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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:


4. Chapter 4: Metamorphoses

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C hapter 4: Metamorphoses

And so what now, my young friend? Oh, yes, you will be wanting to hear more about the wives, and how it all came about, I suppose? All right then. This tale is not so sad to tell.

The next several months passed swiftly, for our little household had expanded and was now full of excitement.

We allowed the two young women some time to themselves for the first few days. We did not restrict their comings and goings, but neither one wanted much to do with the world outside their chamber doors at first. Though they had chosen to go with Didyme, and knew somewhat what was to be their future, it was still overwhelming. Sulpicia was the first one to emerge, hesitantly coming down to the kitchen five days after my wife brought her home.

I had been out hunting; I went to the kitchen to wash my hands and drop off the deer I’d netted for the household. Of course I didn’t just hunt for humans for myself, I also hunted for my humans as well, since slaves do have to eat.

I found Sulpicia sitting at the small table the slaves ate around, nibbling at a piece of bread. Her dark eyes darted everywhere around the room, especially seeming drawn to me. She would glance at me and then look away, flustered, as if curious about me but ashamed of her curiosity.

I indulged her and looked away as I rinsed the blood from my hands in a basin, but I could feel the prickle of her eyes upon my back. I knew why she stared at me, I knew how strange I looked to her human eyes as I came into the sun-bright kitchen, glittering like diamonds, blood on my hands…and easily carrying a huge four-point buck over my shoulder, as if it were a feather pillow.

After a moment I turned and smiled at her, as easily as I could manage—although an immortal’s most gentle smile can be disconcerting for mortals—and bade her good morning. “Have you been comfortable? Lacked anything?” I had been trained to be a good host, something that was vitally important in the ancient world: hospitality was sacred, the guest sacred.

Sulpicia swallowed convulsively, her fingers nervously shredding the bread into a pile of crumbs. She glanced down at it, surprised, after a moment, then back up at me. “No, no, everything has been fine…sir.” She had a very cultured voice, low and pleasant.

I nodded. “Well, if you have anything to say, or need anything, you should have no fear to ask me, or my wife. And of course, if you have questions…” I managed awkwardly. How exactly does one talk to someone like her: a mortal woman not my wife. That was something not done in those days under normal circumstances, unmarried or unrelated men and women rarely spoke according to the rules of propriety. It had been difficult for me to even say good morning to her. Of course, she was potentially going to be my sister-in-law…but she could also potentially be his meal. There was no way to tell.

She nodded mutely and looked away from me again. I could hear her racing heartbeat, indicating her fear. Then something seized me, and I did something I still do not completely understand to this day.

“Do not worry, I promise no harm shall come to you in this house, lady.” I do not know exactly why I decided that, but the words came tumbling from my lips before I could really think it through.

I sighed resignedly: I would have to honor that promise, even if it meant going head-to-head with Aro, if she were still human upon his return. I do not break promises, even those given without thought. “Speak freely, have no fear.”

Her eyes widened in surprise, her lower jaw dropping just a bit, before she suddenly seemed to realize how vulnerable she appeared, how fearful she must look. In an instant she’d regained control: she straightened in her chair, shoulders back, chin lifted, and she nodded coolly, completely the patrician lady once more, looking down that noble nose at me.

“Thank you, sir.”

I chuckled and left without a word.

Oh yes, she would be a good match for Aro, although perhaps not the match he would have picked for himself. I thought that my wife might be good at the matchmaking business.

I found Didyme, of course, in her garden.

At first, I couldn’t see her, I could only hear her, smell her, humming to herself somewhere above me. Then I looked up and saw her. She was perched on the edge of the atrium roof opening, her bare legs dangling into empty space as she trimmed the riotous evening primrose vines that had scaled the trellises she’d built: they were spreading out across the flat roof of the house. She was wearing an indecently short tunic. I loved it.

“Good morning, husband!” she called down to me, smiling brightly. The morning sunlight backlit her, turning her hair into a fiery golden corona around her shadowed face; all I could see were her brilliant red eyes and her gleaming white smile. “Coming up or shall I come down?”

