Chapter 1: Part One
In the distance, a voice was raised in a haunting cry, calling the faithful of Allah to prayer. The sound spread across the night sky until it filled Nicholas' head with its mystery, mingling with the scent of sandalwood and the silk of the air. He preferred the nights in the Holy Land; the burning sun had already singed his fair European skin and sapped his energy. He braced both hands in the open window frame, exotic in its keyhole shape, and leaned out, absorbing it all, the air cool once the sun's heat had ceased, the smell of refuse that lingered in any city, the sky flung full of stars that burned with a brilliance that the mists of the north often hid.
Nicholas turned away from the window abruptly. He crossed the woven patterned carpet in his finely appointed room to the desk, where a letter to his mother and sister rested. But his quill dripped onto the page and dried whilst he wrestled with words that had come hard in the past few months. Against the wall stood his lute, but his nimble fingers could make nothing but discordant sounds that maddened him. His books had lain abandoned and ignored since Wales--he had grown disgusted with their pious morality. When a short knock sounded on his door, he called, "Enter," with gratitude.
Nicholas rose to his feet and bowed whilst the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Sicily and Jerusalem, Frederick II closed the door behind him and went to the fire to warm his hands. "Good even, your Grace. What can I do for you?"
Frederick glanced over his shoulder. The firelight gleamed on the reddish hair and beard that he had inherited from his grandfather, the great Barbarossa, but the glint in his eyes was far different from that sturdy emperor. "Sit down, Nicholas. I came here to avoid people bobbing up and down like ducks in a pond."
Grinning, Nicholas sat by the fire and stretched his legs out. "You scarcely mind it in Sicily," he pointed out gleefully. The two men, similar in age and station, had found that they also shared a lively mind and a questing soul in common. Nicholas had received all the benefits of being born of the ruler of the small but rich duchy of Brabant, but as the child of his father's second marriage was barred from inheriting anything, so consequently had left his home to make his fortune with his sword.
Frederick laughed at Nicholas' acerbic comment and seated himself. "In Sicily, I am king, *imperator*, the Emperor of the Romans. Here I am the European who is a friend to the Mohammedans, but still a European, still the enemy."
Nicholas snagged a decanter off of the nearby table and poured them each a goblet of red wine. "I would have thought you would be on your prayer rug now, facing east and muttering devoutly."
Frederick, drinking deeply from his cup, choked and sputtered with laughter. Although born of the German Hohenstaufen dynasty, he had spent most of his life in his mother's inheritance, the Mediterranean island of Sicily. His ease and knowledge of Greek and Arabic languages and literature, and his known preference for some of the habits and customs of his neighbors to the south had earned him the title of "The Baptized Sultan"--behind his back. Only one who knew him as well as Nicholas did would dare use it to his face. "God's bones, Nicholas!" he said once his throat had cleared. "Once you would have been the first to chide me for my ungodly ways!"
"Once," Nicholas agreed, his face hidden behind his metal cup.
"What happened, then? What changed you from the God-fearing Nicholas de Brabant to this?"
Nicholas lowered the cup to stare into its ruby depths. "I learned," he said slowly, "that there are more truths than those of which the Church tells us."
Frederick regarded him thoughtfully. Nicholas had joined his host shortly after arriving in Sicily, remaining beside him whilst first the emperor had fallen ill of a deadly plague, and later had been excommunicated by the pope for not rising from what may have well been his deathbed to lead the Knights of the Cross to the Holy Land as he had sworn to do. But Frederick had known, even before they left Sicily, that something had happened to his friend. "Ah," he said after several moments. "A woman."
"Yes. A woman. Gwyneth. And I was sent here as penance for her murder."
"You did not kill her." The statement was quick and absolute.
"No, I did not kill her. But I am responsible for her death, if not her murder." Abruptly, Nicholas rose to his feet to go to the window.
"You are impatient, my friend," the emperor said softly. "You came here longing for action for glory and war and find yourself locked in the diplomat's game that I and al-Kamil are playing. No," he said with a raised hand, forestalling Nicholas' instinctive denial, "I know you. You finger the dagger at your belt whilst we politely war with the Saracens."
