Mortal Splendour

by Amy L. Hull

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Written in the 2011 LJ FKFicFest challenge for Leela_Cat for the prompt "Every vampire's blood is filled with memories. One partner's blood holds a memory that takes the other by surprise. Another century, another city - starting all over again is easier when you find a friend (new or old)." Erica, Nick, Janette, Nick/Erica, Janette/Erica, Nick/Janette

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She could feel the uneven cobblestones through the thin soles of her slippers. Not as practical as boots, these. But when were women's shoes ever practical? Another ten years, another twenty, and they would be entirely different again. Maybe better.

She could wait.

The night fog swirled around her as she crossed the river. The new gaslights that shone along the street ahead were invisible even to her. She smiled. The Mayor was so proud of them, but they could not penetrate damp air.

Such delicious irony. The Mayor was a ridiculous windbag.

The theatre had been a delight tonight. The company players were rogues, romancers, and-

A whoosh of black descended before her and the rogue himself stood before her, his hat at a jaunty angle and a leprechaun grin equally crooked on his face.

She smiled. It had taken him long enough.

They stood, the water flowing merrily beneath the bridge, hidden by the same layer of mist that shrouded them from prying eyes.

Horses shod hooves clattered in the distance, muffled by the thick air. The accompanying rattle of the wheels of the coaches was even softer. The revelry from the town's two competing taverns sounded its presence on the wind, along with the crackling of the fires that warred their futile battle against the damp.

Still, neither of them spoke.

The breezes rustled through the leaves in the trees, the sound like flipping through pages of a manuscript.

"This is the third town you have been in."

"It is."

He took a step forward. "You've been to every performance for a month."

"I have."

"You are one of us."

"I am." Soon his statements would become tedious, but for now, the confusion in his eyes amused her.

"Then…why?"

She could not help it. She laughed aloud. He looked wounded, and she laughed harder. He could be centuries old or just months, but he looked like a small child whose favourite servant had told him to wash his face.

She stepped forward and his eyes flitted away from hers. Keeping her chest an inch from his, she leaned in so her lips were at his ear, her bonnet bumping his hat brim. "Because I like it."

His heart actually beat. Twice. He turned his head. Looked at her. His forehead was, if anything, more furrowed.

She met his gaze. "You have a room in town?"

"Yes."

"Why don't you show it to me?"

The smile she'd enjoyed this past month in the theatre returned. He offered his arm. "I apologize for my rudeness. Nicholas Corrigan, at your service."

"Let's not begin with untruths, shall we?"

"Nicholas, then."

"Erica."

The room he had let was rich with candles flickering orange all around them, and Erica was grateful for the greater simplicity of this decade's gowns...and the speed with which she and Nicholas could divest one another of their garments.

It had been too long. Far too long.

Mortals were plentiful, but entirely unsatisfying. And among their kind...there were far too many who took themselves too seriously. There were just as many who relished the control and cruelty power made available. Neither of these appealed.

This Nicholas, though, mischief and humour still danced in his eyes. She needed more of that than she could summon in herself. As they climaxed, she sank her teeth into him, and he into her, and waves of ecstasy surged between them.

This was life. Pure, heady, living energy. Lifetimes, shared. Eternity lying before them. Dark hair and eyes blue like the sea...but that was her memory...and the woman was somewhere Erica had never been, wearing clothes in a style that-

She jerked back just as he did.

"Janette?" they said together.

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Oil lamps burned along the street bordering the Vltava. The lamps and the moonlight danced on the rippling river. Shoes clicked against the cobblestones and women's skirts and petticoats rustled as they walked. Each had her hand tucked into the crook of a man's elbow.

The dozens of hearts beat in counter-rhythm, so much chaos after the majesty of the opera. There, the unity of instruments, voices, choreography, stage tricks, and story filled the space like sorcery, bewitching them all into silent awe. Erica longed to be a part of it, to immerse herself in the ephemeral magic of imagination.

Many of the paired mortals leaned in close, perhaps reminders they were still together after watching Orfeo and Euridice be separated yet again. They drifted down side streets together.

Only she was alone, self-sufficient, powerful enough to be safe. She felt like a new Euridice, reborn, neither tied to Hades nor mourning Orfeo.