I laughed and wiped my forehead theatrically. “Come down here. I’m tired from the hunt.”

Then she was before me, rolling her eyes, dropping down from the roof with the unconscious grace of a hunting cat. “Pshaw. As if you ever get tired.”

We laughed together until she silenced it with a much-welcomed kiss.

“So,” Didyme murmured, twining her fingers through mine, “Has either of those silly girls come out of their rooms yet?”

I nodded and pushed a lock of her hair back from her face. “Sulpicia. She was in the kitchen a moment ago. She seemed nervous.” I shook my head in frustration and drew Didyme down to sit on one of the benches with me. “I made an impulsive promise to her, love. I told her I would protect her, that no harm would come to her here.”

She laughed, a sound all sunshine and silver bells. “Why on earth would you say something like that?”

“I have no idea. It just…well, it just slipped out.” I pursed my lips in thought. “I disliked the idea of her being afraid in my home. I suppose it was the old hospitality instinct your father drilled into my head so long ago. It wouldn’t be seemly for a guest to be murdered and consumed in my home when I’ve welcomed them, don’t you think?”

Didyme’s little chuckle turned into a full-blown belly laugh; she bent over her knees, her whole body shaking with the force of it.

“Only—you—would ever think—like that!” she finally gasped. “Guaranteeing a human safety! Against your brother? Are you just looking for a good fight?”

I had to join her in the laughter. It was a bit ridiculous. But it was done, and I had to honor it.

After a few moments the hilarity had died down. “So what do you think, then, Marcus? Should we change them before Aro and Caius come home? I suppose changing them first would help you keep your promise, after all!” She glanced at me teasingly.

I considered her question for a moment. “I think that is best left up to the ladies themselves, love. We should ask them how they want to do it. Perhaps, if Aro or Caius refuses one of them and they are still human, they could return home?”

Her sweet mouth twisted into a little grimace. “No, darling, I doubt it. Neither of those girls wants to see their homes ever again, believe me.”

I nodded. “Well, still, it’s a decision best left to them, I think. Let them make their choice and live with it. Perhaps being prepared for it ahead of time will help them deal with it better.”

She agreed. “So the next question is, when?” She reached out and plucked a sprig of honeysuckle, inhaling the fragrance of the flower and smiling. “At least Sulpicia has left her room. Athenodora is much more timid. I think I shall have to actually drag her from her room.”

I thought about pale, oddly pretty, shy Athenodora and wondered what kind of immortal she would make. Perhaps she might find a side of herself that she’d never known before, the powerful and strong side. “Perhaps.”

Didyme slapped my knee playfully. “Well, I shall do exactly that this evening, then, if she hasn’t emerged on her own. Cut her from her cocoon, I will!” She brandished something, the pruning shears she’d been using on the vines and had stuck into her girdle earlier, for emphasis. “No clinging vines here! Only the bright, brave, and strong shall be among us!”

She looked like the Nike, the winged victory…or at least what that statue had looked like prior to losing its head and arms. Glittering like the finest marble, arms akimbo, chin lifted proudly like Sulpicia’s had been earlier, her smile brilliant in the bright morning sunlight.

Gods above, how I loved her. Even without her gift, I know I would have loved her devotedly for all of eternity…And I have. I will.

“I shall see you at sundown in Aro’s library, then, Marcus?”

“Of course.”

Didyme dropped a quick kiss on my forehead and caressed my cheek. “I should go hunt. Being in the room with them sets my teeth on edge!” She reached up and twisted her long hair up into a knot, something she did when she hunted, so those curls didn’t get snagged on branches or in some poor hapless human’s grasping fingers. “Athenodora especially is like a sip of water to a man dying of thirst, isn’t she? Gods, what a scent!”

I nodded grimly. Indeed, both women smelled exceptionally good. Over the years I have theorized, if that is something indicative of a human’s potential to be a “good” immortal: all of the immortals that I have known before their change were amazingly tempting, they smelled divine.