Nicholas gripped the edge of the windowsill. "I must go," he said. "My lord, I will be back by morning, but I need--"
"I understand." Frederick rose to grip his friend's shoulder. "Go, get into a tavern brawl, find a pretty wench to while the hours with. Then come back to me, and help me make this war a bloodless one."
Nicholas, however, went neither to the European tavern nor the Eastern brothel. The narrow streets of Jerusalem were too confining. He felt stifled and suffocated by the walls of the buildings that seemed to loom above him.
In retaliation, he made for the gate. No one was to be allowed in or out after sunset and before sunrise, but Nicholas was well-known as a powerful nobleman and an intimate of the emperor. Several moments of persuasion and several more gold coins, and Nicholas was free of the city.
Behind him, the stench of offal and fear faded to be replaced by the dry cleanliness of dust and sand. A crescent moon lingered in the sky, tilted like a contemptuous smile directed at the foolish mortals below. For untold hours, Nicholas wandered among the dunes, his thoughts his only companions.
Until he rounded one hill and saw her.
Although his feet made no sound on the soft sand, she seemed to sense him and turned. A dark cloak enveloped her from head to foot, framing a face of cool, remote beauty. In the starlight, her eyes were pale, colorless gems that were as hard and brilliant as diamonds. Her face, against the darkness of her cloak and the raven blackness of her loose hair, was as pale as alabaster, as perfect as any statue the ancients had carved.
But no statue had eyes like hers, eyes that contained both ice and fire.
For several moments, Nicholas simply looked at her, certain that she was an image of his fevered brain, and no real thing. Then she moved, raising her hand in a slight gesture, and Nicholas awoke from his daze.
"Demoiselle, are you lost?" He stepped forward, his impetus to help, to protect.
She stopped him with a slight shake of her head. "No, mon chevalier, I am not lost. But you are, I suspect."
"If I am lost, I will find my way come morning. Who are you? Why have I not seen you before? There are few European women in Jerusalem. I thought I had met all who had come with the Emperor."
The woman raised one slender milk-pale hand and slid the hood of her cloak down. "I did not come with the emperor, monsieur. I came with--" She cut herself off abruptly and turned away, walking with the slow, measured paces of someone wandering aimlessly.
As though bound by a hawk's jesses, Nicholas followed until he stood by her side. She ceased her meanderings and turned to face him. At close range, her beauty did not fade. If anything, the passionate light in her eyes grew stronger, brighter. "Who are you?" he murmured again. "A demon sent to torment me?"
She laughed. "And if I were, could you resist me?"
The spell of the moon, the stars and her eyes had him in thrall, and he could only speak the truth. "No. I could not." Unable to resist, he raised one hand to her cheek. The skin there was chilled with the desert night, but so soft, so very smooth. Her hair slid like silk against his wrist. She stood quietly before him, but there was nothing passive in her manner. But instead of the challenge her eyes had shot at him before, they were faintly hesitant, clouded with confusion.
She stepped back, away from his touch, and turned to walk again among the mounds of sand that shone golden in the sun, but now were base metal, dull and grey.
She spoke as if there had not been that highly charged moment between them. "Is it true, do you think, that treasures lie in this desert?"
Without removing his eyes from her impassive profile, Nicholas said, "Yes, indeed."
For the first time in two hundred years, Janette wished for the simple human functions that she had freed herself from. The rituals of quickening breaths and pounding hearts had been physical symptoms of agitation that she no longer had to deal with. She realized, however, that those outward expressions had somehow relieved tensions, and that she was denied their release.
She had sensed the mortal from a distance, and some perverse urge had prompted her not to move out of his sight. She had been curious, had wanted to see who it was, why he was here--if she would feed again that night. But something in her had shifted, slightly, when she had turned to see the tall, golden haired man behind her. His clothes, even though he was not wearing a surcoat embroidered with a Crusader's Cross that would have sickened her, marked him a European and part of the emperor's host.
Whatever it was that had shifted when she saw him shattered when he touched her. No man had touched her in two hundred years without her permission--and lived to tell of it. So LaCroix had promised and so he had given her the power to see that it was so. She should have had this young mortal's head for daring.
His fingers had been reverent. Hard from battle, they had touched her with a gentleness she had never known in her life. They did not demand, or even ask. They had taken nothing from her but her will to resist. She could not deny their magic.
