but OB was adamant that she couldn’t be trusted. He’s never wrong, Old Bones. He said she’d destroy us, but he thought if I didn’t turn her myself, and if I ordered everyone else to leave her alone, she’d lead a normal mortal life.” He sighed. “I should’ve realised that would never be enough for Mara.”

“So how did she …” I looked around. I couldn’t say vampire out loud. Not in Oxford.

“She found her own way. She seduced an old comrade, got him drunk and that was that. The deed was done, and I was furious. The best I could do was put her under my protection, feed her myself, but it’s not the same as being master and servant. She would never obey me, but I could at least keep an eye on her. Now she keeps an eye on me.” His eyebrows arched briefly.

“Did she take Albert with her?”

“No,” he said, biting his lip. “Which is unusual for her.”

“Shame,” I muttered.

“Albert said he spoke to you at the picnic.”

“He didn’t speak to me. He barked at me like a little angry dog.”

He laughed and shook his head. “That’s really not like Albert at all. I won’t make excuses for his behaviour, but he’s been very unsettled by the changes in the coven and he had a row with Old Bones before we left which, again, is not like Albert.”

“Amethyst said some of your people have gone missing.”

“Far too many. And not just from my coven. Some of my old friends are missing too, their houses looted. In fact, one of them was Albert’s sire. They were very close.”

“Disappeared doesn’t necessarily mean dead though, does it?”

“We’d expect to have heard something by now. Either a ransom or a message to say he’s alright. But we’ve heard nothing. Besides, a painting went missing from his house that he’d never have moved voluntarily.”

“What’s the tapestry at your house?” I said.

Sean raised his eyebrows and looked at Amethyst.

“Don’t look at me. I didn’t invite her,” said Amethyst. “They came looking for me after Archer saw us at the fair last year.”

“It’s a horrible bloody thing, that tapestry. It’s called The Calling of the Mother Tree. Mara’s had one half of it for a hundred years, but the other half, she only located recently. She’s obsessed with the damn thing. She thinks it’s a message.”

“You said it reminded you of the cull.”

He leaned forward, arms folded on the table, and lowered his voice. “Years ago, lots of religious artefacts were collected by the churches as a means to torture and kill vampires. Guilds, they called themselves. The walls of these torture chambers were covered with religious tapestries. Family heirlooms were stolen, and the churches amassed a wealth of powerful objects. It’s how I found the jasper mirror.”

“You mean Gabriel’s mirror?” I said. “The green one?”

“I expect it has many names,” he said. “These things usually do.”

“Do you know what it does?”

“No, but if Old Bones says your family needs it more than I do, so be it.”

“Old Bones? So he must’ve seen us using it,” I said. “Did he say what for?”

Sean chuckled. “No, he didn’t say what for and he wouldn’t tell me a thing about it. I guess he must think you’re smart enough to figure it out for yourselves. Let’s hope so, shall we?”

“So this cull then? What happened?”

“Well, I was new to this life then. We were being rounded up and tortured to death. The Austrian army invaded the village where I’d lived the last of my human days. They desecrated every grave, exhumed every last body, except mine. I was a respected doctor and they left me to rest in peace. They staked the bodies they’d exhumed and tossed them back into their graves, leaving them in the open to rot, while the villagers looked on. Those who had seen their loved ones dug up and didn’t support the army’s tactics were accused of being in sympathy with vampires. There were several unlawful hangings and more public brawls than the village had seen in a hundred years. Old Bones put the cemetery back how it should’ve been. Day after day he worked to give the dead the dignity they deserved. When I turned him, he went after those soldiers. If there’s one thing Old Bones insists on, it’s respect for the dead. He’d love to tend cemeteries, even now.”

“Why doesn’t he?”

“He can’t set foot on consecrated ground. Neither can I. It’s why I couldn’t come and see you in your old place, that church you lived in,” he said. “OB paid his respects from outside the church grounds though, as did I.”

“You and Old Bones were at the funeral?”

He nodded. I didn’t really want to talk about that, or think about it, so I dug my nail into a softened crack in the table while I tried to think of something to say, to figure out my next question.

Sean carried on to save me the bother. “OB wasn’t a vampire back then, not at the height of the cull.”

“So it wasn’t just about digging up dead bodies in the hope that some might be vampires?”

“Not quite. That was just a small misguided part of it. A way to keep people in fear. Only bloodborn vampires have graves. The rest don’t die.”

***

The source image above is from SJPrice on Pixabay

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