"Now, what do you say if one of the other children asks you about your parents?" prompted Gianna.
"I say my mummy plays poker and my mamma translates books and they're not vampires," said Molly triumphantly.
"You don't tell them we're not vampires," Gianna corrected.
"But then how is it a secret?" asked Molly, looking up with big eyes. She swung her feet back and forth, kicking at the legs of the kitchen chair and making her sneakers light up.
Gianna sighed, and Maggie said, "Maybe we should just keep her home another year, register for homeschooling..." from upstairs, but Gianna pressed on.
"It's a secret because they won't think we might be vampires. What do you think the other kids' parents will be?"
"I dunno," said Molly. "They could be whatever. I could tell if they're vampires by lookin' though. And, and I could tell if they're wolves or mixed-ups by shakin' hands, because warm."
"So they could be humans, or vampires, or wolves, or hybrids. Could they be... elves?" Gianna suggested.
"Elves aren't real," objected Molly. "You said. They're in stories."
"The other children think vampires are like elves -" began Gianna.
"But your ears aren't pointy, and you drink blood, so you're not an elf," complained Molly.
"They think vampires are only in stories," Gianna said. "They'll think me and your mummy are humans, without any help, because they think vampires - and wolves, and hybrids - are make-believe, so they don't think we could be whatever. They think we're humans. You just don't correct them." Molly processed this while Gianna regarded her hopefully, and then the girl's lip started trembling. "Molly, sweetheart, what's wrong?"
"I won't be able to bring you, 'cause then the kids'll see you and then it won't be a secret!" Molly cried.
Gianna blinked. "It's okay if they see us," she said. "They can't tell by looking."
Molly appeared deeply skeptical. "Mamma, you're really pale and you don't eat food and you're super-fast and you have gold eyes."
"They'll think I'm a human anyway, just like the neighbors," Gianna said. "Remember when Mrs. O'Malley brought us a plate of cookies when we moved here? She didn't mean for them to all be for you." Gianna accompanied this with a gentle poke to Molly's tummy, and Molly giggled.
"Okay," Molly said. "So I can bring you."
"You don't have to get to the school by yourself," Gianna said. "Me or your mummy will drive you there every morning. But we won't stay there - you'll go have fun and learn things with the other children, and then we'll get you in the afternoon."
"You're not going to stay?" exclaimed Molly in horror, and Gianna sighed and moved on to addressing a much more ordinary starting-school challenge.
"Mum, I don't see why we're going to this... thing," said Molly, waving dismissively at the e-mail advertising a "hybrid convention" of sorts in Florida. It was the first of its nature, and haphazardly planned, but prominently featured a paragraph about having managed to rent a beach such that sparkly attendees could safely go out during the day. "You're not a hybrid. Mamma's not a hybrid. I'm not a hybrid."
"I'm tired of you complaining that you can't be honest with your friends, that's why," Maggie told her. "And I'm tired of waiting for Bella to finish rolling back the obscurity. There are some hybrid kids, they'll be there, it's an excuse for you to go meet some people your own age - well, sort of, I don't think any of them are actually thirteen and if they were they'd be adults - and make some more friends you can relax around. Nothing about this implies that you'd be unwelcome for being a human yet."
"Are Uncle Ilario and Aunt Cath going with Petra and Julian?" Molly asked.
"They haven't decided yet, but even if they don't go, it's a little different, Molly. Petra and Julian have each other to play with all the time."
"I hang out with them when we visit or they do," Molly pointed out. "And they live a lot closer than anybody I'd meet in Florida."
"Well," said Maggie. "In that case I'm just arbirtrarily wasting three weeks of your time on a summer vacation in Florida, at the only sunny beach we can safely bring you to. What ever shall you do with such a horrid mother?"
"Oh, I can just bin you, I have a spare," said Molly, rolling her eyes, but she smiled.
Molly had not expected the convention to be crowded.
She had a Golden Coven password; she could get into the genealogical database that they maintained. She knew about Joham's kids (Noemi, Nahuel, Iseul, Joham Jr.) and about Princess Elspeth (whom she had met, albeit when she was two, but no one was impressed because everyone who might be impressed was not allowed to know) and Cody Clearwater. She knew Joham had grandkids and great-grandkids, although she hadn't memorized the number. She knew Marcus had daughters. She was aware of a half a dozen other families with mixed children established since the Empress's takeover.
She had not been aware that when one put all of these individuals and their parents and spouses and siblings and children and miscellaneous extended family in a hotel, that the hotel would buzz with activity; that the halls would be full of people in twos and threes and throngs; that the beach, too, would be seething with them when she peeked out the hotel window.
Objectively it wasn't that many. Her school had more. When Uncle Ilario took her to the West End to see plays, the theaters - let alone Piccadilly Circus - had far more. But those were humans, and that made it different, somehow. "Vampires" included her parents, her aunt and uncle, a handful of friends of the family who visited every year or two for miscellaneous holidays. "Crowds" included none of these people. Crowds were mundane and mortal and ran at thirty-seven degrees.
At first, it made Molly uncomfortable that everyone who looked at her could tell she was human. Then it occurred to her that everyone who looked at her could tell she was a human: people not "in on the Masquerade" were simply doing so more automatically.
She settled into the hotel room. She was sharing one with Petra and Julian, their parents in separate rooms to give the kids a home base from which to make friends without adult interference. Petra and Julian had handed off their luggage to Ilario and gone tearing down towards the water, bathing suits under their clothes, without even looking at the hotel. Molly took a few minutes to check out the room and, through glass, watch her cousins get into a splash fight. Then she peeled out of her clothes, slathered on three layers of sunscreen, shimmied into her brand-new bathing suit, and walked to the beach.
