"Of course I was cross." Fleur swept into the inn's common room, lifting the hood that had protected her powdered hair from the rain. A few paces behind her, Lacroix held the door to keep it from closing on the train of her dark blue mantua. "Our coffeehouse discussions used to be so open, but Craddock as much as said I should be seen and not heard tonight. His calculations are unsound, Lucien!"
"You can always return to Janette's salon in Paris." Lacroix signaled the maid to help Fleur with her wraps, then removed his own black greatcoat. "I understand my daughter now has the leading lights of belles lettres as well as the court begging for invitations. Of course, that would mean separation from your man the Master of the Mint."
"Mmm, Newton," Fleur sighed dreamily, settling into an upholstered chair. "That lecture was marvelous, was it not? Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Are you sure I cannot bring him across?"
Lacroix raised his eyebrows at her.
She laughed. "Yes, I am sure, too. But, oh, I want every last idea out of him before he succumbs to mortality!"
Across the room, alone in a corner by the dark window, Erica sat motionless, hoping to remain unnoticed. Shock and anger had dulled the first pain when Nicholas had left her at sunset, but grief and self-reproach had dug in through a long night of watching raindrops pepper the boulevard from this same seat. She did not want to have to explain. She did not want to have to feel.
She watched Fleur, her former lover's mortal sister, and Lacroix, his vampiric maker, as if they were on a stage and she in the audience, for once. The actress and playwright would rather be in any story than her own.
Distracting herself, Erica puzzled over Fleur's dress. The mantua was cut in the latest court fashion, stiff and formal, with enough fabric in the train to drape a bed. The stays and stomacher flattened Fleur's torso from the panniers extending the arc of her hips up to her breasts curving out the top. Erica would not wear one offstage under any circumstances. But Fleur's was perfectly correct. So what about it gnawed at her costume sense?
Color. Finally, Erica realized that Fleur's indigo gown, embroidered with tiny, white flowers, was that of a matron with daughters the age Fleur appeared. The daughters would wear pink or cream. With over four centuries behind her, the petite vampire still wore the face of a milk-skinned maiden, but not the livery.
Erica looked up from the fabric of Fleur's dress and found Fleur looking back. Erica might have blushed, if only she had fed recently.
"Good evening, Erica." Fleur let vampiric hearing carry the quiet conversation across the room. "Had you a performance tonight after all?"
"No." Erica glanced down at her own apparel, the brown coat, waistcoat and breeches of a country gentleman, the lead she played in her latest drama. "The company will leave for Gloucester tomorrow night as planned."
"Will Nicholas leave with you?" Lacroix asked, although Nicholas's maker must already know the answer.
Erica raised her chin. "Ask him yourself."
"Where is he?" Fleur looked from one to the other. "Have you quarreled again, Lucien?"
Erica slipped her hands beneath her coattails and dug her nails into her palms.
"Erica? Where is my brother?"
"He—" Erica stopped. Swallowed. Licked her lips. Wished she could have fed. "He has taken ship for the Americas."
Fleur blinked. "But that takes weeks to arrange safely—"
"So the question," Lacroix said, "is whether Nicholas has acted impetuously, without provisions or protections, and must be fetched back, or whether he had been planning throughout the weeks required. While he is capable of the former, it is the latter in this case."
Erica flinched. She rose, nodded politely at Fleur, ignored Lacroix, and headed up the stairs. The sun would rise soon. Crumbling to cinders by the window had seemed worth considering only until Lacroix arrived to enjoy her mortification.
Behind her, Erica heard Fleur ask, "Do you mind?", and Lacroix answer, "No, of course not. I have some correspondence to attend to." Anything else was lost in the bustle of waking mortals beginning their day.
Erica closed the door behind her and looked around the chamber she and Nicholas had shared this month. Nicholas had nailed the rug up over the window that first night, a few inches higher than Erica could reach standing flat on the floor. The room was more luxurious than their usual accommodations — more to the standards of Nicholas's family than hers — but otherwise no different: a bed, a table, two chairs, and her trunks of scripts, costumes and properties piled against the wall.
Nicholas's own trunk was gone.
Erica lit the candles next to the expensive Venetian mirror on the far wall and studied herself in it. Nicholas had never found fault with her appearance, but she had never felt uglier. Her black hair looked thin and lank to her, cut shoulder-length to fit easily under wigs. Her wide cheekbones seemed to show the lower class from which she had come, a heartbeat ago as vampires count years. And of course there were her tomboy ways, which had always appeared to appeal to him, but...
A polite knock on the door, and then Fleur entered. Erica watched Nicholas's sister come up beside her in the mirror, moving almost as if she would lean her head against Erica's arm. But she did not, perhaps not wanting to get hair powder on the costume.
