In Boston, in the winters, the sun sets early. By the time the first frosts come, people scurry homeward in darkness or huddle, waiting for buses, in little puddles of dirty yellow light. Dark sneaks up on daylight things; parents taking their kids to lessons and practices are driving with their headlights on.
When I was there, I used to wake up at sundown, or even earlier, when the weather was grim and gray and foggy, helping the darkness along. I used to walk a lot in the twilight, at dusk, doing things with that same purposeful seriousness – in the rare-books room at the public library, at Harvard, in the little bookshops all over Cambridge where you have to find everything you want before they close at five. You might have brushed against me on the Red Line once, at rush hour, and I doubt you noticed me. Small woman, heavy coat, long skirt, winter boots, big scarf – like everybody else in Cambridge. Even if you had spoken to me, admiring my big old hat with the black veil, you would never have guessed.
I wouldn't have guessed, either, when I was like you. There was something less than vampiric about wandering around before the evening news came on. My colleague, Jason, called me a Creature of the Late Afternoon.
I wasn't, really. I was – and am -- terrified of sunlight, and even twilight unnerves me a little. I never quite trusted my coat and my veil to protect me from those last bits of sunlight trapped on the clouds and the dust motes. But it was worth being unnerved to walk through city streets while people were still doing ordinary things. I liked the sense that I was still somehow part of the sensible, responsible business of the world, that I could become for a few moments just somebody else in the line at the bank. It was worth the risk.
So it was a Wednesday, in the middle of October – around Halloween, or close to it. The weather was the usual Boston autumn – chilly and damp and so dark with clouds that I probably would have been safe outside at noon. Damp leaves clung to gutters, smelling musty and dark, and the gray rain came whispering down, threatening to freeze.
I was standing in line at the Yankee Crafts Collective, buying beeswax candles. They'd have been cheaper at the church supply house downtown, but I couldn't nerve myself up to vist the place. My other colleague, Derek, called it a used-crucifix showroom. Better avoid it. Three dozen candles, as thick as my wrist and fragrant with that sticky honey smell, expensive and heavy. There were other smells, cinnamon-bright, sandalwood-sharp, and there was music. The Messiah. Christmas music, much too early. For unto us a child is born. Good choir.
I looked hard into the display cases full of strange-shaped metal earrings and little carved wooden boxes. Nothing interesting there.
Behind the register was a cabinet full of suncatchers, complicated abstracts of stained glass, etched glass, and little faceted crystals. The cabinet was brilliantly lighted from all angles to suggest the way the little ornaments would look in the entranced buyer's window. I stared wistfully at the blue and purple one with the dangling prisms, remembering the bay window of my old apartment in Somerville, and imagining how lovely that small white room would have been with colored splashes of light. I wondered what it would look like hanging from my lamp. I wanted it. I didn't dare.
The clerk wrapped my candles, and insistently offered me a choice of gift bows made from raffia and gingham ribbon. "They're not a present," I said quietly. He didn't seem to hear me. He stuck a red bow on them anyhow, and piled them into a plastic bag printed with snowflakes.
At the dry cleaners', there were plastic tombstones in the window and a tattered cardboard skeleton hanging from the door. The kid behind the counter was wearing plastic vampire teeth. He took my crumpled slip and examined it suspiciously, as if he were planning to accuse me of forgery. Finally he grunted in resignation and handed me my clothes, wrapped in slick plastic, and reeking of solvent.
"That spot there," he mumbled, pointing at my gray suit, "Tomato sauce? It don't come all the way out."
"Tomato sauce? Oh." I looked. "It's okay. It'll do." It didn't look that bad, and anyway, I didn't want to attract attention to strange red-brown spots on my clothes. He charged me forty-seven dollars. I thanked him, careful not to smile too broadly.
I checked my watch. 6:19. I had to be back by seven. Time for one more errand.
I ducked into the lobby of the Post Office, bumping into a faded cardboard display of last year's Christmas stamps. I fumbled with my scarf, my buttons, until I found my key, hung on a ribbon around my neck. My box was in the bottom row, and I crouched to open it, as if afraid, falling to my knees on the dirty floor as though in prayer.
There was a letter from my sister Margaret. Our parents had painted their house a horrible shade of yellow, she said, and she had gone with her husband to see Phantom of the Opera. There was a picture of my nephews, looking solemn and uncomfortable. Justin was wearing a necktie with pictures of smiling airplanes. I'd sent him that for his birthday, back in June. Margaret made a weary effort to lure me to California for Thanksgiving. You know you're always welcome, Kathie, and it would be so wonderful to see you. Why did I have to work so hard? Why was I still in school? Shouldn't I have defended my dissertation by now? Couldn't I ever get away?
There was something thick, engraved. Jessica Mary Palonski and some guy I'd never heard of were inviting me to share in the joy of the beginning of their new life together. Jessica had been my roommate once. The wedding was in Providence. I thought wildly for a moment of going.
Nuptial Mass. Half past noon. Buffet luncheon reception. Right.
I scribbled my regrets on the little card and slipped it into the mailbox.
Three banks wanted to give me credit cards.
I stuffed the letter and the invitation into my coat pockets and threw everything else out.
The House was nine blocks away. I didn't want to crowd onto the bus with my clothes and my plastic bags, and nine blocks isn't that far when you don't get cold. On my way home I got splashed with icy brown sludge when an old green Buick plowed through a puddle, and I got hit up for spare change.
The panhandler was a skinny teenage girl with green hair, a pierced nose, and a baby. I gave her two dollars. I realized as I fumbled the crumpled bills into her hand that I would probably get in trouble for stopping, for noticing. I didn't really care.
I wondered what she was going to be able to get for two dollars that would make any difference. I hoped somebody else had given her something. From the expression on her face, I didn't think anybody had. I tried to turn my sense of regret and pity into that dismissive detachment with which I'd been taught to regard daylight things and breathing people. I think my face was impassive and calm by the time I got back to the house.
The house is an enormous old brownstone, in a neighborhood where most of the houses have long since been carved up for fraternity houses or bed and breakfasts or law offices. It doesn't have a doorbell. And I, of course, remembered with sudden horrible clarity that my keys were sitting on top of my dresser. Inside the house. So much for impassive and calm.
