Author's Note: Well, this is it. This is the last chapter of the story. Again, please leave me reviews! I love to hear your feedback. You don't know how important it is to me to hear from my readers.
Shiva would return later that evening, covered in a veil of lacey snow, only to inform Julia and Matias that as much as he would like to enjoy their company further, as well as that of all the others, he felt obligated to settle matters in England and the parts of Europe where the rebels were fast spreading, breeding uncontrollably into a mass of degenerates attempting to overwhelm the mortal world in their filthy swell. This had long been his self-imposed duty, he explained, and that to ignore it when he was most needed would be inexcusable. He expressed his desire to return when this matter had not only been settled, but when matters amongst Julia and her companions had also been settled, as everyone was still in a bit of an uproar over Julia's return, and it wasn't polite of him to intrude on such an intimate reunion, a thought that had entirely escaped him when he chose to come to France.
Everyone was sad to see him go, but Julia proclaimed that, no matter what, two years from the upcoming February, everyone was to return to Antoine's chateau, no ifs, ands, or buts. Anyone who didn't show up would be hunted down and given the pasting of their life. Julia was vehement on this notion. She despised the idea of being separated from her companions for any length of time. However, as was to be expected, Shiva's departure would not be the last.
Things regained some sense of normalcy around the chateau after New Years came and went. Matias was lucky that Julia honored her word and went out with him that evening, both of them dressed up in some of the finest clothes that money could buy, to attend a performance by a prestigious symphony in downtown Bordeaux. She had been hesitant at first, and a little sore that he'd tricked her, but the temptation of being taken to a symphony was too much for her to resist. Equally hard to resist was the prospect of spending the entire night in just his company taking a long stroll down the avenues, oblivious to the cold despite their dress, to admire the way the golden street light played on the sheets of freshly fallen snow and enjoy the cascade of warmth that washed over them whenever they stepped into a large cafe just for the sake of smelling the variety of enticing scents; the air was heavy with the aroma of sweet, dark chocolates, spiced pumpkin bread, mint flavored ice cream, and the assortment of moist, cream filled cakes and pastries. Sometimes they would order a cup of hot chocolate just for the sake of holding it in their hands and reveling at the abundance of heat that permeated the porcelain glass to singe their ivory skin.
It was a marvel, one that Julia couldn't get over no matter how minor or trivial the details. It was a simple night, one that ended in a snowball fight as they returned home. Yet, for all of its seeming triviality, she loved it more than anything. She loved being able to disregard all things mortal to have a romp in the snow with her lover. He didn't care if the suit he wore was getting hit with a little dirt and rock mixed in with the cakes of snow. That he could get her to pursue him so that he could turn around on one heel all of a sudden and catch her in his arms meant all the more.
The nights that followed were just as wonderful even though she spent a decent portion of them sitting with Chloe, Kami, and Ronnie. It was almost like old times with how they had their chairs pulled up to one of the coffee tables so that they could play a few friendly games of Rummy and just talk. She enjoyed having their company again and being able to get away from the demands of the little girl that she had taken into her care.
What a handful she was, too, even for Matias who had perhaps the most patience of them all. More and more, Eridani was beginning to trust him and even like him a little. Sometimes, if she was being particularly difficult with Camille, she'd go running to him knowing that he'd be the one to try and reason with Camille whereas Mother (a word that René unwittingly taught her not even a handful of days after Shiva left), would just hand her over without so much as a word of protest.
That had been a night of nights. Julia had been caught in utter shock when Eridani came running up to her chanting "Mère, mère, mère!" with a piece of sheet music clutched in one small hand. Anyone who was there that evening would say that Julia visibly paled, all blood draining from her face even though she had yet to feed. Her green eyes darted to Antoine accusingly, but he threw up his arms like a white flag of surrender, proclaiming his innocence with a vehemence.
Then René, looking more than a little sheepish said, "I've been trying to teach her a little French when she sits in on my piano practices. That is what you are to her, aren't you? You're her mother now."
Julia had probably never looked more furious before in her life, and Matias hadn't helped by laughing and kneeling next to the little girl before he pointed to himself and declared, "Père."
Eridani just stared at him first, and then she pranced around him, chanting the word in gleeful chirps. Any word that would get her attention, even that of Matias, was one worthy of saying. She cried in delight when he swept her in his arms, moving just a little faster than a mortal should have just to incite a wild cry of laughter. As he smothered her in his arms she started chanting it all the louder, encouraged by the display of affection. Whether it was worth the glare of death he was receiving from Julia or not was debatable. Antoine promptly slunk off, despite supposedly having piano lessons with Eridani that evening, and even René tucked his tail between his legs and fled the immediate area.
"What are you doing!" she exclaimed in a low whisper, not daring to raise her voice in front of Eridani.
Matias put the little girl down, whispered the word "piano" to her in French and pointed down the hall, before standing up and facing Julia, his expression decidedly calm. He waited until the little girl had gone tearing down the hallway, the hem of her dress billowing behind her, before responding. If there was one rule that had been explicitly established in the chateau when Eridani was adopted into the family was that there was to be no yelling of any sort in front of her. Julia had put her foot down firmly on this matter even with Camille and Antoine, who had gotten into it so badly one evening that Eridani came running to them, teary eyed and crying just from hearing the commotion downstairs.
Giving a massive shrug of his shoulders, he said, "Being a father to her?"
Julia's eyes narrowed into serpentine slits. "We're not her parents, Matias. I love her to bits, but do you know what kind of awkward questions that will raise when she's older? How peculiar will it be for her to be twenty, twenty-five, and her calling us her parents?"
Another nonchalant shrug. "I think she'll know we're vampires before then. How much more awkward will that be?"
She clenched her hands tightly at her sides. Biting back a sarcy reply, she said, "I don't want her calling me mother, and I'd prefer if she didn't call you father, either."
Matias sighed. "Julia, darling, this little girl loves and adores and idolizes you. Whether you want it or not, she'll call you mother, either on her own or on the insistence of someone else. And if you tell her no, how much more estranged is she going to feel? Don't try to cross a bridge you haven't come to yet, darling, just let things come naturally."
Though she wanted to protest the subject further, Matias shook his head. He absolutely refused to see things any other way, and when Matias wouldn't compromise, that was the end of the negotiations. All the others could be worked around for the most part, except where their personal beliefs were their strongest, but Matias could be generally impossible, and on this subject, he would not waver. He was fast growing fond of the little girl, enjoying her company even if it intruded on his and Julia's time together, or if she, disliking the loneliness of the massive canopy bed, crawled into their coffin with them. The only greater joy in life than seeing that little girl flourishing under his and the others' watch was Julia. Much like her, he could scarce imagine surviving immortality without the companionship the others offered.
Not all things could stay the same though.
It wasn't but a week and a half after Shiva's departure that Chloe approached Julia and sat down to have a girly chat with her. It was like old times again, though instead of sitting in one of the castle's stone parlors, with only a few tapestries and rugs for decoration and the fireplace for warmth, there were a dozen of lavishly decorated rooms to congregate in for a game of chess or cards, and each of them were exquisitely heated through modern means. It completely brightened, if not revolutionized, the concept of gathering for cards in the parlor. Chloe, though a fan of these games, was much preferred to just sit and talk with the low din of Eridani's piano music in the background.
They covered all the bases, like any two girls would. Julia gained the strength to talk more openly about the events that had occurred from the night of the attack to the moment Shiva found her-though she shared it with no one else until she had covered everything in detail with Matias-and it was that night that she spilled everything to Chloe, whispering in a soft voice of the many nights she had spent with Claude, anxiously waiting for the elders to come for her.
When it was said and done, and Julia had answered all of her dear friend's questions, it was Chloe's turn to do a little unburdening.
With a meek, but mirthless smile, she returned the favor, elaborating a little bit on what Kami had already told Julia, though it differed very little except that it was more in depth and with Chloe expressing more of how she felt and what she thought in those moments when it had seemed that she may not live to see the next night. There was definitely fear reflected in her words as she described the panic at seeing the mass of rebels, wielding torches and trying to burn Antoine, and at the fact that as soon as she had landed some distance away, a crowd of them came after her. She profusely thanked Julia again and again for the blood she had given her, because without it, she'd have died, she had no doubt about that. She wouldn't have had the speed to outrun them, or the stamina to make it to Edinburgh before dawn, and unlike many of the others, she hadn't been taught where to look for safe hiding places during the day.