His voice was calm and smooth, his French faintly accented but obviously native. It was almost a physical thing, wrapping her in a cloak of sound, soothing and inciting.
And in his eyes were passions that he did not bother to hide. Even in the darkness of night, she could see their clarity. They reflected not the night, but the summer sky that she had been denied so often in her mortal life, and denied herself in order to have an eternity of stars. In this mortal's eyes, however, she could have both...
If she had a heart that beat more than five times an hour, it would have been pounding now. If she had blood in her veins to spare, it would have flooded her cheeks. But she had neither, and so was able to maintain her poise of calm, the utter impassivity that tantalized and unnerved so many men.
"If there was such treasure in the desert, what do you think happened to it? Was it abandoned? Was it hidden here, and its possessors forgot? Were they driven from this place, as so many before have been?"
"No one forgets a treasure. No one abandons it. But it could be taken from them, ravaged and ruined. Taken, and destroyed in its taking. Man rarely treats well that which he treasures."
Turning her head, Janette caught the first glimmer of the false dawn on the horizon. She needed to get back to the city, needed to take shelter in the house LaCroix had rented for them. "I must go," she said softly.
"Wait!" His voice was urgent now, a demand that easily could have edged over into a plea. "Who are you? What it your name?"
"I am Janette," she said, knowing she shouldn't. "And you?"
"Nicholas de Brabant. Where do you live in the city? Where can I find you?"
Janette knew that she should lie, misdirect him. Instead, she gave in to her weakness and said, "Come back out to the desert. Meet me here tomorrow night."
"What, here? Impossible. There are no landmarks, no way to find each other."
Janette reached out, and gripped his arm. She could feel the life force in him, the taunt strength, the power. Her control slipped even further. "I will find you," she said fiercely. "Be here, and I will find you."
The gatekeeper was a very happy man. Night after night, the rich, foolish Frank had paid him a gold coin to let him slip outside the gates of the city, and to let him back in just as dawn was breaking. He did not know what the golden-haired Crusader did for so many hours out in the sands, and he did not care. For the first time in over a century, the European invasion of his homeland did not mean bloodshed for his people, and he was getting rich. Allah was kind. Life was good.
Janette knew that what she was doing was madness. Every night, she met the young mortal in the desert, in a world separated from both hers and his by more than merely miles. They talked endlessly, arguing Aristotle and Anselm, Ovid and Abelard. Janette dredged the old *chansons de geste* of her childhood out of her memory and sang them to Nicholas, her voice clear and pure in its solitary tones. In response, Nicholas brought his lute and sang her the explicitly passionate verses of the *court d'amour*, his fingers delicate and sure on the strings of the instrument, his eyes only leaving hers to dwell on her lips, her breasts.
They never touched.
Janette made very sure of that. Every night, the desire rose higher in her, and she fought to push it aside. Every night, she could see a matching desire in Nicholas, and had no way to defend herself against it. She wanted to feel his mouth on hers, his hands, his body. She wanted his blood and his soul, the bloodlust indistinguishable from the sexual passion.
LaCroix knew. She could keep nothing from him. If nothing else, his heightened senses had caught the scent of him on her skin, even though they
never touched, a scent so faint that she barely could register it after she left the desert. But LaCroix was more than one thousand years old; his power was considerably greater than hers.
Every night, just before dawn, she left Nicholas and returned to the city, to LaCroix. She had her own room in the house LaCroix had rented, to keep her belongings in, but he insisted that she sleep in the same room as he. After a brief struggle, she gave in , as she always did to his wishes.
The room was nearly barren, stone walls unadorned by tapestries, the flagstones bare of rushes. The single window was sealed with a heavy wooden shutter that allowed not a single beam of the sun through. The only furniture was the beautiful, elaborately carved bed of Arabic workmanship that LaCroix had procured for her rest, and the narrow, hard pallet that he lay on, lying against the opposite wall.
Janette woke shortly before sunset. LaCroix still slept on his pallet across the room; rising, she crossed its length to look at him. What did he think when he looked at her? Was she but another one of his beautiful treasures, to look at, to touch, to value but never to open himself to. She knew he admired her spirit, encouraged her independence--so long as it did not break the bonds that tied her to him. And of what use was independence when it was dependent on another person allowing you it?
