Act I: Gold
In the blue dark of dusk, a man sits alone in the small, decrepit room and waits.
Blood pools slowly beneath his feet from the open throat a while away, its thick, acrid scent filling his nostrils and mind with thoughts of flesh and sinew, bone and gristle. He does not act upon it, does not finish his dinner, but merely opens his mouth, lets the smell waft down his throat as he folds his hands over one another. On the windowsill, a small, wooden device ticks away, whispering in its mechanical voice.
I am a clock.
Under the great oak a mile away, a hare is pausing, sniffing amidst the protruding roots. The drunkard in the hut next door has just backhanded his wife so hard that her feet left the ground. Their child is crying. A pair of would-be lovers is meeting by the well, and the boy is whispering oaths he will never keep while the girl swoons. A snake is winding itself up a tree, thirty miles away, its mouth open and readying to strike, an unwitting sparrow twittering on the branch in front.
Far away, across the forest, beyond the golden farmlands, high above in a castle on a hill, the girl’s breath is drawing shorter as each second passes. Her maid is crying.
Not long now, he thinks.
The Baron’s daughter is about to die.
The maid comes at midnight.
She knocks once on the open door, and steps in.
The room is dark, illuminated only partially by a small candle at the corner of the room, which burns weakly in flickering, halting gasps. The woman swallows audibly, and her fingers clench. He can smell the stench of her fear, overpowering and heady in the small, enclosed space.
“You’re very brave.” He says softly, purrs. Her pulse jumps in her throat—he can see it from here, can taste the blood rushing beneath, can hear the thrumming of her heart through the layers of flesh and bone. “Most would not dare attempt what you are doing now.”
The language is strange. It grates on his tongue, the sounds still foreign and guttural even after years of his stay. He does not demean himself with the shortened vowels and bastardized enunciation of the serfs and peasants, but rather models his voice on those of the nobility—arching and light, elegant; reserved.
In the corner, the device hums away.
I am a clock.
The woman is thick around the middle, eyes worn through years of service, lips pulled in a thin line. She draws herself up. “Most do not love as I love.”
He laughs, low and soft, watches the woman shiver. He stands.
He towers over her; she comes barely to his chest. He lets himself come, for the first time, from the shadows, until the weak light hits his bright blue eyes. Death, the Easterners had called him. The Reaper of Souls. The woman gasps, and it is a physical thing; he takes it, and breathes it in. It nourishes.
“Oh, I’ve heard.” He says, and she shudders; he can track it, that movement of spine, that minute vibration of the bones, one after another, tick tick tick. “Your small, fragile mistress. Bed bound, suffering; by all accounts she might as well be dead.”
“We’ve done everything.” The maid whispers. “We’ve bled her, we’ve purified her, we’ve fed her powdered jewels. We’ve hired the finest physicians in Christendom; we’ve consulted mystics and priests. And all of them—they tell me my darling girl is going to die. They tell me there is no hope. They tell me she is weak.”
He draws nearer. The woman shakes, but never moves. “And what do you want of me?”
She stops, gathers her courage. “They call you the devil.” She whispers. “They call you evil. They say you are a murderer and a beast, Satan’s own man. But they say you can cure her.”
His laugh comes out a mere breath. “I am not a physician, woman. I do not peddle the kind of medicine that your priests sanction.”
The woman sets her mouth. “I know.”
He smiles down at her, watches her flinch. He had known she would come. He always knows.
“Take me to the girl.”
He does not close the door. Behind him, the ticking of the device follows him through the woods.
The woman takes him through the servants’ quarters.
His tongue touches his lips, and his eyes flicker, up, through the darkness of the corridor, behind the turn of the narrow stairs, and he can hear her. Amidst the low sound of dozens of lungs inhaling and exhaling in sleep, through the snores of the baron, past the itch of ancient walls, he hears her heart.
It’s weakening. Fainter and fainter as the seconds drag on, and he runs his tongue across his bottom lip, tastes blood and dust and the sweet rot of her death.
I am a clock.
“Here,” the maid whispers when they ascend on to the second floor. She pushes open, silently, a set of heavy wooden doors, into golden light.
He purses his lips, and ducks his head to enter.
The sound of her heartbeat fills his ears, and he lets out a breath when he sees her.
“My dear,” he murmurs. “My dear girl.”