“So I am away, my love!” And she was gone, leaving me to my thoughts amid her flowers.

True to my word, I was in Aro’s library, well before sundown. I had gone back to puzzling over Aro’s notes.

I thought I had actually begun to unravel the odd little cipher that he used to write his most private things. It was a code that combined traits of several others, substitutions of letters or syllables or sometimes whole words, various languages and scripts, some made-up symbols which I had to simply guess over.

Then it sprang into amazing clarity in an instant, when I realized that the whole thing was written backwards. I had to hold a mirror up to it at first until my brain accepted how to turn everything around without it, but I could read it perfectly.

The first sheaf of notes, bound in a hide folder together, was a series of notes regarding our kind’s abilities and characteristics, and descriptions of other immortals. Nothing to too mysterious, I supposed: he’d been observing others of our kind for quite some time, noting their names, locations, and whether they had unusual abilities.

There was a pile of scrolls, numbered chronologically, detailing our lives since we’d been changed, beginning with Aro’s transformation, and ending shortly before Aro and Caius had left together. I glanced through them and had to roll my eyes and shake my head many times at Aro’s overweening arrogance, as he described his various conquests and accomplishments.

Strangely, though, the first scroll did not mention any details about who had changed him, beginning this whole account: there was only one short line.

“The Mother took me while I was hunting.”

The Mother?

I sifted through the scrolls again, looking for more about whoever this person was, and found nothing.

Then I opened the small, red-leather-bound book that Aro used as his personal journal. Most of it was a more detailed account of his daily events, especially when traveling. I wondered why he hadn’t taken it with him when he left. But a few phrases jumped out at me.

“I have only met her once, but I shall find her again someday, for I have many questions to ask her. The Mother of us all. She was the first, the greatest, older than old, and I shall have her knowledge. Without it, I cannot accomplish my goal: to rule.”

That was not too surprising; I knew Aro lusted for power. But what kind of knowledge would this Mother have that would help him get what he wanted? I read on, thumbing through the pages, until I found more.

“I have found her name: Lillith. And I know from whence she came: Sumeria, a thousand years ago, or more. I know she was once human like me, but something changed her, not another immortal. When she was created, something altogether new was formed. What that catalyst was, and why, I do not know. But I shall find out, if I must perish in the attempt.”

Aha! I said to myself. That was what all the ancient legends and mythology had been about.

Lillith.

I shivered, though I hadn’t been cold in over a century: the name had an ancient and sad feel to it, as if whatever this Mother had gone through so many years ago still remained in the very sound of her name.

“I am so close! Europa, she was last seen in Europa. Carpathia. I shall find her yet!”

That was the last mention, on the last page that Aro had written on.

I closed the journal and placed it back onto the table, then leaned back in the chair, looking up and considering the ceiling for a moment.

I was at an impasse. I knew that Aro would know at the first touch of our hands that I had deciphered his code and read his secrets; I rather thought he had left these things out almost as a challenge to me, seeing whether I would trespass in such a way. That was Aro’s way: lay the trap and wait for it to be sprung. He wasn’t one for a frontal assault or straightforward dealings. He was sly, crafty, and always made sure he had the upper hand in any situation.

I also thought about him traveling with Caius. Yes, Aro’s reasons for taking Caius away had been good ones, and I did not think Aro had been lying about that part. But I did know Aro well enough to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he always had multiple reasons for what he did, layer upon layer of thoughts and plans and scheming, like an onion.

What was he doing with the boy out in the world? Was he turning Caius into his disciple, ingratiating himself to the youngster in an effort to create his first true follower? Was he instilling his personal values into Caius—although based on my knowledge of Caius’s temperament, it wouldn’t be difficult. Caius had the kind of personality that Aro would identify with, cold and challenging.

I hoped that Aro accomplished what he’d ostensibly set out to do: convince Caius that his worship of Didyme and his resentment of me was hopeless, that he should pin his hopes elsewhere.