Without stirring, without even opening his eyes, LaCroix asked, "What do you want, Janette?"
"Why did you make me? Why did you bring me across?" she asked quietly, voicing questions that she had not dared in two hundred years.
LaCroix rose and walked to the window, opening a shutter to let in a crimson stream of light from the setting sun. Standing in the shadows to one side, he said, "Because I wished to. Because I loved your beauty, your courage, the fierce glare in your eyes. Because I knew at heart, you were a creature like me. Indomitable."
"Indomitable," Janette repeated. She moved forward until she hovered just at the edge of the pool of light on the floor. "Indomitable--by everyone but you?"
LaCroix snapped the shutter closed, and turned back to her. "It is the nature of the relationship between a master and a protegee."
"How can you love someone whom you control?" she whispered, shaking her head.
LaCroix turned to her, the faintest of smiles touching his mouth. "Ah, ma chere, it is very easy to love what you possess. It is, however, very hard for the possessed to feel the same about its possessor."
There was no sorrow in his voice. He did not want her love, not the way she once thought he had. He wanted her obedience, her loyalty, her company. He wanted her to be his eternal daughter, eternal companion. In return he had given her protection, riches, power--immortality. Who would willingly give up those gifts?
Janette could say nothing. Turning away, she went to the door. The sun was sinking; night would fall soon. She needed to go to her room, dress herself, anoint her body with perfume before she met Nicholas. She needed to feed.
"Janette." The lazy voice from behind stopped her abruptly. She refused to turn around, to acknowledge LaCroix as he continued. "Your young lover is going to die, you know: at your hands, of a battle wound turned putrid, of a fever, of old age. You love him, do you not?" Janette didn't answer; LaCroix went on as if she had. "Why do you not bring him across, offer him our eternity... an eternity of your love?"
After a long moment, Janette said merely, "I thirst." She didn't know if it was in avoidance or answer to his question.
"Then, ma protegee, go feed." And she didn't know if he meant the hungers of her body or of her heart.
Or even if there was any difference between the two.
Silent as a wraith, she left the room.
For the first time, Nicholas was left waiting for her. Every other night, she found him--he knew not how--among the dunes within minutes.
But when she did come to him that night, she was hours late and without the mask of impenetrable calm that had always shielded her before. Her cheeks were, for the first time, slightly flushed, a delicate color that only made her more beautiful.
Nicholas forced his nails into his palms. forced his desire down into a dark place. For whatever reason, she had made it clear that such advances would not be welcome. And he had been so completely under her spell that he had not pressed her for reasons, had asked no questions. Not who she was, where she was from...
If she were married...
It was this question that tormented him. He wanted her. Forever. And she was his, body and soul.
"Nicholas," she said quietly, her lilting Parisian accent making music of his name. "I cannot see you again."
The words broke his tenuous control and he grabbed her, fingers sinking deep into the rich silk of her gown to the cool flesh beneath. "No," he gritted between his teeth. "You are mine!"
He would have let her go at a word from her. They both knew that. Instead, she curved her arms until they cupped his, her hands lightly clasping his shoulders. His grip relaxed, hers slid around his neck, and suddenly they were in each others arms, mouths seeking, finding, until Nicholas was dizzy with her taste, her scent. In a moment, he would drag her down into the sand and--
At that moment, Janette broke away, stumbling back several steps. "Why?" Nicholas asked her hoarsely. "Are you wed?"
"No," Janette whispered. She shook her head as if to underline her emphatic refusal and said, "No, I am not married," in a fierce voice.
He stepped toward her, and she held him off with an upraised hand, in an eerie imitation of the first night they met. "I love you," he said quietly, absolutely. Janette shook her head again, but he persisted. "I love you!" he told her intently. "Marry me. Be my wife. Be mine--"
Tempted beyond anything she had ever known, she cried out in desperation, "You do not know what I am!"
Nicholas moved closer, and she was utterly without the will to move away. He did not kiss her, but instead cradled her face in his rough warrior's hands. Gently, with the reverence that had destroyed her defenses, he threaded his fingers through her hair. "You are," he told her, "the woman I love. The woman I will love forever. Nothing else is important."