She is thin. That is the first thing he notices; the hollows of her cheeks, the sharp angle at which her cheekbones protrude, the jut of her small chin, the fragility of her skeletal wrists, threaded with blue veins. He draws his eyes down the length of her, the small bundle of bones and skin, and his eyes catch at the hollow of her throat, at the quickening pulse beneath the skin, at the lithe curve where her swan-like neck meets the sharp juncture of her jaw.
“Gudren?” She whispers softly, and her voice is a mere rasp. His lips curl; he detests weakness. “Gudren, who is this?”
The maid is about to cry. He detests that too. “He’ll make you better, dove. He’ll cure you.”
She looks up at him, and her eyes are blue; almost as blue as his. Trusting and fragile and bright and gods. He wants to claw them out of that white face. “Are you a physician, then, sir?”
He steps forward; a long stride, his legs eating up the room between them. Behind him, the maid lets out a small noise. He ignores it. “Of a sort.” He does not turn around. “Leave us.”
“No—” The baron’s daughter protests in her rasp of a voice. “Gudren, please, don’t leave me alone—”
“We had an agreement.” He says softly. “Honour it, or she dies.”
“I’ll rip her throat out in a second, my dear Gudren,” he says lightly. “If you don’t leave.”
And then they are alone.
She shrinks in on herself, the girl. Curls into herself until she is nothing but a mere smidgen against the wide pillow, in her wide bed. He sits.
He notices, then, for the first time, the overwhelming scent of her death. He breathes, and inhales the scent of her thinning blood, of her dying flesh, of her waning breath. He can taste her death, feels it inside himself as if it were his own; he wants to hold it in his hands, imprint her death into his skin.
“Are you going to kill me?” She whispers. “I heard the servants talking. They said I would be better off dead. Are you here to kill me?”
He looks down, folds his long fingers across each other. “That depends, my dear. Do you wish to die?”
A halting silence. He hears, as if from a great distance, the whistling of thin breath up and down her windpipe, swirling in her feeble lungs. And then finally, the baron’s daughter, on the brink of death, breathes the words that he had been waiting for.
“No.” She whispers. “I want to live.”
He does not say a thing, merely waits.
“I want to marry,” she rasps. “I want to have big strapping sons. I want to run my own household; I want to make my husband happy. I want to grow old. Please—” her voice breaks. “Please, sir, I don’t want to die.”
He himself does not remember wanting anything except blood, and flesh, and death. He himself does not remember ever being contented; does not remember being anything but hungry. He reaches forward, wraps a strand of golden hair around a long finger.
“I can’t give you that.” He says, a finger lingering next to her wilting flesh. “I can’t give you any of that.”
Her eyes fill with tears. “Then why are you here?”
He smiles wryly. “I’m here because your maid came for me.” He leans close, breathes the words into her skin, imprints the dying girl with himself. “I can’t give you a husband, or a household, or sons; I can’t give you any of that. But I can give you life, Katherine von Swartzschild. I can give you blood and power and glory, I can give you an eternity of youth, of beauty—I can give you time itself. I can give you this second, this minute, this hour, and all the hours to come, until you are as old as I am, if you wished it.”
He leans closer, until he can feel her shallow breath on his dead skin, until he can breathe her in, entire. “Do you, Katherine? Do you wish it?”
Her lips tremble, and he can feel the vibration of her shivering spine against him. Her fingers clench. “What’s your name?”
He considers it a moment. “Klaus.”
Her breath comes sharp and fast, and he feels a vague stab of surprise when she curls her small, weak hands into the collar of his heavy coat. She pulls him in near. “Cure me.” She says. “Fix me.”
He smiles; acquiesces.
The next morning, the baron’s daughter sits up, and there is colour in her eyes.
Beneath her window, a crow sits in a tree, its blue eyes twinkling merrily.
Act II: Silver
He is involved in a constant state of years, of hours, of seconds.
Tick tock, the device intones and he opens his eyes to pure dark, drying blood at the edges of his lips. He has begun to fade, of late; has begun to feel this state press more keenly than ever before. There are patches in his memory that he cannot recall, entire years, decades, that go missing, and he has never been one to forget the collapse of empires, the blood and rust of the fall—
He is old; he knows this much.
He remembers a bronze axe, a woman’s throaty laugh; a thousand ships set sail at a single girl’s whim, that Macedon brute, remembers battering at the gates of an ancient city, his dead flesh singing for blood, for destruction, for the sweet rot the songs sing of. He remembers the falling of time, but for the life of him he cannot remember the rise.