I did not relish the thought of them coming home. The future seemed too unstable and unsure. Too many unknown variables, too many “what-if’s.”

The door opened quietly behind me, and the sweet scent of my wife came to me, and with it the scents of the two mortal women. I heard the sounds of their quickened breathing and rapidly-beating hearts, spurred on by their fear and trepidation, as they surely must be wondering what lay ahead for them.

“Good evening, my love,” Didyme murmured, kissing the top of my head. I hadn’t bothered turning around or standing up, not wanting to overwhelm the humans by towering over them. “I have brought our guests for our little talk.”

I reached up and cupped her cheek in my hand for a moment. “And did you have to use your shears to cut Athenodora out of that cocoon?” I whispered teasingly.

She giggled. “Almost. Snip-snip.”

Then, “All right, ladies, come in then, no mooning about in the hallway like ghosts.”

Again, I marveled at the change Didyme went through every time she shifted into her managerial mode, becoming so forceful and sure of herself, as if no one would think to question her. It was amazingly appealing.

I wondered absently if she might try that voice, later, when we were alone…

Didyme ushered the young women to the other side of Aro’s big table and pressed them into chairs, then came to perch on the arm of mine, leaning back against me casually. “Shall I begin, or would you like to, husband?”

I found it hard to think about anything but taking her to bed, right then.

Concealed by the table, I reached down and lifted the hem of her gown, which was unfortunately much longer than the short tunica she’d worn that morning in the garden. Still thinking about that commanding voice of hers, I ran one finger up the inside of her ankle, up the curve of her calf, gently tickling the sensitive skin behind her knee, then up the silken line of the inside of her thigh…

She shuddered, her breath caught a little in her throat.

“Stop that right this instant, or I shall…I shall spend the night sewing!” Didyme hissed out of the corner of her mouth, her jaw clenched, but her lips still smiled gracefully at the girls: they couldn’t hear her, she’d pitched those words to my ears only.

I gave her calf a reluctant squeeze then withdrew my hand dutifully.

“Good boy. I shall reward you appropriately, later,” she whispered, running her own finger across my lap…

I chuckled and had to focus very, very intensely on what she said afterward.

“Well, ladies,” Didyme said placidly, as if nothing had happened at all, “Obviously you chose to come here with me. You know you are intended as wives for my brother, Aro or our newest family member, my foster-son, Caius.”

They both nodded slightly. Sulpicia was doing her best to appear nonchalant, a bored expression on her face, but her true feelings were betrayed by the racing pulse at her throat. Athenodora did not try to appear anything but what she was: terrified, but determined. She blinked constantly, as if holding back tears, and she washed her hands together in her lap nervously.

“The question at hand, now, ladies, is not whether you shall become one of our kind, but when.” Didyme glanced down at me, and I nodded encouragingly for her to continue. “It seems my husband has promised you protection, Sulpicia, and I can only assume that his gallantry would extend to Athenodora as well?” The last was directed at me; I nodded again.

“My opinion of the matter is that both of you girls should allow yourselves to be changed as soon as possible. The longer you have to adjust to the new life before meeting Aro and Caius the better, I think. Also, you should probably already be immortal because you are both terribly appealing as humans, and if they arrive thirsty you would be in danger of becoming a snack, instead of a wife.”

Athenodora looked as if she might faint; Sulpicia blanched and looked down at her lap, swallowing convulsively.

“So,” Didyme continue briskly, “You have a choice before you. I would urge you to decide quickly, as we have no idea when Caius and Aro will be returning.”

Sulpicia nodded faintly, licking her lips nervously, seeming deep in thought. Then she lifted her head and looked at Didyme directly, took a long breath, and said, “I want it now.”

I blinked in surprise, glancing up at Didyme, who seemed just as taken aback. She looked back at me for a moment and shook her head microscopically.

“Well, um, yes, I applaud your decision, Sulpicia, but I think we will need a day or so to make the, um, preparations…” She punched my leg underneath the table. “Isn’t that true, Marcus? Tomorrow afternoon, I think , would be better?”

