Evolution designed human women to respond nurturingly to human young. The behaviors vary, era to era, individual to individual, but, all in all, nature perpetuates that chemical compulsion to ensure the survival of the species.
Janette approved of that, because Janette approved of survival.
Beyond distant general approbation, however, Janette preferred not to consider the issue. In an existence ruled by yearning for human blood, other instincts must give way. That which spared a vampire death spared her also the need for progeny. And if the wish lingered wistfully past the need, well, after all, those who waste time longing for the impossible only end up like Nicolas.
Like Nicolas, who had importuned her into this uncomfortable reflection when he strode into her crowded club with that relentless, determined look and said he needed her advice. Stepping out of a conversation with a colleague, she had steered Nicolas to what passed for a quiet table to learn what drove him to her this time, only to be asked whether she had ever brought anyone over to vampirism.
But surely he knew the answer! Did he think that in the forty years they had spent apart, she had changed the pattern of a thousand? Of course, given what had happened when they last lived together those forty years before, when she had briefly allowed herself to pretend a little over the war-orphan Daniel, to share with Nicolas the sweet illusion of that human family for which he yearned, her soft-headed whim had cost the child the humanity Nicolas adored, in Lacroix's grip, without the choice she had meant to give the boy when he grew old enough... yes, perhaps she could understand why Nicolas stood over her now, leaning close, intensely awaiting her reply.
"Well," she teased, testing the direction of his concern. "I'm not exactly the mothering type."
"I'm serious." He smiled, his tightly-wound introversion abating for a moment.
"So am I." She thought briefly of those parents she had known in her long existence, human mothers and fathers and vampire progenitors. From some who had loved and protected their offspring before even their own survival, to others whose pointless cruelties were the more despicable for perpetrating them on those who looked to them for succor, all were parents alike. Janette wished to see nothing of either extreme in herself, and, as when he took Daniel from her, Lacroix had taught that only the foolish believe in middle ground. Nicolas was often foolish that way. "Why? Are you thinking of doing it?"
"I'm considering it."
She hesitated. By his own standards, Nicolas had failed more often than not when attempting conversions. For him to undertake this now meant either that it differed greatly from past situations... or, more likely, that it resembled them exactly. Of course. So surely not— "A lover?"
"No." His calm immediacy told her that he had expected the question. He swung around the table and seated himself across from her, concern creasing his brow. "A relative of someone who's very dear to me. He's dying."
"Then let him." Brisk and firm, she offered the advice for which he said he had come.
"It's not as easy as that, Janette."
"It's easier than doing what you're contemplating."
"So you have done it."
"No." She knew he thought he had caught her, that her assertion had been an admission. But her knowledge on this score remained as bitter and hard-won as any of his. "I've never been able to stop myself at the right moment — you know, while there is still life in them — to bring them over and make them a vampire."
None of her fellow party guests interested Janette that night. More precisely, none who could be spared to the particular nature of her interest. Unlike servants and peasants, the sudden disappearance of patrician junkers and solid burghers inevitably brought awkward and distressing inquires difficult to persuade away either monetarily or vampirically — even that of so lowly a nobleman as the last heir to the Schenk of Speckfeld.
Steering the eligible young man into the orbit of a matron eager to secure his attention to her daughter, Janette escaped the humid soiree. She stepped out onto the cool stone balcony with relief, breathing in the ivy scent, only to find herself facing the back of her hostess. The Baroness Sofia leaned forward against the terrace's low outer wall, some of her soft brown curls tumbling down her spine to the low line of her white gown. "May I accompany you, Baroness?"
The Baroness tensed visibly at the intrusion, but when she looked back, she immediately recovered her composure. "Janette. Yes. Please do."
Joining the Baroness at the ledge, Janette looked down across the carefully-maintained grounds rolling away from the castle toward the nearby forest, easily visible in the moonlight, even to one without a night predator's senses. She started to offer a pleasantry about the hospitality and friendship she and Nicolas — and frequently Lacroix — had enjoyed here over the past several months, but stilled her tongue when she spotted Nicolas and his current infatuation on the path through the flower garden far below. Roses around an innocent-looking blue-eyed honey-blonde — Janette stifled an unladylike snort. At least she knew where Lacroix's interest would lie tonight.
"You watch them, too?" The Baroness asked softly. "Can it be that he chooses that girl over even you?"
Janette replied, equally quiet, "When I want Nicolas, I have him." She and Sofia had become close enough friends that this simple fact suited any of the directions from which the question might have come.