It was good for them both to be able to share such misery, and yet, be able to smile about it, reminding each other how fortunate they were to be the ones that made it out alive, unlike the other vampires and, for better or for worse, many of the mortals that had been hunted down by the rebels. Such talk couldn't continue all night, however. Eventually Chloe informed Julia that her and Kami weren't going to stay in France for very much longer. He had been desperately wanting to return to Japan for quite some time now, since he hadn't been back to his country of birth in a good number of years, and where he went, she would invariably follow. It went unsaid that there was some part of her that longed to go out and explore the world around her as well.
Julia was at a loss as she sat across from Chloe. She buried her face in her hands and shook her head. "I suppose I couldn't expect you to stay here forever."
Chloe tried to smile, but it was a grimace. "No. There are things I want to do for myself."
Leaning over the arm of the chair, she threw her arms around Chloe and held her tight. Inhaling sharply, she said, "Just don't vanish. Write me letters, send me pictures, anything! And come back to visit, even if it's only for a little while."
The other vampire laughed mirthlessly. Even though she wasn't due to leave for Japan for a few months yet, a desperate sense of anguish set in at the prospect of parting with such a close friend. The knowledge of the inevitable lingered in her mind, even though she swore up and down to always send letters no matter where she went and to send back pictures. Most importantly, she promised to be back in the February two years from now no matter what. Even if Kami refused to come with her for whatever reason, she would make it back.
Eudora left soon than that, bidding all of them pleasant farewells before vanishing out into the snow. Julia had implored her to return within two years, but she declined to make any solid commitment to it. She wasn't sure that she would want to be in Shiva's presence, not after how her judgments had been cast in such a dark shadow. Endearing as she thought Julia was, she wanted to move on. Perhaps to establish a new coven. Perhaps not. She had yet to decide what to do with her new freedom.
Dominic would stay at Antoine's for several weeks, remaining there almost as long as Chloe and Kami. He was in no rush to open up The Sanctuary again, not with how badly things had been in England. While the media was not convinced that vampires existed, let alone burnt half the city down and killed its residents—a catastrophe that was pinned on terrorists—, Dominic was nonetheless wary of too much attention being brought to the bar. He had his rules, but his caution was what kept him alive. Haste would only usher one into the bony clutches of death.
Besides, he had grown rather fond of the company, especially that of the little girl. When she came to the realization that not all men were of Claude's nature, due greatly in part to Matias' patience and adoration, she would not leave Dominic alone. While he played chess with Kami in the grotesque parlor, she would stand on a chair behind him and play with his hair, which was so very different from all the other's. Only Camille and Ronnie had wavy hair, but Ronnie disliked having much of anything to do with anyone since Landon's death, and Camille's hair had gentle, rolling waves, whereas Dominic's hair had a tighter curl to it, almost like her own, that she found fascinating to play with. She'd often make off with Julia's brush, a pretty thing with a silver back that Matias had bought for her, and she'd run it through his hair over and over and over again before she'd run off again, get into Camille's dressing table, and bring back armfuls of ribbon, bows, and clips. He endured all of this with an easy smile, and if he felt particularly affectionate that evening, he'd leave her creation in until she'd been ushered off to bed so that she didn't have to see it destroyed before her very eyes.
When he wasn't sat in the parlor playing chess with Kami and having his hair dressed up, he spent his time with the other elders, reminiscing a little bit about the good days when things were simpler for their kind. Sometimes he expressed a desire to return to previous centuries, one that only Antoine seemed to agree with. Neither Camille nor Matias much cared for this view. Matias especially preferred the modern era, seeing it as being an infinitely more refined time than the ones before it. They could spend the entire night debating these sorts of points, and Julia would simply sit in and listen with Eridani curled up in her arms.
Even this could not last, and when he eventually found himself needing to leave, everyone was distraught, especially Eridani. If she was lucky, she'd be able to guilt Antoine into letting her play with his hair, but it wasn't likely. He knew the fit Camille would have if he touched any of her things, whether it was of his own will or not. Though she remained—which she claimed to do so only on Julia and the little girl's behalf—she would have nothing to do with him.
When it came to the goodbyes, they were all quite tearful. Whereas Dominic and Antoine hadn't quite gotten along too well before, they were now reluctant to part, and when it came to Julia, he kissed her politely on the top of her head before turning to Matias and embracing him as tightly as he did Camille; that is, he nearly crushed them against him with bruising force. There was a love between them all, deep and fierce, that could not be unwound, not now that they had learned to see past each other's imperfections and quirks. It was a feat that should have been credited entirely to Eridani, as they all had fawned over her so much that they hardly desired to quarrel, knowing that it bothered her as it did.
Ronnie left at this point, too, accompanying Dominic back to Edinburgh to try and scrap some semblance of a life together in The Sanctuary. He would provide safety there for her, protecting her from the American coven simply because they could not transgress his rules, not honorably, and to do so dishonorably would earn them a fearsome and persistent enemy. And, while she had been somewhat close to Julia at the coven, there was a strangled distance between them now, and so there was little reason for her to stay.
Kami and Chloe left not long thereafter. For Julia, it was the most painful of all the goodbyes she had to say. She had grown very close to the two, loving their company more than that of any other when she had been in the coven, with exception to the obvious. They had never been her teachers or her guardians. They had only ever been her friends, lending a shoulder and an ear whenever she needed it without the overhanging threat of being scolded or punished for what she shared.
Even Eridani, though a bit too young to understand the possible permanence of this goodbye, was tearful. She had spent a considerable amount of time with Chloe and Kami, and the new concept of "goodbye" was one that she was slowly becoming familiar with as faces that she had become accustomed to seeing every night were vanishing. She tried to pull her usual stunt when they were walking out of the door, by running up to Chloe and clinging to her legs with a grip that was difficult for Julia to break.
When she managed to get Eridani back into her arms, Chloe almost looked too distraught to leave. Her eyes were brimmed with blood, a sight that she tried to mask by hurried wiping them away with the sleeve of her cotton shirt. All of the immortals tried to refrain from letting Eridani see blood, especially if it came from their eyes in the form of tears. Though she had more of an understanding of what they were than René had when he was younger, they wanted to appear as normal as possible. Mostly because they didn't want her mistakenly speaking of it to the tutor that came during the day to give her simple lessons in French, mathematics, and history or the staff that saw to her every need when she woke.
It seemed to take all of her strength to turn away and leave with Kami after they had given everyone hugs and friendly kisses on the cheek. Their departure would profoundly affect everyone over the next coming days, especially Eridani. She became anxious, uncertain of how much longer the core family would remain intact, especially considering that Antoine and Camille seemed to be at increasing odds with each other. Every time Antoine tried to make an apology to Camille, she pushed him away and brutally reminded him of how he had broken his promise. It was at such a point between them that Camille would never be seen in the same room as Antoine, and if she could, she avoided even crossing paths with him.
Finally, and out of great reluctance, Antoine stole off with Julia at the beginning of one Friday evening. He took her outside on the porch where Camille wouldn't hear them talking. His face was a little long, his mouth set into an almost permanent frown, and he had his hair pulled back too tightly behind his neck.
He fidgeted, fumbling with the lighter in his jacket pocket before bringing it out to light a cigarette. He inhaled sharply, and squinting past the smoke, he said, "Julia... I need to ask a favor of you."
She raised her eyebrows and folded her arms over her chest. "Are you kidding me? Camille will just as soon as bite my head off as she will yours."
"You don't even know what I'm going to ask."
Julia arched a single eyebrow at him, silently asking 'Are you so sure about that?'
They stared at each other for a moment before she sighed and admitted, "I heard a little bit of your argument a couple months ago. I know why she's miffed with you. To be honest, I'd probably be a little miffed too."
He threw up his arms, aggravated, and exclaimed, "Well, then! I come to you for help and advice, and you take her side. Forget it, then!"
Before he could take a step towards the door, she blocked it. "Now wait just one second," she said, poking him in the chest. "I'm not trying to take sides, but whether you know it or not, she was trying to come out of her shell then, and you went and did that! Of course she feels hurt and betrayed. I know you care about her, but you've dug yourself a damn good hole. About six feet deep, to be exact. Like I said, you're always going to be in the doghouse with her!"
"Can't you ask her to give me another chance? I don't care what you say, just try and get her back to talking to me!"
She scrutinized him, her lips pursed a little.
"You know," she said, her tone dry, "if I didn't know any better, I'd think you were a crazy, emotionally masochistic bastard. What can you possibly see in Camille that would make you not only want to risk having my head bitten off, which, while it may not be a big deal to you, I rather happen to like my head, but risk getting yours bitten off as well?"
Antoine was quiet, as if contemplating the possible answer for that. The embers at the end of his cigarette burned through the paper, leaving behind tail of ash that only grew as it sat neglected between his two white fingers. Then he shook his head and sighed.
