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The Ribbon: Marcus's Tales

Summary:
Marcus is a young man in ancient Etruria, who is in love with his master's daughter, Didyme. When her older brother, Aro, disappears under mysterious and frightening circumstances, Marcus and Didyme are torn from the innocence of their young love and thrust into a new and very different world. This is the story of the Volturi, told by the one who was there from the beginning and saw it all. He has kept his mouth shut until now, but if you come close and listen, he will tell his tales: how Caius became so murderous and cold, how the wives came to join the family, the beginnings of Aro's machinations and plots, and even the beginning of the vampires. Everyone has a tale to tell...and his might surprise you.


Notes:


2. Chapter 2: Stolen Innocence

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Chapter 2: Stolen Innocence

What shall I tell you of next, my young friend? What would you like to hear about?

My, I haven’t spoken aloud this much in years.

Of course, I haven’t had much that I wanted to say. Aro and Caius speak quite enough; it allows me the liberty of remaining quiet, which suits me perfectly. Most of the time I am content to allow them to take the lead, but occasionally I must open my mouth, make my opinions known to others besides Aro in my thoughts. He is often prone to “selective memory,” and also…Well, also, sometimes I just do not agree with them.

Oh, you want to hear about Caius? Yes. What an interesting story that is. And also very sad.

Most people judge Caius very severely; they only pay attention to what they can see and hear from him…which, granted, is quite…off-putting at times. Yes. “Off-putting” is the best way to express something so complex: he does not let people close to him, he projects a deliberately prickly and cantankerous mien, he seems perfectly content to be deemed the angry and bitter one. Of course, he really is the angry and bitter one—but there is a reason for that. A very good reason. And also, as is so often true, beneath such a rough and unwelcoming exterior lies a very vulnerable and sensitive core. But Caius would rather be torn to bits and set afire than admit such vulnerability even to himself, much less to others.

But I’ll tell you, my friend. I’ll tell you his story. I know you can keep a secret.

And perhaps it might help others to be a bit more understanding about him, if you do happen to be…indiscreet? If you let the secret slip? Good.

Where to begin? Well, let’s see. I must go back a bit, to the time after my transformation. Please be patient, we shall get to the meat of the matter soon enough.

After Aro had bitten me, beginning my journey into the living hell that is the transformation from mortal to immortal, he took Didyme and myself away, out into the night. No one saw us leave; I marveled at how fast and strong and silent Aro was, and at how thrilled he was with his new state of being. I hoped I would be the same, that I wouldn’t regret my decision to follow my poor Didyme into the night of her unwilling change.

He took us deep into the forest, far away from the villa and any other human dwellings. I wondered why, at first…Then the burning began in earnest, in both of us, and my unasked question was answered. The screaming would have drawn too much attention; we had to be far from human ears, until it was over.

Didyme was the first to emerge, but not by much. We had been lying on the ground, each of us curled up into our own personal agony, but even amidst the searing pain I could feel my awareness, my capacity to think and feel, expand exponentially. I knew she lay only a few feet away; I heard her labored breathing and her rapidly accelerating and tortured heartbeat as if they were my own, and I grieved for her pain, even in the grips of my own.

I heard that final, agonizing, thundering flurry of heartbeats as the venom warred with her heart, and her screams, peaking; then the wondrous gasp at her first sight of the world around her with her new eyes. I fought back my own pain and opened my eyes to watch her, eager to see her again, to see what she had become.

Where before my Didyme had been like the sun in my life…now she was the sun itself, it seemed. She glowed.

She stood, arms outstretched before her, marveling at her own hands, which sparkled like diamonds in the afternoon light. Her eyes, before a deep brown, were now a fiery crimson that should have seemed frightening to me, but instead seemed…right. Her face, always lovely, was so unutterably beautiful to me in its perfection that it hurt to look at her, as if I were staring into the sun.

Then she laughed, and the sound was like the rippling of lyre strings, crystalline and liquid at the same time, and it pierced me even in my pain. I felt my own heartbeat speeding up within my chest, felt the gathering-in of my blood as the venom beat it back, consuming the last vestiges of my mortality. I gasped in pain, unable to keep it back.

She turned to look down at me, so quickly, impossibly fast, her eyes wide in surprise.

“Marcus!” she whispered, and then was beside me, her fingers silken and warm against my face as she stroked my cheek; I knew her touch should have been icy-cold and hard, like Aro’s had been…but she felt just as soft and warm to me as she had been days before, fully human…except that her skin was now infinitely smoother than the finest silk. I groaned at her touch, which lit a fire within me like nothing I had ever experienced, warring with the pain. She smiled down at me, and her brilliance was blinding. I had to close my eyes against her, against the pain inside me.

“Don’t worry, love, it won’t be long now, I think…” she said, and took my hand. She waited there with me until it was over. When I opened my eyes again in the thunderous silence of my stilled heart, her eyes were the first thing I saw, and her smile.

I felt as if I had awakened in Heaven. Or, as I knew it then, in the Elysian Fields, where all the good and honorable dead go, to rest and be at peace.

Then the thirst hit me, and I knew that Heaven and Hell went hand-in-hand in that new existence.

“Well, brother and sister, welcome to immortality!”

Aro’s voice startled us; we looked up at him, where he stood a few feet away, grinning, arms outstretched as if to embrace us. I was amazed again at the changes in him; he was like a god to me, even more perfect to my new eyes than my human ones had been able to process. I wondered if I looked like him. We had closely resembled each other before, perhaps that resemblance had endured. I could always hope; he was quite stunning in his own way.

Yes, we were beautiful then, before the differences in our exteriors that you see now appeared. I will tell you about that another time, my inquisitive young friend.

