Victoria felt very heavy when she awoke. Very heavy indeed – as though her whole body had been transformed to stone. She wasn't sure that she would be able to move at all if she tried, and could barely draw breath into her lungs. In fact, doing so was a great and painful effort.
She stopped trying and shut her eyes, waiting for her natural instinct to take over and force her to breathe.
She lay for several long minutes – and it felt like more, it felt like hours that she lay on… lay on what, the ground? Her bed? – and not a single breath was drawn in through her lips.
She tried to move her eyelids, but they were as heavy as the rest of her. She couldn't bring herself to open her eyes, not even a crack, and perhaps that was for the best, for she felt as though any light might make her head burst open.
Something hot and rough brushed against her foot and she lashed out automatically, for her body didn't feel so heavy now that it had interpreted a threat. She sat straight upright, her eyes flying open, and then let out a cry, pressing her hands over them as the light blinded her in its brightness.
It took her several moments before she was able to open her eyes again, and when she did, she saw that she was indeed lying on the ground, and, moreover, that the bloodied corpse of a rat was smashed against the wall near her feet. She stared at it with perplexed horror, then moved closer to look at it.
Had she done that?
It was lying in a shaft of sunlight from the open window. It looked as though its body had been split open from the impact, and it was dripping blood.
Sweet, enticing blood-
"Victoria!" she hissed at herself, shocked that she could even think such things, and her voice sounded sweet and musical to her own ears and the rat looked so beautiful, lying there drenched in its own blood…
She couldn't resist. She reached out and snatched it in her hand, then shrieked as her skin entered the sunlight.
It was like watching herself being set on fire. Her eyes were suddenly filled with incredibly bright, sparkling light, and she wrenched her hand back, pressing it over her eyes again.
Blood smeared over her face and before she could stop, she had put her hand in her mouth and was eagerly, desperately sucking it from her fingers.
By the time Victoria had even realized what she was doing, her hand was clean. And the rat was clean as well, no more blood on it…
Surely she hadn't…
She stared down at it, then leapt, for she could see tiny insects jumping from it – fleas, surely, but she could never see fleas unless they were dead and captured on white fabric and she leaned in close to see them, but these fleas stood out brightly and they seemed almost slow.
And she had eaten the rat.
No, just as bad – drank the rat's blood.
"Oh, dear God," Victoria whispered, tilting her head back and staring through the cracks in the ceiling, past every visible splinter and up to the bright, blue sky overhead, "What's happened to me?"
She stumbled to her feet and clutched at the wall to keep herself from falling. Her body felt strange, unreal, not her own. Her legs were heavy and when she touched her thigh, her flesh felt hard. Could she have fallen in such a way that she had injured herself and her legs had become swollen? But they didn't feel swollen…
Moving felt strange and unnatural. Her limbs jerked and twitched when she tried even to do something as simple as raising her hand to brush her hair from her face.
Dear God, what's wrong with me?
She turned slowly and caught sight of herself in her looking glass.
Victoria was instantly transfixed by her appearance. She stared openly at herself, and, for once, she thought that her staring was justified by more than vanity.
Her skin looked so white that it was frightening – paler than any human's skin should ever have looked, and, in fact, whiter than anything that wasn't skin that she had ever seen. She raised her hands to touch her cheeks and they felt strangely hard to her touch, just as her legs had. Her fingertips made soft clink noises against her face, like stones touched together.
What was this? This could not be an illness – she did not feel ill. She did not feel anything– anything except the endless stimuli from the world around her. The boards beneath her feet, the rough whisper of her dress against her legs, even the scratch of her own hair on her neck, all were painfully easy to feel, but she had no sense of such familiar feelings as the ache of hunger in her belly or the roughness in her lungs that she could only presume came from years and years of breathing bad air. Her stomach was practically devoid of any feeling at all, and she had still not drawn a breath.
Madness, she thought. Some sort of madness, mania or hysteria had come over her. She had been overtaken by some disease of the mind that made her believe that she was experiencing these symptoms. She was not really feeling them – how could she be? That defied any explanation except that she was losing her mind.
"Where is that lazy girl?" she heard someone say, and she whirled around immediately, for the voice sounded so clear that she thought that someone was standing right behind her. But no one was in the room.
"She's unwell," Victoria heard Anne saying. "She fell asleep crying on the floor…"
I did not.