"I mean no disrespect. To you, him, or, for that matter, the young Lady Agatha. She and her sisters all served in this household for a few years before reaching marriageable age, but only Agatha truly embraced the education available in my home. She is bright and talented. Wisdom and skill will come to her as time steals her beauty... as if any polish can compensate for lacking raw freshness, in the eyes of men."
Janette sympathized distantly, understanding but unwilling to engage too deeply in mortal cares. As much as she liked Sofia, as fond as she had become of this interlude of accueil and companionship, the woman would be gone all too soon, and feeling much now would only call pain then. Preoccupation had burdened her clever and engaging hostess throughout their last several visits; evidently, the issue had crested. Was this about Nicolas, or the philandering Baron's pathetic indiscretions, or something more? "Not all men are so short-sighted. Most. But not all."
"Some must be very long-sighted." The Baroness held Janette's gaze as humans rarely dared. "Some men, and women, must be very long-sighted, to look down the corridor of years, to know what to do with the imperishable beauty and inextinguishable endurance of your kind, once they have it." She dropped her eyes and extended one hand to Janette's sleeve, the gesture both elegant and measured. "Blue, but hardly darker than what I'm wearing. It reflects the light like a pool over sand, as I once saw in the south." The Baroness threw back her shoulders to again meet Janette's eyes. "I imagine such a color makes it difficult to hunt."
Janette searched the gaze, and found certainty. "You know."
"Nicolas told you?"
"Nicholas spurned me!" The Baroness hissed through suddenly clenched teeth. "Everything I have to offer weighed less in his eyes than Agatha's youth. What it cost my youth to earn cannot be spent in the time left me, as the days drag this body down toward death so soon — too soon — ever, too soon! So much more to learn, to do, and already I am pushed aside! A woman's opinion is heard only when offered from the lips of beauty and youth! So I watched, and pondered. I've read and listened to a great deal of the world, and I am able to discern what it is that stands in front of me. Last night... I asked him to make me one of you."
"You know what you asked?" Janette licked her lips.
"Oh, yes." The Baroness turned away from the ledge to face Janette, extending her hands in affirmation and supplication alike.
Janette accepted the gesture, taking the warm hands between her own. She felt the radiance of vampiric hunger begin to char her eyes. Lacroix would deny permission, if she asked. That was his way. But tonight he would be watching Nicolas and the little Fleur-alike, and Janette did not intend to ask. "Sofia." Janette used the personal name aloud for the first time, executing the final measure of a familiar overture. "Will you accept from me what he would not give?"
"My lady," Sofia completed the rank reversal, and raised Janette's hands to her lips. "Please. Make me like you. Give me time!"
Yes. Oh, yes. Staring at the strings of pearls encasing Sofia's throat like mail, Janette struggled to prevent her fangs from extending. She could do this. She could have this. Leaving one hand in Sofia's grasp, Janette unfastened the necklace clasp with the other. "Where can we be alone?"
"My rooms...?" The castle's opposite wing.
"Too far!" Janette decided, intoxicated by the scent of human blood, the consciousness of mortal willingness, and the excitement of taking, for once, what Lacroix always reserved for himself. She pulled the pearls from Sofia's neck, watching the coil unwind against the smooth skin like an anchor line plunging free to the ocean floor. "What sits behind those doors?"
"The plate glass? A parlor. We can shut them—"
"Yes." Janette followed Sofia inside. The expensive chandelier burned a generous array of candles, but Janette saw only by the light of her hunger. At last, she allowed her fangs to emerge and pierce Sofia's warm throat as she leaned into her embrace.
Proud and bitter, the hot, living blood roused the beast even while filling it. Janette drank, through the knowledge of all that was Sofia. Janette consumed, to the boundaries of the life that Sofia might have lived. Dimly, Janette sensed that the pleasure of the flowing blood could easily propel her past the point at which she might make Sofia a vampire. She wanted it all, every drop, as Lacroix had always declared she would. But consciousness of the risk swung the point within reach. As good as it was — too good to stop, too good to even think of stopping — Janette began to pull back, stretching after a new instinct, a union other than oblivion. She would not take too much! She would have this, with Sofia. She could—
And then Lacroix was there. Pain invaded and ended Janette's pleasure as he tore her away from Sofia and sent her spinning toward the wall. Snarling sounds humans could not produce, Lacroix glared at Janette as he tore open his left wrist with his fangs and offered it to Sofia, opening a passage for her back from the very threshold of the Light.
Once certain of Sofia's return, Lacroix settled her exhausted body on a divan to adjust to its transformation in sleep. Conspicuously massaging his healing wrist, he stalked to where Janette lay crumpled at the foot of a mahogany cabinet. "My Janette," he began. "My Janette. How unlike you. To go against my... instruction. Of Nicholas, I expect this. But you!"
