Slowly, so slowly that she almost did not notice it, Sulpicia began to hate the sound of her own voice.
It was a pretty voice. It was prettier than it needed to be to order servants to and fro, prettier than it needed to be to entreat her husband, prettier than it needed to be to instruct her children and stepchildren. And when she ordered or entreated or instructed, she was obeyed and catered to and attended.
Sulpicia could hardly forget that she was living a charmed life - her mother told her, every time the two saw each other. So lucky! So blessed! So fortunate! to have moved up so far in the world, to be seventeen and beautiful and married to a rich widower with only daughters and to have given him two sons as easy as breathing (ha, Sulpicia thought, when her mother first told her how easy her childbearing had been; there was no greater pain possible in the world, even if she'd gotten through the process with somewhat more alacrity than most). So lucky, so blessed, so fortunate, to have that husband's favor and love such that all she had to do was ask, and anything was hers -
But she still had to ask. She still had to draw breath (infinitely easier than giving birth, whatever her mother said, but still a step in the process) and ask. This was expected with servants, slow and stupid creatures; it was unremarkable with children, foolish and with no capacity to focus on others' patterns and habits. But her husband ought to have done better. Yet, however much esteem she'd bought with her two sons, her husband did not know her. He did not anticipate her needs, and she doubted he'd notice if she made a request completely out of character.
She tried it, one day - told him she wanted a pair of sandals so completely repulsive that she had not correctly identified them as sandals at first glance - and the next thing she knew, they were hers. No remark that they were unlike her customary footwear, that they were ugly and she was too beautiful to wear such unflattering things, that they were not fashionable and she was normally quite attentive to the current style. Just the sandals.
If she had to ask for everything, how could she get anything that she did not know how to ask for?
Sulpicia gave up testing her husband. He was hopeless, obviously. She made sharper and ruder demands of him, was shorter with the children, outright screamed at the servants. And she came to hate her voice, so miserably necessary, so inadequate.
Aro was not, exactly, hunting. Or - not for food. He was looking, if idly, for specially gifted persons, for while he hadn't come into his own gift until turned, Marcus had known inklings of his beforehand and Chelsea had always had the full breadth of hers. Aro and Caius and Marcus - and Athenodora, when she bothered to participate in their council, though she was more often whiling away her time staring into space, thinking abstract thoughts, and tolerating Chelsea's prattle - agreed: that supernatural gifts were key to realizing their ambitions. It would be untenable to match the Romanians' army in numbers. Overpowering them with magic was more likely.
The trouble was that the gifted were so rare. Marcus was an extraordinary find, Aro himself still more so. Chelsea magnificent. But they were not precisely suited to destroying enemies.
Aro still hoped that his young sister would prove to be gifted like him after her own change, but she was only sixteen yet, and he was wary of altering her so young. (The age gap was immense, but they were full siblings regardless of the cruel rumors about his father's failure to get his wife with child for twenty-three years after the firstborn: Aro had checked when it first crossed his mind to change his sister, with one cold finger brushed across his mother's cheekbone in the night, and while she was not a woman of perfect fidelity, the timing was not correct for Didyme to be the result of her indiscretion.)
At any rate, Didyme was still too young, although he would consider stealing her away sooner if she wound up betrothed. If he ever found out what happened to a bitten pregnant woman he would prefer that his sister not be the informant. She would have been married already, but their parents were dithering, holding out for better offers, because Didyme was quite lovely and sweet of disposition and ought to have better offers. In fact, only the dark gossip speculating on Aro's own unexplained disappearance fourteen years gone cast enough suspicion on the family's reputation to diminish the quality of her proposals. It suited Aro's purposes for it to be so, or he might have intervened somehow.
He spied on Didyme, once monthly, to be sure that she was in good health and not undergoing some emergency of constitution that would call for her prompt transformation. If he had to change her at sixteen (or bring her to Caius for the purpose, should he not trust his own control) he would. But, eighteen would be better.