"Fetch her!" That other voice was Sarah, Victoria became aware. "Fetch her and bring her down. She made a fool of herself last night, but that is no reason that she should shirk her duty today. She has even more reason than we have to serve the master today!"
"Yes, Sarah," Anne said meekly, and then Victoria heard stairs creaking. Victoria stood still and waited for her sister to arrive, to come into the room and see what Victoria had become – surely Anne would have some understanding, some explanation of what had happened. And if she did not acknowledge the change that had come over Victoria, then that would surely prove that it was madness and that Victoria should ignore her changed appearance until her mind ceased to play tricks upon her.
"Victoria," Anne called softly, through the door. She might have been speaking clearly in Victoria's ear for how easily she could make her voice out. "Victoria, you must get up and come down to the kitchen…"
"Come in here, Anne," Victoria said, and she spoke but quietly, because it stung her ears to talk in any louder a voice.
The door creaked open, and as Anne appeared, Victoria became aware of the most wonderful scent on the air.
She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose – it still hurt her a little to breathe, but not half as much as it had when she had first awoken. And the smell…
It was a sweetly homey smell, Victoria thought. There was a touch of bread about it, but mostly fresh grass and wood that had been cleaned with lye soap, and just a hint of some exotic spice. Victoria couldn't get enough of it.
"Victoria?" Anne sounded slightly uncertain. "Victoria, what are you doing? You look… different."
"I… feel different." Victoria sounded slightly faint, she knew. But she couldn't bring herself to speak any louder. She felt half-afraid that to speak as loudly as Anne was doing would push away the smell.
"Sarah needs you down in the kitchens." Perhaps it was Victoria's imagination, but she thought that Anne sounded afraid. "Please come down," she added. "Please…"
"Mmm…" Victoria's eyes snapped open when Anne stepped backwards, for the smell started to retreat with her, and Anne stared into Victoria's eyes.
There was silence for a moment, in which Anne stared and Victoria felt that something must be wrong, for the way her sister was looking at her, and then Anne let out a blood-curdling shriek.
"Your eyes, Victoria!"
"My eyes?" Victoria's hands flew to her eyes. "What's wrong with them?"
"They're red!" Anne was stumbling backwards, out of the room, and Victoria became aware that her sister was moving very clumsily. She wondered briefly whether Anne was so distressed that she was stumbling, or whether she had always moved that way and Victoria had only now noticed.
She did not know how to respond, and let Anne run away before she went to her looking glass and stared closely at herself.
It was only the light. Her eyes had not turned red. That was silly- that was foolish-
But Anne had seen them. Practical Anne, who had no fancies or imagination. Anne had seen her eyes and been so afraid of them that she had run from her little sister. It couldn't be that they were not red.
Disease could manifest with red eyes. Victoria was sure of that – she had seen so many sick people with reddened eyes. But their eyes had been red all around, like blood had leaked into them – hers were as white as ever, and only her irises, formerly such a beautiful green, were crimson now.
She moved back quickly and shook her head.
Perhaps Anne was going mad too. Perhaps they were both mad. Perhaps there was something in the food that had infected them both.
She would go down to the kitchens, that was what she would do. Sarah would break any fancies or madness that were lurking in her mind. Never before had Victoria thought that she might ever be grateful for Sarah's eternal harshness, but right now, she wantedsense to be beaten into her head.
She fled her bedroom and was halfway down the rickety flight of stairs when she heard her master's sharp voice.
"Victoria! Come here!"
Victoria froze in place. She turned slowly and stared up at him.
His face looked ruddy and blotchy. She could see where he had powdered over it – individual flecks of the powder stood out bright and white against his flushed face – and she could also see how his mouth twitched and pulsed as he spoke.
No. I can't. I need to go see Sarah.
"You will come here now!"
Victoria approached reluctantly, swallowing hard. Her own mouth twisted up when she got close to him, and she wondered whether he was employing a new and particularly foul cologne, for he smelled dreadful and made her want to be sick. His smell was cloyingly sweet, but in a dreadfully unpleasant way. He smelled sweet the same way that manure or rotting flesh smelled sweet.
"Your actions last night were inexcusable!" She had never before noticed how he sprayed when he spoke. Droplets of his spittle splashed against her face and she resisted every urge to wipe them away.
"I apologize–" she began, but even before she had finished saying that much, she knew that it was no good. He grabbed her by a hank of her hair and wrenched on it.
