The Ribbon: Marcus's Tales
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.
3. Chapter 3: The Ties that Bind
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Chapter 3: The Ties that Bind
I am sorry, my dear friend, where was I? Oh yes. Caius. I suppose I must finish with his story, to resolve all the questions. I do not like telling it, though, it is far too sad, but if you are to ever understand him, you must hear the tale.
The years passed quickly, as years are wont to do when their passage does not touch you. Aro continued his reading and exploring; Didyme re-built her garden and spent her time lavishing attention on young Caius, who seemed to open up a bit under her care. I spent much time alone, in the forest, enjoying the solitude, when I was not with my wife or my brother.
Before I knew it, Caius was almost a young man. He was fifteen in human years, I think, when I realized that the time was coming soon when Didyme would ask me to change him, and I knew I had to do something with him, help him become ready for the transition. It was a giant leap, and I didn’t look forward to his newborn bloodthirstiness and strength: I knew it would be difficult for him to restrain himself in a houseful of human servants, much less in a whole city full of humans. So, one day I took him aside to speak with him about it, to explain some things and to hear his mind.
He’d grown a great deal, standing almost as tall as myself by then, his white hair hanging long and lank around his shoulders. His child’s body had begun maturing into that of a man’s, broader through the chest and thicker through the arms; he was a hard worker, so he was a well-built young man. But even so much time in our home, away from the horrors of his early childhood, had never removed the coldness from his face and the emptiness from his pink eyes.
I took him out into the garden, knowing it was the place he felt the most at ease, since it was where he spent the most time with Didyme. I acceded to his mortal body and sat down, indicating that he should take the marble bench across from mine.
“Sit down, Caius, we have some things to discuss.”
His mouth gave a sour little twist at the corner, but he sat, and waited expectantly. The stony set of his face and the tension radiating from him was almost palpable. He was nervous, almost frightened.
I sighed. Obviously, this wasn’t going to be simple. It never was with him.
“Caius, son, you know that the time is coming soon, when we will change you into one of us. You have asked it of Didyme, Didyme has asked it from me, and I did agree, out of love for my wife. I shall keep my word; a man always should keep his promises. But before I can, in good conscience, follow through with my promise, we must speak about the responsibilities and dangers that you will undertake and encounter in this life, especially when new.”
He raised one white eyebrow quizzically, but seemed to relax a bit; I wonder what he had thought I was going to tell him, whether he believed I was going to scold him or accuse. It made me wonder if he was guilty of something, or if it was just the suspicious nature of the boy, born of so many years of pain and betrayal at the hands of others. But I ignored that errant thought and continued.
“Caius, you have been with us for several years now, and you know that we are very different from you. Since you have expressed a desire to become one of us, you should know everything that you can, so that when you are transformed it does not take you by surprise. I do not know how much Didyme has told you, so I shall do my best.”
He nodded slightly, his eyes wide, and he leaned forward a little to listen better.
“The first year or so of your new life, you will be terribly…Well, you’ll be terribly thirsty, Caius. And you know what we drink, what sustains us, correct?”
“Blood.” His voice was cold, yet strangely eager, as he leaned forward a bit, captivated.
“Yes, blood, son. But regardless of how thirsty you are, we must always be careful around the humans. We live among them, we could rule them outwardly, but we do not. It would affect the balance of things, it would make our lives much more difficult, if we always did as we pleased with them. It is much better this way, to remain concealed and discreet in sating our appetites, and exert our influence in a more subtle manner. You know, for example, that we never feed anywhere close to Volterra, don’t you?”
Caius licked his lips. “Yes. I know. Mother has told me. She tells me that is why she leaves me.”
Ah, yes, he called Didyme “Mother” then.
“Well, you must obey that stricture, Caius. You will be extremely strong then, though, stronger than Aro or Didyme or myself, like more than all of us combined, so you must be obedient, or you will get yourself into trouble.”
He stared at me like I’d gone mad. “Stronger?”
“Yes,” I murmured, reaching out to tap him on the back of the hand; he withdrew slightly from the coldness of my touch, his eyes wide again. “Stronger. We don’t really know why, although Aro has a theory that it has to do with the human blood remaining in your body for a time, until your new tissues finally dissolve it…But regardless of the why, you will be stronger, for a while, at least. And so, if you cannot obey and control yourself, we shall take you away from here, to somewhere more remote where you would be less dangerous to the life we have built here. Temporarily, of course.”
Caius sat back and watched me silently for a long moment, his face unreadable; I wished I had Aro’s gift, to hear his mind, at least just for those seconds. Finally he nodded. “I shall obey, sir. When will it happen?” Again, he sounded eager.
I shook my head. “I do not know right now. I must speak with Didyme and Aro, hear their opinion of the matter. And also, you need to be sure you are at a point in your life where you are satisfied with yourself—after all, you shall never change from that moment. If you chose to be changed now, you would forever have the body of a fifteen year old. Perhaps it is wiser to wait a few years, to allow yourself to mature a bit more?”
He considered that briefly, then nodded his agreement. “Thank you, sir,” he said gravely, and stood to bow low before me. I couldn’t help but be impressed by his formality and at least outward respectfulness. I dismissed him and watched him go, wondering again what lay beneath that calm, cold exterior, what kinds of monsters might lurk in his depths.
It wasn’t long before I found out.
We had a little “family meeting” that evening after dusk; Aro had returned from a long trip abroad the day before, and was unpacking the crates of various things he had brought home with him. Didyme sat cross-legged on Aro’s desk, sorting through scrolls, cataloguing them; when I came in she looked up and smiled at me, that slightly wicked, saucy smile that always made me feel alive, and blew me a kiss.
