I swear, after this, I will never read Dracula again. I can't seem to get vampires off my brain. Ah, well. Suicidal (partly) vampires are always fun, right?
I stood in a dark corner of the ballroom and watched the other vampires dance. The music that was playing was low and soft, as delicate as a butterfly's wing, and could only just be heard from where I stood.
Above me, the marble arches of the room soared high, so high that they disappeared into the shadows above. Chandeliers hung with crystal were suspended from the arches, throwing light onto those below, though the figures cast no shadows.
I let my eyes drift over the people crowding the ballroom or whirling on the dance floor. There was no pattern to their dress, neither rhyme nor reason to their style. Each wore what he or she felt the most comfortable with. There were some dressed in the clothes of Regency ballrooms, some wore more modern clothes, and some wore things far older. One man had even come in the full regalia of a Native American shaman.
I smoothed a hand down the front of my midnight-red ball gown. Like many others, I had chosen the style from the time when I had lived. I felt more comfortable in it, could be more effortlessly graceful, and tonight was important.
Tonight we would choose our King.
My eyes passed over the groups on the edges of the room. The vampires waited for the moment when our future would be decided, for the king would be our master. He would control every aspect of our lives, our deaths.
"Tell me, why is the loveliest lady in the room standing by herself?" A warm velvet-and-silk voice pulled me out of my thoughts and back to the present. I looked up and smiled slightly at the woman standing in front of me.
"Maybe because I haven't wanted to dance with any of those who have asked me," I answered, meeting her dark eyes. As always, they sparkled with amusement at the trace of English accent that remained in my voice, even after all this time. "Hello, Zarina."
Zarina was one of the few vampires I'd ever trusted. She had never lied to me or played me false, though I was hardly powerful and could easily be taken advantage of.
She was also one of the oldest vampires I had ever met. I didn't know her exact age, but I could feel her power like smooth, nutty honey in the back of my throat. I didn't know how she came by the name Zarina, either, but I doubt it was her original name. Even after all her time as a vampire, her skin still had a touch of dusky golden tan to it. That, with her slanted dark eyes and raven's wing hair, made me think she might have been Egyptian once upon a time.
But being dead broke down all barriers. Corpses didn't respect other people's cultural boundaries.
She joined me, leaning back against the cold wall. Her watchful eyes swept me up and down, and a small smile touched her lips, just enough to show a hint of her sharp fangs. "Well, Eve, you certainly clean up nicely. You make me feel positively…messy." She spoke English with a hint of something foreign, like an exotic spice hidden in a boring, everyday staple.
I snorted. Zarina was never messy. The only time I have ever seen her less than perfect was when we had been traveling together in Africa and were attacked by a group of Hunters, vampire slayers. Tonight she was utterly immaculate in midnight-blue gown.
"I'm surprised you came tonight," I said. "You usually avoid gatherings like this as though they hold a den of Hunters."
"I'm usually astonished that they don't," Zarina said dryly, shaking her head. "I find it hard to believe that this many vampires can gather in one spot without word getting out to the Hunters. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel for them. They would just have to toss a few of those light-bombs they're so fond of in here to kill the lot of us."
I smiled in earnest for the first time that night. "I'm usually the pessimistic one, and you're the one teasing me into a better mood. It seems we have switched roles for tonight." I had never truly enjoyed being a vampire in the way Zarina and some of the others did, and it tended to give me a somewhat unenthusiastic view of the whole thing. The first time Zarina and I had met, I had been debating whether to throw myself off a bridge and into a dry river, to kill myself. Zarina convinced me not to.
Now Zarina grinned at me. "You are correct as always, Eve." She sighed and looked around the room, hint of melancholy entering her usually cheerful features. "This night is reminding me just how old I am. I've seen three Kings be crowned in the time since my death. This will mark the fourth."