So I was standing there, wet and dirty, with my arms full of slippery, heavy plastic bags, kicking the door of a Tremere Chantry House and shouting, "Open the door, Robert! It's me! It's Katherine! I forgot my damn keys again."
Robert was predictably slow, of course – and of course our Customary Procedure had to be followed, and nobody could look out the peephole to determine whether it really was me until our Mighty and Terrible Leader had been summoned from much more important business. Maybe I'm being unfair. I can't have waited longer than half an hour.
When they finally opened the door, they did it so suddenly that I almost fell in. I did drop the bag from the bookstore; it fell with a decisive hardcover thunk, and I winced.
"Miss MacPherson." The Regent's voice was quiet and level. You would have heard disapproval, perhaps, but no menace. I knew better. "You are irresponsible, undisciplined, dirty, and late."
"Yes, sir," I stammered, and I met the Regent's steel-gray eyes as deferentially as I could. Icy. Forbidding. I half-expected him to strike me, even though he hadn't raised his hand to me since my Embrace.
Instead he pulled his watch from his vest pocket. "I sincerely hope that you have already fed; we're going to be quite busy and I don't foresee any convenient opportunities any time soon. You have fifteen minutes to make yourself presentable."
"Yes, sir. Thank you," I said. That was what I was supposed to say.
Robert, our housekeeper, appeared silently at my elbow to take the dry cleaning, the candles, the books, and my hat. I hurried up the stairs to my room to change, leaving dirty wet footprints on the carpet of the hall.
I pulled off my wet, dirty clothes – I'd gotten soaked to my underwear – and ducked quickly under the shower to get the brown slush out of my hair. I was back in my room a couple minutes later, pulling on a clean, tidy black dress. Jennifer appeared in time to zip me and to fasten my silver necklace in the back. I thanked her, which startled her, and she went away, leaving me to search for my shoes by myself. I found the left one under my dressing table. Checked the mirror – not bad. I put on a little more pink lipstick, for the sake of the Masquerade. The right shoe was under my bed. I checked my watch. Thirteen minutes.
I hurried down the stairs, adjusting my earrings. Robert met me, helped me slip into my dressy coat with the velvet collar. The Regent shut his watch with a decisive click, and we left, through the back door and the carriage house.
Robert opened the door of the old black Mercedes for the Regent and Mr. Perry. He always drove them. Sometimes I wondered what he did while they were in the Elysium. I imagined he read things. I wondered what.
We younger ones drove ourselves, in what the entire household knew as the Other Car, which was a glossy black Japanese something that looked like a licorice jelly bean. Jason turned on the radio, seeking through a flutter of stations until he found something he liked. Stairway to Heaven. From the front seat Derek looked back at me.
"You okay, Katherine?"
"Yeah." I meant it, or at least I thought I did. "I'm used to it by now."
"I think I'm going to have to get used to it, too," Derek said. " He shouted at me for an hour tonight. He said I've been 'neglecting my research,' and 'distracting Jason'" Can you believe it?"
I could. In life, Derek had been one of those horrible people who wander around graduate student dorms, suggesting a beer down at the bar, a game of Frisbee, a road trip. And none of that hurt his productivity, because he could do amazing scholarship on autopilot. He claimed to have written his entire master's thesis in his head, in Fort Lauderdale; all he had to do when he got home was type it.
But I worked with Derek, knew for a fact that he hadn't been neglecting a damn thing. And I knew for an absolute immutable law of nature that Derek wasn't distracting poor industrious meek Jason. He was distracting me.
Finally I spoke. "Sounds strange. Maybe it's politics, nothing to do with us. Maybe it's some kind of Primogen thing."
"Probably. Not like we'd know," said Jason. Stairway to Heaven ended, and something that sounded like a traffic accident came on. Jason flipped angrily thorough eight stations until he finally settled on some horrible AM station that rebroadcast Rush Limbaugh all night.
"Ugh," I said. "If I want Fascism I'll...."
Jason interrupted me. "Be careful."
"Sorry. Thanks." There are some things you can't get in the habit of saying. One of them is that your Chantry Regent is a fascist, regardless of whether it is true (which it almost invariably is.) I was in enough trouble for my early rising and for my "lack of appropriate detachment."
Jason finally clicked the radio off. "So, O fearsome Child of the Tea-Time, what did you do today?"
They tease me about this, and part of it is envy. Neither of them has the energy or the motivation to get up in the mid-afternoon, and I think they're jealous that I've found a way to get a few moments of my unlife that aren't the exclusive and absolute property of House and Clan Tremere. "Oh, bunch of stuff – bookstore errands, mostly, and I got candles." I thought about telling them about the suncatcher, but I didn't.
"Exciting. The only person who gets out, and where does she go?" Jason threw up his hands, appealing to the roof of the car for justice.
"Oh, come on. We get out. Where are we now?" Derek waved his hand around, encompassing the windows. His voice became a mockery of Mr. Perry's impeccable Oxbridge accent. "Mr. Hollingworth, Miss MacPherson, I suggest to you that we are in fact, at the present moment, out."
"Going to a Camarilla meeting. Does that count?" I said, sitting forward, leaning into the space between the front seats.
"I think it's about as 'out' as we get," said Jason sourly. "Remember when we took off to see Interview with a Vampire?'
That shut us all up. We'd done that shortly after Jason's Embrace. We'd all been set to drawing chalk figures for a ritual several weeks off. The Regent and Mr. Perry were gone. It had been a beautiful autumn night, clear and cold and moonlit, and we had been sitting in a workroom with straightedges, practicing making lines on the floor.
Derek had said, clearly and distinctly, "Screw this."
And as Jason and I stared at him in horror, he had exercised his senior-student authority, and ordered us upstairs and into our coats and into The Other Car.
It had been a wonderful evening. We had gone to a crowded movie house filled with mortal children in black clothes with pale makeup, and a handful of Toreador neonates we recognized from Camarilla meetings. We had been sitting together, laughing silently and privately at what we saw on the screen. And then we had followed the crowds to a dark coffeehouse, where we listened to some silly youngsters talking about the writings of Aleister Crowley. And we had leaned close to them, breathing in the warm, living scent of their bodies. We had accepted their invitation to someone else's private party, and then we had returned to the coffeehouse warm and pink and content.
And arm in arm we had walked the long way back to the car, and singing noisily we had driven back to the House.