Didyme smiled weakly. “Well, Aro, you have us; so what are you going to do with us?” she asked, her hand squeezing mine fiercely. I knew she was afraid, but that she didn’t want to show it. I squeezed back. I would do anything I had to do to keep her from needing to be afraid. I knew I was powerful now; I could feel the unimaginable strength pulsing through my body.

And then I noticed something.

Stretching between Aro and Didyme, like a ghostly tendril of fog, was…something. I knew immediately that no one else could see it, for some reason only I could. The tether that bound them to each other was transparent, almost nonexistent, easily broken. I felt it in my gut, knew what it meant: that wispy tie between them was the bond they shared with each other, the love they held for each other as brother and sister. I had always known they weren’t close, but it still startled me, the lack of intensity between them. Out of curiosity I glanced down at Didyme and myself, at our linked hands.

The bond between us was solid, glowing, almost blinding in its intensity. I didn’t think anything could shatter it. Nothing was that strong, that sharp, to sever it. I smiled in satisfaction: no one would ever tear us apart, no one could ever come between us, and we were both so strong that there was nothing we couldn’t overcome together.

How very wrong I was.

Aro crossed over to us, still smiling widely. He reached out and touched Didyme’s hair; she leaned away a bit, turning her face slightly from him, as if repulsed. Irritation flickered across his face so rapidly I almost believed I didn’t see it, he hid it so fast and so successfully.

“Ah, sister, I have such plans for us! Such plans!” His voice was triumphant; he clapped my shoulder in a comradely fashion, nodding at me, grinning, his eyes wide and eager and inquisitive as they studied my face. “But I still have much to learn, so many things to do…” He trailed off, staring into the distance, his eyes glowing, his face intense, as if he was listening to something.

Then I felt it: Aro rifling through my head, through all my thoughts and memories. I remembered what he had said days earlier, in Didyme’s room, that he could hear our thoughts. But only when he touched me, I realized. I jerked my shoulder away from him; I didn’t like the feeling of him trespassing inside my mind.

That time the irritation lingered on his face, his eyes locked on mine. I realized then that Aro, who had been an ambitious mortal man, was an even more ambitious immortal one. The word “vampire” wasn’t known back then; it came much later. He disliked being contested. And he desperately wanted to have as much information as possible, including the contents of our minds.

“I understand your power, Aro, but please, refrain from intruding into my thoughts unless there is a need,” I said flatly.

He gritted his teeth, still staring at me; I could fairly hear his thoughts churning as he decided what to do. But he finally nodded curtly and looked away. I had won the first round.

How I have so often wished that I had just let him win a bit more often, back in those early days. Perhaps things would have been different…

Aro rubbed his palms together briskly. “So, we should probably look into getting something to slake that damnable thirst, eh, my dears?”

My hand inadvertently went to my throat, which felt as if it were on fire. Literally. I glanced over at Didyme and saw she had done the same; we smiled at each other in sympathetic understanding. It took a moment for me to be able to tear my eyes from hers.

Even though I had a vague, uneasy feeling I knew what his answer would be, I asked Aro what must be done to quench the demonic thirst.

He cocked one eyebrow at me and smiled tightly. “Well, brother, come along and see,” he finally replied, motioning for Didyme and I to follow him into the forest.

That was when I discovered the pure joy that it is to run as an immortal. It was like flying. Every detail of every tree and blade of grass was exquisitely detailed, yet I was passing by them so swiftly that I am sure an onlooker would have only seen a blur. I felt no strain in my lungs as we pushed ourselves to a blinding pace; my body responded smoothly and effortlessly. I laughed in amazement at the sensation, and the laughter was echoed by Didyme, who was right next to me, keeping up with me with no effort, graceful as a gazelle.

We ran for a few minutes, covering a good distance. Before I knew it, we were all the way to Siena, over fifty miles by modern standards of measurement. Siena was a new city then, only a bit over as hundred years old, a walled hill town like Pisa and Volterra, its buildings built form the local sandy brown stone. The wall surrounding it was broken in a few places by gates, the tops patrolled by armed guards. There had been many waves of roving bandits and barbarians in that area, so the people were suspicious and on the defensive, I had heard.

The three of us crouched in the forest, looking up at the town from the cover of the trees. It was getting late in the day, the sun creeping down toward the horizon, the shadows lengthening. I looked over at Aro, wondering what he had planned. He returned my gaze and smiled lazily, as if he had a great secret, and was enjoying playing it out.

“Now what, brother?” Didyme finally asked, her hand still clutched in mine. If I had it my way, I would never let hers go.

Aro glanced at her, but then back at me again. “Well, that city is just bursting with food for us. Just the thing you need to soothe those throats…and mine as well, if truth be told!” he chuckled. “We just need to wait for the sun to go down, and we can take our pick of the place.”

“What, are we going to steal food?” Didyme asked, her brow furrowed in confusion. I kept silent: I knew what Aro meant.

He laughed then, a full-bellied sound, shaking his head at his sister’s ignorance. “Ah, sister, how innocent you are!” He reached out and covered our joined hands with his; I tried not to pull away. “Have you still not realized what it is that we feed on? Who we feed on?”

She blinked, nonplussed.

“Breathe deeply, Didyme, inhale the scents of the city, the wind is blowing toward us now…Smell. You will figure it out.”

Didyme closed her eyes and obeyed; I did, too, curious. I took a deep breath, filling my lungs.

The smells of the city were indeed blown toward us on the late-afternoon breeze. I could recognize everything: dust, animal and human sweat, dung, wood burning, food cooking—and oddly enough, the food didn’t smell appetizing at all to me. Then it struck me like a blow: the hot, coppery scent that set my mouth to watering furiously. A smell unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I opened my eyes and found Aro watching me eagerly.

“What…what is that?” I whispered.

