Danielle placed the final piece of silverware on the table as she exited
the dining room. She smiled to herself while she thought of the
wonderful time she'd have while the Baroness and her spoiled, selfish
children were at the market buying clothes for their already overflowing
wardrobes. They are sure to be gone all day, she thought, as she put a
spoon in front of Marguerite's seat. They're so damned picky, it'll
take hours just to find undergarments, she thought while she climed the
staircase to the bedrooms. She chuckled as she placed her foot on the
final step.

Quickly turning the corner of the corridor, Danielle approached the
large, oaken door to Jacqueline's room. It was customary to awaken the
plump stepsister first, for she was always in a good disposition, the
better to start a busy everyday. Danielle gently rapped upon the door.

"Yes," came a meek, sheepish voice from behind the wooden surface.

"Time for breakfast, Jacqueline," Danielle replied.

"Alright, I shall be ready shortly."

Danielle's lips drew tightly together as she walked towards the second
door. Her hand curled itself into a taut fist when she reached the
entrance to Marguerite's room. Her free hand knocked.

"What is it?" an acidic voice answered.

Danielle wanted to yell all the forbidden words under Heaven at the
little snake. Instead, she grit her teeth and restrained herself.

"Breakfast, Marguerite."

The sound of sucking teeth preceeded a reply, "Well wake Mother, you
stupid girl!"

Danielle hissed and rolled her eyes. She turned towards the final door
in the hall. Instead of being welcomed with the rich dark brown color
of the doorway, she could barely see the lintel behind the shadows. The
rest of the door was obscured in darkness. It seemed to be miles away.
An oppressive air saturated the hallway. Overcome by the sensation, she
slowed down, concentrating on breathing. Her brisk pace slowed to a
nervous walk. Proud strides reduced to mincing, tentative steps. A
subtle feeling of dread gently rested upon her mind and heart. She
wiped her moistening palms upon her dirty apron. Her heart pounded on
her eardrums. The thuds were so powerful that she feared she would
vomit the organ if she opened her mouth.

When Danielle finally reached the Baroness's chambers, she froze. All
the warmth and heat of the season suddenly escaped from her, leaving her
with gooseflesh instead of skin. With a pale, trembling hand, she
gently knocked upon the door. No answer. She listened carefully as she
knocked again to be sure the Baroness did not say something she didn't
hear. When she still received no reply, she called into the door,
"Milady, breakfast is ready."

Still no answer. She supposed that her stepmother would rather sleep,
but she thought of the terrible lashing that would inevitably follow for
allowing her stepmother to miss her meal. That idea quickly disspelled
any notion that she should allow the lady to rest. She grasped the cold
iron knob and twisted it. The oaken door opened with a loud squeak. A
pool of blackness seeped out into the hallway. Danielle stepped into
the darkness.

The draperies were all down, and they covered the bedroom so completely
that it looked as if night had never faded. The waxy scent of melted
candles drifted outside. Lifeless air stagnated the inside. The odor
was old, so decomposed that it smelled almost like soil. Yet, something
else was still there, hidden, within the silent stone walls. It was
like ashes spread across the silt of a river. Danielle sneezed. The
floating dust stirred and brought a tiny morsel of life into the room.
Minute bits of the sneeze settled upon her skin like the tickling
drizzle.

Danielle ambulated slowly, bumping her way towards the general direction
of the window ahead. When she reached the cold, rugged wall, she
stretched out her arm and felt along its surface until her fingers
caught the warm velvet of a curtain. She pulled it along the valance
and winced as brilliant sunlight invaded the room.

Danielle turned around. The sun's rays illuminated the Baroness's
room. All the familiar landmarks were there: the bed, the trunk, the
throne-like chair beside the hearth. She looked at the velvet and linen
tomb which she recognized as a bed. She crept toward it. When she
reached the berth, she grasped the canopy. Her throat had become
parched, and she swallowed hard as she pulled the awning open. Inky
darness overflowed from the mattress and threatened to spill onto the
floor below. But light conquered the encroaching blackness and flowed
upon the motionless form resting there, revealing the face, neck, and
hands of the Baroness.

Danielle trembled as she looked at her stepmother lying there. She lay
perfectly immobile with her long hands perched calmly on her bosom, one
inside the other. Black hair rested neatly on the bed, outlining her
form in a thick ebony mass. She was so placid that it looked as if she
were made of marble instead of flesh. In the manner of that element,
she made not a single twitch or movement which normally occurs with
sleep. The Baroness's complexion was like that of a statue, an almost
diaphanous white with a hint of gray. Her skin was stretched tightly
over her fine, angular bones. The woman's lips were dry, and her
eyeballs sank a little inside their sockets.