He was not due to steal into Didyme's home - what once was his home too, fourteen years gone, though he barely remembered living there - and confirm that promising Didyme was not feverish or chilled or otherwise unwell for another week. And this allowed the coven to range away from Greece where she lived. Such exploration was how they had found Chelsea.
Such exploration was what put him in Rome when he found Sulpicia.
He was caught by the sun. Fickle clouds. He'd expected them to last longer, expected to be able to wade through crowds seeking telltale talented life-histories. And whatever the Romanians thought, it was in Aro's opinion a laughably dreadful idea to advertise oneself to the mortals. The red eyes might be written off as an odd malady, or overlooked entirely if he squinted and concealed his irises with shadows. The glittering skin in the daylight... unlikely to meet similar aplomb. More likely to prompt annoying attempts on his life.
So when the sun burst forth, the clouds swept away in a swift breath of wind, Aro ducked into the shade of a house to wait for the return of the cloud cover, or nightfall. (He mused that some kind of concealing cloak - with gloves and a hood - would be useful to have in situations like this. He would look into getting one, later.)
The lady of said house peered out the window at him, but he didn't look her way, preferring to lose himself in thought for as long as he needed to await the pleasure of the weather.
"Excuse me," she said, and he noted, distantly, that hers was a voice that had probably been lovely once, but had been filed ragged by discontentment. He went on ignoring her.
"Excuse me!" she said again, and reached out the window to tap him on the shoulder, as though he could have failed to hear her.
Her littlest finger brushed momentarily over the edge of his collar, and quite involuntarily, he pulled her memories into himself.
Human memories were easier than vampire ones to disentangle and comprehend. Before she had drawn her hand back to the windowsill, he knew her name, her family situation, her frustrated unclear desires, her favorite color and her hatred of her voice.
He knew her.
And before he even turned around to look at her face, he knew she was his.
It would have taken him longer to figure it out if he hadn't been with Caius and Athenodora both just that morning. Usually he spoke to Caius alone; he'd read his "brother's" mate, was acquainted with her, but rarely sought her companionship unless she came as part of a matched set with her husband. Still, the pair of them, Caius capturing the rapt attention of customarily fanciful Athenodora as she brought a smile to his otherwise dour face, were fresh in Aro's mind, and he recognized the insistence in his thoughts arcing over to Sulpicia as the same demand for companionship his covenmates shared. The same overarching instinctual keen.
He could lift her out of the house via the window, carry her off - who cared if anyone saw him? Stefan and Vladimir, lax and lazy overseers hundreds of miles distant, certainly didn't, and any one indiscretion would probably not bring torchlit mobs cresting over the hills - he could turn her, all without so much as a by-your-leave -
He looked at her, smiled rakishly. She stepped back and tucked the chilled finger that had touched him into her other hand, slightly openmouthed at the granite smoothness of his features, the darkened red eyes that might look brown without good light. "Who are you?" she asked. This was the question she'd had in mind from the beginning - who was this strange man lurking in the shadow of her house? - but the tone came out differently than she'd meant, curiosity rather than suspicion.
"Shhhh," he said, smirking, placing a finger over her lips.
She hated the sound of her voice.
Why inflict it on her?
It was more than an hour before the sun retreated behind the clouds. The servants had the children, her husband was off somewhere doing something Sulpicia didn't know or care about, and she stood at her window and listened to the strange man.
She didn't need to talk. After a minute, she didn't want to, forgetting to be affronted at his attempt to silence her. He touched her presumptuously, constantly, adjusting her hair and brushing her cheeks and cataloguing all the ways their fingers could interlace, and she was entranced enough that she did not back away. His hands were cool, but they warmed up over time as he spoke in low, insinuating tones that made her spine tingle.
He told her, at the beckoning of her thoughts, his name, where he was from, what he was doing in Rome, and, when she began to wonder, what he was, what he could do. There was no point and no fairness in holding back from her (and he shouldn't like to oblige her to speak out loud, to insist on pressing a question, if she wanted some answer he could provide). She would know everything eventually. If, unthinkably, he bungled the elaborate seduction he had in mind, all would be made right by her change; he could be a little reckless if he wanted.