“Blood.” The one word fell like a stone, heavy and unavoidable. “It is what we must drink to survive. No more consuming filthy animal flesh or things grown in the dirt. Simply the essence of life itself is all we need now.”

I nodded. I had realized it, a bit at a time. So many things pointed to the fact that we were now blood-drinkers: the drained corpses of Aro’s huntsmen, while the horses had been ignored…Aro’s comments about my being Didyme’s next meal, if I chose not to join him…Him speaking of how the scent of my blood was very tempting…

And indeed, that hot, metallic smell was seductive. My throat was afire. I had never wanted anything so much as I wanted to drink down that smell. I saw Didyme from the corner of my eye clutch her throat compulsively, swallowing, her face twisted with the pain of the thirst.

“Patience, my friends, patience,” Aro murmured. We settled back to wait for dusk, turning our backs on the city and its tempting smell.

Once night had fallen, we stole from our hiding place and crept into the city. Even with the wall and the armed guards, it was ridiculously easy to do. The narrow, unpaved streets were all but deserted in the dark, only a few sputtering torches posted at the corners of major intersections and in front of the grander houses providing light. My eyes could see in the darkness just as well as in the sunlight; the curious sharpness of the details, lit by colors I had never seen before, was hypnotizing. I found it hard to focus, my senses were so sharp, and everything was so new. It was only by focusing on my thirst that I could pay attention to what Aro was doing.

He was leading us along through the shadows, searching for something. I couldn’t tell what, but I knew we had to remain hidden, so I stayed quiet and followed Aro obediently, Didyme right behind me.

Finally he seemed to find what he’d been seeking.

It was the poorer section of the town, the houses jammed together, trash clogging the streets, homeless dogs and cats gazing at us dispassionately from the shadows. There were people on the streets there, dirty, hopeless people, homeless beggars; they watched us too, with numb curiosity.

We turned off the road into an alley, Aro smiling broadly at us. “Here we may choose practically whomever we like; the homeless poor are invisible, and no one cares if they die. Better that they nourish us than die in the streets, no?”

I swallowed, a bit sickened by the concept. But at the same time, the raging thirst was almost unmanageable; the scent of the human blood, all around us, was so intense. I could feel Didyme behind me, almost vibrating with effort of holding herself back.

Aro raised one eyebrow questioningly. “What, brother, do you feel bad about taking a life?”

I gazed at him steadily, trying not to let my feelings show on my face. As a matter of fact, I did feel bad about it. I was conflicted. I had always been taught that life was precious, and that murder was a terrible crime.

He shook his head in disgust. “Come, Marcus, surely you can see that we are the ones who should set the rules now? We are vastly superior to the mortals in every way. It makes perfect sense. They provide us with the means to survive and the means to propagate our species: they are like cattle, like livestock. Yes, they have feelings and thoughts and such…but we are so much further beyond them! It is a privilege for them to nourish us, don’t you agree?”

It did make sense…especially with the thirst charring my insides.

In the end, the decision to act wasn’t mine.

Didyme, with a fearsome snarl, bolted past me into the shadows. I stared after her in shock; I had never heard anything like that sound from her. I listened to her footsteps, fading a bit with distance, I heard the footsteps of the human she was following…and then I heard the sounds of the attack: one malevolent hiss, the cry of surprise and fear from her prey, choked off suddenly…the thud of bodies hitting the ground…Didyme drinking…

When she returned, emerging from the shadows between two of the slum apartment buildings like an alabaster angel, she was daintily wiping the corners of her mouth with the edge of her palla, smiling brightly at me.

“You must try this, Marcus! It’s wonderful!” she sang, and then she was there before me, kissing me. It was hard to resist her; the smell of blood was fresh, so tempting. “Just go ahead and do it, my love, you must!”

It was a lost cause to resist. I buried the leftover moral arguments from my human existence, covering them up with the reality of my changed situation. I couldn’t mourn my new destiny, I had chosen it deliberately. And I couldn’t change who or what I now was. So I set out in search of my own prey.

It was easier than I had ever imagined possible. I won’t bore you with the details; you know what the first kill was like. Suffice to say, the relief from the thirst was overwhelming. I could think more clearly, and the warm, nourishing blood that I had taken from my victim caused my senses to sharpen even more. The world was a wonderland, even that dirty slum.

While I hunted, Aro had done the same. We met back in the alley.

“Now what?” I asked Aro. I felt so alive and powerful, not tired in the least. I knew I would never need to sleep again. It made life easier, not to have to care for the weaknesses of the mortal body and its constant needs. All I needed was blood, and Didyme.

“We need to find a place all our own, Marcus. A city we can control, a home base, where we are safe and can . And perhaps we can begin to gather others such as ourselves, others with special abilities, even if we must make them ourselves. I have great plans for us, Marcus.” His crimson eyes glowed in the darkness, eager, hungry. “We shall be revered, Marcus, mark my words!” I remembered his ultimatum, days before, in Didyme’s room, that I must join Aro and help him in his quest for power…or die.

I was beginning to realize that the decision I had made, to follow Didyme into this life, had much larger and farther-reaching consequences than I had ever been capable of imagining before.

I was no longer a simple farmer. I didn’t have a simple life ahead of me anymore. My dreams of marrying Didyme and having children with her, of building a home together and raising crops, of eventually growing old at her side, surrounded by our family, were gone. And I wasn’t the man I once was, I couldn’t be that any longer. The morals I had lived by as a mortal were not applicable in my life anymore. Good and evil, right and wrong—those concepts didn’t matter to me anymore. I was an immortal creature who lived on the blood of humans. I was powerful and fast and possessed unparalleled senses; I had no need to breathe, to sleep. I would never get sick again, never grow old and die. And my beloved was the same. The facts of our nature were unchanging, and I had to accept it.