"You're going to think I'm crazy..." he muttered, and Julia gave him that look that said she already thought that and to just get it over with already. Again, another sigh. "It is hard for me to say exactly. It's just… she is a strong willed woman and independent. She is loyal and, even though she doesn't act like it, very caring and loving. I'm attracted to that. For better or for worse, I'm attracted to stubborn, strong-willed women."
Julia narrowed her eyes and taking one, solid step forward, poked him in the chest. "Alright, I'll talk to her, but let's say you two do get together. If you screw up, I'm going to chase you down and beat your head in. Why? Because if you mess up, then she's going to look down on me for vouching for you."
Becoming grave, he asked, "Do you honestly think I'd hurt her?"
Julia shook her head. Antoine may have been somewhat of a charmer, that is, he was handsome, charismatic, and quite the social butterfly, but she knew better than that. After all that they had been through together, and how well she knew him, she knew Antoine was incapable of hurting Camille. Temperamental though he may be, she knew he'd never physically take his anger out on her; if his feelings ran even half as deep as they had for his mortal wife, he would do nothing short of pulling the stars from the skies to please her.
"No, I don't," she admitted. "But, that's no reason not to warn you what I'll do. You screw up for any reason, intentional or not, and I'll be locked in the same burning boat as you."
He nodded, his face devoid of its usual mischief.
They stood out on the porch for several more minute as Antoine finished his nearly burnt down cigarette. A faint breeze brushed past them, smelling sweetly of moist dirt and immature blossoms. The snow had, for the most part, already melted away. Sometimes it'd get a little cold at night and some fresh snow would fall as a result of a longer than normal winter, but it was gradually starting to warm, and the nightly snows were replaced by thunderstorms that utterly terrified Eridani. Slowly but surely Matias and Julia were getting her used to sleeping in the large bed by herself, but whenever a storm rolled through, she'd scream and cry as she tore towards the closet and crawled into the coffin, conveniently wedging herself between her immortal parents no matter how tightly melded together they were.
Quietly, Julia retreated into the chateau, going to the guest room Camille had claimed as her own on the third floor, just down the hall from her and Matias' bedroom. It was there that Camille was giving Eridani her weekly painting lessons. These lessons mainly consisted of learning how to blend colors to achieve a certain hue, shade, or saturation, as well as how to combine the wide range of colors for maximum effectiveness on a canvas. This was done in as simple of a way as comparing colorful hand prints or stick figures. Sometimes Camille would persuade the little girl to paint entire landscapes or work on sketching out still-life pieces. However, these more serious courses were few and far in between so as to not lose Eridani's attention entirely.
They were going through one of these rare lessons as Julia came in. Camille was showing Eridani the basics of perspective and how aspects of a landscape could be arranged to show various vantage points depending on where the horizon and the vanishing points were located. Strangely, Eridani listened attentively to Camille and replicated her pencil strokes on the rough texture of the canvas.
Camille lifted her head, eyebrows perking up inquisitively. Julia marveled at how much she had changed over the course of the past few months, becoming something less of an iceberg and more of a living, feeling creature. Her face reflected this newfound softness, taking on a girlish demeanor that startled Julia anytime she wasn't paying close attention.
"Is there something I can do for you, Julia?" she asked gently.
She tried not to grimace as she took a seat on a plush sofa pushed against the wall. A tall bookshelf towered next to it, holding a couple books here and there, but for the most part housing a lot of Camille's painting supplies since she was too lazy to organize them in either of the two desks that stood next to each other on the other side of the room. There was also a drafting table and a couple of easels, but there was a mess of supplies on and around them. It was almost impossible for Camille to organize, something that rather took Julia off guard. After seeing her room in the coven, she had always thought of Camille as being very meticulous and clean. As it was, the room almost seemed to reflect her internal chaos.
"I just wanted to talk to you about something... something serious," she said, trying not to beat around the bush.
Her thin eyebrows rose higher.
"Well," she said, leaning forward and clasping her hands together. She tried not to fidget, but it was almost impossible. "I want to ask you to give Antoine a chance... at the very least, a chance to prove that he is a good man worthy of being your friend."
Her eyes narrowed into venomous slits, but not raising her voice, she said, "Don't bring this matter up with me again, Julia. I want nothing to do with him. The only reason I even stay here is to keep you and Matias company, and to make sure you don't go spoiling this little girl completely."
Julia sighed and ruffled through her hair with her hands. "Camille, just listen to me. Antoine is a very, very good man. He makes mistakes, like any of us do. Like I have in the past. When he cares about someone, he does so deeply and without fail. You know, Lorraine wanted to throw me out? That she wanted him to choose between kicking me out or kicking her out?"
She drew in a sharp breath, and said, "I disliked her greatly. Trust me, if that had happened, she'd have been in a world of trouble."
"That's not the point," Julia said. "The point is, Antoine would rather have thrown his own sister out than me. Why? Because he made Matias a promise to take care of me until I was better. He promised both of you. Whatever he said to you, whatever promise he broke, I have no doubt was because he was trying to show he cared. Just... trust me Camille. Give him that chance. If he screws up, you can punish me too."
Eridani, oblivious to the nature of the conversation due to her nonexistent grasp of English, spun around on the small stool she was sat upon, and smiled. "Look mum!" she exclaimed in French and pointed to the picture that Camille had helped her draw. "Is it nice?"
Julia smiled, admiring the quaint little landscape that looked a lot like the back of the chateau where the land rolled gently towards the horizon, making small dips downwards before rising back up again.
"It's very nice, sweetheart," she said with an easy smile.
Eridani beamed, always happy to be praised, and went back to adding smaller details with her pencil. It was an almost pleasant sound for Julia to hear as she sat on the sofa; that is, the sound of the lead scratching against the uneven surface of the canvas, striking it in swift, hard strokes as she gave the grass its own, speckled texture that Camille promised to let her paint in later.
Camille frowned. "Do you really think I can punish you now that you have this little girl? I can't do that in good conscience, Julia, and you know that."
"After her, then," Julia persuaded. "Once she's gone, either off at uni or living on her own, or... gone... you can do whatever you like." When Camille's frown deepened, Julia added cheerfully, "Besides, I don't think that you're going to get that opportunity. I have confidence in Antoine."
As Eridani continued drawing, the strokes of her pencil the only sound in the room, Camille stared hard at Julia, her mouth set into a stern line. Briefly, she looked like she had so long ago in the coven, stern, apathetic, and generally disconnected from the world. There was a slight pinch in the center of her face where her eyebrows were pushed together, and for a moment, it looked as if she was going to refuse.
"Camille, please. Deep down, Antoine is a sweetheart. You know that. So just give him one chance, and if he messes up again, well then, he deserves it."
The vampire regarded her resentfully before ceding. "Very well. One chance on the condition that I don't hear another word on this matter ever, especially if it turns out that you were right."
Julia smiled, accepting the terms of their agreement before standing up, giving Eridani a brief kiss on the forehead, and then heading back to her room where Matias awaited, lounging on the sofa like a lazy jungle cat. When they had nights like these entirely to themselves, trusting Antoine or Camille to keep Eridani entertained, they usually went to Bordeaux to visit any museums that were open late into the night, which weren't too terribly many, or going to symphonies, concerts, or plays. On the rare occasion, they would just stroll around Bordeaux, drinking in the various sights and sounds, and have themselves a cup of hot chocolate in one of the small cafes.
When they weren't out and about, they would just spend the night in each other's company, whether it was lounging together absorbed in their own books, or if they were laughing and talking to each other or debating over a piece of poetry. Gradually, Julia was beginning to enjoy being read to again, as well as reading to Matias whenever he asked for her to, but it was slow going. Usually it reminded her of the time spent with Claude. Those reminisces never failed to make her feel nauseous, a feeling that she didn't enjoy having in Matias' presence. He worried over her too much when she became disturbed.
On the occasion that Eridani was in their care, they fawned over her like any set of mortal parents would. They would take her out to Bordeaux with them to go shopping on Monday nights, and if she had been good and listened to the tutor that came in during the afternoons to teach her French, mathematics, history, and eventually a little science, they would buy her something special. Sometimes they bought her chocolate filled pastries, which were her absolute favorite sweet, or a toy that she had been wanting. However, in the event that she didn't do well during her weekly lessons or if she threw an unreasonable tantrum with Jeanne, the maid who saw after her the most, she would get nothing no matter how much she asked for it. If she tried to throw a tantrum in one of the stores, Matias would take her aside and tell her if she continued behaving horribly, she wouldn't even get to go out to the shops with them until she learned how to behave herself.