She didn't recognize anyone. She knew roughly who was supposed to be present, and she could guess, but she could only guess.
There were a few hybrids similar in apparent age to her. She saw a pair of golden-skinned girls with lustrous black hair, almost identical but not quite, sunning themselves glowily on a giant beach towel in matching swimsuits. They looked fourteen, were probably four. A younger boy - looked twelve, probably three - who could plausibly have been made out of polished maple wood was out in the water surfing expertly. Adults (various colors, but all with the sheen of hybrids or the shimmer of vampires) were sitting in the sand or wading with smaller hybrid children in the water.
Molly dug her toes into the sand and wondered what to do. This wasn't like going to school at the beginning of the year, when she could lean over in her first class of the day, and say "Hi, I'm Molly. What's your name?" and start a conversation about musical genres and how the upcoming coursework was soooo drag.
Julian had started excitedly talking to the boy on the surfboard, and Molly could just hear him over the waves: "Hi! I'm Julian! I'm not even a little bit a vampire but my mum and dad are vampires and me and my sister are adopted and we're gonna be vampires later when we grow up! Can you teach me to do that?" The last was said pointing at the surfboard, and the boy, who introduced himself as Joey, agreed and ran off to get a spare.
Maybe it could be like leaning over in class.
Petra, generally more interested in the company of adults (who did not tease about chicken pox scars) than children, was talking to some hybrid woman under a beach umbrella, but Molly decided to go over to the golden maybe-twins. They had their faces turned towards each other and were whispering quietly. The one whose face Molly could see seemed like her entire countenance was designed to show off her huge teak eyes.
"H-hi. I'm Molly Trafeli," Molly managed, and the nearer girl sat up and the farther with the huge eyes peered around her sister. The sitting hybrid looked very like the other, although she had her hair cut a few inches shorter and her lips seemed set in a constant pout. Molly suddenly felt very ugly.
"Hi," said the one who'd sat up. "I'm Pleione Greco. This is my sister Corisande."
"You're Marcus and Didyme's kids," Molly said. This would have been a reasonable guess earlier, but the names clinched it. ("Greco" was not either Marcus or Didyme's original name, but they didn't come from a time when last names were assigned in a modern fashion, and had adopted Didyme's host body's surname and passed it on.)
"Yes," agreed Pleione. "We are. Where do you come from?"
"Ireland," said Molly automatically. "I - I mean my parents are Gianna and Maggie, they're vampires. Uh, that's my cousin and so is that," she added, pointing out Petra and Julian. Julian was not having much luck with surfing, and the boy kept catching him when he fell. "Do you know who they're talking to? I - I heard Joey's name but I don't know who that is. Can I sit here?"
"Sure," said Pleione, "of course you may." She scooted over, and Corisande sat up to make more room. Molly planted herself on their towel.
"Joey, the boy teaching your younger cousin to surf, is Joham's youngest," Corisande said. "He's the best of the lot, really, he's a friend of ours. But his sisters are respectively too solemn and too perky and his brother has such temper."
"Iseul does do nice things," Pleione put in. "She organized this convention, which I think is a nice idea. She's only difficult to be around."
"Mom likes her, though," said Corisande.
"And your other cousin is talking to Halina. She's Joey's grand-niece, Noemi's son Kanimir's daughter," Pleione explained. "She's five-eighths human. She has a twin brother, Nikolai."
"Do you know about everyone here?" Molly asked, head swimming with genealogy.
"Of course," Pleione said, and the sisters started pointing at and naming and describing everyone on the beach. There was Siphiwe, Joey's niece. That nearly-human young woman was another grand-niece, descended from Siphiwe's half-sister Ella. There was Nahuel's vampire wife (not mate, nor vice-versa, they were careful to specify) and their quarter-vampire son from before she turned. This last seemed vaguely scandalous to the sisters, that there was a vampire married to someone not her mate, but they'd married before conceiving the child, expecting her to survive the pregnancy without the aid of venom and turning out to have miscalculated.
They described witchcrafts and life histories and personalities and proclivities. This one liked to visit their house to sit within Didyme's range and bask in the happiness; that one could sing at exacting pitches to shatter selected things with supernatural reliability; the other over there was an amateur marine biologist, using vampire capacities to dive unaided and investigate the deeps. ("A lot of sea creatures can't smell, and don't avoid vampires that energetically," Corisande explained.)
"Your turn," said Corisande when everyone on the beach was accounted for.
"Me?" Molly said, finding herself likely to be exceptionally dull.
"You and your cousins - tell us about you," prodded Pleione.
So Molly stumbled through a summary: uncle Ilario got cancer which prompted Mamma to go looking for vampires and find them; the Empress, before she was Empress, pulled Gianna out of Italy on the grounds of needing a surrogate mother for the Princess when the Volturi had tried to kill her; Mamma had talked the Cullens into saving uncle Ilario, and Mum had visited and mated to her, and then she'd given birth to Princess Elspeth and turned; and then she moved with Mum to Ireland. Molly explained how she'd come about: the donor who might be Mum's nephew at some remove, the stored egg, the hired surrogate.
She told the story of how uncle Ilario and aunt Cath had adopted Petra and Julian at ages five and three, and what she knew of their odd, gradual approach to disclosing to their children that they were vampires. (Petra was disposed to likening the revelation to finding out that there was no Santa Claus: "Nobody would tell me outright, they worried I'd tell our social worker, but a few people - Aunt Gianna and Aunt Maggie, mostly - went suspiciously quiet sometimes, and the evidence just accumulated. You wouldn't believe how silly I felt when I finally got up the nerve to ask Mum if she was a vampire, though, especially since I wasn't sure it was that as opposed to a dozen other things.")