I hooked my arm through hers and looked up at her. Far up. I always forgot how tall she was until she was right next to me. Or was that how short I was? "Don't be glum, Zarina. Just think: if you hadn't been around for so long, you would never have gotten to meet me. And as you're so often telling me, aren't I worth dying for?"
She smiled down at me and picked up one lock of my blond hair, which had fallen out of the loose knot I had had it in. Her eyes grew serious for a moment, filled with an emotion I couldn't read, didn't want to read, and she tucked the hair behind my ear.
"Always, Eve," she murmured, and then she was herself again, as though nothing had happened. "Would you care to dance?" she asked, offering me her hand.
I placed mine in it without hesitation. "I would enjoy that. Thank you, Zarina."
She led me out to the dance floor and pulled me into her arms, then leaned over to whisper in my ear, "I am the envy of every man here tonight, Ev—Ouch!"
I had stepped on her foot as hard as I dared in my soft slippers, even as we spun around in the steps of an old dance I no longer remembered the name of. "If you're going to compliment me, Zarina," I warned under my breath, "you aren't going to use clichés. Got it?"
She winced. "Got it. But did you have to do that so hard?"
I gave her an arch look. "Zarina, you're supposed to be one of the undead, a monster of mortal nightmares, not a baby who whines because her foot gets stepped on."
"You do realize that your undead strength applies to your feet as well, don't you, Eve?" Zarina demanded irritably. "And you don't have to say my name every sentence, you know. I think I can tell who you're talking to."
I grinned at her. "I know, but I'm trying to get you sick of hearing it, so that you'll tell me your real name."
Zarina blinked for a moment, the longest I had ever confounded her, and then snorted. "You're incorrigible, Eve. I'm not going to tell you that, and you know it." She shook her head, looking down at me with something akin to amazement in her face. I didn't know why, but as long as she wasn't brooding, I was happy, and keeping her cheerful kept my mind off such matters as always rose to the surface when around other vampires.
I sighed as she twirled me around through the other pairs on the floor, interjecting a light note into my voice. "Well, I can't say I didn't try." I glanced at the others of our kind gathered around. "It must be getting close to the time," I said, looking for the thirteen vampire Lords and Ladies, who would choose the King. I knew ten of them by sight, and they were all scattered through the room. The other three I didn't know, so I couldn't tell if they were there or not.
Zarina pulled me closer to her. "Come, Eve," she complained. "Can we not just enjoy this one dance, without worrying about politics and other people? Just one dance."
I glanced up at her elegantly boned face in surprise. "I didn't realize you felt so strongly about it," I said. "But if a dance means that much to you…" I let my voice trail off as she swept me around in a circle. My skirt billowed out like a crimson flower, swirling around Zarina's skirt as we twirled, the two colors mixing and whirling. It was a nice feeling, just to move with the music, but I knew it wouldn't last. As much as we tried to ignore it, the Choosing would take place tonight. It would mark the beginning of a new era for all of us.
As the music reached its crescendo, I closed my eyes, concentrating on the feeling of the moment and nothing else. I let it fill me, wiping away everything else and leaving a feeling of contentedness. The ability to do that kind of thing was the reason I had survived for so long as a vampire. I could shut out everything but what I needed to concentrate on, keeping all known details crystal-clear in my mind so that I could review them, see them at any moment. It was a few steps beyond a photographic memory, but the idea was the same.
"That is an interesting trick," Zarina said in my ear, making me start slightly. "Is it your vampire Talent, or from before?"
I opened my eyes and smiled at her, unworried about the future, or whatever would happen later. It was a nice feeling. "From before, actually. It makes me a killing at card games."
"So you remember everything pertinent to your situation, and everything else slips through the cracks. Interesting." Zarina looked like she wanted to say more, but a stir over to the side interrupted him. Like the rest of the couples around us, we halted as the music ground to a sudden, ear-wrenching stop.
