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Blood Price

by Rudi Dornemann

I carry in the pocket of my coat a pack of bills. Vampire currency: one hundred thousand-pint notes.

For the last month, I've eaten garlic by the clove, raw or baked; garlic fritters; garlic pies; garlic slices on salads of garlic leaves. I've washed it all down with a garlic distillation so astringent my lips have permanently puckered back from my teeth.

Which is fine; now everyone can see by the smallness of my incisors what I am and what I am not.

A watcher meets me at the gate. His cloak is billowing as there's wind, even though the humid air is absolutely still.

"What's a smiler like you want in here?" he says.

"Tribute to pay." He flinches at my breath. "In the House of Eight Hands."

"Lucky them," says the vampire. "Be quick about it, and be gone."

I follow the streets I've memorized from maps. They only let each of us visit once. The crowd parts, and I reach the palace of the Eight Hands clan in under five minutes.

As I walk through the door, the wood-detector beeps half-heartedly. A guard slouches over and waves a wand up and down. She turns her face away, either because of the amulets all over my clothes or the cloud of garlic scent, and glances up only when the wand shrills at the level of my heart.

I pull out the wad of bills.

"Paper," I say. "Made of wood. I can leave them outside, if you'd rather..."

"Funny," she says. "Go."

I do, down corridors of scarlet and black marble to the throne room.

I don't rush through the formal statement of thanks for another year of oppressive safekeeping, for not draining too many of us too much too often. I savor the time while I still have a purpose, before I'm another retired pariah shunned by living and undead.

The Night Queen takes the cash, smells it, counts it.

I back away.

I bow low and drop the splinter I'd carried with the money. It joins a hundred years' of past couriers' splinters in the hollow between two loose flagstones. In another hundred, a smiler will sneak into the palace with a tube of glue. The next year, a stake will be waiting under the flagstones, and the queen and all her clan will turn to dust.

Something else to think about now I'm retired.

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