The consequences had been dire. No one knew what our Regent could possibly have done if we'd diablerized Mr. Perry, mailed all the books to the Inquisition, and run off to join the Sabbat – because he threw the greatest conniption fit of his unlife then and there. He bellowed for a week. We were ungrateful for the gift of eternal life, and disloyal to house and clan. Theme and furious variation, until dawn and beginning again at dark, for days.
Nobody wanted to repeat that experience, or even to remember it. So we drove the rest of the way to the Elysium in silence. On the steps of the Elysium we arranged ourselves, instinctively, in our usual Order of Precedence crowd-of-Tremere formation. I stood between Jason and Derek, a pace behind the Regent. Good position for me – when I slipped on the wet terrazzo, they caught me before I fell to the floor with an embarrassing thud. As it was, I only stumbled, and the worst that happened was that Mr. Perry turned to me and told me in angry whispers to be careful.
It was the usual thing. We were allowed, encouraged, expected to mingle with this crowd, finding out who wanted what, what possible services the Clan could collect in exchange. I positioned myself in one corner, hoping to disappear. Some obnoxious Toreador attempted to flirt with me, confiding in me his great hopes for the gallery he would build once his Sire's Sire became the Toreador Primogen. I said "oh" at periodic intervals, and complimented him on his brilliance, all the while hoping that he was either going to say something useful or leave me alone.
I was much more interested in what was going on at the other side of the room. Mr. Perry was listening to a Ventrue named Michael, nodding in agreement with something. I wondered what. I was too far away, and I didn't dare eavesdrop. So I smiled and said "oh" some more, and expressed round-eyed interest in the Toreador's Sire's Sire's plans. The young Toreador either knew nothing about them, or a lot about the Tremere; he sounded dumb. I checked. He was.
I sat and listened to him for a while longer, and endured the taunting of his friends. I was supposed to be listening for something useful, for salable weaknesses, exploitable secrets. Instead I was listening to a skinny young Brujah in a worn leather jacket call me a lapdog. Wonderful.
The Regent and the rest of the Primogen disappeared behind closed doors. Mr. Perry went with him, as his aide. That left the three of us alone in the middle of the Elysium. Derek came up to rescue me. "Excuse me, Miss MacPherson. May I see you alone, please? Clan business."
I excused myself with an expression of dutiful resignation and followed Derek to a corner of the room near the speakers, where anyone listening to us with heightened senses would lose his hearing for decades to come.
When he spoke his voice was a whisper, nearly inaudible. "You are the most beautiful creature in the universe."
I willed myself not to sigh, not to smile. We had to keep up the pretense. I raised my hand as if to protest, "I love you, Derek. I love you. I love you."
He let his face soften into a thoughtful frown as he whispered, "We can make beautiful magic together."
I had no idea whose voice he was doing. He sounded like Peter Lorre. I almost laughed. I did crack a tiny smile, but I didn't think anyone was watching us closely enough to notice it. "I hope so. God, I hope so."
In his own gentle whisper he leaned conspiratorially close. "I love you, Katherine. I'll wait centuries if I have to. "
I wanted to tell him about the panhandling girl, and the suncatcher, and the red bow on the candles, about the scents of cinnamon and sandalwood, and what they touched in me – I wanted to hold him, to be held. We didn't have time for any of it.
"It will be better when we have our own havens, Kat," he said. "We'll have whole evenings together, with no one watching us. And you know what that means."
He wanted me to shake my head no. I could tell. So I did.
"Ve can vatch zcary movies together. " The voice was somewhere between Bela Lugosi and Maurice Chevalier. I had to try not to giggle. Instead I let myself smile, trying to turn it into a political sort of smile for the benefit of the onlookers.
We touched hands briefly, an accidental infinitesimal gesture that made both of us tremble with joy. And then we went back to what we had been doing, and we did more of it until finally sunrise threatened and we piled back into the Other Car and drove silently back to the House.
Jennifer was waiting in my room. She helped me out of my Camarilla-meeting clothes and handed me the dark blue sweats I usually wore. I'm probably the only Kindred in the world who wears pajamas.
Jennifer was looking at me. "Miss MacPherson, ma'am," she said quietly. "Did you know that you were wearing one navy blue shoe and one black one?"
"No. I didn't," I sighed. "You saw me leave. Why didn't you say something then?"
"I was afraid, ma'am. I didn't think it was my place." She sounded timid. She looked smug. I knew perfectly well that she didn't like me.
Jennifer was a ghoul, of course, and an apprentice. She was supposed to be learning the workings of the Chantry, developing the respect for authority and precision that would make her a passable magus should the Regent choose her for the Embrace. What she actually did was plot against us in petty and unpunishable ways, and gather enough dirt on all of us that we couldn't complain to the Regent about her. I thought that she showed every sign of making an admirable Tremere. I hated her.
She was glittering with malevolent pride, just waiting to tell somebody else how worried she was about poor Miss MacPherson, so disheveled, so absent-minded. She knew she'd gotten away with it, that there was nothing I could bring myself to do to her. And I was furious with her arched eyebrows, her tight little smile, and the petty contemptuous nastiness hidden under her deferential façade.
"Failure of judgement, Jennifer." I tried to make my voice as sharp as Mr. Perry's had been, those times before my Embrace when my own judgement had failed.
And for a moment her mouth trembled, her eyes lowered. I took a slow step forward. She took a half-step backward and stopped, terrified. And before nauseous reluctance could overcome me, I slapped her face once, quickly, lightly, with no force at all.
I looked away. The enormity of having struck another person in anger made me almost viscerally ill. Looking away was not enough. I turned my back, fled with quick decisive steps to the other side of the room, sat down at my dressing table, tried to lose myself in some silly business of taking off my earrings.
"Ma'am?" Jennifer's voice was fearful, bewildered.
"Go away." I said. "Just go away."
I sat there, staring into the mirror at my own haunted eyes, thinking of weeping. I sat there for a few long moments, until the threat of light drove me into my coffin.
I woke a little before sunset. Jennifer was standing attentively beside the door, waiting for me.
"Good evening," I said. I pulled myself out of my coffin and stood up. Instinctively I rubbed my eyes, although I had no real reason to. I stretched, but I had no reason to do that, either.
"Good evening, ma'am."
"I'm hungry," I told her. "Would you be willing to help me, please?"