"Have you ever met your surrogate?" Pleione inquired when Molly ran out of things to say.
"No," Molly said. "Not so I'd notice, anyway, I think she got to hold me once when I was born. Why? Do you know yours?"
"Just mine," Corisande said.
"I wanted a sister, and Mom and Dad said we had to wait until someone would agree to have her for us, since mine had already turned and moved to Japan and couldn't well do it again," Pleione explained, "I was five months old, and Noemi took me out shopping for clothes because Dad can't go out in public at all yet and Mom can't go out when shops are open, I got away from her. Before she caught up with me I'd cornered a human lady and told her all about how I wanted a sister and needed somebody to have her for us."
"Oh, wow," giggled Molly, hand over her mouth, and Pleione smiled.
"So then," Corisande continued, "the Golden Coven did some damage control with the lady - they keep the nearest capital partly-staffed year round because there's so many of us living around here, but it was full-staff with Alec and Princess Elspeth and everybody at the time. And she said that was all very interesting and wanted to know if she could do what the cute little girl had asked."
"So she did," Pleione said, "and I got my sister." Corisande beamed brilliantly at Pleione. "The lady's name is Andrea. She lives in Arkansas now but she visits us sometimes, like an aunt. Our other aunts - and uncles - live in Italy and they're hard to visit."
"Cool," said Molly. "My uncle used to live with us, but he moved out to live with Aunt Cath when they met. I was two. We see them about every couple of months."
"Tell us about that, your aunt and uncle," prompted Pleione, so Molly told them the (suspiciously sanitary) story she had of the meeting in Ireland, Aunt Cath's original relationship to Mum, and the pair's prompt establishment of a residence once the revolution was over.
By the time all the requisite stories had been swapped, the sun had gone up and over its highest point and dropped a considerable way towards the horizon. Molly's parents had arrived on the beach, but not interfered (they don't have to, they can hear everything from all the way over there if they listen, Molly reminded herself, but she was grateful for the space anyway). Ilario and Cath were near them, watching Petra (now deep in some discussion with Noemi) and Julian (still trying valiantly to understand Joey's attempt to teach him surfing.)
The conversation had turned to music (Pleione and Corisande liked dreadful old rock, and Molly was trying to correct this error) when the sun set. Mum and Mamma still kept their distance, until the first time Molly yawned, and then Mum appeared at the edge of the blanket.
"About ready to turn in?" she asked her daughter.
"Muuuum," complained Molly.
"I go to sleep in ten minutes anyway, Molly," Pleione said.
"I'll be up just another hour is all," said Corisande.
"I can come get you in the morning when I wake up if you like," Pleione volunteered, and Molly nodded enthusiastically and let Mum lead her up to the hotel.
"Poor child, facing three weeks on this incredibly pointless beach with nothing to do and no one to talk to," said Mum mirthfully.
"I'll never survive it," Molly deadpanned. "Child abuse, this is. I shall die of boredom unless you illegally turn me right now."
"Into bed with you," snorted Mum. "Don't wake your cousins, they're already down for the count."
"Maaaaaamma," pleaded Molly. "Please, oh, please, let me go. Just for a month. Plei' and Cori say their parents don't mind."
"Marcus and Didyme aren't used to having a human staying in their house," said Mamma edgily. "Didyme I'll believe is safe, but..."
"But it's not the same with you and Mum along and us staying in a hotel," complained Molly.
"Honestly, Molly, I don't see why having a sleepover of any length makes any sense with your half-vampire friends anyway. They can't exactly stay up late with you. We can go to Florida again this summer, but we, collectively."
"I've met their dad," Molly entreated. "He's weird, but he didn't even look at me funny."
Mamma's lips became a thin line, and she said, "No. I do not want you staying overnight in his house."
"Mamma," began Molly again, but it was no good.
Mum was no help. "You could ask Pleione and Corisande if they want to share your hotel room," she proposed, which was a good idea, but sixteen-year-olds were ever less than amenable to such things when thwarted.
"Why doesn't Mamma think Marcus is safe?" Molly asked.
"Your mamma worked for the Volturi when she was a human," Mum reminded her. "Marcus is the last suriving member of the ruling triad. He's retired to Florida with his mate and kids, sure, but that doesn't change the fact that he was in power while those in power decided to kill her."
Molly grumbled. "Maybe Plei' and Cori will move out before the summer," she announced loudly, even though this wasn't necessary to make her voice carry to Mamma's ears as well as Mum's. "Plei's seven and Cori almost is, that's grown for them, they might."
"As long as you're not staying with Marcus, that's fine, sweetheart," Mamma called.
Pleione and Corisande had no plans to move out of their parents' house, as it turned out. Although Pleione had acquired a part-time job lifeguarding, they didn't have adequate money to live on their own, and Marcus and Didyme weren't so eager to see them go as to fund the expedition. Molly took a while to get over her itchy resentment about Mum's idea, but finally proposed sharing a hotel room, and this went over well with the sisters and meant that Molly would be allowed to make the trip alone.
So when summer came, Molly's parents put her on a plane and she flew to Florida for the fourth summer in a row.
Pleione and Corisande met her at the airport. "Don't tell him I told you," Corisande said as soon as greeting hugs had been exchanged, "but I think Joey has a crush on you."