Janette remained silent, and still.
"My Janette. Now my Sofia. You would surely have lost her — taken too much — were it not for my intervention. If you wanted her so, my dear, you should have mentioned it."
No matter what she did now, Janette knew it would be the wrong thing.
"Have you somehow forgotten that you are mine? Nicholas has forgotten. Nicholas requires reminding. I think you do, as well." Lacroix turned his back on her, briefly surveying the spacious parlor before seating himself in a navy wing-chair, its embroidered fabric stretched tightly over its wooden frame. "Come here."
Janette rose carefully, shaking her light dress back into its designed folds. She walked to him steadily, striving to neither hurry nor tarry — to give him nothing more at which to take offense.
"I paid my blood to keep your plunder with us, Janette. I expect repayment in kind."
Impassively, Janette extended her left wrist and unbuttoned her sleeve.
"How... pretty," Lacroix observed. "But insufficient. You defied me. One Nicholas is more than enough, don't you agree?" Suddenly, he stood pressed against her, his breath rasping in her face while his eyes glowed colder and colder with sepulchral incandescence. "You wished to make her yours. So intimate, that hot, fast blood between the heart and the brain... such communion, such exhilaration, such... intoxication. Don't you agree? But you will never be able to handle it, Janette. Never! You would have taken too much; you would have killed her. You will always fail, as Nicholas fails. You will have no kin but through me. I made you. You cannot supersede me. You are mine, Janette." He grasped her right shoulder and crushed those bones as he forced his fangs into the left side of her throat.
All pain, only pain. She felt the pain as he drank from her, and refused to feel anything else. Not the fury, the revulsion, the humiliation. The blood link carried nothing but the pain, because she chose it so.
At last, smiling in brutal satisfaction, he withdrew and released his grip. He stroked her neck with what might have been tenderness. "As you would have made her yours, I remind you, you are mine... daughter."
Janette tilted her head for an unobstructed view of Sofia's sleeping form. Lacroix's height made it easy to avoid his eyes. She did not care to see them flicker with the fuel of her blood.
"She will awaken ravenous, of course."
"I know," Janette said. "I will manage it."
"No need. I know the ideal meal to consecrate this choice."
Janette swallowed the protest rising to her lips. He meant the girl, Agatha, Nicolas's current paramour and Sofia's former student. He intended to traumatize them both, and chain the blame to Janette, a never-ending rebuke for her attempt this night. "Of course."
"I'm so glad you agree." In a mocking echo of well-bred suavity, Lacroix dabbed at the corner of his lips with a handkerchief, then bowed before throwing open one door and disappearing.
Janette crossed swiftly to where Sofia lay, and knelt beside. She was not one to feel apologetic, but she had not intended to bind Sofia to Lacroix except through herself. This was not the gift she had wished to share. "Wake up." She shook the sleeper lightly, then roughly. It was too soon to rouse a body in the midst of transformation, but the only way to circumvent Lacroix's plan was to feed Sofia before he returned with the innocent girl. Sofia must have someone she hated, someone she did not know, anyone over whom she would not feel debilitating, Nicolas-like guilt. "You must wake up!"
"Janette? Oh." Sofia's eyes fluttered slightly, revealing a yellow sheen, but the lids quickly stilled and closed again.
Clinically evaluating, Janette stood. Were Sofia properly her creation, her daughter, she would have been able to call her back to consciousness with that command. She could not blame Lacroix for the deficiency of the connection; he had said Sofia would lie drained beyond retrieval without his intervention. Janette had thought she could succeed — that she was succeeding — but no: she would have failed. Still, another, in Lacroix's place, would have permitted Sofia to drink back her own blood from Janette's veins and coalesce the bond between them. Another would have allowed her the convert she had chosen. But no second chance existed. She could not now press Sofia to her and share the instinctive, eager interlude before the convert's first hunger. Newly returned to this world, Sofia needed — and would want — only vibrant, living, human blood, not the sluggish undead mire that was all Janette had to share.
In the absence of better means, Janette slapped the Baroness smartly across the mouth.
"What?" Sofia sat up, lifting a hand to her cheek. "Janette! Did you... am I...?"
"Yes. How do you feel?"
Sofia moved her hand to the dwindling punctures on her neck. "Different. Weak— lethargic? But hungry!" She met Janette's eyes. "Grateful."