She nodded, and undid the cuffs of her blouse. I picked up my red mug and opened the veins in her wrist with my fangs. She wobbled a little, but I caught her and held her. I kept telling myself that this wasn't really cruel – after all, once I'd bled her, she'd be allowed to spend the entire night resting in her bed. Finally I had filled my cup with what I needed, and I sealed her wound.
"Thank you, Jennifer. Go rest."
She turned silently and stumbled dizzily away. She closed the door on her way out, the way I'd always asked her to. I can't stand the thought of feeding where someone might see me. Alone in my room, with her blood growing cold in a big ceramic cup, I found feeding bearable.
Even this much made me feel watched. Understood. Exposed. And that hurt even when the person involved was Jennifer, whom I genuinely detested. I hated her as a person, hated the contemptuous dismissive glare she turned on everyone and everything, hated her smarmy deference and her genuine malice. But I hated her, and what I hated even more was to grasp her hand in mine and turn her suddenly from a nasty vicious person into an irrelevant desirable thing.
And her fear seemed unfair. Too primal, too elemental for this kind of hate. I mean, I could imagine myself speaking coolly to her, snubbing her, even slapping her – but I couldn't imagine myself as the kind of person who went around biting people she didn't like.
But of course I was.
I drank quickly, not daring to taste what it was that I was drinking, and scrubbed my face with cold water until no trace remained. Finally I dressed in my comfortable clothes, a baggy denim skirt and a fuzzy, shapeless sweater of dove-gray wool. I found both brown loafers without any help from anybody. I arrived in the study exactly early enough. I began work feeling virtuous, responsible.
Paleography. I had no idea why I was trying to decipher the horrible charter-hand chicken-scratches in some of these old manuscripts. There had to be people in House and Clan Tremere who could read them better than I could. I'd seen letters from some of the Elders, who practically wrote the stuff. Maybe that was why I was expected to learn it.
Jason was beside me in the study, trying to read something in Greek without moving his lips. Derek was somewhere else. From the downstairs workrooms came the sounds of tearing cardboard and crackling plastic. His new equipment had come, then. He'd be busy for months. Maybe years. I wished for a moment that we'd had a few moments to wander past one another, to whisper in the hall. Maybe I'd be asked to go downstairs to help.
I sat there with a pad of paper and a soft pencil trying to figure out a long passage about the influence of the planet Jupiter in alchemical transmutations; it was in bad Latin and nearly illegible scribbles, and it was the second layer of writing on a badly scraped parchment. And all the M's and N's and R's looked exactly alike. I spent a few hours muttering curse words under my breath and wondering when the Regent had started caring about alchemy.
It was fairly close to dawn when Mr. Perry appeared in the study and told me that the Regent wanted to see me.
I almost sighed in exasperation, despite the fact that I haven't needed to sigh since I stopped breathing and the more relevant fact that Mr. Perry would consider it unforgivably rude. Instead I nodded in respectful silence and stood up, trying to manage all necessary dignity, while wondering what Jennifer had told them. Not until I mounted the spiral stairs did I realize that this might be about Derek; the thought made me dizzy with fear, and I imagined falling, falling.
Mr. Perry opened the door of the office for me. It didn't feel like courtesy. It felt more like being under guard. I sat down in the uncomfortable wooden chair that the Regent keeps for intimidating people, and met his eyes.
"Miss MacPherson," he began quietly, "I believe that we have had a number of conversations in the past few years about your . . . unwillingness, as it were, to accept the reality of your current circumstances. I have told you repeatedly that I expect – and more to the point, that the Clan expects – a certain degree of reserve and detachment."
"Reserve and detachment," he repeated, his voice growing suddenly sharp as his terrifying gaze, "of which you seem entirely incapable. We've been very patient, I think. You've had almost five years to unlearn the habits of your mortal life and to assume a more ... appropriate attitude, and so far we've seen no improvement at all."
"I have been informed that Jennifer witnessed a most extraordinary transaction last night. Apparently you gave money to some kind of mortal beggar. Is this correct?"
I knew I couldn't lie to him. I looked down, into my lap, wondering what would happen to me.
"Yes, sir. But..."
"You are in possession of some private source of funds, then? Surprising. Or did you do this at the expense of House and Clan Tremere?"
"Sir, it was two dollars."
"I see. And what were you thinking, when you decided to expend Clan funds on something of no discernible advantage to us?"
I twisted my hands together, hoping that he didn't know I was fidgeting, knowing he knew. "I felt sorry for her, sir. It was cold, and she had a little child with her, and ... I don't know." I realized how simple-minded I sounded, and let my voice trail off into silence.
"Sorry for her. I see. Miss MacPherson, what are you?"
"What kind of creature are you? You are no longer a living person. You have been changed. You have become... what?"
"A vampire, sir?"
"Yes, Miss MacPherson, you are a vampire. And what does that mean?"
I wrenched my eyes away from his, staring at the dark intricacies of the Persian rug, clenching my cold hands into frozen stones.
"You are a vampire, Miss MacPherson. You prey upon living people, drinking their blood. Is it your intention to become absolutely monstrous, to run frenzied through the streets savaging the innocent?"
"No, sir." The vision shook me, made me want to scream, to weep. I hated him for speaking the words.
"Do you want to be discovered, then? Is that it? Do you want to defend your human virtues to the Inquisition some sunny afternoon?
"No, sir. Of course not."
"And how is it that we avoid discovery and madness?"
"I don't know, sir."
"Of course not. Your behavior has made that abundantly obvious. I imagine, though, that you could hazard an educated guess."
I knew the right words. He had taught them to me shortly after my Embrace. "Obedience to our common purpose."
"Precisely. Your strength of will is insufficient to restrain your own silly whims – do you imagine that it could do you any good against the Beast? Do you believe that alone, with no ambition, no purpose beyond some unlikely desire to hang around in supermarkets – do you think that you can possibly save yourself?"
I did. I did. It was that unlikely desire that would save me, I was sure. And I clung to that thought desperately as his cold anger battered at me like icy gray waves. I was drowning in the sound of his voice, dizzy and sick with the force of each quiet word.
"Yes, sir. I don't mean to seem disrespectful, but, yes, I do think I can."
"You are wrong, absolutely wrong, and as long as I am responsible for you, you will not be permitted to indulge your ridiculous individualism. Obedience to our common purpose, Miss MacPherson. What is our common purpose?"