"Positively limerent," said Pleione, who had literally memorized the dictionary the prior autumn over a dull weekend.
"Does he?" asked Molly, surprised, as they proceeded out of the terminal and into the parking lot. (Pleione had a drivers' license which claimed she was seventeen.) Molly and Joey had been in touch (he'd gotten her screen name, "ultravioletcolorblind", from Julian) but while he'd been friendly she'd thought it was just that. "He... does know I'm planning to be a vampire, right? In like four, five years? I don't really date."
"He's probably doodling "Joham Trafeli Jr." all over his journal," teased Corisande. "Wait, where does the "Junior" go if he takes your last name? Does he still count if he doesn't match both names with his dad?"
"No idea," said Molly. "Um, Joey's great, but... I am gonna turn. I'm already scheduled to get eggs gotten out next year. I don't want to wind up like Nahuel's ex-wife."
They piled into the car, Molly riding shotgun and Corisande behind her while Pleione drove. "Maybe you'll turn and then you'll realize "Oh, me oh my, Joey is my one true love,"" Corisande crooned.
"Maybe I'll turn and then I'll realize "Oh, me oh my, Joey's dad is my one true love,"" scoffed Molly. "It's pretty random."
"Don't tell Joey - or his dad - I said this, but, ew," whispered Corisande.
Molly shrugged. "We'll see, right? I can't think of anybody I hate so much that I'd rather not be a vampire than risk falling in love with them."
"So you're not gonna ask Joey out?" Pleione asked.
Molly shook her head. "If he asked me I might go out with him - casually, just for fun, and no goodnight kiss because venom - but unless he does, less awkward all around to pretend I have no idea."
"You're so honest, though, Molly, do you think you can not let on?" Corisande said.
"Okay, so I grew up with a lie detector," Molly said. "But she doesn't detect mere incompleteness, and I had to learn to systematically lie by omission so I could go to school when I was five."
"Fair enough," said Pleione.
Joey didn't ask Molly out, although he did hang around her and the Greco girls more than he had in prior summers. "My dad is going to start seeing about having another kid, once I'm seven," he said, once when they were walking along the shore.
"Looking forward to it?" Molly asked.
Joey shrugged. "I don't know. I love my dad and my sisters, and even Nahuel when he shows up, but I kind of wish my mom had wanted to be my mom. And whoever Dad gets to be the mom of the next kid will more likely be like my mom than not. It's sad."
"You've met your mom, right?" Molly asked.
Joey nodded, looking pensively at the water. "I was two, and she dropped by the Florida capital to get the paperwork to turn her grandma - my great-grandma - I don't think her family knows about me. She stopped in to visit for about an hour. It was sort of weird, because my only memory of her was from when I was born, and she was really, really dark, and now she's just a little olive. I didn't recognize her on my own; Dad had to tell me who she was."
"You could try getting in touch with her family," Corisande said. "Especially your great-great-grandma who's a vampire now. The Golden Coven database'll tell you who she's related to."
"The great-great-grandma, maybe, if her application even got approved, which I don't know about," said Joey, sighing. "The others - I'm not Princess Elspeth, I can't show up on somebody's doorstep and claim to be their nephew or their grandson and expect anyone to believe me."
"When the Masquerade is down for good?" Pleione asked.
"Then. Yeah," said Joey.
The Masquerade, as it was called tongue-in-cheek, had been slowly deteriorating for most of Molly's life. The Golden Coven had inherited Volturi influence over major institutions worldwide, and were steadily reducing the degree to which this influence was based on deception. They were allowing unprecedented amounts of disclosure, albeit strictly through personal, one-to-one channels for immediate family and dearest friends of supernaturals. The turning rate had been permitted to rise sharply once a sufficient number of slaughterhouses were discreetly converted into blood-harvesting facilities that any vampire could visit for a fresh meal. Hybrids were born by the dozen annually, and their human relatives were allowed to know everything. Some entire towns were in the know - the little beach town where Pleione, Corisande, and Joey lived contained plenty of informed humans. Forks, WA had collectively figured out the wolves from La Push and the "exclusive spa" by 2021. Most of Volterra and the villages nearest the Québec capital had been let to do the same with their local shapeshifters.
This was not as explosive a revelation as one might think. In a population that size, of course some loon started a website entitled "THE REAL TRUTH ABOUT VAMPIRES!!!" (which contained as much as 35% real truth). But this loon had to compete with all of the other loons, who were writing websites about mermaids or dragons or unicorns. The vampire website was interpreted as a project of deadpan epistolary fiction, or at worst the ravings of a sincerely delusional author. Official sources - the ones that might be taken as something other than random loons - were tied up with ancient baggage about the Volturi and could be leaned on. The temptation to make a great and efficacious attempt to be taken seriously, given the Golden Coven's technological and magical resources to track down anyone who crossed them, was kept to a minimum.
Molly was impatient.
The idea, as she understood it, was to just go on telling people at the same slow rate: no massive media campaign, no grand speech delivered by the openly sparkling Empress at the UN, no giving all of the world's governments a coordinated green light to inform their citizenry. Everyone would be told one at a time, by someone trustworthy who had the resources to prove it. Everyone would be sworn to secrecy barring approved circumstances, and the missteps would be easily absorbed by the larger conspiracy. And someday this would just happen to achieve total information saturation, quietly, without a fuss, without provoking anyone into starting a war or demanding any sudden policy changes.
Molly had tried to tell someone once. When she was twelve, she'd cornered her best school friend Vera, extracted a promise of belief and secrecy backed by a threat of self-mutilation should it be broken, and said, "My parents are vampires."