Aro glanced up from his stack of books to shoot me a slightly mocking half-grin. “So, brother, to what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit? Have you finally begun to cultivate a true interest in expanding your mind?”
I ignored his barb. Aro was always trying to bait me, but I rarely gave in to him anymore. During our earlier years, when the newborn madness was still fresh, we had had many terrible arguments, even a few actual physical fights, but things between us had calmed down considerably since then, much to everyone’s relief. I had made a decision to accept him as the head of our family, our coven, despite my reservations, for the sake of peace.
“Good evening, Aro. No, I have come because the time will soon come when Caius will ask to be changed, and I felt that it would be best if we had some kind of plan in place, for how to handle him during the first few years. And, despite your misgivings and distaste for the issue, it does involve you, brother.”
Aro rolled his eyes dramatically and slapped the leather-bound book he’d been holding down onto the desk with a puff of dust. Didyme turned and glared at him.
“Oh, leave off, Aro, you know it must be done. I promised.”
Aro grimaced. “Yes, that is exactly the problem, sister dear. You promised something that would affect us all, forever, based purely on some silly, emotional whim,” he said, his tone dripping sarcasm.
Didyme threw a scroll at him, which he easily caught. “Tut tut, sister, do be careful. These things are delicate, after all.”
She sighed and turned to me, climbing down from the desk and coming to take my hands in hers. “So, what do you think, Marcus?”
I looked down into her face, her small face which shone like the moon to me, her ruby eyes glittering. “I think we should wait until the lad has at least a few more years to mature: perhaps if he’s fully a man when he’s turned he might have a bit more control.” She nodded encouragingly, so I went on. “And afterwards, we need to take him away from here. Take him someplace where he cannot endanger our lives here so easily.”
Aro interjected. “Yes, please. I cannot allow some foolish child to jeopardize the things I have been working toward here. This is our city. We shall have it forever, if we take care.”
Didyme shook her head in disgust, rounding on Aro. “Truly, brother, you are so short-sighted. How are we to put all your grand plans into effect if we are only three of us? Caius shall be the first of many, and we must learn to handle them quickly.” She regarded Aro speculatively for a moment. “And I think you should consider finding a wife. You’re far too sulky. Perhaps a bit of love and fun might lighten you up some.”
Aro stared at her in horror. I had to chuckle myself: the idea of Aro with a wife was frankly hilarious. He wouldn’t know what to do with her, I thought, then tried to hastily blur it from my mind—the next time Aro touched me, he’d hear my slander directly from my thoughts. But still, Aro looked on women with a great deal of disdain and seemed to take no pleasure in their company, only enjoying his books and his plans and schemes.
Didyme giggled and moved on briskly. “So, we shall have Caius as our test subject, then. I think another three years should be sufficient for him, eighteen is a nice age for a young man, the prime of life. He would do well to be eighteen forever.”
I nodded agreement and stroked her face, she smiled up at me brilliantly. She had been fifteen when turned, but people matured much earlier in those times, especially girls. I had been lucky that her father had not married her off earlier, at twelve or thirteen.
“My wife is not only lovely but wise as well,” I murmured, before bending to kiss her. She giggled again beneath my lips, then threw her arms around me, wrapping her legs around my waist, and my thoughts rapidly slid away from more practical matters…
“Oh for the sake of all that is sacred, get out!” Aro barked, and raised a book as if he might throw it at us.
Laughing, we fled from his wrath and sought our own chambers, where there were much more delightful diversions awaiting us than dusty old scrolls.
Three years passed like the blink of an eye to us.
Caius came to me the day after the celebration of Saturnalia, the date when all Romans marked their birthdays. He had grown even more, until he could look me in the eye, fully a man. His face cold and composed, he bowed and said, “I am ready, sir, if you are still disposed to keeping your promise.”
I couldn’t help but be a bit taken aback by his implication that I might not be willing to keep the promise, but I decided to ignore it. I did that often: ignore an implied insult for the sake of peace.
“Of course, Caius. Let me speak to Didyme and we shall take care of it this evening.”
He nodded coolly and left.
Didyme came to me a few moments later; I assumed Caius had asked her to find me. I shook my head at his impatience: did he have any idea what he was so eager to become?
I had been, by that time, immortal for over one hundred years. I had seen the people I had once known and loved die, I had ceased to be anything resembling human anymore in anything but the basest physical resemblance. I was a creature of the night, drinking human blood, hard and fast and strong…but lonely. I had no connection with others, except for my love for my wife, and my vague allegiance to Aro. I had accepted the transformation because of Didyme, but I didn’t resent her for it: we could be immortal together, and that was worth any changes I had to endure. But Caius had nothing, no one, like I did. How would he fare, in the face of such momentous and, yes, monstrous, alterations?
“So the time has come, beloved?” she whispered, peering up into my face as if she were trying to read my thoughts. I smiled and touched her lips gently.
“Yes, it appears so.” I stopped, hesitant. “I hope I have enough self-control to do this, Didyme.”
Her smooth brow furrowed in worry. “I…I didn’t know that you had any doubts, Marcus,” she murmured. “I shouldn’t like to see Caius hurt…any more than necessary. Or to have you bludgeon yourself if something went wrong. I couldn’t bear you feeling guilty about it.”
I sighed and smoothed back a strand of her golden hair from her face, stiffening my spine with forced resolve. “Don’t worry, darling, I shall do my best to be restrained. I think I have the strength in me.” Did I? I fervently prayed I did.