"Power and knowledge." I replied promptly, immediately. I knew these words perfectly, and I was grateful for them. For a tiny moment I hoped that I could hide under these empty recitations, to turn his menacing gray eyes away from my fragile and unworthy blue-glass hopes.
"And have you been obediently serving this common purpose, Miss MacPherson?"
"How have you failed?" His eyes unfocused a little and he stared at me almost blankly, listening intently for my answer.
"I have been... insufficiently detached, I suppose you'd call it." And the words came out with a flood of loneliness behind them, and I wanted to weep for the lost smell of sandalwood and cinnamon, for the touch of warm hands, for the taste of cocoa and the sound of gentle words.
"You have been lonely?" said the Regent, quietly.
I nodded, feeling droplets of blood trembling at the edge of my eyes, obscuring my sight, thicker and more frightening than tears had ever been.
"A human weakness, leading you to neglect the best interests of the House and Clan, yes?"
I supposed so. I nodded again as a little droplet of blood splashed down my face.
"You have been foolish and disobedient, and you have endangered us all. Do you understand?"
"I have been foolish and disobedient, and I have endangered us all."
He regarded me thoughtfully, frowning in evaluation. "You don't believe that yet, Miss MacPherson. Again."
"I have been..." My voice failed, and I shook my head slowly, miserably. No. I thought of the panhandler's thanks, Derek's gentle words, the purple and blue of the suncatcher, reaching out and closing my hand around the empty air.
"And so we return to the root of the problem. You have chosen to disagree with me."
"But, sir, you have to understand..." The words rushed out before my fear could stop them.
The Regent interrupted me, his raised voice sharp as a slap. "I do understand, Miss MacPherson," he said, bloodless lips pressing together in a hard slash of a frown. "Until I have some evidence that you understand, you may not leave this house. Mr. Perry has suggested that an oak coffin with a sturdy lock would solve a great many problems, and I agree with him."
He pulled a brass key from his vest pocket and played with it, turning it thoughtfully in his fingers. "The lock will be fastened from sunrise until sunset. There will be no further twilight wandering. You will spend every evening in this house, in my sight, engaged in productive and useful activity. Do you understand?"
And his eyes were fierce and hard. "Yes, I understand. Thank you, sir."
"Then we are done. Go upstairs."
I went quickly. My room was meticulously tidy. Whoever had brought the damn coffin in here had cleaned up afterward, and arranged my things far more neatly than I'd left them. I threw my clothes on the floor for Jennifer to pick up, and pulled my blue sweats on.
I was brushing out my hair when the Regent opened the door.
"If you please, Miss MacPherson," he said quietly. And of course I climbed into the coffin, pulled the lid closed. The locks clicked decisively behind me. I pushed experimentally on the lid. It did not move.
Well before sunset, I woke. I had forgotten about the locks, and for a moment I struggled in panic, trying desperately to raise the lid. And then the memory flooded over me, and I lay there wakeful and imprisoned for hours, until I heard the tiny rattling sound of unlocking.
That entire night I spent in drawing on the workroom floor. The circle was a complicated one, several interlocking rings and an impossible geometric figure with twelve points. The Regent had brought his own work downstairs, so that he could watch me, and he sat at a long table, writing letters and snapping sharp corrections when I drew crooked lines or made noise with the chalk. It took eleven hours.
Derek knocked once, tentatively, but the Regent stepped into the hall, to confer with him quietly, and then sent him away. Hearing him speak made me wistful, mournful. I turned away, to add a planetary sigil to the center of one of the interlocking rings, and smiled a little at the memory of Derek's multiple playful voices.
Shortly before sunrise, the Regent made me erase the circle with a damp mop, and sent me upstairs.
Every night I drew the circle and erased it. After that first night I worked in unrelieved silence, until dawn came and they locked me in again. For five nights, they did not permit me to drink. The hunger began slowly, dull, then gnawing, then a fierce frightening pain, like dying.
Shortly before sunset on Wednesday, I woke, slowly. I fought against waking; I wanted to stay still, and lifeless, immune to hunger, unafraid of the closeness of my prison. But of course I woke anyway.
Wednesday nights were always Camarilla meetings. I hated Camarilla meetings. I always had. But tonight I was inspired by the thought of music and voices, of the chance to see the glittery lights of the city through the windows of the Other Car, of countless possible tiny freedoms, of Derek and the chance of the touch of his hand.
I clung to these thoughts desperately, concentrating as though they were ritual formulae. I would drink them, drink memory and voice and light – and then the frantic need would go away. I hoped. I envisioned Derek's face, his laughing eyes, wanting the thought to flow through me, warming me, and moving me. But the thoughts that consumed me were thoughts of blood, of Jennifer's open veins and my red mug brimful, overflowing.
The locks rattled for a long while. Finally they opened, and the lid lifted. I tried to sit, to stand, and I realized suddenly how weak and dizzy I had become. Helpless with dreams of blood, I stared unfocused into Derek's eyes for a long moment before I realized what I was seeing.
"I've missed you," I murmured.
"I've missed you, Kat," he said, sitting down cross-legged on the floor beside me. He did something with a glass bottle, and my red cup. He held the cup out to me, and the scent even of refrigerated cow's blood was ecstasy. "Drink this," he said. "It should help."
I took the cup in trembling hands and drank in great gulps. He filled the cup again, and again, until finally my hands no longer shook, until the red vision faded and I could see his wide sorrowful eyes clearly.
"Any better?" His voice was gentle, kind.
"Much," I said, wiping my mouth with my hand. I sat up. "Do you know where my black shoes are?"
"You don't need them, Kat. You're staying here."
Oh. "Can I wash my face, or do you have to lock me in again?"
"You can do whatever you want. We're alone."
I stopped halfway to the sink, stared at him. "Alone? You mean alone?"
"Yes. The Regent and Perry and Jason are at the meeting. Robert drove them. Jennifer left for New Haven during the day – Perry said they needed another warm body – and she won't be back until tomorrow. I promised them I'd watch the house."
"And they let you come in here?"
"I picked the locks."