He remembers the call of the girl’s dying blood. He remembers that blue vein at her throat. He remembers her death, like a splash of cold water, like awakening, like clarity.
He does what he had been doing for centuries. He waits.
She arrives back in the small German village in autumn.
The leaves are red, the entire forests aflame with the false warmth of it, the winds crisper, and colder, and biting. She comes back in a dark hood, and a heavy matron’s dress, and there are tear tracks on her pale cheeks.
“You’re here.” Is the first thing she says. “I’d hoped, oh, Klaus, I’d hoped you’d be here, still, and not wandering in some far corner of the world, I’d hoped for you—I need you, I need your help, I need—”
He stares at her, unmoving, and she stills.
“I am,” he says finally, when she looks as though she is about to crumble beneath the weight of the silence. He relishes it; he has forgotten what it was like to sire someone, has forgotten what it was like to hold another’s life on one’s tongue. “And so are you too. I gave you life, Katherine von Swartzschild, out of a momentary whim. You are very foolish to seek me out again.”
“I have left Gudren.” She whispers. “I have left my father. He believes I am dead. I—I suppose I am. I suppose I am dead.”
He blinks at her, heavy lids falling, and his lips curl. In a flash he is in front of her, bending over her trembling form, barely reaching his chest, and his teeth bares. She stinks of human sweat; of tears, of heartbreak, of thick mortal heat. “You’ve turned someone, haven’t you?” He murmurs, and his voice, in contrast, is light. It is cool and firm. “I can smell them on you. You reek of it, girl.”
For the longest time she says naught, her lower lip trembling as he circles her, his breath hissing through his clenched teeth. And then—
“I turned them because I loved them.” She says finally, her voice a mere whisper. “I thought we could spend an eternity as one, the three of us, I thought we’d be happy, and young, and together always. I thought—”
For an instant he sees red. He is reminded, suddenly, of bloodlust, of his axe, of bellowing at the top of his lungs for the Trojan prince. When he comes to, he has the girl by the throat against the wall of his hut; her eyes squeezed shut in pain.
“You stink of weakness, you know that?” He hisses sharply. “You stink of pig’s blood, and cow’s blood, and human sweat.” He inclines his head close to her, so that his breath caresses the skin at the hollow beneath her ear. “I choose my creations very carefully, Katherine von Swartzschild. I have never let live a sire-ling of mine that is weak. I have never allowed for degenerate blood; for human frailty; for anything lesser. And you, girl, you are weak.”
She squirms in his hold, but he is iron; he is steel; he is earth itself. She chokes out a sound, half animal, barely understandable.
Weak. You’re weak.
He lets her go so hard that she falls to the ground, choking with a hand at her reddening throat, in the mark of his hand. His chest is strangely tight as he watches her curl in on herself, her hands claws against her skin, struggling for breath.
“What did you say?” He asks calmly.
Her fingers dig into the ground, her nails filled with dirt. Through the sound of her choking, she whispers, “you’re weak.”
He marches forwards, long legs eating up the space between them, and grabs her by her hair, exposing the long line of her throat. “Again,” he hisses. “What did you say.”
“You’re weak!” She shrieks at him, her voice harsh and guttural, clawed through her gasping lungs. “You’re—you’re weak. All my life I’ve been told that—poor little Katherine, the baron’s daughter, won’t live past sixteen—”
He looks down at her, unmoving.
“I’m not.” She looks up at him, eyes blazing. Her voice is low and quiet, breathless. “I turned them out of love, I was in love; I am—but I suppose you’ve never had that either, I supposed you’ve never had anything, and who’s the weak one here, Klaus, who’s weaker—” she laughs; manic, crazed. “Me or you? I’m not the one holed up in some village; I’m not the vampire preying on stupid peasant girls for dinner; I’m not the one living in a dirty hut, turning people into monsters for a coin or two—” she grins up at him. “Who’s weak now, huh, Klaus? Who’s weak now?”
He swears, for a moment, that he feels the axe in his hand again.
He lunges; he tears out her throat.
He is at the foot of the bed, watching her silently, when she wakes.
Her throat is raw and bloodied, remnants of his fangs in her neck, tearing through arteries and capillaries. It is only now beginning to knit back together.