She bit her lower lip in consternation but didn’t press the issue. “I’ll go to him now. You come when you’re ready, husband.” Then she was gone like a spring breeze, leaving the scent of rosewater and pressed violets she wore as perfume lingering in the air around me.
I closed my eyes and considered the task at hand.
When Aro had transformed me he had bitten me several times, which he told me was what had been done to him, flooding my system with the venom which affected the change. I had never, in all the years since, been able to prize the secret of who had changed him from his secretive heart, but that didn’t matter now. What mattered was, would I be able to duplicate all those bites, taste the blood and not drink deeply?
I took a deep, shuddering breath to try to calm the thirst I felt in reflex to thinking about feeding, banishing the thoughts from my mind. I had to center myself, anchor myself to the very ground, to keep from giving in to the thing that felt most natural to me than anything else besides loving Didyme: drinking deeply when the blood was before me.
I stood like a statue for a long time, forcing the bloodlust to drain from me. I had to think of Caius differently than I had ever thought of a human before. I had to forget about the blood and think about the venom: I was giving, not receiving. Finally, I felt ready, and went to join Didyme and Caius in the room we had prepared.
Caius sat on a pallet in the center of the small, windowless room toward the back of the house, and he seemed even more pale than normal as he watched me enter, his pink eyes huge, but he held his mouth tightly, his whole body stiff with resolve. He was determined.
I could see the strength of the bond that pulsed between him and Didyme, who knelt beside the low bed, her hand on Caius’s arm reassuringly, and reminded myself that this was something I had promised her: I could not fail.
“Are you ready, Caius?” I asked quietly, holding his eyes with mine. “You must be absolutely, completely sure. Once done, it is done.”
He took a quick breath and closed his eyes; for a moment, I watched doubt and fear and eagerness war across his features as he considered his future. I could almost see the paths diverging in his mind: one traveling through the life he knew, a mortal life with a mortal death, comfortable and safe; the other, a dimly-lit path stretching into the mists of unknown eternity, fraught with mysteries and strangeness. I knew those paths, I had looked down them myself years before and made my choice with no true regrets…but I had something, someone, that he did not have: I had Didyme lighting my immortal future like a blazing torch, casting all my doubts and fears into the shadows, rendering them harmless and inconsequential. Caius faced the future alone, or at least not supported as I had been.
It was not long before he opened his eyes and nodded slightly. “I am ready, sir.”
I sighed and knelt beside him, pulling my tunic up a bit so I didn’t settle my knees on the fabric. I reached out and lay my hand on his shoulder; he didn’t flinch away from the coldness of my touch, but his muscles were like rock beneath my hand.
“This will hurt, Caius. More than anything you have ever imagined.”
One corner of his mouth lifted in a sneer. “Somehow I doubt that, sir. You have no idea what I have endured.” Unconsciously I glanced down at his shoulder, where his own tunic covered the horrible burn scars that ridged his white flesh. I wondered if any trace of those scars would remain after the transformation.
“Be that as it may, son, prepare yourself. Screaming does not help.” I leaned forward holding my breath so I would not inhale the scent of his blood. “Close your eyes. I will make it fast.”
He closed his eyes, surrendering.
For a moment I considered the tiny purple veins threading his nearly transparent eyelids, the blood pulsing through them, pumped on by his heart, which was beginning to accelerate with the fear he couldn’t keep his body from feeling; his breathing sped, coming in rapid pants as I leaned into him.
I kept my word, I made it as fast and painless as possible. Quick slashes at the neck, wrists, inside of the elbows, palms, then down to above the heart and then on to the legs, in the same pattern as Aro had taken with me.
At first it was simple, but then the scent of his blood flowing from the gashes I made in his white skin began to overwhelm me, and the thirst began clawing at my throat…I had to draw back and hold my breath for a moment to gather up my strength to not simply tear out his throat, my thirst roaring, his blood smelled so very tempting…
“Wait, beloved. I shall finish.” Didyme’s tiny hand pressed against my chest, pushing me away from Caius. “Step back.”
I obeyed her thoughtlessly; she leaned over Caius, who was weeping silent tears from between his tightly-closed eyelids; they rolled down his temples and soaked his white hair. She whispered into his ear.
“Do not worry, son. I shall make the end of it.”
And she sealed up all his streaming wounds with a quick pass of her tongue; the bleeding stopped, trapping the venom inside Caius’s body, and there was nothing left to do but wait.
Didyme sat back and wiped her mouth daintily, turning blazing crimson eyes on me. “By all the gods, Marcus, that was difficult!” she hissed, then stood to join me. I chuckled, breaking the tension.
Caius lay motionless on the pallet, eyes screwed shut, hands balled into fists, his veins standing out deep blue beneath his white skin, his muscles tensed and rock-hard as he struggled not to cry out. I could hear his heart hammering away inside his chest, hear the blood pulsing inside him, smell it too…then the scent changed, the hot, coppery saltiness of humanity began to clash with the sweet otherworldly scent of the venom…
Caius’s back suddenly arched in agony, his head thrashing back and forth against the pillow as the burning began in earnest, the venom searing mercilessly through those veins, charring as it went. The scream had escaped from between his teeth: his jaw was clenched so savagely that I could hear his teeth grinding together.
Didyme turned her head into my shoulder, not wanting to see her adopted son in pain. I watched Caius for a moment longer before drawing her out of the room, closing the heavy door behind us carefully.
“We cannot help him now. Only time will make it end, wife.” She nodded against me and let me take her out into the garden.
It was a beautiful night, the moon hanging full and ripe above us like a ghostly fruit in the star-spattered sky. Not a cloud obscured the heavens, and a cool breeze blew, stirring the flowers and leaves in Didyme’s atrium garden.