I took the hint. I wanted our night together as well: there was no way we could manage any private time while having to serve as nursemaids to a wild newborn.

“Yes. Tomorrow.”

Sulpicia nodded again and glanced toward Athenodora, who sat stock-still, her eyes wide and blank as she thought of the decision before her. I knew she’d made up her mind about becoming one of us, but the immediacy of this decision was what was staggering her.

“And what of you, Athenodora?” Didyme asked softly.

The pale girl looked up and seemed to see us for the first time with a little start. “I…I do not know, mistress,” she finally whispered. “I do not know which is best, whether to take the gift now, or to wait and see if my lord Caius approves of me…” She frowned a little, her brows knitting together. “I should hate to assign myself immortality and then be rejected, to be forever sad.”

Didyme snorted derisively. “Child, if he refuses you, he’s more a fool than I judged him for, and it reflects nothing upon you.” She leaned over the table toward Athenodora and reached out to touch her cheek; the girl flinched a bit from my wife’s cold touch, but did not pull away entirely. “But if you feel that way, then you should wait as long as you need. This is not an existence for those who do not want it. It is impossible to undo, after all.”

Athenodora smiled faintly, relieved that she did not have to confront her fear immediately. “Thank you for understanding, my lady.”

Didyme smiled back and leaned against my chest again; I felt her wicked little fingers begin their own path around my right knee, circling teasingly, and then up the length of my thigh, with agonizing slowness.

“All right then, ladies, to your beds. Especially you, Sulpicia. You have a big day tomorrow. This is the last night of sleep for you, so go treasure your dreams, there shall be no more.”

The young women left without a word, and closed the study door behind them.

Immediately Didyme was on me, straddling my lap in the chair, her body hard against mine, her lips pressed against my ear, her hair cascading around my face, a curtain of lavender-scented golden curls.

“Take me to bed now, husband, for we shan’t have much time for this soon.” Her voice was low and hard and commanding, sending a thrill through my body, lighting every nerve afire. She shifted her hips to settle down atop me more firmly, and her teeth grazed my neck as she nipped her way down toward my shoulders, those clever hands busy below…

Now.”

Let no one ever say I was not an obedient husband.

We managed to steal every moment of the next several hours for ourselves, not emerging from our chambers until the sun set once more the next day.

Sulpicia was waiting for us in the garden. She sat carefully, her back perfectly straight with that patrician posture, her hands folded carefully in her lap. She was excited and frightened, I could tell, from the pulsing of the delicate veins of her neck, but she was managing it with an iron will. That kind of self-control boded well for how she might take to the new life, I thought hopefully.

Oh, how wrong I was.

The whole process was much the same as for Caius, although she screamed quite a bit less than he had. That time, Didyme did the honors as far as who did the biting; I was bemused by her jealousy at the thought of my laying my lips on another woman’s flesh, but I had to admit I was relieved to be spared that duty. Sulpicia smelled so much better than Caius had, and it had been a while since I’d fed; I was thirsty again, much more so after the last day spent closeted with my wife.

On the third day, Sulpicia was reborn in the thunderous silence of the moment her heart stopped beating. The coolly noble young woman she had been was gone, at least for a time, replaced with a glittering, ruby-eyed fiend. I barely managed to keep her from slaying the whole household of slaves, she was so very fast! I remembered how Didyme had been in those first days and months, a bloodthirsty little tornado of a girl, and Sulpicia was much worse.

Didyme had to take her away. “I know I promised, my love, but I must be the one to do it. You must stay here with Athenodora, in case my brother and Caius come home, to keep your promise to protect her, after all.”

I kissed her hard and let her go with the deepest regret, but I knew she was right.

Athenodora and I watched the two of them disappear over the garden wall, me impassive but sad, she wide-eyed with disbelief and dread at Sulpicia’s change.

I thought back over the past several days as I studied Athenodora.

She had stayed with Sulpicia during the whole time of the transformation, holding her hands, wiping her forehead and neck as the girl sweated and thrashed in the effects of the venom.