Danielle shook her head. It could not be. She held her breath as she
balanced herself on her hands and leaned towards the Baroness's face,
her ear tiltled towards the lady. There was no sign of the miracle.
Danielle chastised herself for wishing such a thing upon a person, but
her heart still fluttered a bit as she thought of the possibility. She
leaned forward further, and she nearly fell, but she managed to catch
herself on her stepmother's cold hands before she could topple onto
her. The young woman gasped, barely able to restrain herself from
screaming. She blinked hard. Had she awakened her stepmother? She
hadn't. The Baroness was not even pushed by her stepdaughter's
clumsiness. The woman lay there, cold and as a great stone slab.
Danielle placed her hands on each side of her stepmother's body, and she
slowly lowered herself towards the woman's chest. She listened for the
dull beating of Rodmilla's heart. She heard someone breathing, but it
was the sound of her own fluttering suspiration. Danielle held her
weight on one hand and used the other to pry underneath the cold digits
of Rodmilla's hands. The chill of her skin seeped through the
nightgown. Danielle felt around the woman's sternum and searched for
the presence of that life-giving organ, but she could find it nowhere.
The realization sent a cold shiver speeding up her spine. Oh God, she
thought, could the lord have given me salvation at last? Perhaps He
did. Danielle raised herself from the Baroness's body. A feeling of
peace swept over her as she moved out from under the canopy.

She nearly fainted when a hand of ice wrapped around her wrist. She
turned back inside the canopy, and the vision of a skeletal figure
slowly arising from death filled Danielle with an intense fear. The
girl opened her mouth to scream, but the grip of froze her will.
Danielle just sat there and watched as the skeleton slowly began to rise
from its mausoleum.

"Who are you? What are you doing here?" it demanded of her in a voice
that was like broken glass and burning fire.

Danielle answered quickly before the creature could do anything rash,
"Breakfast, milady."

"Very well then," it answered, in a more human voice. It turned
Danielle loose, and the Baroness sat up on the end of the bed. Danielle
could not look directly at her stepmother, but she knew the look that
came from her. The lady had a way of gazing at her which made her feel
violated, as if she were prying into the deepest corners of her mind.
Danielle's eyes fluttered, and her breathing grew more erratic. Heat
surged through her body. A few beads of sweat dropped upon her hands.

"Tell the others I shall join them shortly," she heard her stepmother
say. Danielle gave a brief, respectful nod and scurried out of the
room. She closed the door behind her so quickly that it was almost a
slam. She hurried down the stairway and into the kitchen, where
Marguerite and Jacqueline were waiting to be served.

"What took you so long?" the blonde coldly asked, "And where is Mother?"

"She said she'd be down shortly."

"Fine," replied Marguerite. "I want a four-minute egg and bread."

"Yes, Margureite," Danielle mechanically responded, her mind still
swimming with the events which transpired in the Baroness's chambers.

"And what would you like, Jacqueline?"

"Whatever you make is fine with me."

Danielle rushed into the kitchen before they could see her hands
trembling uncontrollably. She started on breakfast to shake the fear out
of her mind, putting on six eggs, bacon, and bread. The oppressive heat
of the kitchen made her feel nauseous, so she ran outside to get the
apples.

Danielle stood by the fireplace preparing her stepmother's ivory-handled
brush for grooming. Rodmilla reclined on the bed daydreaming. The
Baroness had been oddly whimsical that day since she noticed Prince
Henry's interest in Marguerite. She was toying with her ambitions,
painting a lovely picture of what she believed was her daughter's
preordained fate.

"Could you imagine? Paris at Christmas?" she said in such a way that
was amazingly, for the Baroness, childlike and imaginative. It was a
manner Danielle wasn't accustomed to, yet she could not resist feeling
hopeful along with her stepmother. The woman's moods were contagious.
The fact that she was having a good one made this evening a great deal
more pleasant for Danielle.

"It must be something spectacular, milady," Danielle answered, smiling
sheepishly. After ten years of service to her stepmother, she learned
very early to appreciate the rare moments when Rodmilla was in the least
bit amicable.

"Yes, it certainly is," the Baroness said. She let the rest of her
thought float into the air and finally dissipate like smoke from a dead
fire.

The Baroness, in her characteristic feline grace, arose from the bed and
walked over to the chair. There was not even the lightest sound of a
footstep emmitted from her as she made her way to the chair by the
fireplace.

"You know," she continued, "My mother was rough on me too, you know.
She taught me that cleanliness was next to godliness, and she forced me
to wash my face at least twenty times a day, convinced it was never
clean enough. But I was very grateful."

Danielle was convinced of the Baroness's statement, afraid to even
think a thought contrary to her stepmother's words. Yet, there was
something about the noblewoman's words which gently pierced Danielle's
heart. For a brief instant, she felt Rodmilla was warmer, more
understanding, more- human- than she initially believed. She quickly
dismissed it as a futile hope.