“Get away from me.” She whispers quietly.
“Come, love.” He says, unmoving. He had frequented royal courts once; had visited Hatshepsut and Nefertiti and Theodora herself. He remembers how to be charming. “This isn’t a fitting look for you.”
“Kill me.” She says lowly. “Kill me now. I have no more reason to live—and isn’t that what you’re saving me for anyway? Aren’t you going to kill me?” She closes her eyes. “Do it.”
He feels a flare of irritation in his chest, but he forces it down. You’re weak, her voice rings in his mind; and he remembers that it is often the trapped animal that fights the hardest, given a fighting chance. “Stop this nonsense.” He says, and gestures from behind him a girl. A chambermaid from the castle who won’t be missed. “Feed.”
His teeth close around the inside of his cheek. “You said to me earlier that you were not weak.” He says quietly. “You said to me before that you wished to live. Has that changed?”
She trembles; remains silent.
“Only the weak die.” He murmurs, moving closer. “Only the weak cease to believe, cease to lust, cease to want. And as you have said before, girl, you are not weak. I have no sympathy for weakness.”
“Why are you doing this?” She whispers. “Why are you doing this to me? Why did you do this?”
She is not talking about the chambermaid, he knows, nor the meal of her blood he had allowed himself. She is talking about the first time he pressed his lips to her throat; she is talking about the first time he killed her.
“I saved you before because I admired your maid’s bravery.” He replies. “I am saving you again because I admire yours.”
She stares sightlessly at the ceiling. Her cheeks are wet. “And if I refuse your attempts?”
He does not miss a beat. “Then I will kill you.” He replies easily. “I will torture you the way no man should ever be tortured. I will make you scream and make your weep until you regret your decision with every fibre of your being. And then I will lay your mangled corpse at your father’s door, and tell him of what you became, of what I was forced to do to rid the village of its demon, until he looks on you with disgust; until your own father spits on your dead body. And then I’ll kill him too.”
After the longest time, she sits up. Her eyes are cold; her eyes are dead. She bites into the girl’s throat without a second thought.
He sits back, and watches her gulp back the hot blood, watches the movement of her long throat. He lets out a small sound of satisfaction.
“Finish her.” He says. “Drain her.”
She does, and lets the corpse fall to the ground, her eyes rolling closed in ecstasy. He stands, slowly clapping, and comes to stand in front of her.
“Good.” He tells her, and she flinches when he raises a hand to her cheek. “Good, Katherine.”
He wipes the blood from her chin; from her lips. For a small second, a small breath of an instant, he feels the hot flush of her tongue against his thumb.
Act III: Bronze
He takes her to Venice.
(“It’s too close,” she had whispered when their ship entered the Grand Canal. “It’s too close.”
His teeth had grated in his mouth, and his arm had tightened around her waist, his fingers digging bruises into her skin; blue and black and purple, in the shape of him. He had brushed his other hand over the pulse in her throat; a threat, and had whispered, harshly, “quiet.”
She had looked up at him, those blue eyes large. “You said you were going to be a gentleman. Stefan would never have shushed me so; he let me speak. He used to love to hear me speak.”
“Stefan left you; Stefan took your death and turned his sword against his brother.” He replied. “Or had you forgotten that too?”
She had bitten her lip.)
He introduces her to the nobility of the city as his wife; as his sister, as his lover. Katherine, for all her girlish foolery and naïve airs, has the theatricality of a performer to her, understands how to wield smiles and kill with dimples.
They are at a ball at the Doge’s palace when he grows weary of this child’s play.
Tonight her name is Caterina, and she is a lauded courtesan from Milan, a girl famed for her golden beauty and her knowledge of the classics, for her high pure voice and her recitations of Ovid. He is a nobleman from France, and his eyes are sharp and unforgiving.
He sips his wine slowly, leaning against the giant fireplace as he watches her. She is resplendent tonight; he had made sure of it. The finest gold cloth, the finest sapphires. One does not keep a songbird if it does not complement its cage.
From across the room, he watches her toss her head back as she laughs, that long white throat exposed, and he remembers, unbidden, that same skin breaking beneath his teeth; like poetry, like god. He hears her blood humming over the sound of the laughter and chatter, and for a moment, the world halts. For a moment, he tastes again her death in his mouth; wonders, not for the first time, how it would feel to take that white neck in his hands and twist.