I hadn’t realized how fond Athenodora was for Sulpicia; I knew Athenodora was frightened of the obvious agony her friend was in, but she stayed anyway. I could see the strength of the bond that she felt for her friend, but I could also see that it was much weaker the other way around: Sulpicia did not love Athenodora the way she was loved in return. I thought that a great deal of that inequality was due to the fact that Sulpicia viewed Athenodora as below her.

That steadfast devotion had been nicely repaid when Sulpicia nearly ripped the other girl’s head off a few moments after she opened her new eyes.

Only Didyme had managed to deflect her when Sulpicia launched herself across the room at Athenodora, who had been frozen like a mouse transfixed by a serpent, unable to move to escape in her fear.

When she’d been denied her intended prey, Sulpicia had shrieked like the damned and burst out of the room we’d kept her in, seeking out blood, any blood, anything to slake that horrid, jagged thirst. She’d overtaken three of the slaves, poor things, sleeping in their beds. At least they hadn’t seen her coming: a sight fit for a human nightmare, I imagine, with her flaming eyes and hair wild.

Didyme and I had wrestled her to the ground with some difficulty: despite her slight build, she was incredibly strong, as we all were in the beginning, and she did not want to be bound.

“Let me go!” she screamed, thrashing against me. “It burns! My throat, it burns!”

I shook my head and pulled her tighter against me as I stood up: I had my arms around her, her back to my chest, holding her arms fast to her sides. She managed to kick my shins mightily, all the while struggling to break my grip.

“No, Sulpicia, you must control yourself! Calm down!” I thundered.

She hissed at me, clawing at me.

Then Didyme stepped in and slapped the girl so hard her entire head snapped back, then she did it again.

“He. Said. Calm. Down!”

She emphasized every word with another blow, left, right, left, right, Sulpicia’s head rocked back and forth by the slaps. I was stunned, I had never seen Didyme strike anyone, except during her hunts.

Finally Sulpicia subsided, her eyes still wheeling wildly, but she stopped thrashing and nodded, although a low growl still rumbled from her chest.

“I swear to the gods, Sulpicia, if you do not stop fighting us and listen to me, obey me, I shall kill you as easily as I created you, do you understand me?”

Didyme leaned forward until her nose almost touched Sulpicia’s, and I had never seen my beautiful, gay, sweet wife look more frightening. She gave me pause: she was, indeed, a mighty little monster, and I was glad she was on my side.

“And I shall not regret it one instant if I kill you. I promise you that.”

Sulpicia nodded again, her eyes a bit calmer, huge with intimidation. She knew Didyme was completely serious. Although new to this life, she valued it: I knew how that felt, those first incredibly overwhelming minutes and hours, where everything seems so vivid and precious.

“Good.” Didyme took a step back, her lips tight in a grim little smile. “You must always remember that we know better than you, Sulpicia. You asked for this life. We gave you what you asked for, and now you must listen to what we tell you to do, if you’re to be worth the trouble we have taken to bring you here.”

I felt Sulpicia tremble a little, probably with a combination of dread and thirst. I could smell Athenodora somewhere nearby, probably hiding behind the door, listening.

“Now,” Didyme murmured, reaching out to gently touch the cheek she’d just slapped a moment before, “Can you be a good girl and stay still if Marcus lets you go? You won’t try to run off again, or do anything…untoward?”

Sulpicia took a shaky breath. “Yes,” she said quietly. “Yes, I promise. I’ll…I’ll be good.”

Didyme nodded at me, and I carefully, slowly, let Sulpicia go.

Once I had stepped away, Didyme took my hand and stood beside me, leaning her head against my arm. “Lovely, isn’t she?” she murmured up at me. “I knew she would be. She’s perfect for Aro.”