Janette closed her eyes and shuddered, but managed to hold back the blood-tinted tears that would have proved him wrong. She rose on her tip-toes and brushed his lips with hers. Then she opened her eyes, and looked into his summer sky blue ones for the last time. "Sleep, Nicholas. Sleep and wake with the morning."
She did not have the strength to tell him to forget her.
Janette knew that she had no hope of keeping the events of this past night hidden from LaCroix. He knew the moment she stepping into their house hours before dawn. Rising from his chair by the window, he crossed to where she stood by the door, wordlessly questioning.
"I sent him away," she said. She raised her head to look her maker in the eye and spat, "I sent him away!"
LaCroix's expression did not change. "Why, Janette?" he asked with unexpected gentleness.
She moved away from him, pacing the floor so that her long cloak swept the rushes, gesturing with odd, jerky movements. "He is a Crusader, a soldier of Christ, and I am everything he fights against. He is a creature of light," she insisted, as though LaCroix had said something in objection, "and I am a creature of the darkness." She stopped her pacing abruptly and turned to face him. "I know what I am. I revel in it. But it does not change the fact that we are two different things!"
"All right, Janette." He brushed her hair lightly with a tender hand. After a moment, he said, "I'm bored with Jerusalem. All these Crusaders do is talk endlessly. What do you say, Janette? Shall we leave? We could go to Paris."
Janette nodded, drained. It would be a relief to leave the Holy Land, to go to the city that after all these years remained her home. "It's nearly dawn," she murmured. "We should sleep."
LaCroix dropped his hand onto her shoulder and they walked to the door of their shared bedchamber. But a faint pressure stopped her. "But think, Janette, just think. Could he have loved you so dearly if he were completely a child of the light?"
Janette closed her eyes and turned away.
After a week of waiting in the desert, Nicholas had to accept the truth of it. Janette was gone, and he had no way of finding her. She had disappeared into the night as though she had never existed. The thought produced a murderous rage. She was gone.
Nicholas looked down at the lute in his hands. He had been composing a song for her, like any foolish love-struck troubadour yearning for his unreachable lady. Maddened, he swung the lute against the wall, and tossed the shattered remains onto the fire.
He went directly to Frederick's rooms. The emperor was dictating a letter to his general in Germany, where Frederick's uncle was leading a rebellion. Nicholas paced in the antechamber until Frederick was finished and sent the clerk away. "Well, Nicholas. I have not seen much of you in the past few weeks. What can I do for you?"
Nicholas said without preamble, "I'm leaving Jerusalem."
Frederick leaned back in his chair, resting his elbows on the arms and his chin of steepled hands. "Where will you go?"
"Toulouse." Frederick made a quick motion, as though to cut Nicholas off, but Nicholas ignored him and continued. "I've heard that there is much land waiting to be won there."
"And much blood to be shed," Frederick murmured. "Tell me, Nicholas--do you go on the Pope's crusade to harry the heretics, or to make your fortune?" Nicholas said nothing. "Ah, I see. You go to fight, to spill blood, to rage."
"I must leave here," Nicholas said violently. "I cannot stay. I cannot!"
Frederick rose, grasped his friend's forearm in a gesture of affection and farewell. "I understand, my friend. Only too well. Go with God, Nicholas."
****END PART ONE****
Chapter 2: Part 2
"Victory!" The shouts rang through the narrow Parisian streets, echoing through the night mists. The soldiers, newly returned from the battlefields to the south, celebrated their dominance over the peaceful Cathari with wine and women.
In the tavern, Nicholas drank the wine, but he was not celebrating. The crusade against the heretic Cathars had completed what Gwyneth's murder had started. He now knew, absolutely, that human life was worthless, that the struggle for existence was doomed to end in nothing but a disjointed sprawl of limbs, without dignity, without peace. That death was nothing but an end to be avoided for as long as possible.
He had not been in the city of Beziers the day a papal legate had told the troops to "Kill them all, and let God sort out his own," but he had seen the results. No one had been spared--heretic and Catholic, young and old, mother and child. No one.
Nicholas had walked through villages where no soul had survived the ravaging army, the mud clinging to his boots made of blood and dust. He had seen the bodies of men, women and children dumped carelessly into ditches with quicklime poured over them to hasten decomposition. He had smelled the stink of burning flesh as another village had been put to the torch, the people in their homes shrieking as flames licked their bodies. The few who had fought their way out of their homes had been cut down without remorse.