The wooden device is humming in his pocket. He shakes himself out of the trance.
I am a clock.
Before he can blink, he is by her side, and staring the other man in the eyes.
(This should worry him. This is not something to be taken lightly, he has resumed forgetting, he has resumed blankness, he has resumed—)
“Leave.” He says.
He is perilously close to her, her back brushing against his chest, as he watches the man leave, every muscle in his body pulled taut. He digs his fingers into her flesh, into the bones of her hips.
“What are you doing?” She asks coldly, and he smiles into the gold of her hair. He has taught naïve little Katherine to be cold, you see. “Have you gone mad?”
“Have a care how you speak.” He breathes into her ear, and she shivers. Before she can protest, they are leaving; he sweeps her bodily down the golden corridors of the Doge’s palace, out to their little gondola.
(This is what she will not remember later, when she is poised above him, a stake in her hand—
She had smiled.)
He fucks her against the wall in their palazzo.
She doesn’t make a sound, her teeth sinking hard into her lips, drawing blood; her hands fisted in his hair.
It’s cruel. The sex they have is brutal, and borderline barbaric—he does not caress the way her Salvatores had caressed, he does not practice gentility, he does not ask before digging his teeth into the rise of her breast. He curls his fingers into her flesh hard enough for her to cry out, not entirely in pain, and leaves black marks and blue marks alike across the acres of milky skin. She claws her nails in long red stripes down his back, and sometimes, sometimes—she feels the bones of his spine beneath her fingers.
He draws blood, and feeds, when he comes.
(A brute, her maids whisper behind hands. She couples with the devil himself.)
They sleep, more often than not, in the same bed.
Brocade and a coffered ceiling on the four poster, the finest silk sheets and embroidered with his sigil; he pays for the best. She sleeps on her side, curled into herself, and her eyes flit, before they finally succumb to sleep. On quiet nights he watches her, watches this precious broken doll he found and cannot quite put together again, and wonders at her death, at the small mechanical device on his bed stand, wonders at her skin, alive and full beneath his hands in spite of her death. Night, under the cover of dark stars and the hush of the canal beneath his window, is the only time he allows himself to be afraid.
Tick tock, the machine hums. I am a clock.
He watches her; watches the slope of her throat, watches the parting of those pink lips, watches her eyes flitting beneath her lids, watches the quivering of golden lashes on her cheeks. He turns, and pushes back a strand of hair from her face, his hand coming to rest on her throat. She does not stir.
I could kill you so easily, he thinks, and thinks of her blood staining his bed-sheets red, thinks of a red gaping smile against that skin. The thought is not entirely unpleasant.
If I kill you, how would I remain awake? He wonders. If I kill you, would I fall?
Every night it is a leap of faith to close his eyes. He has seen the rise of empires and the fall of kings, he was ancient when humans worshiped their animal-headed gods, when the walls of Sumer collapsed, when the Hebrew Jews of old began to serve just one lord. He is as old as the concept itself; but he thinks, wryly, closing his eyes, that finally, in his old age, he has found a godhead he can believe in. A goddess he can use.
He clenches his hand tight around her wrist, hard enough to break, and closes his eyes. This is his own form of prayer.
He takes her to all the great cities of Europe; to all the ruins of the ancients.
In fallen cities, in desolate tombs, on lonely desert roads, he tells her stories; of armies, of axes, of prophets who fast for forty days with sand in their eyes, in the hopes of speaking to God. He tells her of Ur, of hanging Babylon, of Solomon the Great, of temptresses and wicked women in ivory towers and colourful veils.
“Have they no names?” She asks him one night. They are alone, in the ruins of a city swallowed by sands and time; by the earth itself. Above them, the skies spread, acres and acres of velvet blue, studded with stars. “Have the wicked women no names?”
He laughs, low and soft. “What would you have them called, love?”
She shrugs. “Jezebel, Gudren used to say, Jezebel and Salome and the Queen of Sheba. She said that they all went to hell.” She turns to face him. “Have you met them?”
His mouth twists; not quite a smile. The truth is: he does not quite remember. It is a physical thing; to wade through the decades, the centuries, the millennia, and a chore simply to recall. Faces blend and bodies blend and blood blends, from copper to wine to salt water; he cannot remember them all. And if he does not remember blood, then he remembers naught.
“Perhaps,” he replies. “And does it matter?”