"What were you looking for?" Fleur asked, meeting Erica's eyes in the mirror.
"Things I can change."
"Oh." Fleur sighed. She clasped Erica's hand. "I am so sorry. Never let him make you think it is your fault. The fault is his. Always his."
Erica squeezed Fleur's hand and felt tears fighting their way out for the first time since Nicholas had said he was moving on without her. "But I love him."
"So do I." Apparently dismissing the hair powder as a concern, Fleur leaned against Erica's shoulder and wrapped an arm around her waist. "Nicholas has been my hero since I was a child, and the bane of my existence since I became a vampire. There is no conflict. Do you want to talk about it?"
Erica closed her eyes for a moment, and tried to stay inside that moment, safe in Fleur's sympathy and far from Nicholas's rejection. When the embrace lasted longer than Erica felt she could fairly ask, she stepped aside to free Fleur, and took off the coat. It would take a lot of brushing to rid the sleeve of the powder, but it had been worth it.
Fleur sat on the bed, kicked off her shoes, and drew her legs up under her. She looked ready to listen.
Erica barred the door. She leaned against the thick bedpost and crossed her arms. "When did you last feed?"
"A few hours ago."
"Nicholas will not kill humans, you know. Except in defense of another life. He survives on animal blood, mostly, like a carouche."
"That goes back about a century," Fleur nodded. "I drained a friend of his during the Spanish Inquisition — entirely by accident; how was I to know? — and as soon as he finished sulking, he developed this sanctimonious regimen. Before that, he used to be willing to kill mortals he deemed 'guilty' by his own moral code — though not those he found 'innocent.' It was easier to pretend he was just going through a phase, then."
"It was very attractive." Erica watched Fleur's expression. "Admirable. Inspiring. Exciting. A vampire choosing to live as a carouche for moral reasons."
"But then he pressured you to join him."
"Not at first." Now the tears did flow. Erica dashed them away. She untied her cravat and unbuttoned the top of her shirt to protect them from the red drops. "We were both enthralled to find another vampire who believes mortal life is precious. You know that I, well, I measure it out? How much good I do, how much pleasure and instruction my plays bring, that is how much I may take back out of this world in human blood."
"No, I did not know." Fleur's face remained clear of the disapproval Erica had feared.
"We are so blessed with our endless years. We must contribute to life, to pay for those lives we take away!"
"But that was not enough for Nicholas?"
"He says you cannot set a price. That every human life is priceless." More tears. Nicholas's disappointment hurt more than Erica had known she could bear. "He is not wrong."
Fleur raised herself to her knees, tucked up her skirts, and moved down the bed to Erica. She ran her fingers up the tear tracks on Erica's face, then licked the blood from her fingertips. "Your life is worth something, too. He cannot dismiss it just because you are not one of his precious mortals."
"I could drink animal blood."
Fleur snorted. "Beasts are for famines, and pious fools like my dearest brother. You are a vampire, Erica, just as I am. Be a vampire. We have a place in the natural order, too."
"Nicholas believes we are unnatural, an uncanny perversion warring against all that is good."
"Nothing that exists is outside the scope of nature. Science is beginning to reveal that. And because of what we are, we can live to see the day science will explain even us." Fleur reached behind Erica's neck, untied the black ribbon holding her hair, and combed her fingers through the wavy strands. "You are talented, creative, and beautiful. If you must measure, trust that your measure is overflowing."
Erica tried to turn a sob into a laugh. "And here I suspected you of that unsigned review in the Verdict labeling my last play 'insipid.'"
"That script was insipid." Fleur did blush, just a little, her last meal not far behind her. "I blame the era, not the author; I have not seen a decent tragedy since before you were born. But your acting in it was breathtaking. Your energy on stage — you... you are better than life."
Fleur wiped away one last trace of tears and sucked her finger clean. Then she sat down to swing her legs off the bed. Leaving her shoes behind, Fleur was a good inch shorter than she usually seemed, which was half a head shorter than Erica to begin. Erica turned against the bedpost to watch Fleur draw a comb out of a pocket slit in front of the mirror.
"I like this fashion's look, but there is nothing convenient about it." Fleur unpinned the rows of plaits at the back of her head under a flounce of tight curls. When she released the last one, her hair fell to her waist in chessboard squares of dark blonde and white powder. She shook and combed it out. When as much white was gone as could be managed without washing, she met Erica's eyes in the mirror. "This is me. Just this tall, just this old." Her blue eyes churned to sulfur and her fangs pushed into place. "Just this vampiric. Just like you."
"How long has it been since you fed, Erica?" Fleur turned around. "Not from an animal. Not from my brother, who feeds on animals. How long since you had what a vampire needs?"