I also had to accept that I was now part of something larger than myself. I still possessed my sense of honor, my commitment to honor my promises. I had promised Aro that I would join him, that I would help him. And perhaps whatever Aro wanted—power was the basic distillation of his goal—would ultimately benefit Didyme and myself. Who was I to judge him? Wasn’t an ambitious, driven man looked upon with admiration, even among mortals? He had dreams and goals, and I had to admit to myself that he was fiercely intelligent and gifted, the kind of man, immortal or otherwise, that others naturally follow.

I had never been a leader. I had always been a supporter, the kind of man that others leaned upon and depended upon. I was valuable in my own way, but not for my capacity to be inspiring or make big plans. I did have my gift for perceiving the relationships and bonds of others, which would be helpful. But a leader? No. Aro was much more suited for that. And I could go along with him, help him, as long as I had my Didyme with me. She was enough to salve the remaining misgivings and twinges of conscience I had. She seemed to be adapting to her new life with amazing facility. I needed to follow her example—after all, I could never go back, could I? And why would I want to, without her?

All of those thoughts passed through my head in the space of a few seconds. Aro stood watching me, waiting, his hand halfway extended toward me; I knew he wanted to touch me desperately, to hear my thoughts.

So I reached out and touched the back of his hand, and let him see.

He smiled broadly, showing all his glittering, sharp teeth.

“Well done, Marcus. Well done.”

And so it began. The brotherhood was formed.

But we still were missing some members.

Over the next several years, Aro, Didyme and I traveled throughout Italy and the surrounding countries, seeking the city we would take for ourselves. Ironically, what we had been looking for had been right in our backyard, so to speak: Volterra was only a few miles from Pisa, where we had all grown up.

In the course of those travels, the three of us “grew up” quite a bit. We learned how to bridle our thirst, how to control our fierce and passionate newborn natures, how to use our fledgling abilities to their best advantages. Didyme, it was determined, had a gift for making those around her love her. I found that very fitting: she had done so without any effort whatsoever when a mortal, and as an immortal she was completely and utterly irresistible. Even Aro couldn’t hold against her, when she turned the full force of those glowing ruby eyes on him, when she wanted something badly enough. She overwhelmed him with love, until he finally gave in.

It never came to that point with me. I will never know if what I felt for her was something natural, borne of a “real” love between us, or whether her gift played some part in how truly intensely we loved each other. But it didn’t matter. It never has, and never will. I loved her, she loved me, plain and simple.

We married in a simple ceremony. We found a priest of Zeus, a half-blind old man tending his tiny shrine on the side of a mountain in the foothills near Rome, who performed the ceremony at dusk. Didyme veiled herself; I tried not to look at the old man too closely, although I didn’t think he could tell my eye color in the dark and with his blindness. Still, it was official: she was mine, I was hers. I felt bad that her family could not witness it, but in the end, we were enough for each other.

We returned to Etruria because Didyme wanted to.

“I want to see Mother and Father, Marcus!” she insisted, clutching my hands in hers, her eyes pleading with me. “I want to make sure they are well, at least. I promise, I won’t do anything bad. Please, Aro!”

Aro shook his head; I knew he didn’t have the slightest desire to see his father or stepmother, but he would, of course, allow Didyme her request.

So it was that in the late autumn of that year we crept up the slopes of Monte Pisano and looked in on the Donati estate.

Cestus was still alive, but he had aged tremendously in the previous years. Grief had marked him, engraving deep lines in his forehead and at the corners of his mouth; he was now a stooped old man, half-blind, where before he had been a strong and vibrant man who walked straight and proud. Losing his oldest son and his favorite daughter had devastated him. I flatter myself a bit to say I think he missed me, as well.

Lucretia had died the previous spring, we found. She had never recovered from the shock of Aro and Didyme’s disappearances. The blood found on Didyme’s bedroom floor had given the poor woman a stroke; she had wasted away for the better part of a year, before finally slipping away in her sleep.

Didyme learned then that we could not weep any more. Perhaps it is a good thing, that we are unable to shed tears—after all, we do such terrible things, that if we were able to grieve like mortals we might never accomplish anything. I tried my best to comfort her, but the best thing to do was to take her away again, never to return.

We traveled through the night past Pisa, coming to a newer city that we had never been to before. Volterra. Much like Pisa and Siena, buildings constructed of grainy sandstone, it was a walled hill fort, with a beautiful view of the lands around it.

Aro and I stood and watched the town, silhouetted against the rising moon. Something just felt right. He turned and looked at me and smiled; I touched his hand, let him hear my thoughts. It was something we’d fallen into the habit of doing. I had never been one for speaking much, so it was much simpler to allow him to read my mind. I had nothing to hide anymore.

“Yes, it is perfect, isn’t it, brother?” he murmured, looking back at the city. “So much could be done with it…”

We moved into Volterra that night.

At first, we stayed hidden. We had amassed a great deal of wealth in our travels, between robbing our victims, stealing, and various other endeavors, but it was difficult for us to rent or purchase a home, due to the blatant facts of our nature: our blazing red eyes were almost impossible to conceal. We would terrify anyone we tried to meet with. Finally, we just decided to take what we wanted.

We had studied the town over the course of a few days with critical eyes, seeking the right place for us. We had decided on the home of a wealthy merchant who lived in the most affluent part of the city; his house was large, well-built, and surrounded by a wall of its own. And even better, he was an older man, a widower, with no living family. When he departed Volterra one morning and conveniently never returned, we took possession of the house, even producing a bill of sale signed by the merchant himself when a curious neighbor inquired.