Vera considered this, and then her mind went straight to the gutter. "Oh my god ew. I did noooooot need to know that. You did not need to know that. Did they tell you or did you walk in on them or what? Ewwwwww."
"That's not what I meant," Molly protested, and she was able to convince Vera that far - Vera decided on a more PG-rated interpretation where Molly's parents were metaphorically sucking the life out of her - but Molly never tried to explain it to a human friend again.
Not as a human, at any rate.
Molly turned twenty. She had eggs in a Golden Coven freezer, a turning application that had been approved when she was nineteen but that she could defer for any amount of time, and a budding anxiety disorder.
"I'll forget everything," she wrote to the Greco sisters. "I'm afraid I'll forget everything and everyone. I have a journal but it'll be like reading a story, won't it?"
"We'll tell you everything," Corisande promised. "We remember every word of every conversation we've ever had. Your moms too. You'll know what happened."
"But I won't remember."
"You'll remember some," said Pleione. "Enough."
Molly talked to her mum. "My throat will hurt all the time."
"They're working on that in R&D," Mum said. "Carlisle says the new synthetic prototype is, and I quote, almost drinkable."
"I'lll want to eat people," Molly said.
"You won't eat anyone," Mum said firmly.
Molly wrote to Joey. "I feel stupid for not being excited about it," she said. "I've wanted and expected to be a vampire my whole life."
"It's not stupid," Joey assured her. "There's legit stuff to be scared over and you didn't have to think about it when it was all far off."
"But I'm going to do it anyway," Molly said.
"The Golden Coven will be down here next month," Joey said. "Are you going to come here or wait for them to go to Greece or Norway so you're closer to home?"
"Florida probably," Molly said. "So I don't have to explain to my human friends why I can't see them, when I'm new."
"It'll be good to see you," Joey said. "Athena will be happy you're visiting too. And Lucy'll probably throw you a party."
She talked to her mamma. "Three days."
"Oh, sweetheart, you're going to have it easy," soothed Mamma. "It won't hurt a bit, Alec will help you. And Princess Elspeth and Zafrina take it in turns to show interesting things to the people who turn at capital facilities, so you won't even be bored."
"I'll be stacked up like a log with a bunch of other people," shuddered Molly.
"Not conscious. You'll be out first. The stacking is just so Alec can cover everyone efficiently," Mamma said. "I know, it doesn't sound very pleasant compared to going to the beach, I understand, but it's so much better than it was, and it was worth it even then."
She talked to Petra.
"I can't wait until it's my turn, seriously," Petra said. "You're complaining? Want to trade ages? You can wait another two or three years and I'll hop on a flight to, what is it this week, Australia? and let them turn me."
"I felt the same way when I was seventeen," Molly said. "It's just the immediate prospect feels different."
"Whatever, you're crazy, Mo-mo," said Petra, deploying the nickname that only she ever used. "I'm not gonna think any differently when I get approved. I'm not even going to sit on my permission slip for a couple months like you've been doing, I mean really, you could have already got the turning and the adjustment period over with and be applying to uni now if you'd been quick about it."
Mum bought Molly a plane ticket.
There were thirty other people in Molly's batch to be turned. They sat in an auditorium-style room without any windows, fidgeting and looking at each other; nine people were accompanied (and cooed over and petted) by mated vampires. Two of those, and one lone woman, were heavily pregnant with hybrids and had been wheeled in.
Princess Elspeth, with her little circlet nestled over her hair, strode in with a guard of three wolves following her, and stopped behind the podium at the front. The princess said, "Welcome, everyone," (hi, Molly! I remember you!, she added silently to Molly) "to the pre-turning briefing. As most of you know, I'm Princess Elspeth Cullen, and I run the department of public relations. In three days' time, unless you back out in the next few hours - which you are absolutely free to do, each and every one of you, should you wish -" (the princess shot a look at each of the vampires in the room and their mates) "you will all be vampires."
Molly clutched at the stack of papers in her hands. "The turning process itself, as we do it under non-emergency circumstances, is painless," the princess went on. "Those of you who are pregnant cannot be completely anesthetized until after the babies are delivered, but afterwards, everyone will be put into an induced coma and injected with venom. Anyone who has supplied us with a loved one's venom for this purpose will be turned using that." Molly had brought a vial of Mamma's with her and handed it in to Santiago earlier. "Otherwise it will be sourced from a Golden Coven staff member. Once that is underway, you'll be moved from the medical bay to the turning room, arranged space-efficiently, and preemptively put under Imperial Anesthetist Alec's anesthesia so there will be no gap in the pain relief. Assuming none of you wake up from the coma before or after the average time of thirty hours, you will have a little over forty hours of consciousness without any normal sensory input. As you might expect, this is boring."
A few people in the audience tittered at that, and Princess Elspeth smiled, adjusted her crown, and continued. "Accordingly, I and Imperial Illusionist Zafrina will be taking it in turns to entertain you during those forty-plus hours. We've both seen and therefore memorized an assortment of movies - she does visual illusions only, and so will be accompanying hers with subtitles in all applicable languages. Mine will include sound, which you will hear in your native tongue even if the film isn't originally in it. You each have a packet which includes a list of options and you're invited to check off any you'd like to see so we don't show them at random, but since you all need to be watching the same thing, you may not see all of the ones you select and will see some you didn't choose. In addition," the princess went on, grinning as though to herself, "at or around the 50-hour mark, your entertainment programming will be briefly suspended and Imperial Messenger Dwi will relay any messages your friends and family have left for you since you arrived. You'll be able to have brief conversations if those friends or family are conversing with Dwi in real time, but please, don't hold him up too long; he needs to get to everyone.