The Pope's grand crusade against the heretics had not been a war. It had been a slaughter.
Nicholas had won the land in the south he had been seeking, taking over the estate of a petty but wealthy nobleman who had been foolish enough to give aid to the holy Cathar heretics. But the release he had sought, the draining of the rage within him, was denied.
Abruptly, Nicholas flung his wooden goblet on the fire and stormed out into the misty night, ignoring the complaints of the innkeeper and the drunken cries of his compatriots. The night was not peaceful, but it was at least silent. Nicholas doubted he would ever find peace again.
Slowly, as he wandered the streets to the river, he became aware of someone behind him, alerted not by sound or sight but by the primal instinct of the battlefield. He was being followed, no doubt by a thief who wanted his purse and his neck. Carefully, Nicholas maneuvered until the thief was forced to move closer or lose him. Welcoming the enveloping fog that hid the motion, Nicholas slid his dagger from his belt, paused, then whirled to face his attacker.
There were two men, not one. Both had eyes that gleamed like a rat's in the dim night. They seemed invigorated, rather than deterred, by the fact that their prey was going to fight. Lips pulled back from his teeth in a grimace that was part growl and part grin, Nicholas feigned at one, stabbing with a short upward stroke that made the brute jump backwards whilst his companion thought to attack Nicholas from behind. Perfectly balanced, Nicholas recovered from his lunge to turn on the second man, the swipe of his hand casually taking an ear and part of a cheek. The scent of blood seemed to madden both of them, and they rushed Nicholas as though only one feeble mind existed between them. Caught under the onslaught, Nicholas felt the blade of a knife bite though his tunic and the warmth of blood streaming down his arm.
He buried his dagger in the gut of the slower of the two men, twisting as the man gasped and slowly began to die. But the crossbar handle on the dagger caught on the lower ribs, resisting Nicholas' efforts to pull it free. Finally, he let it go, turning to stand bare-handed against the man with a long, wicked knife already stained with his blood, ready to fight even though he had no weapons with which to do so.
But there was no need for a fight. The second man lay in the mud at Nicholas' feet, his head bent at an awkward angle, his eyes bulging as though startled by the death that had come for him, and a bleeding gash showing at his throat.
Nicholas snatched the blade out of the dead man's hand, dropping into a battle stance to face the new danger, not feeling the throbbing of the wound on his arm. For a long moment he neither heard nor saw anything. Then, so slowly as to seem to materialize out of the mist, a woman in a dark cloak appeared.
"*Sange du Christ*," Nicholas swore softly. "Janette."
She moved to him, graceful as a ghost. "Are you well?" she asked urgently. "Nicholas, are you well?"
Nicholas lifted his arm. The blood was already drying. A visit to the local barber for stitches and he would survive so long as infection didn't set it. "Yes."
Janette withdrew into herself again Raising one hand to his face, as cold and impassive as he had ever seen her, she stared at him fiercely and said, "You will not remember this, you will not remember you saw me. You will for--"
Nicholas grabbed her slender wrist, and she gasped slightly from the shock. "Who are you?" he gritted between his teeth. "What are you? Why did you disappear from Jerusalem?"
"Let--go--of--me." The words were bitten off, evenly spaced, and ringing with authority. Nicholas ignored them.
"You killed that man, didn't you? I don't know how, but you killed him. Damn you, answer me! What are you?"
Janette pulled away from him, wrapping her cloak and her pride around her. "I am," she said softly, intently, "the worst nightmare of man. I am the creature that haunts the darkness, never to see the sun again. I am a killer and a drinker of blood."
The faint night wind stirred her hair, rippled the edges of her cloak. She stood before him, waiting as though for a judgment to be passed on her. He said nothing for several long moments. Then he breathed, "You are a vampire."
If possible, she became even more remote, unreachable. "Yes."
"An immortal being," he said in growing wonder. "Never to age, to sicken, to die."
"Never to see the sun," she countered. "Never to be accepted in the ranks of humanity. To become the damned of God."