The Baroness regally roosted herself upon the hard mahogany chair. She
flung her black hair over the edge. Danielle separated a thick lock and
started to brush through it. The Baroness's hair was just enviable. It
was as soft and smooth as dyed silk, and many times more abundant. The
color was such a rich ebony that Danielle thought black ink would run
into her hands if she held it too long. It was completely opposite to
the colorless, ragged stringiness she saw on so many women, including
herself. It was hair she would enjoy brushing if it belonged to someone
else. It had the refreshing fragrance of jasmines in the summer, yet it
was cool and subtle as the autumn wind. Danielle wondered what it would
be like to sleep on a pillow made of this hair as she groomed another
section. As she brushed through the elegant locks, Danielle noticed
something odd. The Baroness was unrealistically still. She made not a
single jerk or flinch as the brush weeded through a few tangles and
roots. Danielle could not even sense the regular heaving of the
shoulders that normally accompanies respiration. For a moment, she
believed that her stepmother was not breathing. It was only until the
noblewoman once again broke the silence that Danielle did not hesitate
to see if she was alive.

"She wanted me to be all that I could be, and here I am. A Baroness.
And Marguerite shall be queen." The words had an understated confidence
about them which Danielle thought was normal on the Baroness's part yet
in a way oddly prophetic. She mechanically continued to brush the
section of hair which she held in her tiny hands.

Rodmilla grasped Danielle's wrist, and the girl's heart skipped several
beats. The coldness of the Baroness's skin assaulted her, and its power
sapped her strength. She was a prisoner of her stepmother's glacial
grasp. Her first reaction was fear. What had she done? What will be
done to her? Before she could ask, "What is wrong, milady?" the girl
was gently yet powerfully pulled to face her stepmother.

At this moment, the young woman realized for the first time that she did
not know the color of Rodmilla's eyes. She had combed the Baroness's
hair every night for the past ten years, without fail, and it just
dawned upon her that she'd never seen the woman's face close enough to
really see what she looked like. Most importantly, she never looked
into Rodmilla's eyes to really see HER. Were her eyes green like the
serpent in the garden? Icy gray like the winter she so accurately
represents? Dark blue like the deep ocean?

She tried to keep her eyes to the floor, to resist the urge to look at
her stepmother's face. She knew it would seem insubordinate to the
Baroness, and that the slightest hint of disobedience would mean a
terrible whipping for her. Yet, Danielle felt a compelling curiosituy
to face Rodmilla and see into her eyes. She felt a burning desire to
study her stepmother's face, to find out the meanings behind each line,
each wrinkle, each dimple. She tried to fight it, but in the end her
instincts won over her good reason. She looked up, and focused her eyes
upon her stepmother.

Her eyes were brown, almost black. Danielle had known since she was a
child that the eyes were the windows to the soul, and she wondered if
Rodmilla's soul were similarly dark. She looked deeper, trying to
discover anything else which may lie hidden beneath their depths. But
she sensed nothing except the glowing reflection of fire upon the
irises.

"Pity you never knew your mother," she said, snapping Danielle back from
her search. The lady continued, "There must be a little of her in you
somewhere."

Rodmilla gave Danielle a sincere gaze. It seemed to her stepdaughter so
earnestly human; her stepmother looked at her in such a way that was
almost tender, almost maternal, almost like love. Danielle immediately
felt a keen desire to openly ask this person sitting in Rodmilla's room,
in Rodmilla's chair, where she had put her stepmother, but she knew not
to complain about good things. She cherished this moment, if only for
its rarity. On the other hand, she cursed herself for being so naive.
Danielle felt uneasy looking down at her stepmother. She was just a
servant, not a noblewoman. She kneeled before Rodmilla's wooden throne
and stared up at her; she felt more at ease at the woman's feet.

Danielle wished she knew more about her mother: what she looked like,
how she spoke, her disposition. But that was not possible now; her
father had been reluctant to talk about her at best. The servants only
knew her sweet and kind demeanor, not about her total personality. Now
even second-hand accounts were impossible.

"I wish I knew what she looked like," she muttered to Rodmilla.

The Baroness gave her stepdaughter a sarcastic retort, "Yes. But we
must never feel sorry for ourselves, must we? Because no matter how bad
things get they can always get worse."

The noblewoman paused, looking at her commoner stepdaughter. The woman
sighed before she continued, more gently than her last statement, "But
you remind me so much of your father. Sometimes, I can see him looking
out through your eyes."

"Really?" Danielle asked, her face and voice beamed with the comment.

Rodmilla continued, half-joking, "Yes. Of course, you have such
masculine features."

Danielle almost laughed. She admitted to herself that her stepmother
was right; she was not a proper woman. Her complacent expression waned
when she stared again into Rodmilla's eyes. The whites had now turned
bright pink, almost red, and watery droplets hanged like newborn
diamonds at her eyelashes, but they did not fall. Rodmilla's eyes
seemed like they had seen many tears yet were still unused to crying.
Her face seemed conflicted as her eyes squinched to keep from blinking
and revealing her valuable secret. For a moment, Danielle was stabbed
by a deep pity for her stepmother. How torturous her existence must be,
she thought, to feel so much pain yet not be able to express it, even if
she wanted to. She thought that perhaps there may be something deep
within Rodmilla after all.

Danielle swallowed her pity and timidly attempted to speak. There was
something she wanted, needed to ask. She had to do it at while they
were both off guard. She cautiously parted her lips as she began to
inquire directly into the matter, the only way she knew how, "Did you
love my father?"