She shrugs, looks up at the sky. “I suppose.” She says. “I would like to meet someone who will be famous. I would like to find a book one day, with a familiar name, and say, ‘once, I knew her.’”
He brushes a hand down the line of her throat. Her shiver was almost intangible; she has learnt control, has learnt to wear her foolishness like armour.
“There was a tree once, here,” he says. “The largest oak within fifty miles. It stood tall, and immovable, in this courtyard, in the centre of this palace. And oh, it was a palace, my dear—gold and lavish and inlaid with marble and jewels in the walls. The carvings on the walls took thousands of craftsman dozens of years to produce. The King’s favourite concubine used to visit this tree every day, used to sing to the roots to make them grow longer, used to sing to the leaves to keep them green all year around.”
She is quiet, her eyes wide, chin in hand.
“It is said that the concubine’s singing kept the tree immortal,” he smiles down at her. It is a mere twist of the lips; he has forgotten how to smile truly. Has forgotten how just like he had forgotten the passage of years, of seasons. “It is said that the tree will never cease, would never fall, even if the empire falls around it.”
He twists a strand of her golden hair around a long finger, watches it spring into a perfect curl. “And the kingdom fell.” He whispers to her, his voice sibilant and close. “The gates were barrelled down, the king slayed, the women raped and the palace looted. And I killed the concubine at the very base of her tree.” He smiles at her, brushes a thumb across her cheek. “I drained her and left her body here, between the roots, and look now—”
He sweeps a hand over the vast, bleak landscape, at the rolling desert hills and at the bare pieces of sand-swept stones that stuck out from the earth, like old, persistent yellow teeth. “Now the palace is gone. The king’s name forgotten. The empire itself erased from the maps. No one will recall its name; no one will recall its location. The tree is gone. And I am still here.”
His hand tightens against her skin. “That which does not last forever is not forever,” he says. “Have a look, dear. Its walls fell down and all the beasts of the earth fed on the remnants of the battle, drank the blood from the sand. All the epics and poetry did not save a city from its fall. For all its pretensions to immortality, death came, and fed, and now it is no more.”
“Not me, though,” Katherine whispers. “I will live forever. I will remain. I will never die again.”
It is moments like these that he remembers why he had not killed her earlier. He presses a kiss into her hair.
“I want to go back.” She says one night. “I want to go back to Florence.”
He stills, but does not set down the book in his hands.
She steps closer; she was always brave. Foolishly so. “I want to go back. I want Stefan.”
He sets down the book, and folds his hands over one another. “Do you now?”
Her lips tremble. “I have—” her voice shakes. “I have grown tired of killing. I have grown tired of death. I want to go to Florence.”
Tick, the device hums in his pocket, as if to remind him of its presence. “And what has sparked this newfound desire, my dear?” He asks lightly. “You did not have an objection to blood yesterday, when I presented you with your gift.”
A beautiful girl, a beautiful dark-haired Spanish lady with a rose in her hair. He watches her cheeks flush impassively. They had drained her, had fucked next to the girl’s corpse.
“I have had news.” She whispers. “He is in Florence. It’s been more than a century. He’s returned.”
“Has he?” He remarks. “And how do you think he will receive news of you?” His lips curl, wryly. “How will he receive you? Do you think he would welcome the girl for whom he had killed his brother? Do you think he would take you into his arms, and kiss you, and make love to you?”
She does not reply.
He stands, and she lifts her chin. “No,” he bites out. “He will not.”
“I don’t care what you say.” She says quietly. “I’ve lived with you—no, I’ve been caged by you for too long, I’ve killed and slaughtered and dirtied myself for far too long, God will look down on me and judge me for what I am—”
In a flash he has her by the throat, lips next to her ear. “I’ve elevated you.” He hisses. “I’ve made you a goddess, a queen among women. I have given you immortality, and those boys have taken your gift and spat in your face.”
“You gave me nothing.” She bites out with her chin in his hand. He can feel the movement of her teeth beneath his fingers. “You gave me to yourself, as a gift.”
He hits her so hard she falls to the ground and does not move, for a moment, before she heaves out a choked, ugly laugh.
He leaves her there, her laughter following him with every step he takes.
I am a clock, the device in his pocket whispers.
Act IV: The Age of Heroes
(She decides to kill him.