I had to admit she was right. Immortality suited Sulpicia, who stood motionless before us, her flaming eyes wondering at everything around her with the fascination of one reborn, seeing things in a completely different way. Her face, very pretty before, had been perfected: she looked like a statue of Hera, the wife of Zeus, king of the gods, every line and plane of her well-bred face elegant and strong at the same time. That inborn elegance had stayed, not even the newborn frenzy could completely disguise it, in the way she stood straight and proud, her long, pale hair unbound and flowing down her back like a river of platinum.

I felt a sharp little elbow jab me in the ribs. “Don’t look too carefully, husband, or it shall be you that I shred and burn,” Didyme hissed under her breath at me.

I choked back my laughter, especially when Sulpicia spun around to stare at us. I had forgotten she could hear as well as we could now. Didyme glared up at me, then at Sulpicia.

“Oh, please, my love, as if I could ever love anyone but you.” I had kissed her then.

She sighed against my lips. “I know. But still.”

Then I heard Sulpicia hiss and felt the air move as the girl sprung over us, toward the door, which I knew Athenodora was hiding behind.

The hinges groaned and the wood splintered in the face of Sulpicia’s attack, and I heard Athenodora scream; I whipped around and bolted after Sulpicia, Didyme hot on my heels.

We barely made it in time: once again, Sulpicia lunged for the other girl, knocking her against the wall, and only Didyme’s wild grab for her stopped her advance, carrying her to the floor with a mighty crash, growling and hissing filling the air.

I scooped Athenodora up and ran with her, carrying her away, anywhere, someplace where she could be safe while my wife dealt with Sulpicia. For once not drawing away from my cold, hard strangeness, she clung to me and wept into my shoulder, almost unconscious with fear. I knew she was hurting, bruised but not broken, and thankfully no bleeding. I knew we would never have been able to stop Sulpicia if Athenodora shed any blood.

I settled on the little chamber we had changed Caius in, which had no windows and only one door. “Stay here for a little while, I’ll come back for you when it is safe,” I said into her ear before shoving the shaking, sobbing Athenodora into the room and locked the door behind me, then ran to join Didyme. I knew she couldn’t hold a newborn for long on her own.

It didn’t take me long to find them, all I had to do was follow the screeches and growls and crashes of their battle.

It was a sight, the two women squared off against one another. Didyme was actually smaller than Sulpicia, but she fought with the grace and skill of a born warrior, something I had never quite understood. She had years of experience in her immortal body on her side, and the wisdom to use it in the face of Sulpicia’s fresh, raw strength. They were both a mess, hair everywhere, their clothing torn. There was an indecent amount of very enticing flesh showing; I had to remind myself to look away from the sight of Sulpicia’s exposed legs.

I wasted little time in taking her down, I simply leaped at her, carrying her to the ground with me, pinning her down with the weight of my body. She spit and struggled like a wet cat, clawing at me. Didyme came and sat down atop my back, and then she did something I remembered from months before, when Caius had been doing the same thing: she touched Sulpicia’s hand, and she made her love her.

This time, though, it wasn’t that kind of love. I suppose she could have caused those kinds of feelings in the other woman; I think since Caius already was infatuated with Didyme, her urging him to love her naturally went in that direction. But this time I watched Sulpicia’s eyes soften and grow sad as she looked up at my wife, as if she realized she’d horribly wronged her best friend, her sister, her closest companion.

“I’m so sorry,” Sulpicia whispered up at her, and I felt her body relax under mine, and knew I could get up. She sat up and looked up at us. “Truly. I will try to be good.”

“I’ve heard that before, Sulpicia.” Didyme’s tone was dripping with sarcasm. “I don’t think I can trust you again, not for a while, at least.” That was when she had sighed and looked up at me sadly, and told me she must take Sulpicia away.

I had agreed with her, but I had to ask her one thing that made me curious: why had she waited so long to use her power on Sulpicia? Wouldn’t it have been much easier on everyone if she had done that sooner?

My wife had smiled sweetly at me and patted my cheek lovingly. I knew she wasn’t using her power on me, she didn’t need to.