At least, not often.

On the Charles Bridge, she listened to the lapping of the waters at the bridge supports. The light from the lamps flickered. She pulled her cloak around her, letting it enfold her along with the darkness. She looked up at the waning moon. It was a perfect night, the kind she never could have appreciated before.

A dark shape obscured the moon and dropped to stand in front of her. Erica stepped back, bumped into the Bridge Tower.

The woman in front of her wore a dress that was the height of fashion and kept the hood of her cloak up, partially concealing her bared fangs.

Nicholas laughed aloud. "That is Janette, all right."

Erica trailed a finger along his cheek, down his neck, and to his exposed chest. "Is that where you learned that trick, then?"

His eyes darkened and he looked away from her, his tone abrupt. "No. We both learned it from someone else."

"A mutual friend?"

"Not the word I would have chosen." His voice dripped with bitterness.

A topic to avoid, then. She was flexible. Instead of pursuing it, she kissed him again.

"When was this?" he asked.

She shrugged, licking at his neck. He did taste good. "About a hundred years ago, give or take."

His hand was in her hair. He liked her hair, had taken it down, one comb and pin at a time, practically worshipping it. Now he gripped it tightly, and squeezed her shoulder with his other hand. The pressure was good. So good. She wanted to start all over and have another go.

Against her neck he said, "What did she say to you?"

Erica just hummed in response. When he stopped and leaned back a squeak of displeasure escaped her throat.

"Why did you stop?"

"You haven't finished your story. What happened next?"

She sighed.

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"We have not met before, have we?"

Erica smiled. "I have not had that pleasure, no."

Her voice was clipped, cold. "You should know that, wherever I am staying, I protect our secrets. I presume you will do the same."

Such authority. Erica resolved to practice emulating the woman's speech patterns and accent later...hopefully after getting to listen to her say a great deal more. "Of course," she said lightly. "What is the use of immortality if it is cut short by terrified mobs?"

"Touché." The woman was even more beautiful with pursed lips and blue rather than red eyes twinkling with amusement. "I had to be sure. Some of us remain reckless, and that endangers us all."

"I agree." She stepped forward and extended her hand. "Erica."

The woman's perfect eyebrows arched and she looked almost...offended...or disgusted.

Erica just smiled, cocked her head, and raised her own eyebrows.

The woman smiled slowly, rising to the challenge. Her eyes twinkled as she extended her black-lace gloved hand. "Janette," she offered.

Yes, the lilt of her voice was as beautiful as her. "Were you at the opera?"

"Of course. Music is the thing that mortals do best."

"Making music and weaving tales, yes."

"Although I prefer the simplicity of the tales without the embellishments they are now so fond of."

"Oh, but that adds to the magic," Erica said. "These mortals, they dream of the power to fly and make a world where, for brief moments, they can."

Janette sniffed. "I suppose."

"I need to do my night's hunting. I assume I have satisfied your concerns?"

Janette considered. "Then I will join you."

Together they watched the taverns, their windows glowing orange, the chatter of mortals floating on the air through the cobblestone streets, near where the dome of St. Nicholas Church rose above them. Each night, the church had additions, the more elaborate curves and decorations embellishing the existing splendour.

"I find I am growing fond of these new building styles," Janette said. It almost startled Erica. The woman had been silent so long. "These mortals. Some never live to see their work completed, and yet they persist. Just twenty years ago, Prague burned, and now it is a thing of beauty. New. Elegant. I sometimes feel this beauty is for us. We are the ones who live to see the fruits of their labours."

"Have you seen the work of Karel Škréta?" Erica took Janette's hand and tucked it into her arm. The woman hesitated, seemed for a moment she would pull away, then squeezed and leaned toward Erica.

"I have not. But I have heard his paintings are mostly," she shuddered, "in their churches."

"Many are. But some are not. Tomorrow night, I will show you. The figures...they are real. They tell truth in a way that mortal art never has before...their longing, their interactions, all the moments of their lives."

"And why would I care about their fleeting moments when we have eternity?"

"Because, just as with the opera, these paintings show the beauty in their scrambling desperation."

Janette's lip curled.

"Promise you'll look," Erica said, "and I will bring you your meal."