Always when this happened, she'd look to Julia, who would only shrug her shoulders. Eridani knew that of all of them, Julia was the most lenient. After having been punished too much and too severely as a child, she simply didn't like to punish at all. It also didn't help that she had once felt the welts that lined Eridani's back when Claude had beaten her. So it came as no surprise that she became furious with Antoine once when he had given her a spanking and then threatened to give her more.
It occurred not long after Julia's twentieth birthday, an event that was highly celebrated. There was a small party that the elders held for her, and for Eridani's sake, there was also a small amount of cake and ice cream. Though her presents were few in number, a rule that they had declared a necessity amongst them if they were to enjoy any holiday at all, the presents that were given were very thoughtful. Matias gifted her with both an English dictionary and a French one; they were the large kind that could easily take up the entirety of a small end table, and between the cover lay every word, both modern and antiquated, in the language. From Antoine she received a stack of French philosophy books as well as an expensive pair of high heels that he insisted she have for special occasions, as it was known by everyone that Julia found this reason or that for not buying a pair of her own. Not even Matias could persuade her into doing so. Camille gave her large telescope for star gazing along with replacing the astronomy books she had lost in the coven's fire. Matias had taken Eridani out with him to shop for her, and she had pointed out a pearl necklace that she thought would make for a nice gift.
What came as a surprise to Julia was when she received a few parcels in the post. A card postmarked from Germany was sent along from Shiva, a box came from the United Kingdom from Dominic, and from Japan came a large parcel that must have cost a small fortune to ship overseas. The card was simple, but heartfelt in its wishes for happiness, and Dominic's parcel contained a few boxes of PG tips that, though she couldn't drink herself, he felt would nonetheless be appreciated in that she could enjoy the scent of them as well as make her little girl a proper addict of the brand. Chloe and Kami's box contained a stringed instrument that she defined as being a koto, and since she knew that Julia had loved playing the piano, that she might enjoy the sound of this instrument as well. Along with it were several music books, all of them ranging from teaching the very basics to more advanced sheets of music.
All in all, it was a glorious birthday, one that was spent with Antoine and Camille actually laughing in each other's presences instead of glaring poisoned daggers. Very gradually, Camille was letting him into her heart. Even though Julia had vouched for him, she was nonetheless wary, as if fearing that he might have even deceived Julia into thinking that he was a much more dedicated lover than what he would end up proving himself to be. Not even the logic that if he spurned her, he spurned all the rest of them, Shiva included, didn't make her any less welcoming of him in her life.
Though, it wasn't Camille he had to worry about two weeks after Julia's birthday when he had taken Eridani out to the shops with him. He came to find out exactly how protective Julia was of that little girl by nearly having his head torn off.
It wasn't unusual for him to take her out shopping. Nearly all of them did, though on the condition that she had to have behaved well that week and done well in her lessons. She wasn't always entitled to get something on just that condition, however. Antoine was especially fond of making her work a little for it by having to clean up her dishes after she ate or by making sure her bedroom—a room that was previously used for storage but had been cleaned out and completely renovated and was not but two doors down the hall from Matias and Julia's room—was cleaned by the time he woke up every Monday evening. He thought that it was very important that she, like René, not have a sense of entitlement just because she had grown up in a wealthy and privileged family.
That night they had gone into one of the children's shops that was filled to the ceiling with clothes, toys, and other such things. It had been his intention to buy her some nice clothes for the summer, as well as a couple for the coming fall. Though slight of frame, she nonetheless grew swiftly like any child did, and clothes didn't fit for much longer than a year or so.
Any other parent might have missed it, but it only took a small sideways glance from Antoine to see her quietly, and rather stealthily, pluck a small baby doll from the shelf and plunge into her jacket's pocket. She didn't even hesitate in this motion and neither glanced around in fear of having been seen nor fidgeted therafter.
Antoine came up next to her swiftly. "Put it back, Eridani."
She glanced at him innocently, brown eyes wide, and asked, "Put back what?"
A proper blush burned his cheeks, and kneeling down next to her, he said, "I do not like liars, and I do not like thieves. You're being both. Put it back now and you'll only be in a little trouble when you get home. If you make me take it from you, you will wish I hadn't, because when we get home, you'll get the spanking of your life, I promise."
Her eyes became wide with disbelief, but again she asserted, "I don't have anything."
Furious, he held her still as he reached into her pocket and took out the doll. As he put it back on the shelf, she started screaming and crying that it was really hers, that she had brought it with her from the chateau, and caused such a scene that all of the other parents in the store looked in his direction and shook their heads.
Her tantrum didn't last long. Without a moment's hesitation, he reached behind her and gave her a swift smack on her bottom, which instantly sobered her. As the pain flared across her skin, a cold anger swept over her. They met eyes and stared at each other. Her face twisted in an unfamiliar expression, one that resounded a hateful anger that she had only ever known at Claude's.
"I hate you," she declared, and then started screaming it as he dragged her by the arm up to the front of the store to the clerk.
She was in tears at this point, but he wouldn't let them leave until she apologized to the clerk for being a liar and a thief, a feat that took all of twenty minutes to accomplish. For nearly half of that time she stood muttering that she hated Antoine, glaring at him from the corner of her eye. He was firm, and standing next to her with his arms folded, told her that the longer she dragged this out, the worse it would be when they got home. Though she didn't understand all of what he said, she knew she was in for it and had tried to stall as long as possible.
When they got home, she went tearing into the house, face red and her eyes teary, and ran straight to Julia's room. She flung herself into her mother's arms, crying that Antoine had beat her in the store and that he was going to beat her again now that they were home because she had taken a toy with her from the chateau to the store. She couldn't be consoled and her crying only became louder when Matias went to her and stroked her hair, telling her that she was mistaken, that Antoine wasn't going to beat her. No one was going to beat her.
Inflamed, Julia stood up, Eridani still in her arms, and met Antoine in the hall as he was storming to their room.
"You dare hit her! You've got ten seconds to tell me she's exaggerating!" she screamed, ignoring even her own rules of conduct.
"No, for once she's not," he informed her scathingly. His gloved hands were clenched at his sides, the soft leather groaning in protest. "She deserved it, and deserves more than that now that we're home!"
Matias was out in the hall in an instant and was trying to calm Julia down, but she ignored him entirely. Cradling the little girl to her, she shouted, "You will not touch her. If you so much as lay a hand on her, we're gone from France, Antoine! You will not beat my little girl."
Antoine hardened, and towering over Julia, growled, "Let me make myself clear with you. I know you dislike disciplining her, but there are two things in the world that I hate very much. The first are liars, and the second are thieves. Especially thieves that do not need to steal because they have what they need to survive. When we were in the store, she stole something off the shelves, and I told her, very explicitly, that I don't like thieves or liars, and if she only wanted to get into a little trouble, to put it back. But she wouldn't. I warned her what would happen. But what does she do? She screams and cries in the store and tells me that she hates me. I will not stand for that kind of behavior, Julia. I did spank her. I hit her once, and to be fair, I hit her lightly. I did not beat her, and I don't intend to. I'm sorry, but if you do not like it, then by all means, leave."
Julia was still in a senseless rage, and screaming again, she said, "I don't care! You never hit her! She was beat enough when Claude had her, and I won't tolerate it! I want an apology, Antoine, and I want it now!"
Before Antoine could snap back, Matias thundered, "Quiet, both of you! Now!"
They were immediately silenced, and they both glanced to him as if they thought it could gain his sympathy. Antoine's face was twisted deep frown, creating small indents and lines at the corner of his lips, but when Matias met his gaze, that expression lessened. He looked away and folded his arms across his chest, his usual stance of defiance. Julia, on the other hand, was flushed hot with blood, giving her face the shade of a ripe tomato.
"If you're going to talk at all, don't raise your voices. We've established this already," he warned. Looking to Julia, he said, "Darling, I love you to bits, and I understand how you must feel. However, I do sympathize with Antoine. She needs to be punished for what she did or else she'll do it again when she's older. She was properly warned."
Julia's eyes narrowed, and in disgust, she growled, "I can't believe you! You're taking his side! This little girl was beaten when Claude had her. What is she going to think if I just hand her over and let her get a pasting?"
Matias rested his hands on her shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze. Sighing, he said, "What she'll know is that you'll let her get away with murder and other rotten things. You'll defend her. I don't really like the idea of it myself, but honestly, darling, I'd rather her grow up knowing a distinct difference between right and wrong than letting her become a rotten monster. You know Antoine loves her to bits too and wouldn't just smack her around for the sake of doing it."