"After you're done turning, you will be removed from the area of Alec's witchcraft and will wake up immediately. I will warn you - and repeat the following safety instructions for you - before he does that, so you won't be surprised. Please do not attack Alec; even if you don't actually harm him, you could cause him to lose his concentration on his power, and not everyone will finish turning at the same time. Please do not attack anyone else, either. Newborn vampires are greatly improved, but not rendered perfectly controlled, by advance warning about the nature of vampires. You will find yourself moody and overly emotional with more violent tendencies than you are accustomed to until you have gotten used to being a vampire, possibly until you're no longer a newborn.
"This capital site has a one-mile tunnel to a Golden Coven-owned slaughterhouse. It is possible to dispense edibly fresh blood via beverage machines installed in the tunnel without needing to share air with the humans who operate the facility. Although you may or may not choose to eat immediately, you are advised to do so as soon as possible. The slaughterhouse operates at a steady rate twenty-four hours a day, and we have arranged for there to be a particularly high volume of animals processed the day you're scheduled to wake, so there should be no gap in availability. There are clear signs indicating which way the tunnel is from the turning room.
"It is strongly recommended that you remain here in the capital for one to six weeks, depending on your personal acclimation, before attempting to depart. Imperial Newborn Handler Jasper and his assistants will look after you for as long as you choose to remain, although if you do stay longer than six weeks, you may be asked to pick up minor Golden Coven work. Because we're in Florida, we may also receive a visit from Didyme Greco, an occasional Golden Coven consultant who possesses an aura of happiness newborns tend to find extremely soothing, but we cannot guarantee her presence. Any possessions stored with my department for safekeeping while you turn will be released to you as soon as you're done, but please be careful with them; it will take time to become accustomed to your new strength. I can take questions now."
One of the pregnant ones who had a vampire with her wanted to know if she could have a minute to hold the baby before going under. The princess said that would be fine as long as the C-section went normally and someone held its head so it couldn't bite her. Someone else - who appeared to pose his question in Spanish, but Molly dizzily found him comprehensible anyway and suspected princessly involvement - wanted to know if his vampire sister would be allowed to hang around in the capital while he was acclimating. Elspeth said yes to that too. (Molly looked at the princess's mouth while she answered, and thought she might be actually saying "sí", but only heard "yes".) Molly tried to think of a question - she had to have one, it couldn't be that simple - but none came to mind.
Princess Elspeth and her wolves led everyone to the medical bay. There were only five beds, so everyone except the three pregnant women, two vampire mates, and two people Elspeth pointed at sat in the waiting room and paged through the booklet of movie options. Molly circled a few things, mostly recent stuff she'd wanted to see and hadn't gotten around to. As an afterthought she added a couple that she'd seen before and liked, and wanted to remember properly when she woke up.
Molly finished going through the packet, handed it over to the woman wearing a nametag that said "Imperial Illusionist Zafrina" when she came in and asked for them, and waited her turn.
Then one of the doctors - no one Molly knew - poked her head out of the bay, and crooked a finger at Molly, and Molly watched her feet move as she proceeded shakily in.
There were needles, and then there was nothing.
Molly felt a moment of terrible panic when she woke up unable to feel her body, even her own breathing or which direction was down, and her entire sensory experience consisted of the eponymous musical number from "Singing in the Rain". Then she remembered where she was, and what was going on, and calmed down - had her heart jumped, even as it made progress towards its last beat? had she inhaled strangely even while disconnected from her body? - and watched the movie. She hadn't seen it before, and was fairly confused for having missed the beginning, but then "Casablanca" came on and she managed to lose herself in the plot enough that she almost didn't miss having a body. The next movie was silent - shift change - with subtitles marching across the bottom of the "screen".
Movies helped, but the long hours without a break to get up and stretch her legs - to reassure herself that she had legs - were pretty mind-numbing. And as predicted, Molly found that she had extra mind to numb. It was fascinating, although not enough to make up for the limited entertainment the films offered - she could almost feel her brain moving in quick little ticks, counting off time for her as the minutes piled up. She couldn't remember when exactly she was supposed to get messages, though Mum had promised there would be some (and she did, she found, remember that: she knew who she was, who her parents were, who she was expecting to see when she opened her eyes. Or were her eyes open, and merely unseeing...?)
The messages from home came in: a detached, monotonous voice read her notes from Mum and Mamma, from Uncle Ilario and Aunt Cath and Petra and Julian, and then said, "There are a Pleione and Corisande, and a "Joey", here to speak with you."
"Tell them hi!" Molly thought, trying to direct the thought at Dwi without really knowing how to go about it, and a conversation of sorts - made strange by the fact that everyone's words were rendered in the same voice - ensued, but there wasn't too much to say, and after Molly's friends had promised to be present when she woke up, the conversation ended and a showing of "The Last Battle" began.
Ten more movies later, and Elspeth's voice sounded in Molly's head: "Hi, Molly! You're all done. Alec's got you out of the stack and you're propped up against a wall in the turning room. Your friends are waiting right out the door for you. Once you get your senses back you may be very startled and have the impulse to lash out, but please don't attack anyone, especially Alec, and if you do property damage that we can't fix with staff witches, you do need to pay for it. If you want to have a drink right away, just follow the signs. Alec is going to place you outside of the field of his power now."