Janette's eyes narrowed. She was silent, her lips pursed. Then she rolled her eyes. "Yes. All right. I have a friend who would say just what you have said. Perhaps I will understand his ramblings better."

After settling Janette into the luxurious room the other woman had rented, Erica found a serving girl. She was tall, and wisps of blond hair hung by her face where they had slipped from her kerchief. She was simple, and it took only the slightest suggestion to move into the girl's mind. An older woman was similarly easy to subdue, and Erica led them by the hand back to Janette.

Janette's lip curled. "Why would you bring one so old? Their blood is...I find it unpleasant."

"The older woman is for me. I like seeing all the days of her life, all the lessons lived. It seems such a waste for someone not to know her story."

Janette shrugged. "I do not see what you or my friend finds so fascinating. After all, they are only mortals."

"Well, enjoy this one. She is lost, far away from her mind. I find their flavour far better when they are content and distanced from their bodies." Erica stroked the girl's cheek, and guided her to stand by Janette. She studied the old woman's face with its lines, then embraced her and sank her teeth into the jugular. Memories washed over her. Loves and births and deaths, sorrows and joys, hard work and celebrations, petty angers and kindnesses done and received. This was the way to celebrate the woman. Agáta, she had been called: good. She had, indeed, had a good life. And now Erica could tell her stories, and she would live on.

Janette was long since done draining the serving girl, and looked sated, eyes half lidded, a lazy smile on her face.

Erica reached out a hand and, slowly, Janette's raised her hand and grasped it. Erica pulled her to her feet, kissed her, licked her lips. There was the merest hint, but the young girl, she, too, had had joy.

There were three nights of opera and architecture and new theatre productions and feeding together and from each other, and the shared ecstasy of it all.

But only four days later, Janette drained the young man and threw him to the floor, hissing.

"You must go," she barked.

"But-"

"It is back. The sickness. These humans, they taste of the rot of mortality, of death. And soon, he will be here to revel in it. Go!"

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Nicholas still stroked her hair. "Plague came to Prague in 1713. I remember."

Erica sat up. "What did she mean, 'he will revel'?"

"A mutual acquaintance. He follows tragedy and death, gloats over their weakness, and uses the cover of war and illness to feed on those who would normally attract notice."

"I killed one like that in London in 1665. Disgusting, opportunistic creature."

"I couldn't agree more."

"And you?" She stroked Nicholas' cheek.

"Me?"

"Yes. How do you know Janette?"

"She...she lured me to the man who made me what we are."

"The one she thought was coming to Prague?"

"Yes. She was protecting you."

She laid her head on his chest. He continued to stroke her hair.

"So, Nicholas, dashing player of rogues, where will you go next? You've been in Durham four days, and you never stay past five."

"You are a minx. Knowing my schedule as well as I do myself. But you are right. Tomorrow will be our last night here. Next we are on to Wingate, then Hartlepool."

"And after that?"

"Middlesbrough and Guisborough. But we've been there before. We need more material."

She looked up at him. "I will write it, then. And I will join your troupe."

"Oh, will you?"

"Yes. You knew that when you brought me here tonight." She twisted his hair around her finger. "And if you did not know earlier, you learned it from my blood."

"What would you do?" he asked. "We already have a woman playing our damsel."

"Yes, but you need a boy to play the hero. You may enjoy that role in life, but on stage, you are the rogue."

"I'm more the rogue than you know." That abrupt tone again.

She slipped a leg between his. "I've seen you in your full truth, remember? I know you. And I will show you my pages tomorrow. For now, we will enjoy our morning and then our slumber."

"You are very confident of yourself."

"Of course. If I am not, who will be?" She smiled at him again, and he returned it, then leaned in to her, finally responding to her. "And then we will go to Wingate together, and to each town after that."

"Together." His hand tightened in her hair again. "I can think of worse companions."

"I will try to take that as a compliment."

He kissed her and she straddled him, lacing her fingers through his hair as his hands rested on her sides.

"In each town, we will reinvent ourselves and our acting," she said. It was exhilarating to contemplate. "We will discover it all, together: who we are, who we can be, and what things we can find that mortals use to make beauty in their nights."

He smiled and she kissed him. Oh, yes. She had beguiled him and their adventures would be joyous, for however long they lasted.

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