Julia glared over her shoulder at him, then to Antoine. He glared back, his eyes spitting venom. Their fury was almost tangible as it crackled between them, hot like lightning when it arcs across the sky. It was the first time they had ever clashed, and the battle of will was almost titanic. Had either of them had a shorter temper, or had Matias not been there to intervene, there may have been no reconciliation between the two.
Finally, she ceded and pried Eridani forcefully away from her. Setting her on her feet, she took her firmly by her elbows and said, "Tell me exactly what happened, Eridani."
The girl became all teary eyed again, and she sputtered off the same story about taking one of her toys with her when she went with Antoine to the shops and how Antoine had accused her of stealing it when she hadn't really at all. Then she explained that he had beaten her in the store and made her feel bad by making her apologize to the clerk or else be beaten some more.
Julia listened attentively, not once losing eye contract with her.
A heavy weight settled in her heart as Eridani ran through her story another time, unaware of the thoughts that unconsciously passed through her mind, thoughts that betrayed the truth of the matter. She thought of the truth when she lied, but she didn't realize that Julia could read all of these things just from focusing on them.
A thick, resigned sigh left her. Looking away, she stood and said, "Go ahead, Antoine. But if you leave any marks, though, any welts or abrasions—"
He didn't let her finish.
"I'm judicious, Julia, not cruel. I'm not out to beat her senseless, just instill in her what will happen when she does something as wrong as this," he said.
Though it didn't make her feel any better, she let him take Eridani by the arm and drag her screaming down the hallway, once again sputtering how much she hated him. It was one of the most difficult choices Julia had to make up to that point. Eridani had never done anything wrong that deserved that sort of punishment. She had acted up here and there, sometimes throwing fits when Jeanne tried to bathe her or make her get dressed on her own, but nothing that hadn't been solved by retracting the rewards she usually got for good behavior.
Antoine left no marks, having only spanked her a handful of times, but afterwards, Eridani refused to have much of anything to do with any of them except Camille, who hadn't been present at the time the decision to let her be spanked was made. Julia felt awful for it, especially when it stormed one night and the little girl went running to Camille for comforting instead of to her mother. Antoine suffered much of the brunt of her rejection, though he went on as if he didn't care that she despised having to take piano lessons with him. She tried to protest having to learn the piano, claiming that she really hated it to Matias, but he forced her to go anyways. As she was sat on the white bench next to Antoine, she protested that she hated learning the piano, mostly because she had to learn from him. Very plainly she was told that if she wanted to try and punish him for what he had done, then she could do without chocolate pastries for breakfast and would only get toast and tea, a threat that made her cave and, reluctantly, continue her lessons.
She held onto her grudge for at least two weeks before she began to warm up to first Matias, then Julia, and then eventually Antoine. She even apologized profusely to him for what she did, mostly on Julia's insistence since she claimed that to tell someone that they hate them is inexcusable and really mean.
Beyond that, there were very little troubles with Eridani. She learned French quickly, as well as progressed in her studies of first mathematics, some history, and then a little science. She was skilled in the arts, excelling at her piano lessons as well as her painting lessons, and was almost to the point that she could be enrolled in a school if that's what Julia and Matias wanted.
They promptly refused, preferring to have her tutored until she was older yet. There was still some fear in them that she might recognize what they were and, not realizing that it was a secret to be safeguarded, would inform others—intentionally or no—that her parents were vampires. It was safer to let her grow up in the carefully guarded seclusion of the chateau, and then let her be enrolled in school when she was older and knew better than to betray their secret.
The rest of the year passed by easily, with Julia exchanging masses of letters with Chloe, who sent her an abundance of pictures from her quaint little home in Nagoya, and with Antoine growing ever closer to Camille. There was distance between them still, but it diminished with each passing week as the trust he had originally lost was painfully and slowly regained.
It was also an exciting time for René, who had finished the rest of his traditional schooling in France and was starting his formal adventure into education. He had applied to several prestigious universities, since money was no barrier for him, such as Oxford in England, Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard in the States, as well as a handful of universities in Paris. When his acceptance letters came back, he was overjoyed to have been accepted into both Harvard and Notre Dame, as well as Oxford in England.
None of them were surprised when he chose Notre Dame over Harvard, preferring the religious backdrop of the school to one that was slightly more renowned for the type of degree he wanted to obtain. What did surprise them, in some ways, was that he was going to be traveling all the way to America and staying there for a good number of years just to obtain a degree. Even Antoine had been convinced that he would have chosen a religious school in Europe, something that was a little bit closer to home.
He made the most of the short summer, spending as much time with Eridani during the day as possible. When she woke up a little bit before noon, they would have breakfast together before he'd take her out into the vineyards, teaching her a little bit here and there about viniculture. The other men that usually worked the fields moved around them as though they weren't there, carrying on with their daily duties from checking the vines for disease to cropping away any bushels that were undergrown.
Sometimes on the weekend, he and Jeanne would take her out about town so that she could see what it looked like during the day, and be able to spend endless amounts of time meandering through the zoo, eyes wide with the same wonder she had for the large pieces of art that were hung inside the art museums. The local aquarium was no different, though it enraptured her in an entirely different way, especially looking the large, sprawling tanks of jelly fish or the saltwater exhibits of fish. The splash of colors dazzled her, as she had never seen anything like it. Especially not where she had come from, though that was all but a very distant memory in the back of her mind, too vague and surreal to be resurrected.
They took her to sprawling parks filled with fountains and ponds, and clusters of blooming flowers from brightly colored azaleas to deep red roses, and it was all that they could do to keep her from plucking bouquets of flowers from the rolling gardens or trying to uproot the entire bush to bring it home with her. Eridani couldn't get enough of leaning in and smelling them; she made it a priority to dip her nose in every open blossom and give it a deep, hearty sniff. When she drew back, a brush of golden pollen clung like a clown nose to the middle of her face.
Eridani was almost heartbroken when summer came to an end and she had to say farewell to René. She tried to do what she had to Chloe and cling to his leg in a desperate attempt to keep him from leaving the chateau for the airport, but in the end, all it did was make him a little bit sadder that he had to leave. He wrapped her in his arms, kissed her cheeks gently, and then handed her over to Jeanne.
For just a moment, he hesitated. He had been forced to give all the others his goodbyes the previous evening, and while Laurent had agreed to drive him to the airport and drop him off, René wished that it was Antoine and the others that would be seeing him off. There were only two times in the year that he would be able to return to France, and that was during winter vacation, a lengthy three week break, and summer. The rest of his time he would have to resort to communicating through a mixture of letters and, if he could persuade Julia to bring a computer in the house, through electronic means.
Once he was gone, the chateau was infinitely quieter, especially on the weekends. Eridani started throwing fits as she hadn't done since the first several months she had been in the chateau. She would outright refuse breakfast without René there to eat with her or feign being too tired or sick to get out of bed to do her studies when the tutor came. If Jeanne tried to bathe or help her dress, she'd cry and scream and insist that she was sick and needed to stay in bed. Only Julia could soothe her a little bit, but even then, she insisted that she wasn't well enough to do lessons with Antoine or Camille and didn't want to do anything but lie in bed. Julia, being the kind soul that she was, would let her get away with these tantrums, defending them when Matias protested her behavior.
After one week turned into two, and two into three, Matias put a stop to it. No matter how much Julia argued with him that Eridani was miserable that René had left and needed time to get over it, he refused to listen to her. For better or for worse, Matias' say was usually the final one in the relationship—however, he exercised this power very little, using it only when he knew Julia was being too lenient.
Going to Eridani's room, he flicked on the lights, and she groaned and tugged the duvet over her eyes. When he tore the duvet away and pulled her out of bed, she cried and threw a fit, protesting that she was too ill to do anything. She needed sleep.
Matias knelt down and said firmly, "No, you don't. You need a bath and to get dressed. Do I have to fetch Camille?"
Regardless of Antoine's sporadic severity, Camille was still considered the main disciplinarian in the family. She tolerated very little when it came to the girl and would not hesitate giving her a scolding and perhaps threaten her with a spanking if she was too stubborn. Camille also never hesitated when it came to making Eridani do as she was told. It didn't bother her in the least if it made Eridani cry or scream or otherwise. Having once raised her own child, she knew where to draw the line when it came to tolerating a behavior and punishing it.
Eridani's eyes narrowed, and she protested, "I don't want to. Not until René comes home."
"René can't. He has to go to school," he said. "He will be back for a little bit in December, and then he has to go back again. Do you understand?"
"No," she said, folding her arms over her chest and pouting. "Why can't he go here? He did before."