Twelve men and women, immaculately dressed and carrying an overwhelming aura of power about them, stood in the center of the space around the dance floor. An expectant hush rippled across the assembly. They waited with the patience of old trees anticipating a storm. Or at least, all but one. Beside me, Zarina was tense and seemed ready to bolt. I shot her a puzzled glance, but she no longer seemed to see me. All of her attention was on the Lords and Ladies.
I looked at them and blinked. Counted. Blinked again. "Zarina," I hissed. "Is it just me, or is one of the Ladies—"
But she didn't hear me. Slowly, she pulled away from my grip on her arm and made her graceful way through the crowd. They parted to make way for her, and something clicked in my mind. Twelve plus one was thirteen. The other vampire Lords and Ladies and Zarina together made the thirteen vampire Lords and Ladies.
I clamped my teeth together against a gasp as the pain of betrayal shot threw me, and I felt a trickle of blood flow into my mouth like hot wine. Managing to pry my fangs out of my lower lip, I fixed my eyes on the tall, dark vampire Lady as she joined her fellows. It just went to show that I couldn't trust anyone.
Not even someone that I…well.
"I see you have finally decided to grace us with your great, humbling presence." One of the vampires looked coolly at Zarina, his pale eyes holding nothing. "We are honored; it makes tonight's announcement even easier." No one could tell from his voice if he was sarcastic or simply bored.
Zarina made a sour face, not nearly as reserved as some of the other vampires when it came to expressions. "You requested my presence, Lord Catawba. I have come, though only the reason you gave could have pulled me out of my self-imposed exile."
Another Lord nodded, a sharp and military gesture. "If that concludes the pleasantries, gentlemen, I believe we have an announcement to make. Best to get it over with, so shall we?"
I almost smiled. Lord Trent was my favorite of the Lords and Ladies I knew—except for Zarina, whom I wasn't sure about anymore. Trent had been a commander of the English forces that fought against France in the Hundred Years' War. He still had most of the personality of a military man, and though it made him a bit abrupt, he was more down-to-Earth than the others—again, except for Zarina.
The thirteen Lords and Ladies stepped forward in a line, looking serious and dignified, with a hint of hard, harsh danger around them that made me take a small step back. I had never seen them all together in one place before, and right now, their power was overwhelming. It made it clear that you didn't get to be a Lord or Lady by collecting stamps. They were the most powerful of us, those who could be counted on to be vicious and merciless. I shivered. I had known Zarina wasn't exactly sterling, but I hadn't thought she was Lady material.
"As we ever have, tonight we have chosen the new King from among us." Lord Kartah, oldest of the thirteen, addressed the assembly in his mild voice, looking positively nondescript in comparison to his companions. Only the roiling energy around him, so much greater than that of any other vampire in the room, set him apart. "Tonight, a new ruler will assume the throne, to lead us into a new age."
There was no hint in his voice about who it would be, but I already knew it wouldn't be him. Kartah had never wanted to be King. He said that it was a waste of his talents as a spy. I believed him in both cases.
Lord Caelum, once a Roman general, nodded as Kartah looked at him. "We have decided on the one vampire who has long known just how far we have fallen since our kind's height many years ago, when the human's civilization was still young. She is a woman we feel is more then suited to the task."
And at that moment, I knew. I knew who it was going to be. My eyes jumped to Zarina, took in the tight, forcedly blank features, and I looked into the face of our next Queen.
Lord Trent's words echoed my thoughts. "Tonight we greet Lady Zarina as the new vampire Queen."
There was a whisper through the assembled vampires, and in a wave, they all sank down, the men in bows, the women in curtsies, until the entire floor was offering homage to our new Queen.
I was a beat behind the others in gong down on bended knee. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised by Zarina's duplicity, as it was all but expected in vampires, but it hurt. She was one of the few reasons I hadn't fallen on a stake yet.
I let out a slow breath as I sank down. That wasn't entirely true. My own cowardice kept me from ending the mockery of a life that I had right now, and I knew it. It wasn't fair to blame Zarina for my own failings, as much as I wished to.