He was emboldened further still by her intense, albeit non-supernatural, attraction, simmering obviously through the hundreds of little touches he bestowed on her to update his record of her mind. He almost laughed at her when she wondered, a fleeting wild thought, if her husband would say yes should she trouble to formulate the request for permission to take this man as a lover -
"Don't ask permission," murmured Aro. "In fact, I want you to have nothing to do with your husband at all. I want you to be mine. Forget about him."
Sulpicia didn't think she could just -
Aro pressed a chilly kiss to the inside of her wrist, so gentle it was almost not there, and Sulpicia shivered. She could probably put her husband off for a day, two perhaps, claim to be ill and slouch about the house, say with her hateful and tired voice that she was too weak -
"Very good, my dear," Aro murmured, still holding her hand. "I believe... I shall see you this evening."
The evening? Why the -
"I need to tell my brothers," he said, moving his head close to hers, breathing shallowly - her blood should not interest him, that would be one way to bungle his plans for world conquest, certainly, if he mistook his mate for a meal - "about you, because I plan to take you away with me... but not this very minute."
How long until -
"Perhaps this evening." He kissed her wrist again, looked down at her through the window with smoldering eyes. "Perhaps." He could be patient. It was more rewarding to entice her than to let the venom do the work.
Belatedly, Sulpicia thought of her children.
"Your sons will be fine. Your stepdaughters are fine now, aren't they?" Aro said reasonably. "I suppose you can stay..." He was lying. He wouldn't permit her to stay if she wanted to with all her heart, let alone with this halfhearted misgiving. She, however, could not read his mind. Let her think she had the option; let her refuse it of her own volition.
Her husband would probably just remarry if she disappeared, Sulpicia granted, but she was vaguely unsettled about her sons nonetheless.
"Well, perhaps this evening you will have made up your mind," Aro said in a voice like silk and wine, and, under the new clouds, before the sun could change the angle of his protective shadow, he peeled himself away from her and slipped off into the city.
Sulpicia took a minute to compose herself.
She sat, and stood, and walked from one room to the next, and poured herself a glass of wine the color of Aro's eyes, and sat again.
She went to where the servants were keeping her sons, and the younger one, just a baby, chose that moment to scream and scream and scream, and the older one pulled her hair and tugged at her clothes when she tried to pick him up. Her stepdaughters pestered her for attention when she went near them. If she ignored them they'd whine to their father later and he'd sigh and tell Sulpicia that it would be lovely if she'd take some time to get to know the girls. If she gave them the attention they demanded, sooner or later it would take a turn to resentment over the fact that she wasn't their mother and they would shriek at her with shrill accusations.
Sulpicia stared at her crying baby, longing to claw out her ears. She handed the toddler off to the nurse, and left the room again. She poured herself more wine.
Her husband was home early from... whatever it was he did all day. Sulpicia hadn't ever cared and saw no reason to start. She pretended illness, lounging and coughing until her throat really did feel raw. Aro wanted her to have nothing to do with her husband, and perhaps she would oblige him.
Her husband did not oblige her.
It was not violent, not dramatic, not even particularly unusual in anything but her uncommon level of disinterest. She didn't try to fight him off of her once she realized her ruse wasn't having the desired effect. Her mother's lectures about wifely duties replayed themselves in her head and she waited for it to be over with the same boredom of waiting for her baby to stop crying or her life to stop dissatisfying her.
Would Aro be cross with her? she asked herself, only after the fact. Would he refuse to take her away with him because she'd failed? It didn't occur to her to question whether that had been his original intention. If she were any judge of sincerity, it had, though why she had caught his eye she was unsure.