And then -
Sensation slammed into Molly. There was a hot burning taste like alcohol in her mouth - venom and thirst - she suddenly knew where all her limbs were and that Alec had his hands on her shoulders, and she pulled away and he pushed her (in the direction away from his power? There was the stack of people, behind her if she turned her head, sharp in light and shadow and color, so yes, he'd only been pushing her away from where he was still blanketing the room, but he pushed her, she ought to bite his nose off - or - not - bad idea. Don't bite his nose off.) She didn't stumble, she got her feet back and gasped for unsatisfying air, smelled something warm and multilayered with promised flavor and her throat smoldered -
"Molly," called Pleione's voice from the hallway. "Molly, won't you come out?"
Molly sniffed the air. More burning, lingering scents of humans, and the sweet near-floral scent of Alec, who was watching her and had his arms up ready to defend if she attacked (he's expecting a fight, give it to him! said something in the cheap seats in her renovated brain, and she clenched her fists but didn't advance) and a spicier, not-food, not-foe smell. (Hybrids, said a memory, dim but there.)
Molly carefully laid her palm on the door that led from the turning room, and pushed.
Light from the hallway struck her eyes in eight colors (have to change my screen name, she thought with a hysterical inward laugh) and there were Pleione and Corisande and Joey.
"Good morning," said Molly, blinking rapidly and peering at the faces. Joey was looking at her hopefully, and she returned the eye contact, not sure what she was checking for - but on inspection that was just Joey, not The Most Important Person In The World, and she gave a minute shake of her head, pretty sure that she'd have noticed something different about him besides amazing visual clarity if he were her mate. Joey sighed and shrugged and Corisande giggled.
"Good morning," Pleione returned. "How are you feeling?"
"I feel like while this is probably still an improvement on the natural method, suddenly having vampire senses probably seems a lot more fun for the first ten minutes if it's replacing mind-destroying agony instead of a romantic comedy," Molly said.
This made all three half-vampires giggle, and then Corisande said, "Do you want to go get breakfast?"
"Nng," said Molly, nodding and drawing her eyebrows together. She looked for signs, and saw a large arrow labeled BLOOD (with a red teardrop symbol), and followed where it pointed. She was forty strides down the hall when she realized she was going too fast for her friends to keep up, but they'd be able to catch her when she stopped for food, so she left them behind.
The hall smelled of vampires all the way along, but there was no one currently at the beverage machines. Molly grabbed a plastic cup, accidentally crushed it, took a second more carefully, and pressed it against the dispenser. She let it fill up to about an inch before she snatched it back and gulped down the contents - bleah, but it washed the venom away - and then she let more pour in, filling the cup to the brim.
By the time the hybrids were done jogging to the end of the hall, Molly had finished four cupsful of blood (and dissolved the rim of her cup to the point where she had to replace it with yet another, although she supposed the plastic was still cheaper than having to wash actual glass on a regular basis). She filled a fifth and stepped back to let her friends get their own. "Usually I'd rather hunt for seagulls," commented Pleione, "it's fresher, but this is convenient, when we're here anyway."
"I'm not at all ready to try hunting yet," said Molly, shaking her head and trying to find a way to sip from her cup of blood without getting too much venom on the flimsy plastic. It still tasted terrible, but it was slowly, steadily whittling away at the craving and the pain, so she kept drinking until she felt like she'd spill if she tipped over. "Okay. So now I'm a vampire. What next?"
"Doesn't PRPR have a pamphlet about that?" asked Joey, raising his cup of blood in a toast and tapping it against Corisande's. "Titled just about exactly that: So Now I'm A Vampire, What Next?"
"No, I think newborns are considered too simple-minded to tolerate anything more than minimalistic signage," said Pleione, pointing at another plaque on the wall at the end of the hallway, which read NEWBORN QUARTERS and pointed down another corridor around the corner.
"Are you done eating, Molly? Want to go see the accommodations?" asked Corisande.
Molly looked at the thin film of blood remaining at the bottom of her cup and did not feel motivated to replenish the supply. She could also hear urgent footsteps, vampire feet on stone approaching from the direction of the turning room. "Let's go," she said, tossing the third and final destroyed cup and getting out of the next newborn's way.
After five torturously cooped-up weeks in the newborn quarters, during which Molly only got into three altercations and lost limbs on just one occasion, the Golden Coven moved house to Greece. Newborns (from Molly's batch and eight subsequent - there had been a few leftover from Brazil when she'd turned, but they'd all gone during the stint in Florida) who weren't ready to leave custody shared an airplane with Alec. He continually fogged an area immediately around himself in case any of them went for him, and was ready to expand it if they started fighting with each other. Jasper sat at the other end of the plane, pouring calm into the air and looking too dangerous to touch; his assistants were dispersed throughout the cabin. Molly made it across the ocean without attacking anyone or provoking anyone into an attack, and decided that on arrival she'd try leaving and, if that went well, swimming home.
She asked Jasper about it, and he said, "Swing by the PRPR office after sundown, after we see visitors. There aren't any humans still there by that hour, but the smell clings to the place. See how you do."
Molly took the advice. Standing in the waiting room, forcing herself to remain calm and sip water, inhaling smoke and ambrosia, she managed not to drop into hunting mode.
She called home, and Mamma answered. "Molly, good evening! How was the trip to Greece?"
"Uneventful, thank goodness," Molly said. "I heard one of Jasper's helpers saying that one time a newborn clawed his way out of the airplane, landed in the Atlantic, and had to have a team of people go in and grab him before he made landfall and ate someone. Nothing like that last night."
"Oh, that's good," said Mamma.