Rodmilla smiled delicately. Her eyes lit up, but the light did not come
from the fire alone. Danielle thought she had seen something akin to
affection within Rodmilla's eyes. She listened attentively for the
answer, trying to see what her words, or her silence, could tell her.
Rodmilla paused before she finally answered, "I hardly knew him."

Yet the sadness Danielle had seen so close to the surface never faded.
Danielle was left unsatisfied, for she wanted to believe that Rodmilla
didn't love her father, if only to feel justified in hating her more.
But Rodmilla's words and actions showed differently. The mention of
Danielle's father almost made tears fall, and the real question about
her feelings towards Auguste de Barbarac was left unanswered. It was so
paradoxical, so unlike her ordinary habit.

Danielle thought it might be best not to press the issue further. She
returned to her place behind the chair and began again to brush the
Baroness's hair. While she groomed the noblewoman, she felt a gentle,
disdainful nudge upon her hand as she attempted to brush through the
dark locks. She stopped, but before she could utter a word, the
Baroness quietly commanded her, "Go away. I'm tired."

Danielle did as she was told, and she placed the brush upon the tiny
table standing next to the chair. She nimbly exited the Baroness's
quarters, closing the door quietly behind her. When she had left the
room, a freezing wind wraped around her body. She looked around her.
The castle was a graveyard: silent, dark, and eerie. She hurried
towards her sleeping quarters. As she made her way along the dark
corridors and towards the twisted stairway that led through her hovel,
millions of thoughts plagued her mind. Did Rodmilla love her father?
Why did she seem so much more humane than she did before? How could she
hate her and look at her with such fondness? Through all the confusion,
she felt the dull ache of guilt upon her. She did not know the reason
behind this feeling, but she intuitively understood that its source was
Rodmilla.

As she made her way up to her bedroom, she pondered upon the peculiar
episode that took place within the Baroness's chambers. For all the
time she has known her stepmother, it was only now that she realized
that there was a human being inside the tall, imposing woman she had
known for so long. Her head started to hurt from all the thoughts, and
she cleared her mind of the whole mess. But the feeling was still
there, the guilt. She quickly went into a comfortable, fetal position
upon her straw mattress, and she closed her eyes and thought of pleasant
things. She wondered when she would be able to fly Signor Da Vinci's
new toy. The thought trailed off as Danielle drifted to sleep, and that
night she dreamt of flying.

The young monarch casually reclined on her bed. Crimson velvet swooped
from the canopy onto the floor. She was reading, as was her usual habit
before retiring. She was immersed in the book. Her eyes glided across
the letters on the page as if those words would be her last sight on
this earth.

It was night, as always. Nearby candlelight provided a dim yet
comforting orange glow to the room. Pink toes grazed the empty space
beside the queen. Danielle read until her eyes felt tight and itchy.
The letters on the parchment jumbled together in a senseless arrangement
of ink and paper. She rubbed her eyes as the book came closed in a dull
thud; she placed the tome on the table next to her bed.

It was a long while past the time His Majesty normally came to bed. A
knot grew inside her belly, heavy and tight. Maybe there had been an
accident. Danielle pushed the thought aside. Had such a misfortune
taken place, the servants would have informed her by now. Something was
definitely wrong.

Danielle sat up. Her feet dangled over the edge of the bed, and her
toes reached longingly for the floor. She looked down for her shoes,
cursing when she did not see them beside the bed. Flesh smacked stone
when she leapt off the mattress. She kneeled on the floor and peeked
underneath the bedstead. There were her shoes, two black silhouettes
barely an arm's reach away. In a single swipe, both were collected in
her hands. Danielle stood up. Before she had the first shoe on her
foot, the air inside her suddenly left her body. Deathlike silence
stopped her ears, and she could only hear two hollow taps as her shoes
plummeted to the floor. Danielle's neck froze; the chill seeped into
her voice, stopped cold. She flailed her arms about, frantically trying
to escape the icy grasp of her unseen nemesis. The vice-like grip
closed in tighter, and Danielle could felt bloodless fingers consticting
her vertebrae. She strained her eyes to the corners of their sockets.
She saw darkness. With fear holding her fast, Danielle prayed. Her
mouth did not speak, but the words shouted in her mind. Tears burned
down her face. Her eyelids closed tightl, and she uttered the prayer
repeatedly until her mind went numb from the repetition.

"Life's not fair, is it?" said the thing from the darkness. It was so
strangely calm, so soothing, that at first Danielle did not believe she
was in danger at all. There was something familiar about it. Something
that struck her deeply, and her fear returned. Danielle mustered all
her inner strength to ask, "Wh- Who are you?" The words came out
weakly, like the frightened girl she used to be rather than the
dignified monarch.

The phonation recalled for her, "Do you remember what I told you,
Danielle? Nothing is final until you're dead, and even then God
negotiates."

Danielle tried to shake her head. The stony hand prevented any movement
there. It couldn't be. It was impossible. It had all come back to her
in a quick rush of remembering. And still she disbelieved. Still she
tried not to remember. Yet, she remembered, and she believed. There
was no escaping it. The realization was as solid as the earth.