The pain that shot through her scalp was far more intense than what she was used to, and she gasped in pain. But the pain cleared her mind a little – almost enough that she could think through the almost drugged haze that smelling him put her into.
He slapped her hard across her face, and then drew back his hand, gasping in pain. Victoria had felt almost nothing, but he must have been agonized, because he doubled over, clutching his wrist. She stared in horror and confusion, but those feelings transformed swiftly to something quite different when she saw droplets of blood along the side of his hand.
There was a split second in which she wondered how he had managed to slap her so hard that he cut himself, but before she could even finish the thought, she launched herself forward and grabbed his hand. He let out a cry of shock, but Victoria ignored him, and latched her mouth down over the bloody flesh.
Oh, but it tasted good. She had to struggle not to be sick from the smell of him, but the taste of his blood was so much better than that, and so much better too than the taste of the blood. He screamed and she bit down on his fingers. She felt his bones snap beneath her teeth. She felt his fingers writhe helplessly in her mouth like worms on the path after a rain. And she felt hot, sweet blood running down her throat.
His eyes were bulging out grotesquely and he made a small, gurgling noise. Part of Victoria – a small, detached part – thought the situation almost comical. He looked so foolish, so much like a puppet or a clown.
A blood vessel was throbbing in his throat and Victoria's eyes latched onto it. She abandoned his hand and grabbed him by his head, forcing it to the side, and before she had even swallowed a gulp of the blood from his hand, she was on his neck.
Her teeth pierced his skin as easily as they might sink into a piece of overcooked vegetable, and her mouth was flooded with the sweet and tangy flavour of his blood. Oh, it was so good, oh, but she wanted so much more…
He was not struggling anymore. He hung limply in her arms while she sucked deeply, but she could feel his sluggish heartbeat still, and so she did not let him fall.
That would have been cruel.
Not until he was completely still, not until his chest no longer rose or fell with breathing, and when there was no more blood in his veins for her to suck out, did she drop him.
He collapsed onto the steps and slithered down to the landing below, and Victoria stared after him, her eyes widening.
For the first time, the reality of what she had done to him sank in.
She had sucked his blood out of him.
She had killed him.
If there is any man who deserved such a death, it was him, she tried to tell herself, but that did not negate the horror of what she had done. Victoria had, in the past, committed no sin more grievous than harbouring thoughts of vanity and pride. She had sinned, yes, but now she had broken two of the Commandments in one act.
Thou shalt not kill.
She had always thought that that, of all the Commandments, would be the one that she would break last. She could imagine breaking others – like committing adultery – without ever intending or expecting to, but never before had she ever even thought of killing. The horror of the act was too much for her to comprehend.
And thou shalt honour thy mother and father.
Over all the years that she had spent as a servant, she had trained herself not to think of the master as her father. A father in what she considered the traditional sense was a near-mythical creature to her mind. A father was the sort of man who doted on his daughter, who slapped her only for misbehaviour. A father was not a man who let his daughter work as a servant and who beat her for any action he considered but the slightest bit unseemly or unpleasant.
But he was her father still. He was the man who had impregnated her mother, the man whose blood ran in her veins…
His blood ran in her veins now.
With each passing moment, the horror of what had happened sank in more completely. Victoria stared at his body – not just his body, his corpse– where it lay upon the steps. Still warm. She could feel the heat radiating off of it, growing less with each passing second…
Sarah's voice was sharp, and though it had sounded only stern when she began to speak, it rose into a panicked cry at the end of Victoria's name. Victoria raised her head and looked down the stairs to where Sarah stood at the bottom, looking up at her with an expression of profound terror.
And Victoria couldn't help herself.
She was down the stairs before she even realized what she was doing – had she not known better, she would have sworn that she had flown – and even as Sarah opened her mouth to scream, Victoria caught hold of her by her shoulders and sank her teeth into the beautiful, enticing vein on her neck.
She tasted better than the master had – not as sweet. Her blood had more of a warm and savoury taste, like well-cooked and seasoned meat, and Victoria sucked at it eagerly. She wanted to taste every drop, wanted to experience the flavour of the blood running over her tongue until she was satiated and she didn't think that she ever would be.
Sarah was twitching and making weak, feeble little noises, and Victoria ignored her. She could ignore her, for with every passing second, she knew that Sarah was weakening, and soon, she would not be able to fight at all anymore. And that would be a moment that Victoria would treasure.