"I was thinking I'd start for home tonight," Molly said. "By water, I don't think I want to be in a commercial airplane yet. I memorized the maps. One of the pamphlets lying around said that they'll mail my stuff after me if I ask and pay postage so I don't have to worry about waterproofing my computer."
"We'll expect you, sweetheart," said Gianna. "Be careful."
"Hey, Crazy-Eyes," said Julian, when he and his family next visited Molly and hers. "How delicious would I be?" Aunt Cath took her son aside for a very stern discussion regarding how remarks about his deliciousness were not only cruel but also dangerous, and Molly fidgeted in her chair uncomfortably and watched Petra eat a sandwich. Petra stared back, envy in her eyes.
"You're prettier," Petra announced, after a few minutes.
"...Thank you," said Molly.
"I heard it would make us prettier but I've never actually met someone before and then seen them after, I mean I saw photos of Dad but he had cancer before," Petra said softly. "I'm glad it's true."
"You look fine, Petra," said Uncle Ilario, and Petra sighed.
The next weekend, Molly brought her computer, full of university applications, up the street to Vera's house. They had decided that these would be less miserable to fill out together, and it was overcast, so Molly didn't have to cancel or demand that Vera come to her.
Vera did not fail to notice Molly's bright crimson eyes, decolorized skin, or newfound loveliness. "Yikes, what kind of crazy plastic surgery did you get in Florida?" Vera asked as soon as she opened the door to receive her friend. "Is it that new thing I heard they were doing with I-can't-pronounce-it-azine? Only I don't remember that having a bright-red-contact-lenses side effect."
Molly pulled her sleeve across her nose to inhale air with as little Vera in it as possible, and said, "The craziest. You wouldn't believe me."
"Hey, I'd believe you," protested Vera. "You've never lied to me."
"Not technically, I guess," sighed Molly. She glanced at the huge birdbath in the front yard. "Does your dad still want that moved like you were talking about last week?"
"Yeah, he - Molly? Molly, I don't think you can -"
Molly picked up the birdbath with one hand, moved it to the spot on the corner of the patio where Vera had described her father wanting it, and set it down. "So, um," said Molly. "I'm a vampire."
"Oh," said Vera faintly, looking at the birdbath. "That so. Um, good for you. That's nice."
"Can I come in?" Molly asked.
"Yeah. Um. Don't bite me," said Vera, standing out of the way, and Molly shook her head and crossed the threshold.
In 2035, a human Molly didn't know and didn't meet at a vampire-related event recognized her species for the first time. She was walking to her apartment from work (back-end web design, or rather 10% back-end web design and 90% goofing off to hide her productivity speed from her boss), and a human man she'd never seen before stopped on the opposite sidewalk, looked her over, and then crossed the street. He left a margin of a few feet, but was clearly addressing her when he asked, "Hey, are you a - you know?"
"A you-know?" Molly inquired archly, but she did stop to talk to him.
"You know," he insisted, looking at her eyes and gesturing. He looked around furtively at the people milling around on the street, and opened his mouth again, but Molly held a finger to her lips.
"If you know, you might choose to whisper it very quietly," she proposed in an undertone.
"Vampire," he muttered under his breath, looking away.
"Walk with me," she said, tossing her head and beckoning, and he trotted after her. "Where's your info from?"
"My cousin Pat," he said. "Pat says his wife's niece is one, told me what to look for, but that was months ago and you're the only one I've seen."
"You didn't feel like going to Norway to get pamphlets?" Molly asked.
"Norway, is that where I'd have to go?" he asked, shaking his head. "No. I didn't really believe Pat but then there you were, with the parasol and the sweater past your fingertips in July and the gold eyes and the paleness like the dead - are you technically? Dead?"
"I don't feel that way," she said.
"No heartbeat. ...Right? I let Pat go on for a bit before I told him I didn't believe him..."
"Trees are alive," she said.
The man, whose name he eventually disclosed as Cadan, followed her home and sat in her living room for hours, peppering her with questions and smacking himself in the forehead when he asked if she had any food in the fridge. (She did, but it was a certified-barely-drinkable synthetic blood imitation, kept in case of conditions preventing her from hunting or visiting the Coven slaughterhouse eighty miles west. This answer set off another round of questions.)
Night fell, and Cadan fell asleep on her sofa partway through a question about Molly's enhanced hearing, and she took the decorative throw blanket off the back of the couch and put it over him.
She'd been standing by the sofa for six hours watching him sleep before it occurred to her that this wasn't at all normal behavior.
"Now, what do you say if one of the other children wants to know why you'll look seven in six months when you only look five now?" Molly asked.
"I'm fast," said Brian. "Mum, I remember real good, I don't have to practice."
"And if this answer doesn't make them give up asking?" prompted Cadan. "It's not practice, we're only checking."
"Then I say come over to my house after school for cookies and my mum and dad will tell you," Brian recited. "And then you give them cookies and you tell them. Because the Empress isn't going to give a speech at the U.N. or anything," he added in an uncanny imitation of Molly's mannerisms.
Cadan laughed and ruffled Brian's hair. "All right then. You're sure you want to walk? You do have to walk the entire way. I saw you jumping into trees the other day in broad daylight; the neighbors might have too."
"So?" asked Brian.
"We wouldn't want to run out of cookies," said Molly, and this got the appropriate reaction of horror from her son, who seemed to be the only hybrid in the world with a sweet tooth (although Molly did have to double the eggs in each batch of dough for maximally effective bribery).
"I'll walk, really, the whole way," Brian promised, and then he put his bag over his shoulder and set off. "Bye, Mum! Bye, Dad!"