"I am already the damned," he said harshly. "And the blood on my hands would not be washed away in an eternity of Purgatory. But an eternity of Paradise, with you..."
The ice that seemed to surround her cracked. "Nicholas, you do not know what you ask..."
"Do I not?" he demanded. "You think I do not know what I mean? I love you. I loved you under a moonlight sky in Jerusalem when I knew naught of you but your name and your voice, your face. And here, now, in this filthy street, it has not changed. I wanted to make you my wife for the pitiful amount of time God lets us have. But this... Is it not true that you can give me eternity?"
Shaken, Janette nodded. "Yes, but Nicholas..."
"Do you regret what you are?" he asked her. "Do you?" he asked again when she did not speak.
"No." It was said with extreme satisfaction and dawning desire. "No, I do not."
He approached her then. Pulling his long hair away from his neck, he offered her the strong curve of it. "Make me what you are," he told her. He could see the hesitation in her eyes, then the decision. She reached for him with her slender, delicate hands, burying them in his hair and tilting his head to give her access to the lifeblood that throbbed below the service. He caught a glimpse of her fangs, her eyes glowing gold before she pushed him away.
"No. Not now. Nicholas... come to me tomorrow night if this is what you truly want. Come to me, and I will give you what you desire."
"Where?" he asked.
"The tavern where you went tonight. I will find you there." With that, she disappeared again into the mist, leaving Nicholas wondering if he had not merely dreamed the whole weird interlude.
"LaCroix," Janette said urgently. "You must!"
Her mentor turned from his candlelit reading of the latest poor translation of Aristotle to face his child. Her eyes were wild, her hair tumbling around her shoulders wantonly as she pounded his desk with her fists. He had never seen her look so desperate since the night he had brought her across. Then it had been human agony that had tortured her. Now, it was the contemplation of eternity.
"Why me, Janette? Why not you? Surely he would rather feel your sweet lips on his flesh than mine."
"You are older than I," she evaded. "You could give him more than I could."
"No" He said it bluntly, emotionlessly. "You wish him to be brought across into our world, you must do it."
Dismissing her, LaCroix turned the page of his treatise. Janette snatched the finely illuminated manuscript and flung it across the room. "I have asked you for little in two hundred years. I ask this now."
"Why, Janette?" The soft voice held steel. He would not acceded to her request until she gave him something. This for that. With LaCroix, there was always a paying of debts. But with Nicholas...
Turning away, she could speak more easily. "I do not want Nicholas to feel for me what I feel for you," she told him.
Janette did not want to answer, but she knew LaCroix would not let her alone until she did. "Duty. Loyalty. Impatience, anger. Loathing, sometimes."
"Which, simply put, means you do not want to be Nicholas' master?"
LaCroix said nothing, merely crossing the room to retrieve his book. It wasn't until he returned it to his desk that he said, "I will bring the young Crusader across, then."
Janette closed her eyes, overwhelmed with the flood of relief. "What conditions?"
"No conditions. He shall be mine, my son as you are my daughter. Forever."
She wasn't coming.
Hours after the sun had set, Nicholas drank and cursed himself for a fool yet again. He had not slept since he had found Janette. Rather, he had spent the day wandering the city, asking himself again and again if this was truly what he desired. And the answer returned, always: Yes. To have life eternal. Never to be ill, injured, weak. To have power beyond mortal man's dreams.
And Janette. Most of all, Janette.
The sun had not appeared the length of the day. It had spent his last hours as a mortal sulking behind heavy clouds. When the dim grey light had faded, he returned to the tavern to join his friends there, to celebrate their hollow victories yet again. And to wait for the woman he wanted more than life itself. But she didn't appear.
A breath of sound, a wisp of fragrance... he did not know what lured him from his brooding. But suddenly, there she stood. The remoteness that had so often protected her was gone, completely eradicated. In its place was a passion like he had never seen. Her eyes flared with the desire she had disguised before. Her lips moved, and somehow across the deafening noise of the hall, he heard clearly what she said.
"How badly do you want me?"
Slowly, he put aside his wine cup and rose to his feet, following her as she glided away from the crowded, noisy room to the silence that reigned in more private chambers.
He shut the door behind him and reached for her immediately. No less eagerly, she reached for him, the passion them flaring between them again, this time fed by the knowledge that it would finally be sated.
