It has been a long, arduous trip, locked in the tiny cage with fifteen others, but all Niu thought about was how she could make this situation the best it could be. She had been shuffled around so much that she met more people than she ever thought possible. People spoke strange languages and wore even stranger clothes. Luckily, one of the guards thought she had a good chance to be summoned to serve the nobles, so he spent his time teaching her Latin. She was highly educated and looked meek enough not to cause trouble. Bringing a slave that could serve in the palace was a big deal, and brought a lot of money. Niu also realized it was one of the most comfortable jobs out there. And slaves in Rome were treated pretty well, having been given legal protection. So she accepted the chance wholeheartedly.
They brought them out of the cage, gave them each a bucket to wash up and new clothes to put on. Then they were made to stand in a line, while men either scrutinized or ogled them. Niu fixed her eyes on four people who all seemed to know what they were doing and weren't looking for sex slaves. One was a tall wide man with a graying head of hair, the other a short, curvy woman. The third was a slender man of regular height, with dark hair but light blue eyes. He observed the slaves with a hit of sympathy one would give a stray dog. That was better than seeing them as a piece of meat.
“What do you think Crispus?” The man who was selling the slaves clasped a hand on the graying man’s shoulder. “I think I have a few that would interest you.”
Crispus walked between the rows of slaves, and Niu was surprised to see he could easily distinguish between the healthy and not so healthy ones. He asked everyone questions, and if one didn't speak Latin, he would cycle through many languages until he found the one they spoke. After passing through a row, he would point to a few slaves, and the woman that was with him would walk up to each and perform her own examination. The other man stood aside, not interested.
When Crispus came up to her, he looked her over. "What is your name?" He asked her, guessing her native languages right away.
"My name is Niu." She spoke in Latin and then bowed.
"Oh, you did well here!" Crispus pointed to Niu, turning to the man selling her. Next, there was a rapid string of questions about what she knew and her abilities. Crispus's tone lightened with every question. Niu answered calmly, observing the other two Romans without turning to look at them directly. The woman was busy with the other slaves, but the second man seemed more and more interested.
Crispus must have noticed that too. “Do you think we should take this one Aulus?”
“She is smart enough.” Aulus shrugged, but his eyes were smiling.
Niu’s price was agreed upon very fast, and then she and the other slaves Crispus, Aulus, and the woman picked were taken. She was separated along with five others. All six slaves were of varying ages and genders so Niu couldn't tell what they were meant to do. Each was placed in a separate room.
The room was small but very comfortable and fancy. There were two doors, the one she entered through, and another one on the opposite side. She didn’t know where that one led and didn’t care to find out right now. Since she didn’t want to ruin her chance if they caught her.
Niu sat down on a pillow and waited. She would have prayed if she didn’t think it would make people angry. Then Aulus entered through the door.
When she looked more closely, she realized the man looked like he was much younger than the way he carried himself. He couldn’t have been more than ten years her senior, and yet he looked like a weary old man. Aulus sat down opposite her.
“Now, I need to tell you a few things which I hope you will understand. They pertain to your role here.”
Niu nodded. Aulus raised his hand and pointed to it. In the candlelight, the hand changed. Long claws extended from the fingernails, and the finger themselves became bonier, the knuckles more pronounced. Aulus used that hand to point to his mouth. Niu saw large fangs extending from Aulus’s mouth, curving into an arch, their tips touching his chin.
Niu whispered a few words of amazement in her own language. She had heard of people like this. People who were not human. Ones who could turn to stone or fly, or grow fangs. But she had never believed she would meet someone like this here of all places. Why were they here, and why was he showing her this?
“Most of the nobles here are not human. The ones that are, well, they are only here to keep us safe. Keep people from finding out what we are. We have many names we go by, but those are all connected to rumors. Call us what you wish, it won’t bother anyone. Suffice to say we need human blood to survive. That is your and my others’ role here.” Aulus stopped to pull back his fangs. Niu could tell it was uncomfortable to talk like that. “This is not a death sentence. We know how to drink and not kill you. Once a day or less, depending on how much you can handle, you will be fed on and then left to recuperate. Otherwise, you will have every amenity and kept healthy and well fed. You won’t have to work, but you can’t leave this wing unless summoned. If someone feeds on you after you have been fed or mistreats you in any way you are free to tell the vampire in charge of you. That would be me.”
“And if you are the one that mistreats me?” Niu didn’t know what to expect when she asked that question, but she didn’t expect Aulus to laugh.
"You're smart. I like that. Well, I hope not to give you a reason, but in that case, you'd go over my head and tell another one of us. You can even talk to the emperor himself. Those types of things are dealt with a lot of severity." Aulus had retracted his claws before the scratched his chin. "As you might have guessed it would not be in our best interest for us to mistreat and lose our source of sustenance. If anyone asks, you are here to perform house duties like cleaning, or simple companionship. It keeps curious people away." Aulus started gesturing with his hands.
“I assume no other humans know what you are, besides the ones you feed on?” Niu was hoping she wasn’t projecting her nervousness.
“Exactly.” Aulus was watching her intently.
Niu kept quiet for a moment. It could have been worse. Much worse. This she could handle. She at least had some agency in the matter. She shrugged. “So are you going to feed off me now?”
"No, this day, we're just going to sit and talk. Apparently, this is how it's supposed to go." Aulus leaned back.
“You haven’t been in charge of anyone before?”
“I wasn’t interested in doing it, but the Emperor decided that if I was going to do his job one day, I needed to know how this went.”
“How do you mean? Are you his heir? Is he your father?”
“In a way.” Aulus’s shrugged. “He turned me in what I am now. A long time ago. We change every few decades or so, in order to keep up appearances. We live a long time.” Niu couldn’t believe he was so calmly discussing this.
“I hope I’m not breaking a rule by asking you this, but how do you turn people?" Niu was ready to avert her eyes and apologize.
“You’re not. But I would like to not just talk about me the whole evening. I am curious about your life too.”
“Well, how about you tell me about you, and then I’ll return the favor?” Niu couldn’t deny she was interested in what these people were. She wanted to know everything. And she had a feeling that was what Aulus liked about her.
“Alright. We turn people by drinking their blood, and then they drinking ours. I am not quite sure why it works like that.” Aulus spread his arms. “Ask your next questions.”
“We’re not taking turns?” Niu raised her eyebrow.
“I’m making a list in my head.” Aulus’s eye sparkled. Niu suddenly thought about how attractive he was.
Niu bent her feet under her torso and began asking questions. “How long have you lived?”
"Centuries. It's very interesting to see how humans form civilizations. You must tell me about your customs after." Aulus continued, describing the place he was born. At first, he stuck to the facts and avoided sharing any weaknesses his kind had. That was fine with Niu since she did the same thing. But as the hours flowed on, Niu found he was slipping. And she was too. They didn't stop talking until Niu yawned.
"Oh, right, sleep. You need it," Aulus said mid-sentence on how he managed to walk in the sunlight in a desert and not die. He got up right away as if he just remembered what she was and left. Before he closed the door, he turned around. "You can sleep either here or in the common room. That door gets you there. See you tomorrow."
Niu nodded. She decided she wanted to stay with the others tonight. She walked into the common room. It was a circle with many doors and many beds. The other slaves had already come in and were already asleep. She picked an empty one and then settled into bed. She felt safer in a crowd.