Erica felt her own eyes glaze gold. She ran her tongue around her extended canines.
"I am still warm with it." Fleur's words tumbled faster, even around her fangs. "Let me share. Let me drown some of your pain—"
Erica extended her hand, and Fleur took it, stepping close.
"My heart has never been broken," Fleur whispered, focused on Erica's open collar. "I want to learn what that is like. Please. Do you mind?"
Erica looked down into huge, glowing eyes. The same blue normally, the same yellow now, but otherwise, really, not at all like her brother's. Nicholas's eyes blurred with lines crossed out and rewritten. Fleur's were as crisp as a printed page. "If that is what you want, take it all."
"Just enough," Fleur licked her lips. She nestled as close as her skirts permitted and leaned up on her toes. Then her teeth were in Erica's neck, and Erica could feel Fleur's body pressing into her embrace even through the stays and stomacher and panniers. Erica gasped. Shuddered. Sank against the bedpost. After a delicious moment as the object of all Fleur's attention, Erica bent her head and returned the bite.
Warm and wet with fresh blood, Erica did not knowingly recognize that the older vampire had been right; incredibly, Fleur's heart really had never been broken. Never rejected by one she loved. Ever defended by Nicholas, Janette, and Lacroix, each in his or her own way. Why so fortunate? Erica would have envied her, had the feeling not wound through her then like one of her own, soothing and smoothing the wounds of a more ragged existence.
The sensation crested and passed a second time. Fleur did not stop.
Erica fought her way back to ordinary consciousness, knowing something was wrong, as right as it still felt. "Fleur?"
No response. This sort of exchange could not go on without respite. A little was lost with every cycle. "Fleur, enough." By accident or malice, vampires could drain each other past the point of injury. Something only a ragged life taught, perhaps. And Erica was no ancient like Lacroix, with power to spare for such a whirlpool.
"Fleur, stop!" Erica pushed Fleur away, tearing her own skin under Fleur's fangs. But the flow was broken, and Erica was alone again inside her own blood. She was safe there. If anywhere.
Fleur looked dazed. Erica cradled her and let them both slide to the floor beside the bed.
"I am sorry," Fleur murmured at last. She kissed the healed cuts on Erica's neck. "I did not mean that. I was... unable to stop."
"Should I be flattered, you glutton?" Erica kissed Fleur's forehead. "I know I said you could take it all. But it is dangerous. You must know— most vampires cannot—"
Fleur put her finger on Erica's lips. "I know. I do. I shall be more careful." Then Fleur opened more buttons on Erica's shirt and settled her ear against the skin over Erica's still heart.
"Tell me when you hear a beat." Erica threaded one hand into Fleur's hair, combing through the plait-induced waves with her fingers, as she had wanted to when she first saw them loosed. The dark blonde hair, still powder-dusted, was just as long and thick and far finer than the stomacher and stays over which she arranged it, not to mention the pannier poking awkwardly into her ribs at this angle. "Shall I help you take these off?"
"One beat," Fleur said at the same time. "What? Oh, no, leave them. I will need them on when I head down the hallway, with all the mortals scurrying about. I can avoid the sun, but rumor is more implacable than even the rays Newton discovered to be light's true form."
Erica froze. Then she dropped her hands. How had she forgotten about Lacroix? "So you will be returning to him — today."
"Yes, of course." Fleur sat up and studied Erica's face. "I did not mislead you, did I?"
"No," Erica said. She patted Fleur's shoulder, disentangled herself and went to stand by the rug Nicholas had nailed over the window. She crossed her arms. She had no right to feel rejected by Fleur. No right at all. "No, you did not mislead me. Thank you for the... comfort."
Fleur remained on the floor, her skirts and train in disarray and her hair tumbled around her shoulders. Fleur looked hurt, and delectable, and Erica wanted to scream. She was the convert here, an infant beside Fleur's four centuries and more. She was the wronged one, abandoned by Nicholas. Why did it fall to her to behave maturely?
Erica had never been a youngest sibling, an only child, an indulged mistress, not for a single day. Fleur had always been such, Erica grasped, in an "always" longer than Erica could yet comprehend.
Erica sighed. She returned to Fleur and helped her to her feet. They straightened Fleur's mantua, recovered her shoes and coiled her hair at the back of her neck. Then they stood together, awkwardly, before the closed door.
"This is not what I had planned," Fleur fretted.
"What, would you have sung me a lullaby instead?" Erica pushed a stray lock of hair back behind Fleur's ear. "We are vampires. Nothing less."
The door closed behind Fleur. Erica blew out the candles and watched the faint glow at the edges of the rug over the window.
— End —