A smile stretched Janette's lips before she could rein it back. "We will have plenty of time for that last later. The hunger we must address now." She helped Sofia up, hoping the lassitude came only from leaving the transformative slumber too soon and would vanish in feeding. "Where did I drop your pearls? It's not the fashion to go without a necklace in an evening gown; someone will notice."
"I don't know," Sofia responded. "Will this do?" She turned to a gilded box on a low table and extracted a pendant.
"Perfectly." Janette fastened the chain around Sofia's neck, trailing her fingers absently against the still-warm skin. "Now, where can we find your husband?
"Him?" Sofia stared dreamily at Janette. "Why would we want him?"
"For his blood."
"Oh. Yes. Fitting... But I—" A sensation they both felt diverted Sofia's attention. "What's that?"
"A vampire whose blood you share draws near," Janette said. "You will always feel... family. Go and see."
With an expression of drowsy wonder on her face, Sofia stepped through the open door to the balcony. "Nicholas." She sounded pleased, and Janette felt pleased, until she saw Sofia slump against the door in her unfed weakness. "I'm so happy to see you're still here."
"I was rather afraid that you'd never be happy to see me again." Nicolas— so gallant, when it suited him.
"Oh, I don't think I'll ever be anything but happy." Sofia inhaled deeply as Janette watched, almost feeling her scenting the night air for the first time, almost touching the senses of the newborn hunter. Some link existed. Despite Lacroix, despite her own incapacity, something had connected. It thrilled Janette, and she stepped possessively close to her Sofia in the entrance.
"Sometimes it takes a woman, Nicolas, to understand another woman's plight." Janette could not resist gently turning Sofia's head to display the fading marks of her gift.
His expression raced through shock and perplexity to disapproval. "Janette, how could you?"
"She could not, actually," Lacroix's chill voice answered. "Like you, she requires my assistance to avoid... mistakes." He descended to the balcony through the shadows cast by the castle's higher stories, carrying Agatha's still form.
Janette felt Sofia tense and then shiver in her arms. She watched molten bronze pour in to obscure the clear eyes, and winced at the feeling of fangs emerging for the first time in Sofia's jaw. Allowing the irresistible hunger to flood through her second-hand, Janette knew Sofia's lethargy and morality had alike vanished with the first scent of living human blood.
"I guess I'm just too much the glutton," Janette told Nicolas lightly. She tried to drown the memories in a gulp from the goblet on the table before she remembered it was not even her drink. Once, he had enjoyed that quality in her. She put down the cup. "I cannot bring myself to stop until they are drained and I am satisfied. My promise of eternal life is broken— but by then, there is no one left to apologize to."
"I can control my urges."
"Yes," she admitted, and thought of days when she had enjoyed that quality in him— long ago, before it spun so far beyond her sphere. "Too well, I'd say. Few of us are like you."
"The one I'm thinking about bringing over is a good man."
"Pure of soul?" she mocked.
"No one is that, Janette." Nicholas held her gaze, and she marveled anew at the fusion of conviction and doubt whirling at the center of this man. "Negative capability," Keats had called it, and thought it transcendent.
Someone appeared at her elbow and adeptly refreshed the goblet before her. "Oh!" Startled out of her reverie, Janette recognized the business associate who had occupied her before Nicolas appeared, and whom she had all but forgotten since. She traced her gloved arm up the line of his open shirt and toyed briefly with the collar as she smiled at him. She approved the grace of this silent reminder. "Just a few minutes longer; I hope you can wait?" Janette watched appreciatively as he returned to the bar. "Ah. Mmmm." Rising, she took Nicolas's arm and steered him toward the exit. "Now, are you prepared for what will come later? The eternal bond? Your life and the other's will be intertwined" — she crossed her fingers illustratively — "forever."
Nicolas shook his head. "I don't believe that."
"Think of Lacroix— following you through the centuries."
"He wanted to control me. For me to be like he was."
"He was your father." Janette confronted Nicolas with the fact, and he looked away. The bond, and the obligation it created, were imperishable and irrefutable. "Your creator," she persisted. "He loved you."
Nicolas met her eyes again. His expression was understanding at last, if still unyielding. Lacroix had loved Nicolas — had loved her, too — in his way. That love had not been enough to make him a fit parent.
But Nicolas was a better man.
Janette inhaled deeply, the usual air of her club — sweat, alcohol, perfume, blood, smoke — overlaid for the moment with the scent of Nicolas. "If you do it," she warned at last, running her finger up his narrow tie toward his neck, "just be certain that you take the responsibility." She kissed him — that familiar, delightful taste — and then returned to her world, leaving him to find his own way out.
— End —