"My God," I said. I sat down on the floor beside him, touched his hand. The act of touch was shocking, primal. He put his arm around me, awkwardly, like a teenage boy at a movie. His shirtsleeve along my sweatshirt, cold hand on lifeless shoulder. It felt holy, irrevocable. It was a consummation, of sorts. I rested my head on his shoulder, curled into his touch.
He stroked my hair softly. "I love you, Katherine."
"I love you, too."
And we sat there for a while, on the floor, touching, talking.
"When I was out, that last time... there was this suncatcher...."
It started as the kind of conversation we could have had in my parents' living room, in an elevator, on a public bus – so ordinary, so human. It grew warmer, the sort of talk we would have had if we'd met as graduate students – like the talks you have with both elbows on the table of a coffeehouse, or while you're throwing chopped onions into bubbling cauldrons of spaghetti sauce. And finally it grew into a midnight talk, one you have on a decrepit green sofa while listening to strange moving music, drinking tumblerfuls of sweet red wine. I closed my eyes, imagining the sound of our voices in the right places, far away from my bare little room in the Chantry.
"Will this do?" He held out a tiny box, wrapped in silver paper.
"What...?" I was bewildered.
"It's the best I could do."
And I pulled the paper off. The box was a paper one, stuffed with cotton. Inside was a little silver ring, carved with stylized medieval roses. There was an inscription in graceful Gothic letters. Semper amemus. We shall love forever.
"Katherine, will you marry me?"
"What?" I was startled, overcome. "You'd better ask the Regent," I said dizzily, "I'm sure he'd be thrilled to give me away." And I fell to giggling at the thought. Buffet luncheon reception. Indeed.
"I mean it, Katherine. I love you. Forever. I can't stand to think that we might ever... you know."
I did know. With all my strength I clasped his hands. "Yes."
He bit at my wrist until the blood came, and kissed the scarlet drops, and he offered me his own beautiful hand in exchange. I drank from his body, unashamed, unafraid, and in unspeakable joy I let him drink from mine. Lost in one another we sat there until the door downstairs thumped open.
"Next week, Kat. I'll come back, I promise you." He slipped the little silver ring onto my hand, fumbled the box back into his pocket, and helped me lie down. Gently he kissed my forehead before he closed the lid of my coffin. "I'm sorry," he said, as the locks clicked shut.
The next week was almost endurable. I had finally completed the circle to the Regent's satisfaction, and he rewarded me with the opportunity to scrape beeswax off wrought-iron candlesticks with a dull kitchen knife. The monotony was welcome. I stared at my hands, imagining, remembering touch.
And on Wednesday, Derek did come to me. We murmured to one another, gentle low voices like the thrumming of cellos, tangling our voices together. That night his touch rushed over me like music.
That week I went back to doing real work. Mr. Perry was examining the vitae of a few suspected Anarchs, and I was helping him. It was difficult and complicated, and we worked beside one another for hours, not speaking. All night I imagined Derek's hand on my shoulder. I seemed to be lost in my work, and Mr. Perry approved. I was not lost, though, and I wasn't in the world that had work in it – I was navigating a complicated passage through the currents of music and bright, rushing blood.
Mr. Perry didn't notice at all.
We worked for a week studying blood. Anarch lineages, all right, back five generations to that idiot in Los Angeles. And diablerie, nine months ago. We had enough blood to kill the leader, and there were hushed telephone calls in complicated code for several nights until the Prince decided that she wanted to administer justice herself.
And on Wednesday night I went to Camarilla with the rest of the house, dizzy with the freedom of the night sky and the cold wind, the lights outside the windows of the Other Car.
The Prince convened the meeting early. At six o'clock, she stood there in the middle of the marble-floored Elysium and made her announcements. Tried and found guilty by her authority, she said, staring down at the skinny dark-haired Anarch her servants held motionless. Against the marble floors and granite columns, her voice was terribly loud, like the high terrifying call of trumpets. Suddenly the knife flashed in her hand, the glittering bit of steel the Regent had made for her, and the prisoner cried out. The knife moved again, and again, and there were more screams.
The sounds of pain were unendurable. I wanted to scream myself.
Finally the Prince pulled out a delicate handkerchief and wiped her little knife clean. She spoke loudly to her servants, wanting us to hear. "Leave him by the east windows, and open the drapes, please."
She turned to us and talked for a while about authority, and obligation, and the right of destruction, and duty. I gazed at faces. Elder faces, pale and forbidding. Young faces, frightened or defiant. Mindless animal faces, hungry for the scent of spilled blood. All the faces stared at the floor at the Prince's feet, where she had carried her sentence out.
No one heard the high clear words that echoed on the stones. We were listening, instead, to the echoes of those cries, to the promise of pain and destruction. When she finished talking, there was motionless silence. Even her own progeny didn't make their customary flutter of agreement.
After a while the Elders turned away, their children following. The Regent was the second of them to leave, and gratefully we followed him outside into the noisy city darkness. We stood in the frozen garden outside the Elysium, waiting for Robert to bring the car.
There was motion in a distant doorway and a tattered figure in scuffed leather and glittering deadly metal came closer, closer. I recognized the face – it was that skinny Brujah who'd insulted me three weeks ago. His movements were purposeful, predatory. Insolently, he met the Regent's eyes.
"Fuckin' warlocks," he said, and he spat something onto the Regent's shoes. "You know fuckin' everything. Not like you can prove anything, oh no, but you point and lie and suddenly people watch the fuckin' sunrise, huh?"
The Regent grasped him by the throat. The Brujah fired a small handgun. And we realized at that moment that the Brujah had friends.
There were six of them, dirty and angry and fierce. The Brujah screamed in the Regent's grasp, and Mr. Perry did something frightening that made a wild-eyed woman curse and step backward. There was gunfire, and the terrifying blur of frenzied speed rushing past us to rip and claw. I stepped back, horrified, legs weak with terror, holding up weak empty hands in my own defense.
A body fell in torpor, a stranger. Relief seized me. Not one of ours. Wounded, hurting, destroyed. Not one of ours.
And with sudden horrible clarity I saw another one, a Gangrel, tearing through the bushes with his horrible claws bared. As he lunged toward Derek, the world stopped and hung suspended. I watched Derek's eyes narrow in thoughtful intensity, watched his hands rise slowly, too slowly, as the terrible claws seized him by the throat. There was a startled shout and a wet tearing sound and Derek's opened body fell into the snow.