Sarah's pulse slowed, and as Victoria sucked the last drops of quickly congealing blood from the wound, she heard several cries of shock and fear.
Sarah's body slipped from Victoria's hands and fell with a wet, soft thud upon the ground, and Victoria looked up into the doorway of the kitchen.
The servants were standing there, all of them, assembled in a line as if they were an army planning to attack – and indeed, perhaps some of them were, for one was holding a pan up like a club and another held a knife out threateningly before himself.
Behind the line, her face streaked with tears, was Anne.
Victoria took a step towards them. She wanted Anne, wanted her to tell her that everything was all right and that it was all a dream. She wanted Anne to hold her and tell her that she had been taken over by a sickness outside her control, and that she would not be held responsible for her behaviour – and, moreover, that the sickness would pass and that she would have no need of being taken to the hospital.
But when she moved close, the servants shouted and brandished their weapons and Victoria shied away automatically. She knew not whether the weapons would hurt her – perhaps they would not – but she did not wish to find out.
"Anne?" she said softly.
Anne let out a whimper. "She's taken, the Devil's taken her!"
"Anne…" Victoria said again, but as she reached out to try to push someone aside so that she could approach her sister, one of the cooks screamed and brought the frying pan down upon her arm.
It didn't hurt, but anger welled in her throat and she turned immediately on the assailant, whose face went pale with fear. He lifted the pan to protect himself.
Victoria grabbed at him, and this time, when she caught at his neck, she did not feel hunger for blood as she had with Sarah or with the master. What she felt was an overwhelming need to hurt, a need so intense that she could not find words to describe it to harm one of the people who had made her life so terrible for so long.
He screamed right before her teeth pierced his skin.
Blows rained down on her from all directions, but they merely bounced off of her skin and Victoria took no more notice of them than she did of fleas, but she was captivated once more by the taste of blood on her tongue. This man's blood tasted more like what she thought blood had tasted like before – salty and metallic, not nearly as pleasant as Sarah's blood had been, but far better than the master's, still. And oh, but it was wonderful to see his limbs jerk and twitched while he scrambled uselessly to push her away; oh, but it was beautiful to see hear his screams turn to gurgling sobs and finally go silent, and when his body too fell heavily to the ground, Victoria felt satisfaction far more intense than she had with either of the others.
But the satisfaction was immediately eclipsed by fear.
She was not used to such lack of restraint in herself – she was not the sort of person who could not control her urges. Being so helpless frightened her badly.
She had to get out.
The idea that she might hurt Anne – might hurt her by accident, as she had hurt Sarah – burned itself into her brain and she let out a cry. The smell of everything, of everyone was so close and so intense that she could not bear it.
She brushed against Anne while she rushed past and the smell of her was so good that she almost stopped and turned back – but no, she had to run, she had to get out, get out, get out!
When Victoria flung the kitchen door open and stumbled outside, she thought that she had never been so grateful for so much foul-smelling rubbish in all her life. The street was so full of disgusting tastes and smells that she could not pick up anything pleasant enough to draw her.
She stood still and silent for a long moment, breathing in the air with relief, then set off down the street.
She knew not how long she walked, only that she wanted to get far, far away from people – people who she could hurt, people whose smells drew her in – and further away from the house. She could have run – she felt as if she had plenty of strength to do so – but she had no reason to rush. After all, what hurry could she be in now? It wasn't as if she had anywhere to go.
"Victoria, is it?"
Victoria whirled around. She came face-to-face with James, and quickly skipped backwards. She didn't know how he had managed to creep up behind her so quietly that she had not – even with her new, clear hearing – been able to hear him.
"Get away!" she hissed, raising her hands to fight. "You did this to me! You! You did something to me and put me into this state–"
"I don't deny it. Angry, are we?" There was a lazy calmness in his voice that spoke to Victoria of someone who was far too secure in his position. She wondered if she would be able to overtake him if she tried to attack. "You should thank me, Victoria."
"I will do no such thing!" she protested. "I should not thank you! You have stolen my soul – made me into an abomination–"
"Oh, don't be foolish," he said, and now there was a hint of impatience in his tone. "You should know better than to believe that this has anything to do with souls. I thought you were a clever girl."