Didyme immediately set about making the home hers. The first order of business was securing slaves. After all, it was a large house, and she had no desire to clean it all herself. Also, we had to have some way to interact with the mortal world, and no one is more loyal than a good slave: you hold their world in the palm of your hand, and intelligent slaves knew if they faithfully served their masters, they might earn their freedom someday. Regardless of how strange their master is.

Didyme waited for a few days without feeding, letting her eyes darken sufficiently so that they weren’t flaming red, then set off late one afternoon toward the market square, where the slave auctions took place. She wrapped herself head to toe and even veiled her face, something she had never done in mortal life, as an extra precaution. A few hours later, she returned to the home with six slaves, three young women, a young boy, and two men. She had used her gift on them: they adored her, and would have done anything she asked them to do happily.

“Marcus, Aro, please do be courteous and don’t allow yourselves to succumb to temptation with my slaves, won’t you?” she said sweetly, glancing back over her shoulder at the six slaves, who all were staring down at their feet, silent and docile. I laughed and kissed her; Aro rolled his eyes and disappeared into the library, where he spent most of his time. I looked appraisingly at the slaves for a moment, then took her hand. She had removed her veil when she came in. I wondered idly if the slaves had seen her eyes yet. They hadn’t seemed to notice mine, with their eyes glued to their bare feet.

Didyme clapped her hands sharply. “Come now! Time to pay attention!” she cried. Startled, they all jumped and looked at her and me…then recoiled, eyes wide, as they took in our faces.

She hadn’t shown them, I decided, smiling a bit. She sighed impatiently.

“Stop staring like a bunch of geese. This is how we are. Don’t worry, we won’t hurt you. You just need to remember, don’t discuss us or our peculiar natures. What we do and how we do it is our business alone, so don’t say anything, to anyone. Anyone. Am I understood?”

I had never heard my gentle wife sound so very stern. But she followed her words up with a surge of her gift; the poor slaves lost some of the terror on their faces and relaxed.

“If you serve us well and loyally, and remain discreet, you may someday be granted your freedom. We shall be kind masters, you may be sure. Do not abuse our indulgence, and do not mistake our kindness for weakness, either.” They nodded. She turned, motioning for them to follow her. “Now, let us tour the house, and we shall go over your duties and such…” Then they were gone.

I never remembered the names of any of our slaves. Except for the one notable exception, who I shall get to in a moment. They were really beneath my notice, part of the house like the furniture and walls. Some of them were ultimately freed, others were not. But as long as Didyme ran our household, a silent and obedient army of humans served our every need, and as far as I know, they never divulged our secrets.

And now we come to Caius.

Caius was originally named Cae Venete, the youngest son of a very poor candlemaker in Perugia. When his father had died, leaving a widow and several young children and a great deal of debt, the creditors stepped in and took everything. The children were all sold into slavery. Didyme brought him to our home when he was about seven years old.

He was already a very distant, cold-natured person at that young age; he had seen many terrible things in his days of poverty. He had already been sold two times before Didyme picked him up for a bargain price: apparently, he had been a troublemaker, causing fights and stealing, the auctioneer had told her. I still to this day don’t fully understand why Didyme chose to bring him home. I would have looked right over him, especially after hearing of his pedigree. But that was the nature of my wife: she tried to see the best in everyone, and she was always trying to make others happy. Perhaps she wanted to see if she could bring him out of his shell. I know she regretted never being able to bear children, even though she never spoke with me about it; it could be that she was seeking a replacement for the children she would never have.

Regardless of her reasons for bringing the boy home, he was there. We had been in Volterra for a few years by that point, and had settled into a comfortable rhythm. We all had our particular diversions and amusements to pass the time and keep our minds occupied. Aro had turned into a scholar: he amassed books and scrolls and tablets by the hundreds, in various languages, old and new. The library was already bursting at the seams, but he still went out on book-hunting forays every few months, bringing more back with him. He seemed obsessed with learning, and he was constantly scribbling notes and lists and plans, which he did not show me. Didyme found satisfaction in her efforts at beautifying everything around her: she had planted a lovely garden in our atrium, a wide area in the center of the house, completely open to the sky. She had completely refurnished and redecorated the house, and at that time was going through a phase where she was dabbling with painting and sculpture, and she raised songbirds, which she kept in wicker cages throughout the house and garden. I split my time between Aro’s library and Didyme’s garden, or I abandoned the city completely, to wander in the forests. I found that I greatly enjoyed being alone, appreciating the beauty of the world around me, away from everyone else.

I had just returned from one of my solitary wanderings when Didyme appeared with a new slave boy. She always kept a young boy around, to be used as a messenger and to help the women in the house. I wondered where the other boy had gone for a moment, then remembered that the “boy” I was thinking about was now closer to being a man, and had begun working with the other men. As I said before, I didn’t pay much heed to the slaves, before Caius.

Caius was a handsome young boy, tall, his hair a very odd white-blonde color I had never seen before, his skin snow-white, like ours, but still mortal-soft. This child was unusual. My fascination grew when he looked up at me: his eyes were pink, like a rabbit’s, and completely and totally unafraid of me. His gaze was steady and unflinching, his little face cold and emotionless. I had never seen a child’s face like that. Despite his obvious youth, he seemed ancient.

“An albino?” I asked quietly, catching Didyme’s eye. I had seen them before, but not often. Usually children born with that strange coloring were not kept, they were often considered bad omens, and would be left exposed in the woods or on the sides of mountains, to allow the gods to make the decision whether the child would live or die. The only ones I had seen alive had been beggars on the streets, and never any in Italy.

Didyme reached down and touched the boy’s head lovingly. She pointedly ignored my question. “This is Cae, Marcus. He is the newest addition to our family.” Caius looked up at her, and for the first time I saw emotion in his face. He even smiled a little. Then he looked back at me and the smile vanished so completely it was as if it were never there. “But we’re going to call him Caius. We’re not simple Etruscans any longer; Caius is much more fashionable. Much more dignified, don’t you think?” Caius never took his eyes from Didyme’s face. He reached up to touch her hand, where it rested on his forehead, and the sleeve of his tunic fell back, revealing his shoulder.