And I stood over him, sure that I was wailing and shrieking, unable to hear anything but the faint stirrings of Derek's struggling words.
By the light of the Regent's fiery hands I saw the claws come for me. I held up my tiny clumsy hands in the ritual gestures, reached out for the blood inside the Gangrel's body, and claimed it for my own. He tried to lunge for me, but he stumbled, weakened, and the Regent's blazing hand caught him hard across the face. I heard the others shout to one another, heard booted feet retreating.
Stunned and dizzy, I sank to my knees beside Derek, opening my blouse at the wrist, opening my veins with my teeth, letting the blood I'd stolen pour into him, stroking his hair, whispering words.
As I knelt there, the Regent straightened out of his feral combat crouch, shook himself, straightened his coat. I glanced backward once, saw him stand there terribly pale, and saw him glance thoughtfully at me.
And then I felt it, that probing tickle that came before the sudden sharp pain that would drain me. I knew what I was supposed to do. They'd taught me to endure this, unresisting, for the good of the House and Clan. But he was still standing, pale but whole.
I felt a surge of rage that shouted No. With my will as fierce as a clawed hand I slapped that probing touch away, kept my vitae for the broken body of my own beautiful love.
Derek found the strength to grasp my wrist in his marble-cold hands. His sweet dark eyes were wild with pain and need, uncomprehending, terrified. I love you, I murmured I love you. Forever. I love you.
And then hard angry hands pulled me away. Jason and Mr. Perry held me, turned me around to face the Regent.
He did not speak.
Instead he raised one pale hand and struck me, hard enough that I rocked in the grasp of the hands that held me.
I wanted to shout at him. Shouting, after all, couldn't be any worse than what I'd just done. I even opened my mouth to try. What came out was a tiny tentative sound. But.
"Take her back to the House," he said to Mr. Perry, "and call my Lord."
And Derek sat halfway up, and said no with all the force he had, a wild angry whisper, a strange fierce voice I'd never heard before. I twisted against the hands that held me, struggled for the sight of his face.
Mr. Perry grasped my chin and stared into my eyes. "Cooperate, Miss MacPherson. If you please."
And I was so frightened that I did. They led me away and pushed me into the back seat of the Other Car. Jason sat beside me. He turned to look at me, apologetic, resigned. His lips moved, barely perceptible. "I'm sorry, Katherine. I'm sorry."
We had been friends. His fingers dug painfully into the muscle of my arm.
Back at the house, they led me into a small, bare room next door to the Regent's office. Numbly, I unfastened the buttons of my good winter coat, dropped it on the floor. Jennifer was waiting at my elbow to pick it up, hang it over a chair.
I had not seen them take Derek anywhere. Slowly I was overcome by the certainty that they had left him where he had fallen, to wait for the dawn. That thought grew in me until there seemed to be nothing I could do but run for the door and run back to take him in my arms.
"Sit down," said Mr. Perry, and I struggled against the force of that voice. But it was a voice like the Regent's, like steel, like stone. I sat down on the plain hard chair. Jennifer rested her hands on my shoulders, threatening me with her unnatural strength. The hands, the voice held me motionless as a wooden stake; the thought of Derek's eyes made the silver ring burn my hand like sunlight.
For hours, I wasted my vitae on weeping.
I heard the Regent's voice through the wall, shouting into the telephone. "I want her out of here," he shouted. "I want her gone tonight"
Silence. He was listening. I heard him tapping his pen on his desk blotter, impatiently.
His voice grew quiet. I strained to hear him. "Yes, that's the resolution I'd prefer," he was saying thoughtfully. "Would you be willing to explain to the Prince that this was an entirely internal matter? I should prefer to avoid discussing it with her."
"Yes, yes, I understand. Although that does somewhat limit our options. Vienna?"
It was over, then. I twisted the little silver ring. Blue and purple glass. The joy of our new life together. Human eyes shining with gratitude for two crumpled dollars. Hands, touching. I looked down, staring at the carpet, tracing mazes in the pattern, needing desperately to know what he would say when he finally called me to stand in front of him.
"Oh. Yes, that does seem prudent. Where?"
Short silence. Pen tapping.
"Are you sure that's sufficient? We've had a great many problems.... Oh. I see. Of course."
His voice sank into an unintelligible murmur then, and there were only a few more words before the receiver fell heavily into its cradle.
The door from his office opened.
"I want to see Miss MacPherson now, please," said the Regent's voice. Very quiet. I thought of that quiet voice pronouncing the word "Vienna" and I stumbled as I rose, falling to my knees as I tried to stand.
Jennifer and Mr. Perry lifted me and led me in. I stood unsteadily, rocking on my heeled dress shoes.
"It seems that nothing can be accomplished by talking to you. I had hoped that you were only willful and undisciplined – and that we had some hope of correcting your faults. But what I saw tonight convinces me that your very nature is disobedient, selfish, and treacherous – and I will not have you in my house. I am reluctant to send you on to a colleague. Were it my decision alone, you would spend the remainder of this evening on the roof, awaiting the sunrise."
"But it is not my decision. My superiors insist that you have some utility, and have advised me not to destroy you. And I honor my oaths to the House and Clan. Therefore, I must reluctantly grant you some hope of a future."
"The terms of your future are these: You and Mr. Allen will never see one another again. You will leave this house at once. We have assigned you to the Chantry in Cleveland. They may have some use for you, especially considering that you are, in our estimation, expendable."
"And before you leave, we will ensure that you are incapable of ever betraying us again."
Mr. Perry handed him a thick crystal bottle, the ornate old-fashioned sort of bottle people use for vinegar. He opened the bottle, poured its crimson contents into a little crystal glass. He held the glass out to me. "Drink."
I took the glass, remembering the dark frightening scent from my Embrace. I stared into the glass, wondering whether I had the courage to let it slip from my fingers.
"Someone could help you, if you prefer." He started to reach for the glass, to hand it to Jennifer, who glowed with eagerness to force my lips open, to pour this horrible stuff down my throat.
I imagined throwing the glass at the Regent's head. Instead I raised it to my lips and drank. I imagined vomiting the cold, numbing vitae onto his expensive carpet. Instead I set the glass on the corner of his desk.
Mr. Perry held out a different bottle, plain and green, and pressed it into my hands. I gasped with shock as the frozen wintry glass bit at me. Numb and trembling, I handed it clumsily back. It was heavy, terribly heavy, filled with my own bright blood.