The ceremony for the crowning was relatively simple. I didn't have to do a single thing, but I wished I did. It would have given me something to do that was actually productive.
Zarina found me standing by the long buffet table that had been erected in mockery of those in human events. I was contemplating the large carving knife that rested next to a cooked ham.
"It's not silver, you know," she said. "Stainless steel."
"Pity," I said, turning away from her and heading back to the corner where she had first found me. I wished I had never left it.
Zarina followed me doggedly. "Eve, listen to me. I would have told you, but it never felt like the right time. I'm not proud of being a vampire Lady, and I don't like to spread it around. Eve, talk to me, damn it all!"
I said nothing. Very sarcastically.
Zarina glared at me. It was one of the first times I had ever seen her truly angry. "Eve, look around. Do you think I want to be the vampire Queen? It's the last thing I want to do, but I think I can make a difference. We can become a great nation again, so that none of us ever have to loose anyone to the Hunters again."
"Really?" I asked, my accent making it into a drawled, "Reaaaallly?"
I could see Zarina gritting her teeth. I had a true talent for getting on people's nerves when I wanted to.
And then something flickered in my awareness, something distinctly out of place. I don't know why I felt it and none of the older, more powerful vampires didn't, but there was definitely something there. I turned quickly.
There was a split second to take in the scene. A figure that blended almost perfectly into the shadows moved, raising a crossbow to its shoulder. A trigger clicked, and a white, silver-tipped bolt shot towards Zarina.
Time stopped, and I blinked, seeing everything in a millionth of the time it normally would have taken. I had a choice, one that could go either way, and I had to make it in that moment. If I didn't, the future of the vampires, the bright and shining future that so many saw tonight, would crumble, and we would be left in the dark once more.
Insanely enough, my mind flickered back to the last time I had seen my family. I had been standing by the fireplace, wondering if I should throw myself in and end everything then and there. But as always, I was too afraid. I didn't want to die.
My father, standing next to my mother as she sat it the horsehair armchair that had always been her seat, cleared his throat. I closed my eyes, unbelievably tired. I just wanted this done.
"Are you sure, Eve?" he asked, as I had known he would. "I'm certain that if you stay…"
I let out a short, bitter laugh. "Papa, I'm dead. What will you tell your friends when I never age, when I stay young forever? What happens when I must feed? You will not like the questions that come when drained corpses are found around this manor with punctures in their necks." I jerked my gaze up to my sister, holding her eyes ruthlessly. I wanted to stay, but I had to leave. They didn't understand, and if I had my way, they never would.
"What happens if I loose control?" I asked quietly, glancing down at the sleeping form in her arms. "You would not love me if I killed your child, sister, and I could not stand your hate."
Meredith wrung her hands. "I cannot believe you would do such a thing, Eve," she whispered. "I know you, and you are not as evil as you paint yourself."
"I am dead," I said bluntly. "A corpse brought back to life through dark magic, and nothing else. Please, I beg of you, Merry. Let me go."
My mother gave a short nod, her eyes running freely. "As you wish, Eve," she said, ignoring the instant protests that rose from my sister and father. "You must do as you feel fit, dear. But know that you go with our love and blessings, if you do go."
I smiled at her and turned away from the fire. Bending to kiss her wrinkled cheek, I drew the hood of my cloak up. "I leave tonight for the colonies," I told them. I should have felt relieved that they would let me go, but I only felt achingly empty as I turned to kiss my father. "I pray that you do not try to follow me, or find me. I will be with the others of my kind, and they do not take well to outsiders."
Meredith cried silently as we said goodbye. Though she was several years older, we were as close as siblings could be. I touched her son's feathery hair and kissed his forehead, then looked up. "When he gets older, tell him his Aunt Eve will come get him if he isn't good," I bade her, and despite my hardest will, my voice broke. Her shoulders shook silently, but she nodded, clutching him closer.