It was covered with a twisted, lumpy mass of scar tissue, colorless like the rest of his skin, but obviously fresh. My mind balked at what could have possibly done that to him. I had to clamp down on my reaction, regain control, not show my shock.

I nodded gravely, still studying the boy. I focused on the bond between him and Didyme, saw it strengthening by the moment as she plied him with her love. I could tell from the determined set of her chin that she had made up her mind to crack the boy’s stony exterior and get him to open up to her. The use of the word “family” did pique my curiosity, though. It was as if she was saying that he would literally become one of us. I reminded myself to speak with her about it later, in private.

“Come along, Caius, I shall show you your room,” Didyme said, reaching down to take the boy’s hand. She kissed me soundly before leading him away into the house. He followed her obediently, glancing back at me for a moment.

What I saw in those cold, pink eyes then was disturbing: hate. Pure, unadulterated, mature, calculating hate. I was taken aback by the intensity of it, and completely bewildered by why he would hate me so much, when he had just met me.

I had much to learn about the child who would grow up to be the man whom I would eventually call my brother. It was a long and difficult journey to that point.

Caius adapted well to the household. He was quiet and obedient, despite his bad reputation. Perhaps he was trying extra-hard to please Didyme, who was obviously the center of his universe. He was like a sunflower, and she the sun: everywhere she went, he followed, even if only with his eyes. It was rather endearing, that devotion. It is very hard to dislike someone who loves your beloved, after all. I didn’t see any evidence of that hateful glance from that first day again. I had actually begun to wonder if I had imagined it. I tried hard to get past his strangeness, but in those months he was stubbornly aloof.

Then one day the side of Caius that Didyme had been warned about, the anger and aggression, emerged.

It was a beautiful day. Didyme and I were outside in the garden; she was training roses to climb the trellis I had just built for her. She was bare-legged, wearing a short toga that was really for a boy, her skin sparkling like a field of diamonds in the bright sunlight, her hair long and loose, hanging down to the backs of her delicate knees. She was beyond lovely. I watched her clever fingers gently tying the fragile vines; she was humming tunelessly, her lower lip between her teeth as she always did when she was concentrating and happy. I couldn’t help myself; I had to reach out and pull her to me.

“Marcus, the roses!” she cried in protest…but then she wound her legs around my waist and kissed me, pressing against my chest, as if trying to meld herself into me. I rapidly began trying to make up my mind whether to have her there in the garden, or if it would be better to take her into the house. I had decided on the house (there was less chance of an unwelcome surprise visitor in our own bedroom) and was turning around to take her inside, when I noticed someone was there, in the archway leading from the house.

Caius was frozen, his pink eyes wide, staring at us. Didyme didn’t see him; her back was to the boy, and she was too busy kissing my neck to probably care, even if she had seen him. I stared back at him for a long moment, wondering what to do. Obviously he was upset by seeing us like that. There were unshed tears standing in his eyes. I realized then, in that instant, that Caius was jealous of me, of my relationship with Didyme. Even at the age of seven he was envious. He wanted her all to himself. Perhaps Didyme had used her gift too much on him.

His eyes narrowed and his lip curled in disgust, his face twisted with hate and fury. Then without a word he turned and sprinted back into the house, silent as a mouse. I wondered what to do about him, I vaguely understood that a child should be comforted, but then Didyme began kissing my face and mouth, and my attention was happily diverted. I pushed the angry boy from my mind to concentrate on my entirely too-tempting wife.

It was several hours later when we finally decided it was time to leave our room. Both of us needed to feed; Didyme had put on more suitable clothing and had bound her hair up. Hand in hand, laughing, we went through the atrium, which was the quickest way to get to the front gate. Both of us stopped in horror at what we saw.

The rose trellis had been demolished completely, splinters and shards of wood were scattered everywhere as if it had exploded. The poor rose vines had been hacked to pieces and ground into the paving stones. The stone planters filled with the flowers that Didyme spent hours every week tending had been turned over, the plants uprooted and flung everywhere, and dirt had been smeared on the fluted columns that ringed the atrium itself.

And there was blood, too.

The wicker cages full of canaries and finches had been pulled down and smashed open…and the bodies of the poor birds were scattered about in sad little piles of feathers, their blood spattered on the ground, their songs silenced forever.

Didyme screamed, her hands flying up to cover her face, to block out the sight. I closed my eyes against the sound and swept her up into my arms, rushing her back inside. How ironic, I thought absently, as I took her back into our bedroom. Ironic that a being who survives on blood could be so traumatized by the sight of the blood of a few songbirds. But I knew it was more than that; she had seen the destruction of something she loved so much, something she had created with her own hands, she felt violated by the acts perpetrated on that garden and on those birds.

“Marcus!” she shrieked, battering at my chest as I lay her down on the bed. “Who did that! And why?”

I shook my head. I knew who it had been. Of course.

“Caius, my love.”

Her eyes widened in disbelief, she shook her head fiercely. “No, Marcus, he’s a good boy! Why would he do that, especially to me? He loves me!”

I sighed heavily, brushing my fingertips along her cheekbone. “Beloved, I know you are attached to the child, but I have seen something in him…” I paused, trying to word things exactly right. “The first day, when you brought him here, after you kissed me, he gave me a look, so filled with hate that it disturbed me. I was going to ask you to send him away, but then I saw how much you cared for him, and I decided I would try to get to know him, that maybe what I saw was in my imagination.

“Then, just a while ago…I saw him in the garden. He was watching us. Together.”