"This is different. He is over in America, and he is at a very important school. Okay? He's not gone forever. He'll be here for Christmas and for the summer. But if you don't behave, he'll just stay there. Do you understand, Eridani?"
Her brown eyes widened, horrified at the prospect, and she instantly dashed away from Matias and started rooting through her closet for something good to wear. She looked through the dresses and the trousers and the little, girly blouses trimmed with bits of ribbon and lace. When she finally found an outfit that both her and Matias could agree on, he escorted her to their bedroom for Julia to bathe her and brush out the knots that had accumulated in her mass of black curls.
When Christmas came, it was a wonderland for all of them, especially the little girl. On top of being reunited with René, her sole, daytime companion, she had never seen so many presents before. Her own birthday, which had been marked in November, the day that she had come into Julia's care, had paled in comparison since not only were there presents for her, but for all of the others as well. The idea of Santa Claus was an entirely new one to her, and when Julia told her that he came down the chimneys to visit good children and give them gifts, she went tearing through the house to check all of the fireplaces in case he might have gotten stuck in one, or in case he might have dropped a little something extra on his way back up.
Regardless of the abundance of jovial holidays that dotted the months of November, December, and January, it was not an easy time for all of them. Julia was having vivid, horrible nightmares about the time she was trapped in Italy with Claude. She had hardly given that portion of her life much thought at all; it was often overshadowed by the joy she experienced in raising Eridani and having her oldest of companions surround her from night to night. Given that she hardly argued with any of them, it seemed peculiar that she would start reliving the darkest moments of her life, dreaming about killing scores of innocents out of anger and spite.
She was tormented by them relentlessly. Almost every night in December she woke up in a panic, her heart clenching with the distinct feeling of fear. Every noise would startle her, sending shots of pain rippling across the length of her nerves, and her stomach would twist itself into convoluted knots. She was in a frantic state, unable to be soothed or calmed until an hour or two had passed, something that greatly perturbed Matias. Even his presence could not ease her agitation, no matter what he did. He could lift her into his arms and bring her in front of the roaring fireplace, but no amount of kisses or caresses could pacify her. She was on guard, paranoid that Claude had not been destroyed in the fire that she and Shiva had lit in his home, and that at any minute, he would come tearing into the chateau to destroy everything she had struggled to create for herself.
Lying next to the fireplace, Matias ran his fingers through her hair. They were still bronze, but with each passing year it seemed that they were growing ever lighter, slowly returning to their ivory shade.
"Julia, you have to tell me what's wrong," he said, his voice taut with frustration. "I can't fix it if I don't know."
She shook her head, and her black hair cascade down her shoulders like liquid obsidian. Each strand teemed with a magnetic color, absorbing the vivacious light that the fireplace exuded and alchemizing it into an entire range of colors that skipped across her mane, glittering like the glass cylinders that were strung from the overhead chandelier.
"I don't know," she whispered into the rug beneath her. Her eyes were focused on the flamed tongues that licked the belly of the chimney opening. They writhed, as if in pain, and she shuddered.
"You know," he insisted. "Why won't you tell me?"
Sitting up, she glared at him and declared, "I don't know! I don't know why I'm having nightmares now of all times! If I knew, don't you think I'd do something to get rid of them?"
His lips pursed, but he didn't pursue the point. He never wanted to fight with her over this, but his frustration was slowly mounting and approaching a deadly apex. There had never been a time before when he couldn't comfort her, and now that it seemed almost impossible to do so, he was becoming agitated with his own inadequacies.
"I just wish I knew what to do to make it better," he said, cupping her face in his hands. He kissed her lips gently.
She closed her eyes, trying to take solace in the fact that he was there, and that even if Claude lived, he wouldn't be able to get to her with Matias around. He was stronger than before, having drunk from Shiva, and the evidence of that showed by how rapidly his skin was healing from the catastrophe of nearly two years ago.
"I can't explain it," she said. "I just feel like something bad is going to happen, and I can't shake it. Even though it's silly, I can't shake that feeling."
He dragged her into his embrace and brushed his nose against hers.
"Nothing will happen!" he assured her. "We will all protect each other."
She buried her face into his shirt and closed her eyes. Breathing in deeply, she whispered, "I know. I know. It's just the dreams. They frighten me, and I can't shake that feeling of fear. I know that it's all over now, but it's just… it's hard. I killed so many innocents."
"No," he growled as he held her. "Claude killed them, not you. He set up all the conditions for what had happened. It was no fault of your own that your body was simply trying to survive regardless of the costs."
She nodded, but was not convinced. Her conscience could not be so easily appeased.
As the month wore on into January, her nightmares slowly began to dissipate before vanishing altogether. The months passed by quickly, and it was only then that Julia really began to notice how much Eridani had grown since she had brought her to the chateau. Aside from physically growing a little taller, though still retaining her willowy frame, her mind was sharpening with each passing week, much to her parents' relief. She was becoming quick and witty, and despite having learned French rather late, she was picking up its semantics so well that Julia and Matias requested that her tutor start teaching her English as well.
As time wore on, it became increasingly evident that Camille had finally opened her heart's gate a sliver to let Antoine peek inside, for wherever one of them was, the other was usually not far off. Very rarely were they seen apart, even on the nights that they gave lessons to Eridani. One would always sit in on the other's night, watching with curious attention to what was being taught. Antoine even offered to teach Camille how to play the piano, but she declined. While she enjoyed listening to the music, it was not something that she had much true interest in, and her feelings were that if you were not going to truly delve into the guts of a subject, you best not pick it up at all. To dabble was to feign interest.
The two spent so much time together that Matias and Julia were often left with the chateau all to themselves, especially if Eridani was taken out and about with her "uncle and aunt", the titles that Antoine and Camille had given themselves. They would sometimes take her out to plays with them, or to even visit various places outside of Bordeaux, such as La Rochelle just up the coast. They spoiled her with visits to children's museums when it was winter, therefore becoming darker sooner, as well as with visits to toy stores and sweets shops as long as she was good and excelled in her learning. The pair treated her as though she was as much their daughter as she was Matias and Julia's, though for good reason. They had as much raised her as her parents had, and had loved and comforted and cared for her. As an entire family, they had all been sure to nurture her to the best of their abilities.
When Antoine and Camille weren't outside of the chateau, they could often be found lounging around the second floor in one of the entertainment rooms. Camille had taken to the idea of films with great zeal, watching them almost incessantly since Antoine first sat her down to watch one. There was a child-like wonder that illuminated her soft face when she saw the flash of color and hear the shrill punctuation of speech. Her eyes would become wide, much like Eridani's whenever she was suddenly awed by something, and there was very little that could separate her from the television once the film had started. She would never simply end the film in the middle.
Once when the electricity had briefly gone out due to a storm, interrupting one of these films, Camille nearly had a fit. She insisted that there had to be some way to finish the film, that she couldn't bear just being left wondering where the plot was going. It took all of Antoine's charm to persuade her that electrical outages happened, and that all she could do was sit and wait for it to come back on to finish her film.
Which is exactly what she did. She sat on the sofa, hands clasped patiently in her lap, and stared at the blank television until dawn came. With great reluctance, and some persuading on Antoine's part, he got her to go back to her coffin, but when night came again, she was back in that room immediately, her eyes wide as she started the film up from where it had previously left off.
The closer she became to Antoine and the more she opened her heart to let him in, the more receptive she was to the rest of them. An unexplained sweetness worked its way into the round contours of her face, smoothing away the bitter dispassion that had previously occupied the facets of her expression so that there was nothing left but a profound gentleness that startled them all. The sound of her laughter, too, bewildered the lot of them when they heard it. It had such a brilliant sound to it, almost like the thrumming of a harpsichord, and was more beautiful than any of them had ever imagined; when engendered with blooming emotion, her voice was quite likely the most beautiful that Julia had ever heard.
She even started stringing pearls through her hair again, forming a white crown around her head from which streams of long, wavy hair would flow like autumn colored ribbons. Camille hardly ever wore her hair up after that, preferring to let it fall around her shoulders, unless the occasion may have called for it. Even then, such as on formal occasions which, since she was coupled with Antoine, came in a never-ending line, she preferred to let her hair fall loose down her pale back.
It was an eye-opening change, one that revolutionized how the others viewed Camille entirely.
Generally, things went well for all of them. It was only with the arrival of December that Julia's nightmares cropped up again, rising like the unwelcome swell of a typhoon, before crushing down on the shore of her mental facets. As always, there was this dreadful sense of foreboding and fear creeping in the back of her mind, no more tangible or plausible than the shadows that crept along the walls in the shape of a dastardly prince. Despite this, and all of the logic she tried to use to combat these unwelcome dreams, they persevered, tormenting her until the month of January had faded.