She had taken over a year to reconstruct her garden, selecting the most beautiful and fragrant flowers and plants. The planters had been filled with shrubs, new trellises constructed, a fountain built in the center of it all. During the day, the air was thick with the scents of honeysuckle, roses, and violets, while the colors of the pansies and marigolds and azalea and bougainvillea shocked the eye; then at night, the heavy, dreamlike fragrance of night-blooming jasmine, moonflowers, evening primrose and nicotiana caressed us, the silvery flowers gleaming in the moonlight.
Now we sat on the lip of the fountain, which had a statue of a young girl pouring an ewer of water into the main pool. Tiled all over with tiny stones in every shade of blue, during the day it looked like a little piece of the sky had fallen to earth, full of sparkling water. That night the water reflected the moonlight; I reached down and took a handful of it: like cupping the moon in my palm. I watched the ripples play across the surface of my tiny captive lake for a moment before pouring it back into the fountain, diamond drops shattering the surface.
“Three days?” Didyme’s voice was low and sad. I nodded, slipping my arm around her shoulder. “I hope less. Perhaps you did a better job with it than Aro did with us?”
I laughed. “Perhaps. But do not tell your brother that: he despises being compared to anyone else.” She giggled too, covering her mouth guiltily to smother the sound, lest Aro suddenly appear in front of us.
Then Caius began screaming, and it was no use to talk anymore.
We sat in silence as the night passed, the moon marching across the sky, until dawn’s rosy fingers touched the eastern horizon. We sat and waited and tried not to listen to the screams. Because there was nothing to do to help them, or make it better.
Three days. Three days of unending screams. He hadn’t listened to our advice, that screaming wouldn’t help: he simply shrieked and shrieked as the venom burned itself through his mortal body. Didyme and I took turns sitting by him, keeping him company, although neither of us believed it really mattered much. Perhaps it would make him more biddable when the whole thing was done, if he knew that someone had always been watching over him.
Finally, at dawn on the third day, the end came. With a thunderous pounding shudder, his mortal heart died, and Caius opened his eyes to a whole new world. Didyme was the first thing he saw.
Immediately he launched himself up, hissing, his huge newborn strength taking him as far as he could go: he flew backwards and punched through the wall, falling into the next room, scrabbling and growling as he tried to get away from us, his eyes vivid and wheeling with the newborn madness.
“Peace, Caius, be calm my son!” Didyme called, her hands outstretched to him pleadingly. “You are safe!”
Caius’s crazed eyes flashed back and forth between myself and Didyme, his face twisted with hostility.
“I warned you, Caius, that this would happen,” I said quietly, reaching out to draw my wife behind me, placing myself between her and Caius. I heard footsteps behind me and knew that Aro was there as well: even though he was disdainful of the whole idea of turning Caius, there was no way he would allow the newborn monster to harm any of us, or ruin his precious plans.
“Control yourself, young man, or we shall control you,” Aro growled, flanking me.
Caius heaved a struggling breath, as if the very air seared his dead lungs; I could practically feel his confusion, how overwhelmed he was by the sheer volume and quality of input flowing through his grossly heightened senses. “I—had—no…no idea it would be like—like this!” he gasped, his hands flying to his throat, which I knew burned like acid. He inhaled deeply, a low growl building in his chest, his head swiveling blindly to seek something. He smelled the slaves in the other parts of the house. I saw him tense to prepare to spring, and Aro and I met Caius in midair as he launched himself toward the door.
“Not so fast, boy!” Aro grated, using all his strength to help me pin Caius to the floor; the boy struggled mightily, snarling like a caged lion, and his huge strength nearly had us until Didyme joined us, throwing herself atop the pile of us all.
“Caius!” she cried, reaching down between Aro and myself to touch Caius on the face. “Caius, please, my son, stop it! You must calm yourself!” Then I felt the surge of love she pushed toward him; it made me dizzy as it passed, like the scent of strong perfume or the punch of unwatered wine on an empty stomach when I had drunk such things. “Please, Caius, for me!”
He stopped struggling. “Anything for you,” he whispered, closing his eyes against her touch.
Aro made a gagging noise in the back of his throat. “As if the boy didn’t obsess about you enough already, Didyme! Have you any idea what you’re doing to him?” Suddenly I realized that Aro was hearing Caius’s thoughts through their touch, and I felt a primal surge of anger and jealousy course through me, hearing my worst fears and suspicions about the boy confirmed. I glared down into Caius’s face, into those wheeling, fiery eyes, and growled at him.
Caius stared back up at me, challenging, furious. “Get off me. Now.” His tone was icy, more than it had ever been before. No more “sir,” either. Now he felt he was our equal, I supposed.
“Only if you’ll promise to be good, Caius. No attacking the servants. We’ll take you out to hunt, but you must hold onto yourself until we are outside the city walls, at least, all right?” Didyme purred at him, while with her free hand she blindly reached over to take mine. I felt her love for me pulse through me, replacing the anger and jealousy. “You are my son. Our son. And we are very pleased with you. So please, try to continue to make us proud.”
The newborn stared up at her and I knew his anguish. He didn’t want to be Didyme’s son. He wanted her like I wanted her.
But he’d never have her.
“I promise,” he finally whispered brokenly, turning his face away and closing his eyes. “I will obey. Mother.” Somehow he managed to make that word sound like a curse, but Didyme wisely chose to ignore it. “You may let me up now.”