As she watched the figure approach within range of the soft candlelight,
Danielle congealed. That posture, that deathlike color, those hateful,
vengeful eyes. Slowly, the darkness melted into the familiar form. It
was the apparition of a forgotten and painful memory standing before
her. There, as if it had always waited there, in the shadows of her
bedroom, was the Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent.

Danielle's face glistened with sweat. Her teeth chattered quietly, and
her knees butted each other. She felt so helpless, like a chick in a
nest with the shadow of a hawk looming overhead. She wanted to abandon
the vestiges of civilization and turn to blind panic. But a huge weight
sank inside her, and it prevented any hope of freedom.

It wasn't real; it was just a dream. Rodmilla was dead; she died last
year during the epidemic with many commoners. She was buried in a
pauper's grave. Henry had seen to it himself. He would have had her
burned, but Danielle resisted it, explaining that such actions would
make them no better than she. Yet, she was there. She was there, and
she was not dead, not disintegrated anonymously into the earth.

"B-but y-you're d-d-d-d-dead. You c-can't be- Henry- Henry saw," she
said.

The Baroness shook her head, "Tsk-tsk-tsk. You are a fool, Your
Highness. There are things about which you cannot possibly understand.
In either case, I'll kill you before you can find out too much."

Danielle moaned underneath the arachnid fingers. "K-kill me?" She grew
more afraid. She was held prisoner in the wintry grasp, so she could not
run. held Her voice was gone, so could not scream. As it became
intolerable, she felt herself ease into her primitive ancestry.
Something hot ran in a river down her leg, trailing from her loins to
her knees, and then to her ankles before running onto the floor. The
room started to blur in a mix of color and light. She felt as if she
were floating, and then she was shocked awake when she crashed upon the
bed. She coughed until she respired normally again. Danielle inhaled
deeply and savored the fresh air that filled her youthful lungs. Her
diaphragm heaved as the rush of air circulated through her. She
clutched the crucifix dangling onto her chest, silently thanking God she
was still alive. She did not dare to run, for her legs felt too awkward
to move. She felt like screaming as loud as God would allow her. The
notion left as soon as her ears picked up the tomblike silence of the
castle. She wondered why no one had stopped Rodmilla. Then, she
realized that she had not heard the slow, heavy footsteps of the guard
patrolling the halls. She had not heard the muffled whispers of the
servants as they made their way to bed. She normally did not hear them,
but that was because she tuned them out of her mind. But on this night,
such meditation was unnecessary. What had happened to them? Where
were the guards, the servants? Where was Henry? The Baroness
confidently slithered into a chair standing next to the night stand.
Moonlight trickled inside the room, and its luminescence tickled the
surface layer of Rodmilla's hair.

"What- What did you do to Henry?" Danielle demanded, her face growing
slightly more ruddy as anger swelled into her skull.

Her stepmother casually tossed a loose strand of hair from her face.
With the Baroness's silent affirmation, Danielle knew Henry's fate. A
deep, sharp pain slashed across Danielle's chest. Tears trickled onto
her face and down her neck. She only hoped that God was merciful and
allowed Henry quickly and painlessly into Paradise. "How could you?
How could you?!" she sobbed.

"For God's sake, child. I have to eat something," the Baroness
reported. Danielle shook her head, covering her sobs with her delicate
hand as her body shook violently.

When her tears had stopped, Danielle felt empty inside. Their lives
together had seemed so short. It was like a mere blink to the years her
stepmother could have known. The woman always seemed so- ancient to
her. There seemed to be an age inside her that didn't show. How old
could she be? One hundred? Two hundred? Five hundred? How many
empires had she seen in her day? How many generations of royalty did
she see perish? If she could come back from the dead, she was probably
immortal.

Danielle looked at her stepmother. She examined the dull, earthen rags
which clung to her stepmother like a shroud, barely covering what needed
to be hidden. A black shawl of hair covered her shoulders. She looked
at the hard, chisled face. She almost winced at the skeleton which
started to show underneath thin, ashy layer of tissue which comprised
Rodmilla's skin. Danielle never realized how deathly thin Rodmilla
was. She had up until now only seen her covered in layer upon layer of
clothes. Her stomach turned at the blue rivers of veins running up her
bony, wiry arm. She looked so- Danielle hesitated to use think the
word- weak. Danielle wonders if she could really be dead. If indeed
she was, what could wait beyond death for her, and Henry?

"Rodmilla," she said. The stony corpse nearly lost her facial composure
when she heard her name called. The expressionless visage returned
within half a blink of an eye.

"I will not spare you, and I will not release you," she snapped.

Danielle didn't expect that much from her stepmother, so the
disappointment which would have followed at the manor did not even raise
its head inside the palace.

"No, stepmother, that's not what I meant. I was thinking-" she let the
words trail off, knowing how much the Baroness hated to be teased with
words.

"Out with it," the Baroness responded coldly.

