“Why?” is the only word I can manage.
“Because Portocales typically avoid our kind. The other families and I moved here shortly after the great massacre I told you about earlier tonight,” he continues.
I giggle a little, because he’s ridiculous, even though his hands are magic and the lavender air is spectacular to breathe in. I feel like I could pluck petals off the flower from the air if I tried.
“Maybe I used too much for your weaker tolerance,” he mutters under his breath, sighing harshly.
“You’re not possibly that old,” I say around a grin, looking over his face.
His eyes are soulful and wise, but his face is far too young.
“Once upon a time, immortality is all man sought. One day, I’ll have no choice but to tell you how we came across the nightmare we sought so diligently, but today is not that day. For now, let’s pretend you know all about immortality and its rules.”
“Sure,” I dutifully agree, and then grin broader as my limbs grow heavy.
I’m certainly not numb. I can feel every glorious touch of his hands as he continues on with my pedicure. I should feel embarrassed, not so relaxed and…
My gaze is riveted to the water when it turns pink and gold, swirling around his hands. But it fades back to clear when he takes the lotion and starts massaging it into my calves.
I think I moan. I know I want to.
“We were assigned here after the war ended,” he continues. “Strained alliances and necessary truces were made when we grew tired of constantly tearing each other to shreds. However, resentment festers long after a war ends. We’re not so different from mortals in that respect.”
“What wars?” I ask absently, my eyes fluttering shut when he continues to massage my calves, working his way up to my knees and then back down to my ankles, leaving my feet still submerged.
“The obvious wars,” he tells me flatly. “Werewolves, vampires, my kind…and two others that are a little more difficult to explain. The bloodshed was getting us nowhere, and we all finally came to the same agreement when our fear faded.”
Two others? Four families…
The math isn’t adding up, but there are more important questions to ask. I think. The water is pretty again…and distracting.
“What fear?” I ask around a moan when he works out tension from my feet I didn’t know even existed.
“The fear I alluded to earlier,” he says quietly. “Paralyzing fear that consumes and destroys.”
He pauses his ministrations, and I glance down as he lifts my feet from the water and places the small tub out of the way. He grabs a towel from the floor, and starts patting both my feet dry as his eyes come back up to mine.
“When the world changes before your very eyes, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, you can only make decisions based on the knowledge you have on hand,” he continues. “Whether your actions make you a monster or a hero is to be determined by those who win the war and write your history. In war, there’s always a great deal of wrong done by all parties involved. Unlike my kind, humans rarely live long enough to feel the full weight of their actions, in the event they’re wrong.”
“I’m confused,” I mumble as I try to sit up straighter, but find that task to be impossible. “Are you saying I’m immortal?” I ask groggily.
He finishes patting my feet dry, and I just watch, too relaxed and languid to do much else.
“Of course you’re confused, because I’m deliberately speaking in vague terms to avoid the specifics of the wars. And you’re a Portocale. Portocale gypsies aren’t immortal,” he says quietly. “They age and wither as quickly as humans, should they be fortunate enough to escape their enemies.”
“Our enemies aren’t monsters,” I murmur, causing his head to come up. “At least not by nature. But monster is a relative term, don’t you think?”
His lips twitch as he unscrews the cap on the nail polish. “Indeed,” he agrees like he’s amused. “Do you know why they want you dead?”
My mind, freed by the drugs seeping through me, travels into the dark corners I should avoid. The normal panic is absent though, so I travel freely through the past, collecting the pieces of fragmented memories I rarely try to put together.
“By the power of divine blood and birthright, I sacrifice this Portocale and myself in the name of the Forsaken.”
My mind quickly shuts down, unable to watch the man plunge the knife into my body, and certainly unable to revisit what happened next. I can still remember my screams and the scent of my own blood as they started sawing at my arm, and bile rises to my throat.
“Violet?” Vance says softly, hand cupping my cheek when I realize he’s now directly in front of my face, a concerned look etching his features.
“I don’t want to think about the enemies with the red patch,” I say through loose lips.
His lips thin. “You’ve actually met the cult that hunts your bloodline?” he asks softly.
“Why do they hunt us? Mom always said it was an ancient cult with no motivations beyond prejudice. And until she brought me to a town of monsters who all somehow know I’m a Portocale—without so much as warning me—I believed every word from her mouth,” I tell him with a false bravado as I fight back any emotion that wants to surge forth.
He lifts the tub when he sees me struggling, and I’m thankful to breathe in the steam full of the drug that shoves back the panic, enabling me to speak, without fearing what I might reveal in front of the monster hunter.