"Nicholas," she murmured, her voice husky and breathless. "Brave knight, brave crusader, conqueror. Are you ready to be conquered?"
If there had been any doubts left in her, they were driven away by his fierce answer. "Yes."
He tried to capture her mouth with his, but she turned away, playing the temptress with the last shred of her control. "Can you truly surrender, after all you have won? Surrender to the darkness of the soul, the richness of the night, the weakness of desire?" Teasing gone, she looked into his eyes. "How badly do you want me, Nicholas? Just how strong is your weakness?"
"Brave crusader, strong, good, defender of the Cross. Who are you?" Who was he? None of those things, not any more. He was need and desire alone...
Against his ear, she whispered, "Can you feel my darkness, Nicholas? Feel it absorbing your light? Can you feel the power and the danger of my darkness? The beautiful risk?"
Nearly out of his mind, he pulled her to the bed. Laughing, drunk on triumph, she let him, let him drag her down to the smooth sheets and yank away her clothing, caressing her until her tenuous hold on her vampire nature nearly slipped. Her pale arms and shoulders gleamed in the candlelight. Victory surged in her veins, mixing with the blood she had fed on earlier that night.
Nicholas was hers now. Forever.
Janette leaned over him, arousing with her hands and mouth, and glorying in feeling and hearing his increased heartbeat. "Say goodbye to the light, Nicholas. Now you know it will never satisfy you. Only darkness can satisfy you. No matter how shining and good a knight you are, the darkness was always there. Always stronger than anything else in your heart and mind."
It was time.
Janette rose from the bed, evading Nicholas' searching hands. "Where are you going?" he asked, his voice slurred with desire.
Janette said nothing, merely waiting as LaCroix entered the room. Nicholas narrowed his eyes, startled by the sight of the tall, pale-eyed man in rich clothing. "Who are you?"
"His name is LaCroix," she told him. *Not long now, mon amour. Soon we will be together forever...*
LaCroix stepped closer to the bed. "Hello, Nicholas. We are going to be friends--"
Suddenly, his eyes turned glowing gold and his mouth opened to show his fangs. That was when Nicholas understood. The time of his transformation was at hand.
LaCroix continued, "--for a long, long time."
Nicholas smiled. And welcomed it.
Nothing ever changed. And nothing stayed the same.
Blood was still shed in this holy city for their God, their mortal beliefs. The sun still burned in the day, the night was cool and filled with stars.
But the lonely desert dunes where she had met Nicholas were now tenement buildings, narrow and putrid. Their wars were now at least nominally political, where once they had been nominally religious.
And Nicholas. Had he changed? Or had he remained the same, and she had simply never seen it?
When she had risen that night, nostalgia had prompted her to don a long, hooded cape, just as she had a few months before in Toronto. That night, she had joined Nicholas by the riverfront as he had stood pondering one of his tiresome mortal quandaries. He had turned to her, and for one moment, memory had leapt in his eyes, of the night they had met in a far-away desert under a smug moon and a sky full of stars.
And he had recoiled in horror from that memory.
That was when Janette knew she would leave. It had taken her months to do so, but she knew her time in Toronto was finished. The practical aspects were not the trouble--the club could go to LaCroix for all she cared--but the weaning away had torn her apart. Her weakness was strong enough that she had finally fled into the night without a word to Nicholas, knowing she could not bear to tell him goodbye for the last time.
She knew she might still see him again. She always had before. But before, they had parted to return as lovers. This time, she knew it was finished. She finally believed that he truly wanted his humanity back, and would do anything to get it.
And the final straw had been when she had seen him with his little mortal friend, the doctor. He had pressed a kiss to her cheek, touching her hair with a tender hand, and Janette had turned away, unable to face the gift of his reverence that had once been given to her.
Restless, hungry, she walked through the slums of Jerusalem. Her gamble all those centuries ago had paid off. Even though Nicholas loathed what he was, loathed his maker, she still had his love. All his hatred had been deflected onto LaCroix's head.
But she refused to be anyone's convenience. Not LaCroix's minion, not Nicholas' consolation.
She made her way through the night. The hunt was there. And the kill. She was what she was, forever and aye, world without and end.
A creature of darkness, in love with a creature of light.