“I am a bad woman, of course,” said Carling Severan, the Vampyre sorceress, in an absent tone of voice. “It is a fact that I made peace with many centuries ago. I calibrate everything I do, even the most generous-seeming gesture, in terms of how it may serve me.”
Carling sat in her favorite armchair by a spacious window. The chair’s butter-soft leather had long ago molded to the contours of her body. Outside the window lay a lush, well-tended garden that was ornamented with the subtle hues of the moonlit night. Her gaze was trained on the scene but, like her face, the expression in her long almond-shaped eyes was blank.
“Why would you say such a thing?” Rhoswen asked. There were tears in the younger Vampyre’s voice as she kneeled beside the armchair, her blonde head turned up to Carling like a flower’s to a midnight sun. “You’re the most wonderful person in the world.”
“That is very sweet of you.” Carling kissed Rhoswen’s forehead since the other woman seemed to need it. Although the distance in Carling’s gaze lessened, it did not entirely disappear. “But those are rather disturbing words. If you believe that of someone such as I, you must acquire more discernment.”
Her servant’s tears spilled over and streaked down a cameo-perfect face. Rhoswen threw her arms around Carling with a sob.
Carling’s sleek eyebrows rose. “What is this?” she asked, her tone weary. “What have I said to upset you?”
Rhoswen shook her head and clung tighter.
Rhoswen was one of Carling’s two youngest progeny. Carling had stopped creating Vampyres long ago, except for a few extraordinarily talented exceptions she had discovered in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Rhoswen had been part of a shabby Shakespearean theatre company, with a voice of pure gold and a fatal case of pulmonary tuberculosis. Carling had turned Rhoswen when she had been a frightened, dying eighteen-year-old. She allowed the younger woman greater liberties than she did her other servants. She endured the strangling hold as she thought.
She said, “We were talking about the events that led up to the Dark Fae Queen’s coronation. You persist in believing that I did a good thing when I healed Niniane and her lover Tiago when they were injured. While the results might have been beneficial, I was merely pointing out what a selfish creature at heart I really am.”
“Two days ago,” Rhoswen said into her lap. “We had that conversation two days ago, and then you faded again.”
“Did I?” She straightened her back, bracing herself against the news. “Well, we knew the deterioration was accelerating.”
No one fully understood why very old Vampyres went through a period of increasing mental deterioration before they disintegrated into outright madness, then death. Since it was rare for Vampyres to achieve such an extreme old age, the phenomenon was little known outside the upper echelon of the Nightkind community. Vampyres lived violent lives and they tended to die from other causes first.
Perhaps it was the inevitable progression of the disease itself. Perhaps, Carling thought, in the end our beginning contains the seeds of our eventual downfall. The souls that began as human were never meant to live the near-immortal life that the Vampyrism gave them.
Rhoswen’s tear-streaked face lifted. “But you got better for a while! In Chicago, and later at the Dark Fae coronation, you were fully alert and functioning. You were present for every moment. We just have to keep you stimulated with new things.”
Carling regarded her with a wry expression. Extraordinary experiences did seem to help, as they jolted one into alertness for a time. The problem was they only helped temporarily. To someone who has witnessed the passage of millennia, after a while even the extraordinary experiences became ordinary.
She sighed and admitted, “I had a couple of episodes I did not share with you.”
The grief that filled Rhoswen’s expression at that was positively Shakespearian. Carling’s sense of wryness deepened as she looked upon the face of fanatic devotion and knew she had done nothing whatsoever to deserve it.
She had been born into obscurity so long ago the details of that time had faded from history. She had been kidnapped into slavery, whipped nearly to death and given as a concubine to an aging desert king, and she had sworn she would never let anyone take a lash to her again. She seduced the king into making her a queen and squandered an almost unimaginably long life in the acquisition of Power. She learned poisons, and warfare, and sorcery, how to rule and how to hold a grudge with all of her heart, and then she discovered Vampyrism, the serpent’s kiss that had given her near immortality.
She had played chess with demons for human lives, counseled monarchs and warred with monsters. Throughout the unwinding scroll of centuries she had ruled more than one country with unwavering ruthlessness in her slender iron fist. She knew spells that were so secret the knowledge of their existence had all but passed from this earth, and she had seen things so wondrous the sight of them had brought proud men to their knees. She had conquered the darkness to walk in the full light of day, and she had lost, and lost, and lost so very many people and things that even grief failed to move her much anymore.
All of those fabulous experiences were now fading into the ornamented night.
There was simply nowhere else to take her life, no adventure so compelling she must fight above all else to survive and see it through, no mountaintop she had to scale. After everything she had done to survive, after fighting to live for so long and to rule, she had now become . . . disinterested.
And here was the final of all treasures, the last jewel in her casket of secrets that rested on top of the others, winking its onyx light.
The Power she had worked so hard to accumulate was pulsing in rhythm with the accelerating deterioration of her mind. She saw it flare all around her in an exquisite transparent shimmer. It covered her in a shroud that sparkled like diamonds.
She had not expected that her death would be so lovely.
She had lost track of when it had begun. The past and the present intermingled in her mind. Time had become a riddle. Perhaps it had been a hundred years ago. Or perhaps it had been the entirety of her life, which held certain symmetry. That for which she had fought so hard, shed blood over, and cried tears of rage, would be what consumed her in the end.
Another Power flare was building. She could sense its inevitability, like the oncoming crescendo in an immortal symphony, or the next intimate pulse of her long-abandoned, almost-forgotten heartbeat. The expression in her eyes turned vague as she focused her attention on that ravishing internal flame.
Just before it engulfed her again, she noticed an oddity. There was no sound in the house around them, no movement from other Vampyres, no spark of human emotion. There was nothing but Rhoswen’s hitched breathing as the younger Vampyre knelt at her feet, and the small contented sounds of a dog nearby as he scratched at his ear then dug out a nesting place in his floor cushion. Carling had lived for a long time surrounded by jackals eager to feed from scraps that fell from the tables of those in Power, but sometime over the last week, all her usual attendants and sycophants had fled.
Some creatures had a well-developed sense of self-preservation, unlike others.
She said to Rhoswen, “I suggest you work harder on acquiring that sense of discernment.”