"Am I allowed a last request? If you are going to kill me, the least
you can do is grant me that," Danielle sternly commanded.

"If it is reasonable, I'll consider it."

"Well, you know how Papa used to tell me about philosophy, science, and
metaphysics. Surely if you are truly dead, you know something about the
things beyond this world."

The Baroness rolled her eyes at the young queen. Danielle knew that her
stepmother at least had to give her that. She did not expect to
survive the encounter, but before she went, she could at leasthave some
kind of knowledge worth dying for. Rodmilla sighed. "What is your
request?"

Danielle smiled, almost overjoyed at this uncharacteristically giving
overture. She thought for a while, making sure that her request was
good enough to give her what she wanted but feasible enough not to tempt
the Baroness's ire.

"I want you to answer my questions, that's all," Danielle said.

"What kind of questions?"

"Questions you can answer."

"How many?"

"Ten."

"Seven," the Baroness ordered.

"Eight," insisted Danielle

"Five," the Baroness retorted.

Danielle knew that before long it would be three and then one, so she
did not tempt her luck too much. She was satisfied with five questions,
but she knew she had to struggle to make them good ones.

"Your first question," demanded Danielle's stepmother.

Danielle realized that the Baroness was in no mood for mind games, and
she would view certain issues unfavorably. Rodmilla could change her
mind at a moment's notice, and then kill her as soon as she did.
Danielle stuck to the easy questions.

"What are you?"

The Baroness relaxed in the chair. She sat in her naturally upright
position, like she was born to do, and looked at Danielle with a
Crusader's conviction.

"Among superstitious peasants, I am known as a vampire."

If it were not for the seriousness of the expression, Danielle would
have laughed herself silly, but as she contemplated what had happened to
her, her mirth fizzled. She had heard the legends, but she didn't
believe them. Each superstition was wilder than the next. Vampires
drink blood; they can't stand holy ground or crucifixes; they hate
garlic, can't cross running water, and instantly turn to ash the minute
a sunray hits them. From what she knew of Rodmilla, they simply weren't
true. She would have thought the woman mad had it not been for the fact
she had been dead and buried over a year ago.

"How long have you been- like this?" she asked.

"Constantine was emporer when I lost my humanity," the Baroness vacantly
responded.

Danielle was in awe. Her stepmother close to twelve hundred years old.
She wondered how much the Baroness could know. How many languages could
she speak? How far had she travelled? Danielle forced herself to be
serious. How can she not see the sun in such a long time? She had seen
the Baroness many times in the sun, and she didn't look the least bit
uncomfortable. She seemed to enjoy it from time to time, almost as much
as tormenting her. But, if she did walk and go about in daylight, what
did she do at night. Certainly not sleep. But she never recalled her
stepmother being particularly tired. Maybe vampires didn't need sleep.
After all, they're dead.

"How do you walk in daylight?" Danielle asked.

The Baroness was looking into a candle. The light made a glowing orange
line down the contour of her face, like a white stripe of paint. A tiny
bead of light sat next to her dark pupil, as if conversing in some
secret language long forgotten by man. With her eyes thus transfixed,
she said, "Daylight is not our natural time, but the sun cannot destroy
us."

"Well how can you hurt a vampire?" she asked.

"That I cannot answer," Rodmilla retorted.

"But you said any question," Danielle reminded her.

Rodmilla looked at Danielle, and the expression on her face did not
appear to fondly remember her stepdaughteres obstinacy.

"There are various ways," she began. "Each vampire has their own
particular weakness. The methods you like to use- holy water, wooden
stakes, garlic-" Rodmilla paused to chuckle quietly before she
continued, "fire, and sunlight. The classical weapons of killing 'Spawn
of Satan' as you call us, only work on some vampires. The real way to
kill vampires is a closely guarded secret. If you were wondering how
you could hurt me, you cannot. I will leave it at that."

For a moment, Danielle forgot about her impending doom and absorbed the
knowledge being handed to her. For a brief instant, she considered
herself lucky. How many people actually learned these things? There
were the peasant beliefs, but that was not really the same thing. With
every word, Danielle wanted to know more. She really yearned to know,
beyond the folktales, the source of that unnatural state.

"Where do vampires come from? I mean, what is the source of
this...evil?"

Rodmilla had shifted her focus into the endless night outside the
queen's window. "According to popular legend, Caine. He was
supposedly cursed by God to walk the earth and feed off the blood of
mortals for the rest of time. But now people are beginning to ask
questions, which may or may not reveal anything."

Danielle struggled with the phenomenon for several silent moments. Is
what Rodmilla said true? Is she really part of an ancient and unending
bloodline forever drenched in the stain of its founder's sin? Danielle
couldn't imagine that fate for anyone. Even peasants seemed to have a
better lot, for death can at least provide a source of hope, justice,
and peace.

She pondered restlessly for the fifth question, searching the innermost
caverns of her mind for a question that would lead her to a clear and
final truth about her stepmother. She was certainly not who Danielle
thought she was, but then who was she? Who was the human being beneath
the surface? That was what Danielle really wanted to know, more than
anything else. Who was this creature whose humanity she had only
glimpsed at a single moment? Where had the person retreated during the
winter of her soul?