She stared at me, horrified. “And what did he do?”

I licked my lips, dreading having to tell her. “He looked at me again with that same hatred, Didyme, but even more. He was jealous. He is very attached to you, too. He was jealous of seeing us together, and terribly angry. I could see it in his eyes: he wanted to hurt us, to punish us, perhaps. Then before I could say or do anything, he ran away.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she whispered, hurt.

I chuckled, even though it didn’t seem very funny, and looked everywhere but at her anguished face. “Well, love, we were a bit…occupied at the time?”

She nodded, looking away from me, her lips pressed together into a tight line, her eyes full of sadness and frustration. “And so now what, Marcus? What do we do with him? Send him away? Sell him?”

“That is your decision, Didyme. I do think it would be best, he is obviously not suitable for this house. I know he is just a child, but he is not our child, he’s a slave, after all—“

She cut me off, furious.

“Not our child?” she cried, pushing my hands away from her. I backed off, stunned. She had never pushed me away before. “But he is a child, Marcus, and I took responsibility for him when I bought him. He has been terribly treated, and I cannot just throw him away like a piece of garbage!” Her anger was magnificent. I blinked at its intensity.

“Please, Didyme, I’m sorry, I had no idea you felt that way about him!”

She shook her head angrily, getting up from the bed, stalking to the door. “Well, I do!” she shot back at me over her shoulder as she flung the door open. Then she was gone.

I stayed where I was, still stunned.

When I finally did leave our rooms, I found the mess in the garden already cleaned, the damage repaired as much as was possible, although the flowers were gone, to be replanted another day. Even the paving stones had been scrubbed, no trace of blood or feathers anywhere.

I found Didyme in the kitchen, with Caius in her lap. She had her arms around him and was rocking him like a baby; his face was buried in her shoulder, her small white arms wound tightly around her neck. He was trembling. Whether it was from crying or from the fact that Didyme felt so cold to him, or both, I wasn’t sure.

She looked up at me, her face expressionless, still rocking him, humming. She held my gaze for a long time, waiting for some reaction from me, some sign that I had changed my mind about the boy. Caius probably didn’t even realize I was there. I sighed softly and nodded; a small, triumphant smile curved those perfect lips, then she looked back down at the child’s head. She would get her way. She always did.

I did not, could not, understand why she would keep him after how much he had hurt her, but Didyme was not to be resisted. I did make a vow to myself to keep an eye on the boy, to watch for more of that type of behavior. I didn’t want to see my wife like that again.

Later that night, Didyme found me in Aro’s library. Aro had been gone for a few months, on one of his book-hunting voyages; I spent many hours in the library, reading, while Aro was gone. I preferred it when he wasn’t there, it was more peaceful.

I heard the door open and smelled her incomparable scent before I saw her; I closed my eyes and savored it. She smelled something like rainwater and hyacinth and ripe strawberries, a clean, ripe, gorgeous scent that I still treasure to this day. My back was to the door, but I didn’t turn to look at her. I didn’t need to.

Her soft little hands touched my shoulders; she leaned down over the back of the chair, her hair falling all around me like a golden curtain. She pressed her cheek to mine. I smiled, reached up, pulled her into my lap.

“Am I forgiven for being a shrill, illogical shrew?”

“Only if I am forgiven for being a clumsy, insensitive brute.”

We laughed together. It was good again. We never could stay angry at one another.

As much as I would have loved to stay there with her, I knew that we both needed to hunt. I could deal with the humans working in our home for a while, but it became too tempting after a week without feeding. The scent of their blood, the sound of their heartbeats, became too intense for me. I knew it was the same for her. “Let’s hunt, beloved,” I murmured into her hair. She nodded in agreement and pulled me up from the chair, and we fled into the cool night, in search of satisfaction.

A few hours later, we sat on the rooftop of our home, gazing down at the city. Many people did that, built patios on their roofs, to take advantage of the view and provide a cool place to sleep in the stifling heat of the summer. I felt almost drowsy in the afterglow of slaking my thirst, and I was delirious with happiness at having Didyme beside me, and no longer angry. She broke the comfortable silence first.

“Marcus, you need to understand something about Caius.”

I stiffened, wondering if the argument was about to resurface.

She laughed. “Don’t worry, silly, I just think you should hear it, maybe you will understand him better, and try to learn to care for him as I have?” She took my hands in hers, looking into my eyes, imploring me to listen, to try to understand.

I nodded. Of course. I was always helpless against her.

“Caius is only seven, but he has lived far too much for his years,” she finally whispered, shaking her head. “I know that we do terrible things, we feed upon them, we steal from them…but we, at least, don’t hurt the little ones.” She shuddered.

I listened silently.

“Caius has told me many things. I know he doesn’t speak much to anyone else, but he does to me, when we are alone. I think he wants me to know everything about him. He wants me to accept him. He wants love, more than anything. Because those are things he has never had before.

“When he was three, his father died, and he was sold into slavery with his mother. He has several brothers and sister, but he has no idea where they are. They were sold as well, but they only allowed Caius to stay with his mother, since he was the youngest. She was sold to a tanner, a man who processed hides and made leather, a very successful one, apparently. But he was a cruel man. Caius’s mother became ill quickly from the chemicals they used, which is a common thing, I have heard. When she became too sick to work, the man sold Caius to try to recoup some of his investment. I believe she probably died shortly after that, but Caius was too young to remember the man’s name.

“Caius was sold to a brothel, Marcus. He was only four years old. But you know…Well, you have heard of the appetites of some humans, I am sure.” Didyme had to stop, her breathing ragged. “Apparently he was a favorite, because of his strange coloring.”

I felt my guts twist in disgust. I closed my eyes and tried not to think about what had been done to the poor boy.