Slowly, we got off him, Aro last, until Caius finally lay by himself on the tiles, staring blankly up at the ceiling. After a moment he got to his feet, swiftly as only one of our kind can, and faced us squarely. For the first time I looked at his face, seeking the changes that the transition to immortality brought.
He had been a handsome young man before, although his odd coloring had made him strange. Now, somehow, he seemed…natural. As if he had been made to be one of us. His face was perfected, the angles of jawline and cheekbone and brow chiseled as if from marble by a master’s hand, his skin no longer an abnormal human white but a normal immortal marble, sparkling gently in the torchlight. He was beautiful, a young god, like us, albeit a cold and disdainful one. He had not lost any of his former indifference or arrogance: if anything, it was worse. He radiated it like the sun’s rays.
Caius made a swift, formal vow. “Thank you, Mother. Thank you, Marcus, for giving me this gift,” he said carefully as he straightened, then he caught my eye.
Then I knew that nothing had changed for the better, and that I had better watch my back, because Caius had my death in his eyes.
The three of us took Caius from the city to hunt, setting him loose in the farmlands south of Volterra. That night, at least five humans fell to Caius’s thirst. He hunted like one bred for it, his instincts unerringly sharp. I couldn’t help but be impressed by his vicious efficiency, despite my foreboding.
Didyme flitted along with Caius as he hunted, while Aro and I hung back, watching. Once Caius had landed his second victim, my adopted brother turned to glare at me.
“Well, you have certainly made a mess of this, haven’t you, Marcus?” he spat, his tone acidic.
“I do not know what you mean, Aro.”
He laughed mockingly. “Oh, do not play silly coy games with me, Marcus Domitius.” He only used my second name when he was truly angry. “You know that boy means to have your wife. My sister. And he will do it by whatever means he can, and soon. You two have brought nothing but trouble to yourselves and to my house.”
I sighed. Yes, I had known that, but Aro saying those words aloud somehow made it seem more real, more fearsome.
“I do not know what to do about it, Aro. Didyme loves him like a son, but he loves her like…Well, I suppose like me.”
Aro rolled his eyes, sneering. “Yes, I suppose like you, indeed!” He crossed his arms and glared at me. “And what shall you do about it? Or should I say what shall we do about it?”
I glanced at him in surprise. “We?”
“Surely you did not think I would allow some upstart commoner to interfere with our lives that way, Marcus. Regardless of how much I opposed your relationship with Didyme before, she has been your wife for too long for me to continue in that feeling. You have treated her well, as I asked you. She, although the why is beyond my ken, is obviously mad for you. And you have been my brother for as long as you have been married to her. Of course my allegiance lies with you.”
I was amazed. I had never felt Aro supported me in anything; it was always the reverse.
Aro sighed and clapped me on the shoulder, and I knew he was rifling through my thoughts. I tried very hard not to mind.
“I shall have a few words with young master Caius later, once he has slaked his thirst a bit. Then, I shall take him away with me, to put some space between you and Didyme and Caius. I can teach him as well as you, if not better, because here he would only be distracted by Didyme any jealousy.”
“You’re right. Thank you, Aro. I am in your debt.”
He chuckled darkly, and his smile was slow and dark; I had a sudden sinking feeling that I had just stepped into a trap. Aro always wanted people indebted to him, he never made offers selflessly. This would cost me somewhere, somehow, sometime. And I had no idea what it might cost me…but I would pay it, if he would help solve this problem.
I could not, would not, lose my wife. I would pay any cost to avoid that.
“Yes, my brother, you are in my debt. But let’s forget about that right now, shall we?” Aro looked down toward where we could see Caius at work and he smiled a little, almost indulgent. “He’s making quite a job of it, isn’t he?”
Caius had just taken a third victim: he had attacked a small family farm, one well away from others, and was steadily going through its members, with the obvious intention of leaving no one alive. Just as well, no witnesses.
It seemed he was taking to his new life very well indeed.
Caius and Aro left the next day, for parts unknown, with no return date. It was always like that when Aro traveled: he left when he wanted to, came back when he wanted to, and never revealed where he had gone. I never heard what Aro had spoken to Caius about, but the newborn went easily enough, with barely a word of protest or resentment at being treated like a child. Didyme and I watched them go after midnight, their white skin gleaming beneath the waning moon until they disappeared into the darkness.
She burrowed her face into my sleeve and sighed happily. “Just us for a while, then, eh, husband?” she whispered, and giggled wickedly. I tickled back. Then a mighty mock-battle erupted between us, we romped and scampered through the house like children, before shutting ourselves in our bedchamber for the next week.
Over the next year and a half, we received several letters from Aro and Caius. Or, to be more specific, the letters were from Aro, since Caius apparently never wanted to put quill to paper. It didn’t dawn on me that he didn’t know how to read or write until later, upon reading one of Aro’s letters.
When a new missive came by courier it was always a bit exciting to slide the scroll out of the case and break the red wax seal. Didyme and I spent several evenings by the fireplace in Aro’s library, puzzling over Aro’s spidery Latin.
One letter, however, was particularly disturbing.
Dear Ones (Aro has always been a bit pretentious),
I hope this message finds you well and in good fortune.
Caius and I are recently come to Greece, Athens in particular, where I had the excellent fortune to engage the services of a very knowledgeable tutor to assist Caius in his studies when I am unable to personally oversee them. I cannot in good conscience allow him to remain unlearned, illiterate as the slave he once was, so I hope to return him to your loving bosoms well-taught in all the gentlemanly fields. I just hope that Caius refrains from killing the man long enough to learn to read and write passably.
I did have an unfortunate incident with Caius before we left Italia to travel to Greece, which I feel I should recount to you.