As I headed for the door, a hand touched my shoulder, turning me gently, and I stared into my brother Richard's face. He pulled me forward into a rib-cracking hug, and murmured in my ear, "Forgive me, Eve. If I live a thousand years, I can never atone enough for what has happened."
My throat was too tight to speak. I reached up and touched his face, sinking fangs into my lower lip to keep from sobbing.
His hand groped for mine, and I wove our fingers together. He squeezed it gently and raised my hand to his face, pressing the back against his cheek. "If you leave," he said quietly, "who will be my eyes?"
I let out a soft sob of breath before I could help myself, raising my other hand to brush over his eyelids, shutting his blind eyes. My twin, my best friend, and so much else. We had depended on each other, had never been separate, and now I was going where he could not follow.
"Be strong for me, Richard," I whispered, burying my face in his shoulder. "Live for both of us. I do not blame you for what has happened."
After a long while, we drew apart. I wiped my eyes, leaving bloody streaks on my face. Even normal tears were denied to me.
I stepped back and turned to the door, knowing that if I did not leave now, I never would.
"Oh, Eve," Richard murmured as I slipped through the door. "Forgive me."
"Forgive me." I whispered the words aloud as I made my choice. Even vampires were worth saving, if it meant the low cost of my life.
I stepped into the path of the arrow.
Time resumed with a snap, and I felt the dull impact hit my chest. Pain exploded, but I kept silent even as I staggered back, not voicing the scream that wanted to shake the rafters. Distantly, I felt hands grabbing me, lowering me gently to the ground, and a voice reached my ears through the scarlet wash of agony that my entire chest had become.
"Eve! Eve, wake up, damn you!"
Zarina, I thought vaguely. She sounded desperate. I was drifting, trying to escape the pain that shot through me with even the slightest movement. Just let go, a part of my mind whispered. You're already three parts dead; why not let the last part die as well? You could see Richard again.
But no. Memories of my time among the vampires—not all bad—filled my head, anchoring me to the mortal world. I didn't want to leave just yet.
I let out a sound of despair, knowing I was still too cowardly to renounce what little life I had. Everything else faded into the background as I reached for my vampire Talent, the special power that was unique to its wielder. I felt it fill me, chasing away the pain, but I couldn't finish the healing with the arrow still in my chest. It was most annoying, I thought dimly, fighting my way out of the fog that had filled my mind, that no one had tried to pull it out.
I opened my eyes, staring up at the high ceiling. The floor was bloody uncomfortable, but not as bad as it could have been. Zarina had put down her shawl for me to lie on. How kind of her.
With a muffled groan of agony, I got my arm under me and pushed myself up on one elbow. There was a round of muffled gasps in the crowd that had gathered around while I was drifting, but I ignored them. All my attention focused on the dark-haired female vampire who stood with her back to me, currently trying to choke a small man in dark clothes. Lord Trent stood with her, looking angry. That was a first. He never showed emotion other than mild annoyance, somewhat condescending amusement, and brisk impatience.
Quite sick of the vampiric posturing that was going on, I rolled my eyes. "Zarina, if you could be so bothered, would you mind putting him down and pulling this bloody arrow out?" I demanded irritably. Talking hurt. Thinking hurt. I didn't want to consider what it would feel like when the bolt was pulled free.
At my words, Zarina froze, the man still lifted a few feet above the ground. Both she and Lord Trent turned in unison, staring at me as though they had seen a ghost.
Not even close, I thought sourly. Much as I wished it were otherwise, I was still too cowardly to die. Again.
"Eve?" Zarina asked in disbelief. "What…how…"
Lord Trent wasn't quite so tongue-tied, thank all things unholy. He dropped to one knee by my side, peering down at me with assessing eyes. He immediately caught what the problem was and nodded once. "As you wish, Lady Eve. This might hurt." He wrapped one hand around the shaft of the arrow and looked behind him. "Queen Zarina, if you would be so kind as to distract her?"