I had seen the children of the houses of ill-repute, although I, of course, had never set foot inside one of those places. I had seen the children peeking through windows and barred gates, their little faces painted like dolls, dressed in bright clothing far too mature for their years. Some girls, but more boys. They called them catamites. I did not allow myself to consider what was done with those children by the monsters that patronized them.

Didyme continued after a moment, her voice shaking.

“He was there until the age of six. Apparently he became too…well, too unmanageable. I don’t know the details. I didn’t want to ask, and he didn’t want to say. All he told me was that he was sold again because the brothel owner was angry at him. He was sold to a blacksmith.

“Caius told me that at first the blacksmith was kind to him, and he tried to please the man by being obedient and quiet and trying to learn quickly. It seemed to work for a while. But then the blacksmith’s sons, who were a bit older than Caius, started teasing him. They ridiculed him for his strange eyes and pale skin. They hated that their father was fair to Caius. They did everything they could to make his life difficult.

“One day, they caught him in the shop, alone; their father was out. There were three of them, and only one of Caius…They beat him almost to death with their father’s tools. One of them even poured boiling water from the smithy onto Caius’s shoulder. It left him terribly scarred. He is lucky to have lived, Marcus.”

I shook my head. How could mortals be so very cruel to each other? No matter how often I killed to feed, I never prolonged the agony. I gave them a quick death, one which was as painless as possible. And I never chose to feed upon a child. And to torture someone deliberately…especially a child…

Yes, we are predators. It is the inevitable fact of our nature. Yes, we view the humans as our prey. But we aren’t normally cruel. There is no honor in that. I have yet, in my three millennia of existence, to ever meet any vampire who gloried in pain like far too many mortals do. Perhaps the sadistic part of humanity is usually lost in the transformation, or perhaps it is changed, merged with the need to feed on human blood, and tempered into something else . Or perhaps I am simply naïve. I am happy to remain so. It is much simpler.

“When the blacksmith found Caius, he was barely alive,” Didyme continued, her voice heavy with unshed tears. “He asked his sons what had happened; they told him that they had caught Caius stealing the blacksmith’s tools, and that they had punished him.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “I cannot fathom why the man believed those horrible children. I can only imagine that perhaps the love of a parent, the ability to overlook such obvious sins and lies, is so very strong that it overcomes all reason…” She swallowed convulsively. “Marcus, he was only a little boy! Even if he was stealing, even if it were true…What reason would there be, to beat a child so severely? And why did the man listen to those sons of his? Surely he knew they were jealous, spoiled, worthless boys!”

I could only shake my head. All I could see in my mind’s eye was Caius’s pale face, those intense pink eyes, so very mature. So cold. So full of hurt, of anger.

“The blacksmith waited until he was sure Caius wouldn’t die, then he sent for the auctioneer. He told him that the boy was a thief and a liar. That is what the auctioneer told me. But I know, Marcus, that the auctioneer didn’t really believe it: he pressed Caius on me. Showed him to me specifically. He had given the boy time to heal, let him sleep in his own home. He knows me, that man. He knows I never mistreat my slaves.”

I smiled at my wife. My beautiful, compassionate, vampire wife.

“Of course he did, my love. He wanted you to buy the boy, he knew it was the best chance Caius had, to go with you.”

She looked at me, eyes huge, brilliant. “Marcus, I know he has done horrible things. And I know he is jealous and cold. But could you, please, just give him some of your time, show him a bit of kindness? He has been through so much.”

I pulled her to me and kissed the top of her head. “Anything for you. And of course, he deserves a chance.”

She pulled back a little, enough to look me in the eyes, her face deadly serious.

“Marcus, I promised him I would change him, when he is old enough.”

I blinked, shocked. “Why?” I finally managed. I doubted she would have the control to not kill the boy. She was a vicious and instinctive hunter.

She sighed, laying her head against my chest. “Because he is terrified of dying.”

I digested that for a moment. She continued before I could formulate an answer.

“Marcus, the boy believes his soul is stained forever by what he has done, by what he was made to do. He knows he has done wrong. He confessed to me what he did in the garden, and why. He told me he was jealous of you and me.” Her voice was muffled against my chest, but I understood every word. “He wants to have a family. He wants to be with us forever.”

I thought for a moment about those words. I thought about Caius’s soul. I thought about the horrors he had been through. I thought about Didyme’s garden, the crushed songbirds, the smashed roses. I thought about what could bring a seven year old child to do something like that. I wondered whether he could ever get past his past, or whether it would twist him forever. An immortal with an angry and resentful nature surely wouldn’t be good. And Caius didn’t seem to want anything from me but distance from him…and distance from my wife, apparently. It didn’t seem promising.

But I still had to try. For her, if nothing else.

I reached down and lifted her chin so I could look her in the eye. For better or worse, I made a vow to myself then, and I followed it through, though I have often regretted it.

“My love, if you don’t feel you are strong enough to make him one of us, when he has come of age, I shall do it for you.”

And so the decision was made. Caius, that angry, violent, disfigured and abused boy, would be one of us someday.

Can you find it in your heart, my friend, to pity Caius, to try to understand why he became such a cold and insensitive man? I have not hidden anything from you. But I beg you, do not make me regret my honesty. Take this knowledge and use it to better yourself, and to grant Caius a little leeway. I know he can be detestable. But wouldn’t you be, if you had endured what he had endured?

Things that happen to children shape what kind of an adult they will eventually become. Caius isn’t to blame for what he is, truly. He had no option. What he knew as a child, before Didyme, was nothing but horror after horror. It warped the very fabric of his being.

I have more to tell you, but please, give me a moment. It is so hard to remember these things. So very painful. Give me a moment, my young friend, and I will finish Caius’s story.