When we were in Perugia we came across the family of the blacksmith to whom Caius had previously belonged. Well, I suppose I should say that Caius sought them out, to be truthful. To make a long story short, he did exact some vengeance upon them, which did cause us to have to leave the area with some haste. I fear that young Caius shall have a fearsome reputation thereabouts from now on, they called him all kinds of names. A legend is born. I imagine the opportunity to be vindicated against those who caused the pain he suffered as a child was something he could not allow to pass. I should hope not.
He has become quite the immortal, completely lethal in every way, although he does listen well to my counsel for the most part. He has acquitted himself admirably as a newborn, I think. I have quite changed my opinion regarding Caius: I believe he is an excellent addition to our happy little family, and that we should indeed begin considering expanding more. I think Caius would benefit from some female company, specifically, to divert him from his previous unhealthy fixation on our darling Didyme.
Oh, and one other thing: the brothel he once was…employed…at has been burned to the ground. No one escaped. Terrible thing, the humans said.
Tell Didyme I have some lovely things to bring her. Greece is wonderful. You should join us, Cyprus in the summer is delightful.
I sat with the scroll in my hands for a long time, watching the words dance across the parchment in the flickering firelight, my mind a million miles away. So he had exacted his revenge, as I had thought he might. I hoped it brought him some small measure of peace in the storm of rage and pain that he had endured for so long. The mention of needing to leave Perugia was bothersome, but not too much: after all, what could be expected?
Didyme cleared her throat; she had been laying on a chaise lounge near my chair, listening. “So, my brother thinks Caius could use some female companionship, does he?” Her eyes gleamed with the challenge. How I had underestimated her: I had never really thought she would relish the idea of being a mother, or being a matchmaker. But women will always be a mystery, even to immortals, who have eternity to figure them out, but never shall.
She clapped her hands together eagerly, smiling her wicked smile. “I shall start the hunt tomorrow.” She got up and came to perch on the arm of my chair, dropping a kiss on my forehead, then dodged away with a giggle as I lunged to pull her down into my arms for more. “I shall find the perfect woman for Caius. And…perhaps…for Aro, too?”
I groaned and covered my eyes. “Didyme, don’t meddle in your brother’s affairs…”
She shook her finger in my face, then danced away again when I tried to grab her again. “Marcus Domitius, how often has Aro meddled in our affairs? I think we owe him a bit of meddling, don’t you?” And she smiled dazzlingly at me as she finally settled down into my lap for a bit more kiss and a lot less talk.
I was lost. I always was, wrapped around her little finger like her ribbon twined around my wrist.
True to her word, Didyme vanished with the dawn the next morning, leaving her flowery scent as the only reminder that she’d been lying next to me the night before and the lingering burn of her kiss on my lips when she had bidden me goodbye. I had tried to dissuade her from her quest a few times, half-hearted efforts at best, but at least I could say I had tried—and Aro would see that in my thoughts the next time I touched him.
She was gone for over a month, which I spent poring through Aro’s library and hunting in an effort to not be driven mad by the ache of her absence. I had a rare opportunity for solitude, but I found I disliked it. Without Didyme, the solitude became lonely, almost unbearable. So I threw myself into the books and Aro’s piles of notes, trying to discern what he had been working on for so long.
Some notes he had written in normal Latin or Greek or Etruscan, the tongues we used regularly, others were in foreign languages which I did not know how to read at first, such as the cuneiform of Sumeria or the hieroglyphics of Egypt. And others still were in a strange code which I knew was Aro’s own. Those were the ones I wished I could read the most: the ones he specifically closed to anyone but himself. The secrets he held close to his chest.
I was always stung by Aro’s secretive nature. He lived in a world where there was no such thing as a secret from him: one touch, and he could hear every thought that ever passed through the mind. He had the very heart of the person in his hand…and he guarded that ability jealously, building a wall of crafty, cultured silence around him. No one got inside that wall. When he did choose to make known any of his thoughts and plans, it was as if he were a king, doling out favors to his lowly subjects, not that he was sharing anything.
I taught myself the strange languages and writing styles quickly. That is one benefit to the immortal mind: we have none of the fuzziness and retention problems mortals have with facts, and we are able to store and process information so much more rapidly and with greater complexity.
The oldest writings were, of course, the Sumerian things. Some were actual clay tablets, the symbols pressed into the clay when it had been wet with a wedge-shaped stylus; others were representations of older tablets on papyrus. They spoke of the gods of that place: Inanna and Tammuz and Enkil and such. I wondered why Aro would possibly be interested in such things. He seemed especially intent on discovering more about Tammuz and some person named Lillith, a former handmain of Inanna, his consort. Apparently Lillith had been sent away in shame. Now why would Aro care about such a story?
The Egyptians hieroglyphics were just as intriguing and confusing. There were accounts of their myriad gods and goddesses, but there was an emphasis on the worship of their goddess of war and blood, Sekhmet, or Sakhmet, depending on how you read the vowels symbols. And also, there again, were mentions of this woman Lillith…but the legends were more recent than those of Sumeria, as if she had been there first, and then moved to Egypt…
I sat a stack of parchment down onto the desk and rubbed my temples; I did not have a true headache, immortals never got sick or felt pain except from a wound, but I felt as if a tight band of tension had been wound about my head, compressing my skull, as I pondered those papers and books. What did it all mean?
Why would Aro be studying ancient mythology? What interest did he have in this Lillith?
I shuffled back through the pages until I found one in particular, which I had been puzzling over for several minutes before putting it aside in frustration.