I am a clever girl, she wanted to say, but she felt that that would be untruthful. After all, a truly clever girl would not have pounced on people who had done her no real harm…
"So now, the question must be asked," James said slowly, taking a step forward, and she was struck by his grace, "what have you done that puts you in such doubt of your possession of a soul?"
She could not speak – she could not tell him. To confess her crimes would be to hold herself accountable for them, and if she made herself accountable, she would be a madwoman. She would be sent to a madhouse, or to the hospital to be dealt with, killed like a wild animal…
"I will not tell," he coaxed, his voice soft and crooning. "No one save for you and I will ever know what you say to me here. I do not tell secrets, Victoria."
She wanted to tell him that he should not use her name, that it indicated a familiarity that she did not want with him, but she did not. She could not say so.
"I… killed," she managed at last.
James looked satisfied. Surprisingly satisfied, for a man who had just had murder confessed to him. But perhaps he was mad too; perhaps he was an agent of the Devil who had been sent to destroy and corrupt Victoria.
"Who did you kill?"
"The master," she said, counting them off on her fingers. "Sarah. And a cook."
"Fair, for your first day…" And now he sounded contemplative, as if considering the finer points of some academic matter. "Most are far worse than you. You have some control, at least…"
"What are you talking about? What have I become?" Victoria wanted to cry, but she doubted her ability to do so. Her eyes felt strange and smooth and dry. "What have you done to me?"
"Do you not see, Victoria?" He reached out and put his fingers to her cheek, and they felt pleasantly cool, close to the temperature of her own skin. A small, shuddering gasp escaped her lips.
"I have elevated you," he told her, and the way he said it was frightening. He sounded almost ecstatic, even speaking of it. "I have brought you beyond the level of base humanity…"
"I don't understand–"
"You are a creature more than a human now." He put both his hands on her cheeks, running his thumbs along the skin below her eyes, and she no longer wanted to push him away. "You are a being worth far more than a normal man or woman…"
"I don't understand," she repeated. "I don't–"
"Of course you don't understand. It is a complicated matter, Victoria, a complicated matter…"
He sighed, and dropped his hands slowly. He let them brush over her shoulders and breasts as they fell. A chill ran through Victoria's body.
"Doctors have names for people like us," he said, "and common folk do too. Vampir is my preferred term. It is from the Hungarian, though other languages have other words that describe us."
"Vampir…" The word sounded strange, exotic and slightly dangerous to Victoria. "What does it mean?"
"Humans have… varying understandings of the meaning," James said. He waved one hand vaguely, waving away their varying understandings. "There are, however, some consistent details between their ideas of what those like you and I are. The most popular, of course, is…"
He looked at her carefully. "The drinking of blood. The insatiable lust for blood. I am sure you have already experienced it."
Oh, I have.
"They also believe us to be creatures of the night, unable to move freely in daylight," James continued. It was strange to Victoria how easily he carried on a conversation after saying such a thing as that she had experienced an insatiable lust for blood. "They are not quite correct in saying that, but they have their reasons for believing so. We are more suited for the night than for the day."
Another dry sob tore itself from Victoria's throat. This was horrifying – he was talking far too calmly about a matter that was tearing her mind apart. How was she to accept such strange ideas about what she was, and what he was?
But what else could she do but accept it? She could not tell him that he was mad – he was the only one who had offered any explanation at all for what had befallen her.
"What am I to do?" she whispered at last.
James looked rather pleased with that reaction to what he was saying. She would have been angrier, but she could not find it in herself. All that was left in her was a terrible, fearful emptiness.
"You are to come with me," James told her. He held out a hand and Victoria wondered whether he meant for her to take it. She had never been offered a hand from anyone save Anne before – certainly never by a man.
"Come with you?"
"Come with me," he repeated. He grasped her hand and pressed his lips to her fingers. "You have intrigued me much, Victoria."
She wanted to say that he had no reason to be intrigued – that there was nothing even slightly intriguing about her – but that would have been a lie, and a useless thing to say, besides. He had already transformed her into his higher being. What could she do now but accept?
"Where will I go with you?"
His eyes – which, she could see now, were glowing a beautiful dark crimson in the light of the overcast sky – seemed to shine with happiness.
"Anywhere," he told her, kissing her hand again. "We are no longer bound by any restrictions. We could travel the world. We could go to the Americas – or we could settle into a little town close to here and feed off the drunkards that wander into our home. We shall go wherever we wish. We shall go wherever you wish. We shall do whatever we wish. Whatever you wish."