"That's done, then." The Regent rose, and reached out one ancient hand to me. "Show me your hands, please."
I took a rocking terrified step backward, shaking my head in protest. And of course Jennifer grasped my wrists, hard enough to crack the bones if he'd let her, held my hands up for the Regent to see.
"Take off the ring. Now."
I wailed in refusal, but my hands moved involuntarily, as though his hard angry voice had spoken directly to them. With horror I watched my own fingers drop Derek's beautiful ring into the Regent's outstretched hand.
He examined it a moment, and dropped it dismissively into the wastepaper basket. It spun in clattering circles. The Regent ignored it, spoke over the sound of the desperate rushing metal.
"You leave at eight. Jennifer will help you pack." And he turned his chair a little, stared out the window of his study, away from me.
In the room that had been mine, Jennifer set a largish black suitcase on top of my coffin. She took dresses from their hangers, folded them into tidy little rectangles, and laid them down. I dropped a handful of socks in, and a fat ribbon-wrapped bundle of letters.
"No." Jennifer took the letters out, tossed them into a garbage bag. "He said you weren't allowed to take any notes or papers, or any of your sentimental crap." Ostentatiously, deliberately, she threw away all my journals and my lucky Red Sox hat.
I packed shoes and sweaters, trying not to watch Jennifer throwing away all my music and the silver ribbons from the box that had held my silver ring. I tried to fold my ritual robe, and ended up with a crumpled wad. I stuffed it in and tugged the zipper closed.
Jennifer did not pick the suitcase up. Instead, she stood there staring at me impatiently. I carried it myself. It was heavy enough to be awkward. She followed me down the stairs, stood watching as the Regent met me in the hallway.
He handed me a letter, heavy paper, wax seal. "Give this letter to the Regent in Columbus. If I do not receive word before dawn, we shall be forced to assume that you have chosen to terminate your connections with the House and Clan. If that is the case, we shall take the appropriate measures. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," I said quietly. There were no other farewells. I picked up the suitcase and waited on the front steps for Robert to bring the Other Car around. Looked at the front door, closed and locked behind me. The paint was scuffed where I'd kicked it a few weeks ago. I wondered whether anyone had noticed.
I got into the back seat of the Other Car, closing the door on the hem of my skirt. I tried to open it, to tug my skirt loose, but the door didn't unlock. I was trapped as though in my coffin. Sitting beside me, Jennifer made a derisive little noise.
I pressed my face against the window, looking up at the window of the room that had been Derek's. The curtains were open, the lights on. All I could see was a blank piece of wall. I love you, I thought, willing the words to find him. I love you.
I closed my eyes in thought, wanting desperately to weep. I was lost in wanting. At the airport, Jennifer had to shake me, hard, before I realized that we had arrived.
She walked me to the counter, watched me hand over my bag full of nothing that mattered, and took my ticket in her own hand. She grasped my wrist as she led me to the gate.
The flight was mostly empty. I sat in the back, alone, listening to the murmur of ordinary voices, flipping through a magazine with pictures of sunny beaches. I liked the thought – to lie on the beach for a night, watching the stars, the sea, and finally the clean bright light of dawn. All the frozen pain dissolving in momentary sharp flames, bright as hope.
And some new fear whispered in me, forbidding the thoughts. But you can't. They need you. You're not allowed to do that.
I thought of Derek on the ground, in the Regent's office, in Vienna, in the sunlight. I was in public. I could not weep. And the new fear whispered again. That was wrong. You should be ashamed. At least you have another chance.
"Excuse me? Ma'am?"
I looked up, startled.
"Would you like anything to drink?"
I shook my head, but the woman seemed insistent. "Coke? Diet Coke? Coffee? Tomato juice?"
I wondered how conspicuous it would be to refuse. "Water, please." That was easy to get rid of. She handed me a plastic bottle. When she was gone, I stuffed it unopened into the pocket of the seat.
I closed my eyes, remembering to breathe, touching the place where my silver ring had been. I tried to lose myself in the memory of Derek's voice, but each remembered word was interrupted by thoughts of duty. In the Regent's office I had drunk those dutiful whispers from a crystal cup, and now, sick and poisoned, I could not disobey them even enough to mourn.
I pressed my face to the little plastic window, stared down at the lights. It was easier.
The plane landed at last in Cleveland. Passengers continuing on to Los Angeles should remain on board... For a frightening dizzy moment, that seemed like a good idea. I would burn as though in sunlight. The thought was terribly appealing. But of course I stood, picked up my velvet-collared winter coat, and walked slowly into the new city.
They had sent someone to meet me. I recognized the quiet, patient look, and I watched him scanning the straggling file of sleepy people from Boston. When his eyes reached my face he stopped, gave me a decisive little nod. I walked slowly over to the corner where he stood.
"Katherine?" he said. My own name sounded strange to me.
"I was told to take you to meet them as soon as you arrived," he said. "They're at the meeting at the moment, so we'll have to go straight there."
A meeting. I thought of the Prince of Boston, her shrill terrifying voice calling down terrible vengeance on all her people, of blood on the marble floor, of blood in the garden, of Derek's motionless body in the snow. "Thank you," I said. That was what I was supposed to say.
He led me outside to a tidy little van. He opened the front door for me. Someone else came up behind us, threw my suitcase into the back.
The city was flat, and empty in places. Blank fields. Bare lawns. Vast icy fields of asphalt. And dark, darker than Boston, and terribly cold. The driver was silent. So was I.
They had their meetings in a crumbling amphitheater at the edge of an artificial pond. A sluggish fountain stirred the algae-thick water, and the pond stank. The water was beginning to freeze, trapping the rotting leaves. The driver let me out on the darkened street above the amphitheater, pointed downward. Left me there alone.
Down the stairs. Down the stairs. The stairs were stone, less slippery than polished terrazzo. Good.
In the shadows of the halogen lights I saw their faces. Fierce predatory faces, stern forbidding faces. A few gentle faces, more than in Boston. I'd have to talk to the Regent, to the Prince, to the others. Maybe the Regent would speak for me. Maybe I would only need to tell the story once. Only once. There were pools of shadow, unoccupied corners. I longed for one. I wanted terribly to be alone.
And duty drove me forward, made me speak.