This was just in time for the reunion Julia had planned nearly two years ago when all of her companions had started to leave, off to start or resume their own, individual lives. Though, there was something more to the date than what the others had realized. Not even Camille was aware of it despite how increasingly close she had become to her fledgling over the past few years. Only Antoine had been let in on what the special occasion was, and that was for the sole sake of including him on some mischief that, whether for good or bad, would put him in the doghouse right along with Julia.
Very gradually, everyone began to trickle in. It started with Dominic and Ronnie, both of whom arrived promptly on the seventh of the month. The moment they walked in the door, Eridani ran up to them shrieking in delight, her arms extended for Dominic. Even time hadn't erased the memories she had of being able to put ribbons and lace in his hair, something that, for a while, she had only been able to do with Matias when he'd let her.
Ronnie looked better than she had before she left, the scars on her hands and arms having vanished entirely, and she even smiled when the little girl ran up to Dominic, and he swept her easily into his arms and kissed her scented curls. He, too, seemed somewhat changed by the few years that had passed since he was in Julia's company. His temperament seemed somewhat milder than it had before, and it was difficult for her to remember the night he had come seeking the truth from her under the threat of death.
When the others came downstairs to greet him and Ronnie, it was all laughter and kisses and hugs. They couldn't get enough of embracing each other, somewhat marveling at the fact that they were being reunited instead of discovering that this or that grim tragedy had befallen them. And when all the greeting had finished, everyone was ushered to the grotesque parlor, dimly lit by candles for a more serene atmosphere, and they sat there to talk and relate the events of the past two years.
Except for Eridani. She went tearing upstairs and brought down her hair clips, bows, and ribbons and Julia's silver handled brush so that she could dress up Dominic's hair.
The nights were filled with this sort of easy laughter and conversation, and that didn't even change when Kami and Chloe arrived from Japan, though there was a much more heartfelt reunion that occurred between her and Julia. It was only when Shiva returned that the entire mood of the chateau changed, if only slightly. Instead of a plethora of friendly hugs, there were nods of acknowledgment to him, and maybe a small embrace. None of them had been able to much get to know him before he left, and so his presence was least missed of all of those who had left.
Now, instead of reminiscing of the old days, their conversation was spent recalling details that were further in the past when it came to Dominic, Camille, Antoine, or Matias. There was talk of the history they had all grown up in, the small little blip of culture that had forever imprinted itself on the blueprints of their mind, throwing up moral constructs that were unique to each of them. Of course, not all of them were as affected by their cultural upbringing as others. Antoine was a prime example of this. Most of it showed itself in his treatment of his wife, when he hesitantly brought that to the table as requested by Shiva, as well as that of his sister. A man more subjected to the culture of his time might have cared less for them, might have been crueler. They acknowledged the fact that perhaps the one reason they had persevered as immortals was because they weren't constrained by these constructs, and indeed, their cultural upbringing affected them less than those who hadn't made it but a century or two before subjecting themselves to the sun.
It was a conversation that enthralled Julia entirely. Even the other younger ones didn't mind listening in. About the only one who had no patience for the topic matter was Eridani, but she busied herself with Dominic's hair whenever he was sat down. Once she finished this style or that, she'd tear it out only to start all over again, perhaps with a different colored ribbon or a different arrangement of plaits.
Shiva gave him one sideways glance and let out a sincere laugh. "Ah! Looks like she's made you into her baby doll, Dominic. I'm surprised a man like you would tolerate it."
Dominic smiled, not minding the small poke, and answered, "She's just a little girl. Besides, it gives her something to do besides harass her parents. Ah, and speaking of, how is parenting?"
Matias laughed and answered before Julia could lob something heavy at Dominic, "It's as to be expected. That's to say that it's hard. Though, with Antoine and Camille around to look after her as well, it is more manageable."
Antoine gave a slight nod of his head and said, "Yes, because if Camille and I weren't here, she wouldn't get any discipline at all. Mother would let her become a rotten little girl, always spoiling her with kisses and chocolates."
Scowling, Julia protested, "You've never been a mother before, so you have no place to talk, monsieur."
He smiled and gave a broad shrug of his shoulders as he took Camille's hand in his own. "Well, obviously not! I hope you haven't overlooked the fact that I don't have the necessary prerequisites for such a thing!"
They all laughed, and it didn't escape Shiva's acute attention the way that Camille smiled at Antoine and the way he discreetly winked at her. No matter how delighted they were, however, he noticed that they were all careful to conceal their fangs from Eridani. Even the youngest of them, Chloe, was very careful to check how wide her grin was.
Julia clapped her hands together and said, "Right, Antoine and I have to do something. We'll meet you all in the dining room in 15 minutes, yes?"
They all nodded, though that didn't stop them from casting odd glances at the pair as they hurried out into the hallway. Only Matias didn't look surprised by their sudden exit, but that was only because he spent enough time around Julia, and they were intimate enough with each other that blood constantly passed between them, to know what she had been planning from the very start. He only grinned to himself, having repressed some small secret into the back of his thoughts so that Camille wouldn't be the only one who was surprised.
Fifteen minutes came and went, and finally, too curious for their own good, everyone headed towards the dining room.
They shuffled in through the door, laughing and joking, and then came to a dead halt.
The dining room was adorned in multicolored streams which crossed the span of the room from corner to corner like lights draped between conker trees at a summer festival, and the table itself was covered by a slip of brightly colored cloth, the shade of crimson. Silk bows had been tied to backs of the chairs, shimmering almost iridescently when the light from the overhead chandelier skipped across the fabric. Each thread moved as though infused with life, twisting and dancing beneath the scrutiny of the chandelier like an oracle drunk on wine. It was a dazzling sight for those who were immortal, whose eyes could pick up the little shifts in color, a brightening in hue, a darkening of shade, though it was no less appealing to those who were mortal, namely Eridani. She was enthralled with anything that was saturated with a variety of colors, and the dining room was no exception.
Sat on the table was a single layer cake with a sheet of crimson colored icing and decorated at the corners with delicate black roses. Protruding from the center of the cake were three numbered candles, a four and two zeros. In sweet, curling icing were the words: Happy Birthday, Camille. P.S. You're old. Love, Julia. P.S.S. You're very old. Love, Antoine.
Eridani squealed in delight and dashed into the dining room.
Camille remained station at the front of the room. The others were cautiously backing away from her, and for good reason. Her small hands were clenched into fists at her side, and her lips, no matter how seemingly harmless, were curled into a wicked frown.
"What the hell is this?" she demanded.
Antoine pointed to Julia where she was stood not far off from him. "It was all her idea."
Camille scowled and her eyes darted to Julia, honing in on her like a sniper at the ready.
"Julia Michelle Cross!" she thundered. "You're in trouble!"
She gaped at Camille, and would almost have bothered to ask her how she had known her middle name if it hadn't been for the sheepish look that dashed across Matias' face. Slowly, he turned away as if to try and blend in with the wall behind him. It wasn't working, even with the wall being a gentle cream color and his sweater being white.
Then, before Camille could try and throttle her, she pointed back to Antoine, "He helped me! And besides, he called you very old! You should be insulted! Take him!"
Her glare sharpened on Antoine, and again he pointed to Julia, "She took me too literally. She didn't have to put it on the cake!"
Her expression fell a little, and storming up to him, she demanded, "You really called me very old?"
He paused, stammering, and Julia took the opportunity to stealthily tip-toe towards Matias before she got hit with an Antoine-shaped wrecking ball. If all went well, she would be able to user her lover as a shield, seeing as how he could reflect anything that was thrown by Camille with a much greater ease than herself. Besides, she had to give him a throttling while she was there. Not that she entirely minded Camille knowing her middle name, but more for the sake of having a reason to feign anger at him and wind him up a little.
As Antoine fled from Camille, running around the table in quick, desperate circles, Eridani plopped herself down in one of the chairs and looked to the others as if to say 'Come on, then! I can't start eating until the lot of you are sitting down!'. All of the others, however, including Dominic and Shiva, kept a safe distance away from the commotion, huddling around the door in case they needed to escape quickly.
Julia looked at Matias, and he smiled.
Before she could make a single demand, he clasped her hand tight, and something hard bit into her palm. It was cold, like a lone piano note separated from the rest of the composition, but felt delightfully smooth like the surface of the marble floor in her bathroom.