He puts the tub back down when he views me calming once again.
The lavender seems to be seeping into my bones, and I moan a little again when he gives my feet one last massage.
“That’s part of the story I can’t yet give you.”
“Why not?” I ask as he begins carefully and slowly painting my toenails.
A legendary monster slayer is painting my toenails. Maybe I’m a ghost and I’ve truly advanced to the delusional stage that causes me to be a pathological liar, because this is insane, even by my standards.
“It’s too complicated right now,” he answers, staying cryptic. “However, I can explain the ins and outs of being in monster territory. And I’ll expand little by little, so as not to overwhelm you, so long as you learn to trust me.”
“He says after drugging the daft girl,” comes a new male voice. “It’s not surprising, really. You always were a fool with women, old chap.”
I’d startle if I wasn’t so heavenly sedated.
My gaze flicks to the wall when motion catches my attention, but I’m too relaxed to really react. The new man is perched at a lean against the wall, and though I should probably find that unnerving, I’m not exactly motivated to demonstrate the proper amount of fear.
Must be a ghost, so no fear is necessary. Vance doesn’t even glance in the direction of the man or acknowledge his presence.
“Are you seriously painting the girl’s bloody toes, mate?” the man asks with genuine horror in his voice, loudly talking over whatever Vance is saying.
It makes it really hard to focus, given my current headspace.
He pinches the bridge of his nose, exhales harshly, and shakes his head as though he’s embarrassed for Vance.
As though he can’t bear another second of this, he turns to walk through the wall, but pauses. I cock my head, studying his back, curious as to what period the clothes he’s wearing belong in so that I can date his death.
Early nineteen hundreds? The ruffled edges of his collar are soft, flat, and open on his smooth chest. Anna will be pissed she missed out on this particular ghost.
He must not use his ghostly powers much if he’s not showing symptoms of the final decay.
Then again, I’ve met some ghosts over two hundred years old who still haven’t even started the final decaying process.
My mind continues to wander for so long that I don’t even realize I’m staring directly into his eyes. When did he turn back around? How long have I held eye contact? Does he know that I’ve seen him?
“Violet, are you too high to listen?” Vance asks on a sigh, causing my eyes to snap away from the new ghost and back to the man who has started on my other foot.
“Bloody fucking hell,” the other man says on a harsh whisper. “You can see me,” he adds as I pretend I certainly cannot see him.
“I’m sorry, what?” I ask Vance. “I saw a distracting bug on the wall,” I tell him.
I think the man looks at the wall to check out my lie, and I keep my expression neutral.
“I was just telling you about some of the ways to protect yourself,” Vance goes on, his eyes dipping back to his task.
He’s not very good at coloring inside the lines, I notice, but since his trade is putting down the things that go bump in the night, I decide not to critique him.
“How can you see me?” the other guys goes on. “Wait, don’t answer that in front of him. How about you ask him about Emit, the werewolf who tore apart his house tonight.”
“How do I protect myself?” I ask Vance, actively ignoring the ghost I stupidly made eye contact with. “I have a ton of charms.”
I lift some of my necklaces.
“Gypsy charms won’t do you any good. Wearing those is nothing but redundant. As I said, this town is safe and dangerous for gypsies.”
“Yeah, he’s a bit of an obnoxious dick when he talks in circles that way,” the guy says from directly beside me, causing me to swallow back a sound of surprise as he studies Vance with me. “Telling you something and nothing at all in the same breath. You need to ask him specifics.”
“I don’t understand,” I say to Vance, hoping the ghost thinks it was a fluke that our eyes met and moves on soon.
The last ghost I made eye contact with is enough for one gypsy to handle. And I’m starting to worry about her, since she’s been gone for so long.
“If vampires or wolves approach you, just tell them you’re a Portocale,” Vance goes on as though it’s no big deal, as he streaks up the side of my pinky toe.
His foot and leg massages might be heavenly, but his painting skills lack—
So not important right now.
Straining to focus, I open my mouth to speak, but the other ghost speaks first.
“That’d be stupid. Then your enemies will find you if you start claiming to be a Portocale gypsy in the same town where everyone knows monsters lurk. I can be vague too, Portocale gypsy, if that’s your thing,” the ghost says really close to my ear.
For a second, I almost swear I can feel the heat of his breath on my neck, but that’s impossible, because ghosts don’t have breaths.
“Ask him what Damien is,” the ghost goes on, and for whatever stupid reason, the words fly out of my mouth before I can stop them.