Danielle stared into her stepmother's eyes. She sought the creature's
face for any uncertainty, any vulnerability which marks human nature.
She found none. Seeing the impenetrable facade, Danielle asked her
final question.

"Who are you really?" she sternly inquired.

"What do you mean? My human name? My human identity?" was Rodmilla's
answer.

"Yes. What is your real name?"

"Oh, Danielle, I've had so many names," the Baroness wearily replied.
It was the first and only time in Danielle's life that the Baroness just
seemed tired of living.

Danielle pressed onward, "Well, could you at least tell me your original
name?"

The Baroness sighed, apparently exhausted by Danielle's obstinacy. For
a sliver of an instant, it was Rodmilla who cast her eyes downward. Her
gaze returned towards Danielle, but instead of looking at her, it was as
if she were staring through her like her stepdaughter was an
insubstantial spirit. Did Rodmilla hear the question? The endless
chasm of silence shattered when Rodmilla gulped loudly, as if something
were trapped inside her throat. A mournful breath escaped her lips.
The vampire turned her face away from her stepchild. Danielle gazed at
the candlelit outline of her visage. She closely watched the eyes,
which had undergone an amazing change. As if they always had been
there, the bulging salt-filled droplets dangled on the edges of her
eyes. The diamond-like tears tenaciously held onto her eyelids,
refusing to let go.

Danielle observed the creature carefully until the Baroness began to
speak. When Rodmilla finally spoke, it was as if the strength of her
tremendous will had failed her, "I don't remember."

As soon as the words drifted from her mouth, a single drop of water fell
from her eye, making a wet path down her pallid cheek. Two more
escaped, then three, then four, until Danielle could no longer count
their passing. Rodmilla slowly shut her eyes, sighing deeply, in what
appeared to be an attempt to halt the inevitable lamenation. The tiny
droplets fell by the hundreds. Their cumulated effect made Rodmilla's
face look like the mask of tragedy. Then, like a summer rainstorm, the
tears stopped.

Danielle did not have to wait long until Rodmilla regained her
composure. The water upon the vampire's cheek had evaporated, leaving
no sign that it even existed. A look of distant vacancy overcame
Rodmilla, and Danielle began to doubt that she had even witnessed the
past few moments. The act seemed too unreal, but she could not deny
it. She never believed Rodmilla was even capable of human emotion, but
the realization of her error made Danielle want to throw her arms around
Rodmilla's neck and hold her until they were incapable of holding on
anymore. She resisted the temptation. Yet, the display puzzled her.
Was it possible that a single shard of humanity still lived within her
stepmother?

"One final question," Danielle said. Rodmilla scowled at her
stepdaughter for the outburst. "You don't have to answer."

Rodmilla returned her focus to the moonlight. "What?"

"Why did you let me live so long tonight, or for the past fifteen years
for that matter? It would have been to your advantage to kill me or
sell me earlier. But you didn't. Why?"

Rodmilla stared into Danielle with her dark eyes. Immediately, Danielle
could sense some emotion, some feeling that was within her stepmother,
but she knew that she would never again let those feelings rise to the
surface. Were those feelings love, or just a maternal instinct to
preserve all young? Whatever it was, Danielle supposed, it spared her
from her death on more than a few occasions. Still, even though a swirl
of emotion swept over Rodmilla's seemingly placid face, Danielle could
still perceive the taint of despair inhabiting her, deep within the
frozen depths of her heart and soul.

Rodmilla did not respond to the question. Danielle still wanted an
answer.

"You don't hate me as much as you say you do. That's why you didn't
kill me," she began. She hoped she was right.

"Nonsense," the Baroness blankly responded.

The young woman maintained her ground, "You lie. You don't hate me at
all. That's why you didn't kill me then, and that's why you are
considering sparing me now." Her words took on a strange certitude as
she uttered them. She had known for fifteen years, although she would
never say it, that that was the reason behind any level of mercy shown
to her by her stepmother. It was what kept her from hating the woman
completely.

"I know the real reason why you hated me," Danielle pursued.

A painful laugh washed over the Baroness as she asked, "Really? Why is
that? Tell me, Your Majesty."

"You envied me because I had something you would never have, not even if
you tried for a thousand times a thousand years. You forgot what it
meant to be human, and when you saw what me and Papa had it only became
clearer to you. Then Papa died, and you lost your chance to find out.
That's why you took it out on me. You can't have the human spirit you
once knew, so you try to take it from everyone around you! Because you
know that deep down you really want to be human again, and that will
never happen! Never!" Danielle swallowed hard to moisten her dry
throat. She had become exhausted from the effort.