And so it came to pass:
That Lillith, daughter of Sumer, handmaiden of Inanna the Fair, came forth from the headwaters of the ancient lands, changed by the touch of Tammuz, despoiled and shamed.
She did come to serve Sekhmet, the glorious huntress, the heavenly warrior queen, in blood and in fire, and after many years she did betray her faithful mistress. Cast forth from the holy lands of Egypt, the cold one did wander, homeless, bereft, cursed for all eternity.
I shook my head and sighed and pushed it away again.
There were also books in Greek and Latin, and even some in African and Asian tongues, which I did not put forth any effort into translating. I was thoroughly confused and tired of puzzling things out, and I decided to confront Aro with my questions when he came back. He would know them anyway, the moment he took my hand in greeting, so it would just be a matter of formalizing the conversation, and making him answer me.
Aro had talked so much of power and ruling, of taking the city of Volterra and even more for ourselves, ruling from the shadows, pulling the strings. Yes, we had accomplished much in the past century living there, but nothing monumental. We received some tribute, we had greatly expanded our wealth and influence, we owned several successful businesses, but the humans mostly believed we were a family that had lived in that house for years. We never went out together, and when we did go out at all it was alone, at night, and dressed carefully. The current opinion was that Didyme was the granddaughter of the original woman who had taken ownership of the house, that I was a cousin or some such, that Aro was a distant relative. He came and went so sporadically and secretively that no one knew much about him at all.
I was almost ready to burn the stack of notes in a fit of pique when I heard her footsteps coming down the hall, and she was not alone. Two other sets of footsteps padded along behind her, timid and light. My dead heart seemed to leap inside me for joy. Didyme!
The library door opened with a sigh and there she was, her golden hair catching the firelight, her smile brighter than the sun. She threw herself into my arms with a squeal of delight, kissing me breathlessly, her little fingers wound tightly in my hair, as if she were afraid to let go.
“Oh, my beloved, I have missed you so!” she gasped between kisses, her eyes closed, her long lashes fluttering against her alabaster cheeks. “I shall never, ever leave you like that again, no matter the reason!”
I kissed her back savagely, and was preparing to take her to our chambers right that moment when she pulled back suddenly, eyes wide with excitement. “I have brought presents, Marcus! Come and see!”
She pulled herself out of my arms and took my hand, leading me toward the library door. Out in the hallway I saw them, two women, heads covered by hoods, their tunicas and pallas long and spotless and richly cut. Didyme reached out and beckoned them into the room impatiently. “Come now, don’t be shy, come meet your new brother-in-law-to-be!”
The women shuffled into the firelight and stood silently, clinging to each other as if terrified. I wondered if Didyme had lost her mind, bringing them home with her.
“Marcus, this is Athenodora.” Didyme reached out and, without waiting for permission, pushed back the first, smaller woman’s cowl, revealing her face.
She was lovely, obviously Greek by hr name, her cheekbones high and elegantly slanted, her nose aquiline, her forehead high and noble. But instead of the vivid Greek coloring I would have expected, her skin was powdery-pale, like Caius’s had been before the change, and her eyes...Her eyes were a pink identical to Caius’s. Her hair tumbled down around her face in lush tangles of tightly-wound curls, white as snow, but it did not make her seem older; she was not more than fourteen then, and terrified, biting her lower lip and twisting her small, white hands together convulsively. She was an albino, like Caius. I could only assume Didyme had chosen her for him.
“And this,” Didyme murmured, reaching over to push the other woman’s hood back, “is Sulpicia.”
Sulpicia was fair as well, but not like Athenodora’s bleached palette. She, too, was beautiful. She was Roman, her nose proud, her lips full and sensual, her dark brown eyes fringed with thick lashes, her skin a rosy peach that darkened as she flushed under my considering gaze. Her hair was straight and a sunny gold, lighter than my Didyme’s, but was bound tightly in a proper Roman woman’s coif. What struck me most about her was her bold gaze: despite the blush, she looked right back at me, unashamed, although I knew she was afraid, I could hear her heart pounding. She held herself rigidly straight and arrogance and superiority radiated from her every line.
In short, she was perfect for Aro, I would think, if he wanted someone like him.
“So, husband, what do you think?” Didyme whispered, leaning back against me, her hands finding my wrist and running her tiny fingers round and round the red ribbon there. “Have I chosen well?”
I chuckled, leaning my head down to kiss her at the tender junction of neck and shoulder. She shivered deliciously at the touch of my lips and her fingers clenched around mine fiercely; I knew I had a long, pleasurable night before me.
“I do not know yet, wife, they have yet to speak a word…and they have yet to be one of us. How do we know that their intended betrothed will want them for anything besides an evening snack?”
Athenodora trembled, her eyes wide and terrified; Sulpicia snorted and rolled her eyes to look away, but I saw her pull her arms tight against her body, as if she were cold. No, not cold: frightened. Didyme laughed and the sound was like a chorus of crystal bells.
“Oh, Marcus, I am sure Caius and Aro shall be immensely pleased at the wonderful companions I have chosen for them. You know I have excellent taste.” She turned to face me and touched the tip of my nose. “After all, I chose you, the common rose among all the well-bred weeds I was offered.”
I closed my eyes and remembered her as a girl: bright as a beam of sunlight, and just as warm. Now, she was cooler, like a moonbeam, but never had a woman been so beautiful, or so wonderful.
“This common rose is pleased to have been plucked,” I murmured, bringing her hand to my lips to kiss. She shivered again and slipped her free hand up and around my neck, pulling my face down to hers, a low purring growl beginning in her breast. We quite forgot about the two women standing before us, we were lost in each other. We had a month’s worth of loving to make up for and I didn’t care who saw it.