She noted that the prospect of Aro's abandonment - even though she'd only spent a little over an hour in his company - was rather frightening, and hugged herself and shivered and hated the thought of listening to that baby scream for one hour longer. Of staying with a husband who could not read her mind (and maybe he wouldn't care if he could, anyway) when she'd finally met a man who could, who, incredibly, wanted her, and he'd asked one thing of her and she couldn't -
Sulpicia cried exactly three tears, then wiped them away and waited by the window for evening.
She knew one moment of doubt about whether Aro would come back at all, but then returned to worrying that he would come, and would touch her just the one more time it would take to know that she hadn't done what he'd asked, and then leave without a word, and she would have to listen to that baby (and the next baby and the baby after that, because "one cannot have too many" appeared to be her husband's opinion) scream in her ears until one of them killed her coming out. (Easy, her mother said. Easy.)
Marcus knew as soon as Aro strolled into their current hiding place that something had happened, and he laughed, deep and low. "You, too. Where is she?"
"Awaiting the evening with bated breath," said Aro, smiling asymmetrically. "May I see it, dear brother? It's a white ribbon like Caius and Athenodora's, isn't it?"
"A thinner one, without the layers from both directions - a human, Aro, who'd have thought it of you? - but yes, much alike," said Marcus, extending the nearer of his arms for Aro to brush their knuckles together. Aro regarded Marcus's memory of the new bond with pleasure. "Why did you leave her?" Marcus inquired.
"I was caught by the sun," said Aro, peering up at the descending brightness in the sky. "Besides, I could simply take her and turn her, as Caius did with his mate, but I'd like to lure her. I don't plan to wait long. Probably I will take her tonight."
"Will you want Caius to do the turning?" Marcus asked.
"I think so. I believe I could manage it, if I were fed immediately before, but it is a little delicate to trust to my guess," said Aro. "Where is Caius? And where are Athenodora and Chelsea, for that matter?"
"The happy couple," said Marcus with dry emphasis, "are elsewhere. Chelsea became annoying to me when she could no longer attach herself to them without intrusion even she could not render welcome, and I sent her away; no doubt she'll be back soon enough."
Aro shrugged, looking at the sun, and frowned. "You don't like her."
"Neither would you, if you didn't let her force it. There's nothing to like."
"We are going to need dear Chelsea," said Aro. "I may as well love her as she wishes to be loved. What's the harm?"
"It's up to you, I suppose," frowned Marcus. "So, what is our new sister-in-law's name?"
"Sulpicia," said Aro, tasting the word like sweet blood on his lips and smiling, "is her name."
Aro returned minutes after nightfall, although Sulpicia didn't hear him coming and could barely see even his pale face in the moonlight. "Aro," she said softly, hating that she had to speak and having no idea what else to say, but hoping to come up with some explanation, some excuse, midsentence, that would make him take her away after all...
"Shh," he whispered, and he hopped in through the window as smoothly as taking a single step and pressed his finger to her lips.
She fell silent, looked guiltily at him, waited for the verdict.
Aro held quite still, and peered into the memories.
Then his arms were around her. "Worry not," he breathed in her ear. "Of course I will take you with me. Right now, if you like, my dear." Relief flooded her, and she opened her mouth to thank him. "Shhh," he repeated again, touching her lips with his thumb. "Just a moment while I take care of something and off we go, lovely one." He released her, and she waited in numb anticipation for whatever it was he was going to take a moment to do.
Aro stole out of the room, and Sulpicia heard one unheralded, sharp snapping noise, and in an instant Aro was back at her side with his arm around her waist and his cheek against hers. He was so cold.
Sulpicia wasn't sure what had happened -
"It was not your fault, precious Sulpicia," purred Aro, leaning to lift her off her feet entirely and hopping lightly out the window. "He took what is mine. I should not have left you. But you, no, you did nothing wrong." He kissed her throat and she sighed, smiling. "Never imagine that I will leave you forever," Aro went on. "I will do no such thing, my darling; I prefer to keep you, and I shall."
He left the house behind, carrying her at a leisurely walking pace.