The Baroness sat silently in the chair, her person taking on a life that
vampires supposedly did not have. She was very still, but something
about her seemed feral, untamed. Danielle sensed something inside her
stepmother that her arrogance and cruelty could no longer hide. For a
brief instant, it looked as though the Baroness's skin could not enclose
whatever was rising towards its surface. Something was stirring beneath
Rodmilla, and Danielle now feared what it could be. Danielle saw it in
her eyes. The depths of her already dark oculi seemed to grow even more
profound. Something invisible, yet powerful, churned within her eyes,
as a torrid river whipped into a frenzy by a strong wind. Danielle knew
that her final moments were at hand, but if she provoked her stepmother
any further, they would come sooner than expected.

As she looked at her seated stepmother, Danielle noticed that the
mahogany chair now possessed deep, cream-colored scars. Danielle stared
at her stepmother, whose appearance assumed a frightening demeanor.
Looking at the Baroness, Danielle noticed the peculiarities of her
hands. The woman's fingernails had grown into long, white talons. When
the woman finally spoke, Danielle could see, though they were almost
concealed, that her stepmother's perfect white teeth had grown a set of
rapier canines.

"You seem as though you wish to invite your doom," she growled.

Danielle tried to regain her breath long enough so she could make a run
for it, but she was worn out from the outburst she gave earlier. She
heard her heart beating furiously, and she listened to see what it
sounded like before it would stop forever. Before she could even blink,
her stepmother was upon her, holding her still with her awesome strength
and not very gently biting into the nape of her neck. It was not as
painful as Danielle had imagined. She could feel the life force gushing
out of her body and hear her stepmother gulping the vitality with almost
religious ferver.

Danielle was amazed by the sheer physical presence of the vampire. She
hovered over her as a tigress over a fawn. There was nothing soft about
the creature, none of the squishy layers of skin most noblewomen wear.
Rodmilla felt heavy upon her, as if she were carved of stone- weighty,
dense, powerful in its stillness.

As the feeling went away from her head and neck, she only felt a
tingling as Rodmilla's hair spread across her body like an ebony sheet
made of Chinese silk. She could hear the vampire's heavy breathing upon
her; it scalded her flesh and incensed the hairs on the skin there.
Danielle was overwhelmed by the heat that suddenly emitted from
Rodmilla's hands and lips. Yet, even when Rodmilla seemed so alive, the
stiffness of the dead was upon her, but the stiffness came from tension
and not decay.

Danielle then heard the sound of a velvety moan flow from the throat of
this fascinating creature. It was a sound akin to that which lovers
make when they consumate their mutually felt desire. The timbre came
again, repeatedly, soothing Danielle as it made her afraid, for she knew
that an end to the haunting, wordless song was the end of her life. She
wondered if she was already dead. If so, she could still see, and hear,
and feel to a large extent. The monody stopped. Danielle felt Rodmilla
ease her grip and slide over to her side, the black curtain of hair
pulling itself after her. A surprisingly gentle touch came from her
stepmother as she turned Danielle's youthful head towards her undead
face.

Rodmilla had suddenly became very colorful, more resplendent than most
people. No more did she look like a skeleton barely covered in skin and
veins. In Rodmilla's cheeks, lips, hands, and neck, the blood of her
stepdaugther gave a sanguine hue to the normally pale skin. A vitality
apeared in Rodmilla that was not present before the feast. Danielle
looked at her stepmother lying next to her, with her eyes closed and her
breaths soft as a feather falling. Gone was the rage and despair.
Replacing those baleful emotions was a sort of calm that mortals rarely
achieve. Danielle realized at this moment, her stepmother possessed
more serenity than the most devout of Christians can find in an entire
lifetime. At this moment, Rodmilla was no longer a noblewoman, or a
stepmother, or even a vampire, but an entire being connected to the
wellspring of all creation.

As Danielle lay on the bed, hovering between life and death, Rodmilla
settled on top of her, as before, but with her now crimson lips pressed
against her ear. She felt a tickle as the moist mouth began to move.

"Perhaps you were right after all," Rodmilla teased. The sound of a
suppressed giggle escaped her mouth. Danielle simply lay silent,
feeling the tug of death upon her body.

With those words, Rodmilla leaned forward on Danielle and kissed her
gently on the forehead. It was a kiss that she wished could last an
eternity. It made her feel so complete, so whole, so loved, that she
did not want it to end. Then, breaking her usual custom as before,
Rodmilla gave Danielle a delicate and maternal kiss upon her lips. It
was a passionate kiss, an extremely sensual and seductive kiss, but
essentially a kiss belonging to a mother. Finally, after all those
years, Rodmilla gave Danielle a small piece of what her stepchild wanted
from her, a gesture representing all the young queen ever wanted from
her estranged stepmother. Now it was Danielle who cried, for this
moment meant the world to her. She began to sob quietly as the salty
droplets cascaded down towards the silken pillow. Rodmilla took her
long, agile fingers and wiped the tears away from Danielle's face. The
vampire grazed the young woman's hand with her own, and still holding
onto the tiny digits, regally climbed out of bed. As the woman reached
the edge of the bed, Danielle gently latched onto the warm fingertips of
her stepmother, and for a fraction of an instant she felt the lady
return the gesture before she allowed them to part. Rodmilla, with
leonine grace, exited the room.