Zarina carelessly tossed the small man—whom I guessed to be the shooter—over her shoulder and knelt on the other side of me. "Look at me, Eve," she commanded quietly. Automatically, I did, gazing into her dark eyes. A feeling of utmost peace filled me. Everything went away except those black eyes, so calm and soothing and—
The spell broke as Lord Trent ripped the arrow out. All thoughts of being steady and stoic departed with it. I screamed, my body bowing in agony. I fought to keep quiet, not to make another sound, but it was hard. If I had thought the bolt had hurt going in, it was nothing in comparison to having it come out. Silver and whitethorn did that to a vampire. One touch and we were almost human again, in terms of feeling pain.
When I got the feeling under control, I found myself lying in Zarina's arms, whimpering softly as I clutched the wound. In a cool rush, my power washed over the spot, healing it. Even the traces of silver in my blood disappeared. It was as though I had never been shot.
"Amazing," Lord Trent murmured. "Does that work on others as well, or can you only heal yourself?"
"Just myself," I said, sitting up and brushing a few strands of hair out of my face. Zarina kept her hold on me, but I didn't comment. "That was why I took the arrow, instead of just letting it hit Zar—Queen Zarina." I looked over his shoulder at where the bowman cowered in the center of a ring of vampires. My eyes narrowed. "Isn't that…?"
Zarina nodded, a feral growl rising in her throat. "It is. The Hunter who escaped us in Africa. How he found us here I'll never know."
I rolled my eyes. Vampires. Even the ones who were supposed to be smart were always so opposed to doing things the easy way. I batted at Zarina's arm where it was still wrapped around my waist. "Let me up, you big oaf. I'm fine now."
She gave me one of her seductive smiles—and she was quite good at them, admittedly. "But what if I don't want to let you get up?"
I glared at her, then grabbed her arm and dug my fingernails into it. She yelped and tried to jerk free, and I got to my feet. Lord Trent snorted under his breath. I ignored them both and marched into the crowd, straight for the Hunter. The other vampires parted before me, leaving me a clear path to the little man in black.
The Hunter began shaking as I drew closer, and he all but wet his pants as I picked him up by the collar and held him above the ground. I was short—make that petite—but he was a shrimp by anyone's standards. I felt slightly guilty abusing him like this, but not overly so. The rat had shot me.
"Talk and I'll kill you quickly," I snapped at him. "Remain silent and I assure you, your demise will be an eternity in coming. So. How did you find us?"
His teeth were slamming together as I rattled him, but I could hear the words he uttered.
"I followed you. I—I never went back to my group," he whimpered. "I had to kill you to prove myself worth of living. If I didn't, I was as good as dead."
"Well then," I said kindly. "This won't come as a huge surprise, now, will it?" And I lunged forward and sank my fangs into his neck.
A few moments later, when he had stopped kicking and hung limp, I let him go and spat out a mouthful of blood onto the floor. "Nasty," I muttered, wiping my mouth. I turned to find Zarina staring at me, Lord Trent at his elbow.
Trent chuckled and slapped Zarina on the shoulder. "Let this be a lesson to you, girl," he said. "Never cross an Englishwoman. They're fierce little things when they're angry."
Zarina shook her head in disbelief. "Well, Eve. I was going to ask you to be my consort, but now I'm changing it to bodyguard instead."
I smiled and licked my fangs. I might have been too cowardly to kill myself, but I wasn't too cowardly to step in front of an arrow to protect the Queen.
It was a nice feeling.
"I accept," I said.
Zarina smiled, and wrapped her arms around my waist, pulling me close. "Don't think you'll get out of the consort position so easily," she warned. "But I suppose I can let you do both."
I rolled my eyes, wrapped a hand around the back of her neck, and pulled her down for a copper-flavored kiss.
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