When he withdrew his hand from hers, she glanced at what he had pressed into it. In the lighting, the object gave off a silver sheen, and engraved into its circular band was an intricate design of Celtic knots, each winding and curling through or around each other. Spaced intermittently within the criss-crossing knots were a few gems, each glittering green like the emerald earrings that hung from her ears and becoming infused with candescence like the pieces of glass strung along the bracelet on her wrist.
Her brow furrowed. He leaned in close, his lips brushing past her cheek to rest on the soft curve of her ear, and whispered, "Marry me!"
She jerked backwards, startled, and exclaimed, "What!"
The commotion immediately died down, which was lucky for Antoine, because Camille had just managed to grab a hold of him by the collar of his shirt and was preparing to berate him with a few playful slaps. Now, even their attention was turned to where Matias and Julia were drawn into the corner of the room.
Julia suddenly realized the attention that was on her, and she straightened. Eridani was gawking at her, and she started to slide out of her chair.
"Mum? What's wrong?" she asked.
Camille was instantly at her side, and directing her back towards the table, said, "Mummy just can't believe that we forgot ice cream, that's all. Sit down and have some cake. Antoine will go check if there's any still in the freezer."
She shot Antoine a pleading glance, and he instantly dashed out of the dining room and went for the kitchen. She looked at everyone else, and they immediately fell back into their easy conversation and laughter as they gathered around the table, each taking a seat. There was no reason for them to considering that they wouldn't be eating any of the cake, or the ice cream, but it was silly to leave Eridani there to sit by herself.
Only Julia remained standing, and she turned to Matias.
"What are you thinking?" she asked him in a low whisper. "Matias—"
He cut her off gently by pressing a single finger to her lips. She glared at him resentfully as he spoke, "You don't have to answer now. Or tomorrow. Or at the end of the week. Just give it some thought."
"But we need to talk about it!" she muttered past his finger. "We're vampires. This is crazy, Matias! Marriage? We don't have mortal life spans, and legally, we don't exist. There would be no lasting validity. There's just so much wrong with this!"
He shushed her, and in a low voice said, "I'd like to think our love circumvents the issue of mortality as well as legality. After all, love is not a legal matter. It is something that exists solely between us, and, if you want, would be better defined and symbolized by a ceremony of sorts. But as I said, think on it for now."
Kissing her cheek briefly, he brushed past her to join the others at the table. Julia gawked after him, and then glanced to the silver ring that he had pressed into her hand. It was undeniably beautiful in spite of its simplicity, but all she could do is hold it and look at it. There was an unwillingness to don it just yet, no matter how her heart pled with her to jump at the offer.
She slipped it into her trouser pocket where it would be safe while she contemplated the matter, before joining everyone else at the table to commemorate Camille's four hundredth year as a vampire. Eridani glanced at her, eyebrows perked up a little bit, before returning to her cake which, despite being eaten with a fork, managed to get smeared all over her chin and cheeks. This was due mostly to the fact that she tried to eat pieces that were too big for her mouth. When and if Antoine brought ice cream from the kitchen, she would end up getting that all over the place as well.
Before that happened, and after several minutes of conversation ensued, Shiva rose and said, "Well, I thank you all for this, but I'm going to retire. Julia, could I have a word?"
She arched an eyebrow at him but nodded.
They left the dining room, and he led them to the quiet seclusion of the white room with the piano. He collapsed on the sofa and gestured for her to sit to his right in one of the chairs.
She eyed him curiously, but humored him.
"What's this about Shiva?" she asked.
He smiled and laughed, a rich, slightly baritone sound that caused the vase of roses to rattle on the coffee table. Leaning back, he rested both of his arms on the top of the couch, assuming a leisurely posture.
"You do like to get right to the point. I don't blame you," he said, but evaded the question entirely. "Are you going to say 'yes' to Matias?"
"What?" she asked, her eyes narrowing.
He made a vague gesture towards her hips. "He proposed to you. Are you going to say 'yes'?"
She paused and felt her pocket. The ring protruded through the denim material. If she pressed hard enough, she could feel the design of the Celtic knots that ran their never-ending course around the length of the slender band.
"I don't know," she admitted.
"If you don't mind me saying so, I think that you should," he told her very simply.
She tilted her head. Shiva didn't appear to be joking. He looked somber in his dress clothes. His trousers were black, as was the jacket that came over his navy blue dress shirt. The buttons were black, creating a small contrast between themselves and the silky fabric they pinned together. His suit was tailored to fit exactly, something that was altogether new for Julia since Antoine mostly preferred his to be a little bit more loose, a bit more comfortable for everyday wear. Shiva also was wearing his hair loose, like he had as a soldier, and it framed his sharp face magnificently, accentuating the hawk like curve of his nose and the solid bones that stood above sleek cheeks. His eyes were impossibly dark, a startling contrast to his skin which, like Matias', was gradually becoming a lighter shade as the years passed.
He shrugged his shoulders and leaned forward. His hair dusted his shoulders, being too short to stay behind them. "Because, he is a good man. Because what he wants from you is nothing more than what you already have. If anything, I think he wants to be able to better flaunt you as his." When her expression became overshadowed, he added, "Not that he would deny you that privilege as well. Rest assured, I think he'd be proud if you would. You know, our kind very rarely make the kind of bonds that you have. Once we do, however, they are inexplicably deep. With us, I think, we either love or hate. We very rarely let our emotions take a shallower course. Your love for him is deep, inexplicably so, and if you ask me, that he wants this, a deeper form of expression for this love and commitment, means that it runs just as strongly through him. I can promise you with almost a certainty that you will never find anything like it again."
She nodded. "I'll take that into consideration. Now, may I ask what it is you really wanted to talk about?"
He laughed, a powerful, rumbling sound that again caused the vase to tremble. "Only that I'm going to be stealing you from Matias for a little bit. I have a favor to ask of you."
A momentary surge of fear exploded through her, and she instantly sat upright. Her hands gripped the arm of the chair she was sat in so hard that she nearly managed to dent the enameled wood. Flashes of her nightmares tore through her, and a thousand doubts.
Before they could manifest themselves, Shiva gave a dismissive wave of his hand. "Nothing serious," he reassured her. "I want you to find a medium of writing, whether it's pen and paper or electronic, I don't care. But I want you to listen to me as I tell you my story. You were so kind as to tell me yours, in full detail I might add, and I want to repay the favor and…" Shiva trailed off, his voice weakening and the expression in his vivid, brown eyes twisting.
"And?" she asked gently.
"And, I want there to be some evidence of my existence. I want there to be a recorded history of all that I've seen and known. As long as it remains only with you and those you trust, that is," he said.
"Alright then," she said at last. "Come to the library tomorrow night, and you can tell me."
He smiled and clasping his hands together, said, "Excellent. Tomorrow evening, then."
They met in the library as agreed the following evening after Julia returned from Bordeaux with a bagful of simple notebooks. She had told herself that she would copy everything down in them first and then, when she had more time, she could transfer everything verbatim to something more substantial and with better longevity.
Shiva was awaiting her, standing before the towering shelves of books. Antoine had managed to accumulate over two centuries of knowledge in that room, though not without a cost. He had been forced to expand it several times in order to make more room for the hundreds of books that he bought every year. He probably had several volumes of the same history, each with a different take.
The Babylonian smiled as he inhaled deeply through his nose, detecting the scent of worn pages and old ink. A small chill ran down his spine, strengthening when he heard Julia come into the library, take a seat at one of the desks, and then uncap a ballpoint pen.
He laughed, "Such modern things. To think, it used to be parchment and quill, and a little well of ink."
"Yes, well, I have a feeling the well would dry long before we finish. I've bought several pens to make sure that doesn't happen," Julia said. She dated the top of the page, and then looked up to find Shiva half turned away from the shelves, smiling mirthlessly at her.
"My age doesn't escape you, does it?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I'm very aware of how old you are. Maybe not exactly, but I can sense your strength. You also have an air about you. It's hard to explain. Now… how do you want this done? Do you want to copy only what you say, or…?"
"Yes, but don't expect anything fancy like what you told me," he said. "I am not a poet or a story-teller. I am merely here to recount for you what I remember."
He paused and glanced to the books again, the dim lighting making his eyes glitter like amber stones. Closing his eyes, he gave out a sigh and said, "The beginning should be no mystery, not to you, but I will start with the obvious: I was born in Babylon when she was, in some ways, in golden age culturally. But she was falling into a decline, and that… that is what is important. That is the frame of it all..."
Author's Note: Thank you so much for reading all of this. Again, I'm sorry it took so long to get them up and that I haven't been as diligent as I should have been as far as getting this published. If you enjoyed this story, then continue on with my sequel, The Babylonian Garden. Love all of you guys for your support!