Irritated, I looked up to see Sulpicia glaring at us. “You have brought us here, you should at least give us the courtesy of providing us with a place to sleep, don’t you think? And some proper food?” Her voice was low and pleasant, cultured, but with an edge to it. She was used to being listened to, being served and obeyed.
I wondered if this was actually a good choice.
Would Aro want a subservient, smiling, silent woman, to listen to him and pet him and admire him? Or would he prefer a woman like him, proud and arrogant? I loved everything about Didyme, but I knew she was so many things I was not: where I was quiet and retiring, she was gay and forward, and many more things. I had heard that opposites attract, but I knew it wasn’t a hard and fast rule: and besides, love is what love is, one does not choose the one you love, love chooses you. I supposed I just needed to wait. After all, if Aro rejected her, we’d consume her and then Didyme would try to find him someone else…if he didn’t manage to finally dissuade her from that particular fool’s errand.
Didyme laughed again and called for the housekeeper, who came and escorted the women to the guest chambers. They went slowly, reluctantly, glancing back over their shoulders at us, as if afraid of being away from us. But finally, I was alone in the study with my wife, and I was glad when I was able to close the door and have her all to myself again.
Later, lolling on the rug before the fireplace, I asked her where she had found the women.
She grinned and propped her chin on her hands; she lay on her stomach, her feet crossed at the ankles, quite nude, and quite spectacular in the warm glow of the firelight. I had to fight to keep my attention on her words.
“Well, I found Athenodora in a slave auction, of course. She’s Greek, after all. She was originally from Mycenae, her family was brought over to Italia when the city was razed the most recent time. She’s very intelligent, but very shy: her kind is always ostracized. She was working as a laundress when I found her, poor thing, her hands were like raw meat. I saw her from a rooftop I’d taken to for the day, to avoid the humans, and when I realized that she was like Caius…Well, I felt as if they would be good together. I felt even more so after I’d taken her and had a chance to speak with her. She’s quite sweet, not an unkind bone in her body, and grateful and eager for the chance for a new life.” She turned over and crossed her legs at the knee, gesturing as she spoke; again, I lost my concentration at the sight of her breasts and belly caressed by the firelight, and had to fight to follow her words.
“Sulpicia I found in Rome, of course. That kind of arrogance is only possible there. Excellent family, well-educated, oldest daughter, about to be married to some brute forty years older than she.” Didyme laughed. “I completely understood her plight. After all, I barely missed such a fate myself!”
I couldn’t resist kissing her again, and one thing led to another…It was another hour or so before her mouth was free for speaking again.
“I met her in the market one afternoon. It was raining so I dared to be out in the daylight, but when I saw her face I knew there was something special, so I followed her home. I wondered why such a well-bred young girl would be out, unescorted, in that part of the city: it’s just not done, normally. A girl like that hardly ventures out in public, much less alone. So there was a curiosity factor at first.”
Didyme grimaced. “I came to her in their house garden. It’s much like ours. I found her there late at night; she’d stolen out to sit in the moonlight, and she was crying. I had to find out why, you know how curious I am…So, I jumped down from the roof into the garden.” She chuckled and rolled her eyes ruefully.
“I should have been more conscious of the effect my…hmmm…arrival might have on her. I haven’t been human in so long, it’s sometimes hard to remember how to act appropriately around them. Sulpicia screamed like she was being murdered, so I had to do something. So I took her. I just picked her up—she was quite frozen in shock, except for her mouth, of course! Then I jumped back up to the roof and took off across the city, trying to put some distance between us and her house.”
I couldn’t help myself, I had to laugh. The image of my tiny wife sprinting from rooftop to rooftop, lugging a screaming Sulpicia, was too much. She punched me half-heartedly on the arm.
“Do you want me to go on or not? Or would you rather laugh at me?”
I clamped my mouth shut to stifle the laughter and nodded for her to continue.
“Anyway,” she started, shaking her head a bit in disapproval, “Finally I managed to get her to stop her silly shrieking and set her down. I’d gone all the way from the Capitoline Hill and crossed the Tiber, after all!
“She knew I was different, and she was afraid of me, but strangely she didn’t want to go back home, after she’d recovered from the fright. When I asked her why, she told me: she’d been betrothed to a much older man, one who had already buried five other wives in the pursuit of a male heir…and never one. The man must be impotent.”
I snorted with laughter and guiltily covered my mouth with my hands when she glared at me.
“When I offered her the chance to come away with me, to be immortal, she jumped at it, even though I warned her Aro might not accept her. Even if he doesn’t, I think she will still make an excellent immortal, don’t you?”
I shrugged. “We shall see, won’t we?”
And then I made sure talking was over. We had a month to make up for.
Later, in the drowsy, delicious glow that the moments after lovemaking bring, I couldn’t help but think.
So many things to think about. So many things running through my head, warring for my attention.
Caius’s obsession with Didyme: would anything come of it, or would Aro’s plan work? Would they accept the brides Didyme had chosen for them? What was Aro planning? What was my role in this, and Didyme’s? We were inseparable now, the three of us…now the four of us? Would Caius, and perhaps Athenodora and Sulpicia become part of our family, part of the web that connected us to each other?
Twisted, tangled, intertwined, all of our lives, encircling and binding one another…like the ribbon about my wrist.
***Author’s Note: The references to Lillith aren’t accidental. To learn more about her, and the origin of the vampires, see my story The Mother: The Ballad of Lillith. Also you will learn more about Stefan and Vladimir, the mysterious Romanians.
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