She changes her mind occasionally, when he smiles with something more than cruelty, when he kisses her without teeth, when he takes her blood but then laps at the wound. She changes her mind sometimes—but he always gives her a reason to change it back.
She procures for herself a stake, hidden up her sleeve. And now her smiles have edges; have its own corners.)
The hungered cries in the streets are turning into shouts; the discontent to anger and the welling cries for bread, bread, are turning into blood, blood, we want blood.
He has always loved the fall of an empire; the end of an age.
The noblewomen are proud—he loves that too—and the noblemen foppish, all of them softened by years of easy living, by the absence of blood. It makes you weak, he knows, it makes you soft and useless, when there is a prolonged absence of gristle, of bone.
He takes his little golden pet there, near the end of spring, the beginning of a torturously hot summer, in the year of 1789. He dresses her in pastels, and lace, with soft hair and rouged lips, but he himself still wears the guises of the army, still pretends to be the civilized kind of nomad. On evenings, he takes it upon himself to tie a red ribbon around her throat, at the exact place where her neck would be severed, and thinks that the line should beaded somehow; should gush, and the cup should overrun.
“Do you love me?” She asks him, quite seriously, and the crowds are growing outside the gates of their palais. He is lighting a candle, and his hand stills.
He does not turn around, but merely sets the match down. She smells of her personalised scent from the perfumery on the Seine, of rouge, of powder; beneath it she smells of the rust of blood. “That depends,” he says slowly, every word drawn out. “I have no desire to write you sonnets, if that’s what you mean, my dear. Nor to swoon and curse like a fool.”
“But do you love me?” She asks again, her voice tight. His lips curve; she asks for love the way a queen asks for a heart. How lucky for the Salvatores, he thinks. Neither of them were cut from the same cloth; neither of them were meant to be huntsmen. “Would you come for me when I need you? Would you save me? Would you avenge my death, were I to die? Would you die for me?”
“I would not die for anything,” he replies. “Not even myself. I am without death, and I mean to keep it that way.”
A long silence.
“So no then.” She says finally, quietly. He tenses, expecting her to throw a tantrum, to scream, to yell like a slighted child. His teeth grind; he did not raise a child.
Instead, she settles back into her chair, to read her book. Her pulse is steady; he feels it in the back of his throat, and he swallows. She speaks no more, as if it is a simple matter of what bread to direct the maids to buy tomorrow, as if she had not been waiting for those words—
When she looks up, barely a second later, he has both hands on the arms of her chair, and their faces are level. She sets down her book, and stares.
“You are mine,” he says finally. “I made you, I killed you, I brought you into this world to live again. That is the truth and end of it; don’t speak to me of love. We are not children.”
(Stefan would have said he loved me. Stefan would have gotten on his knees. Stefan would have said the words.
She feels a great weight alleviating, as if he had freed her. The door of the cage is open, waiting for the bird within to fly.)
She kisses him, and does not stop when he stills. Her teeth bite into his lip, and she laps up the blood like a cat lapping up milk. He lets out a small gasp.
He feels her smile against his mouth. He winds a hand into her hair, and tugs.
(She memorizes the shape of him; the taste of him—his breath, his tongue, his mouth. She pulls him towards her in the chair, and rests a small white hand over his heart.
She thinks, there. She thinks, x marks the spot.)
His lips twitch when he feels the point of her feeble stake against his chest.
A fine game, he thinks. We are immortals playing at death.
Her hair, long and blonde, reaching almost to her calves, fall like a veil around his face, scented and soft. Like benediction, like a blessing—he was there when those became popular too. When the kiss of the stake came near, he has to bite his cheek to stop the laughter.
“Shh,” she whispers to him, presses her warm small hand against his throat. He fights the urge to flinch—not there, no, no—and presses close, so that her lips almost brush his.
“Do you know you talk in your sleep?” She whispers, and he stills beneath her. His eyes flit beneath his lids; he can feel her lips curving. She had learnt that smile from him. “Tick, tock.” She laughs softly, and he opens his eyes too late, he moves too slowly—
The stake slams home.
He gasps, lurches up, feels his veins hardening, deadening, but he is not dead, he is the Undead, the Reaper, the Man Without End—
“You are a clock,” she laughs, and laughs, and laughs.
The next day, the peasants storm the Bastille, and she dances in the streets, her feet bloodied and cut by stones and glass.
She spins; and laughs at the sky.