“Because, dear one, I dislike manipulating people unless I absolutely have to. If someone loves me, it should be because I am worthy of being loved, not because I force them to.” She shook her head sadly. “But sometimes, I must be logical, and I must use whatever weapons at my disposal to get things done.”

I reached up to hold her hand to my face. “I have been blessed with a very wise wife in you, beloved.”

She grinned. “And I with a wise husband.”

Then she kissed me and took Sulpicia’s hand, and led her back into the house, I suppose to pack some clothing for their voyage, wherever they were going. Once they were gone into the house I went to check on Athenodora, who I was sure needed a bit of reassurance.

We watched from the kitchen window as my wife and Sulpicia leapt lightly over the wall and disappeared, and I heard Athenodora sigh sadly.

“Will I be like that, when...when it is time?” she asked me timidly, looking up hesitantly at me. “So…so very angry? Out of control?”

I thought for a long moment before answering. I did not want to lie to or frighten her, but at the same time, I wanted to offer her a bit of hope. She seemed like such a fragile creature, and I found that I liked her and did not want to frighten her anymore.

“Perhaps. Newborns are terribly passionate and they have a very hard time controlling themselves.” I turned and looked directly at her; surprisingly, she looked back at me, holding my gaze expectantly. I went on.

“You must understand, Athenodora, that we see things, we hear things, feel things, very much differently than we did when we were like you. It is like comparing night to day. Our senses are so much more powerful and sensitive. And when you awaken to that, it is very hard to deal with the amount of information you are suddenly receiving through those heightened senses. It is disorienting, frightening even, at times.

“And then there is the thirst…It is very powerful, the lust for blood, like no human hunger. It consumes you, dominates you, until you have matured enough to rein it in a bit.”

Athenodora swallowed convulsively, biting her lip at the thought of blood. Of thirsting for it. Perhaps wondering if she would like it.

“And the body is so much stronger and feels so much more…I don’t know, perhaps ‘alive’ is the best word, but I hesitate to describe us as being alive, like humans are alive. We are more like living stone, hard and cold to the touch, unchanging. But we are still sensitive, and much more passionate than as mortals. The body makes demands, and it is difficult to say no.”

She nodded and finally looked away, out the window, toward where the others had disappeared. The sun was setting now, the sky streaked with brilliant oranges and reds. I watched the colors reflected in her eyes, deepening them from the normal rosy pink to something more, almost red. I saw then for a moment what she might look like as one of us, and knew she would fare well.

“Perhaps you should go ahead and change me now, my lord Marcus. I think I have the courage for it today, I may never have it again.”

Her words shocked me. Those were the last things I would have imagined coming from her mouth. But then she looked back at me, and I saw her delicate face was completely serious.

“Truly? Now?”

She nodded sharply, emphatically. “Now. And I promise you, I shall be a better newborn than Sulpicia. I’ll behave myself.”

Something in her tone spoke to me: I had misjudged this girl. She was strong beneath that pale, quiet, placid surface, she had passion buried inside her that she knew she wanted to let out. She had listened carefully to me and made her choice, not dependent upon some possible future with Caius but because she had decided that she wanted it.

And she also wanted to prove to herself and to everyone else that she could be better than Sulpicia.

So I took her to the chamber I’d hidden her in before, and I changed her.

She was right, she did much better. Not a scream or shriek, simply a gasp of pain as the venom began its work, and then complete silence as she bore it rigidly til the end. And when the time had passed and she finally opened her eyes, she looked at me calmly and said, “Thank you, my lord, may we hunt now? I am quite thirsty.”

I shook my head in wonder and took her out to hunt.

She was amazing. Lovely as the full moon (although she couldn’t hold a candle to my Didyme), she was graceful and terrible in her pursuit of blood. Efficient, quick, and merciful to her prey, she slaked her thirst quickly and quietly, and then went back to the house with me to listen to stories of my little family’s lives until dawn.

Life fell into an odd, peaceful rhythm during the three months Didyme was gone with Sulpicia. I found in Athenodora something like a little sister, and she felt the same for me. It came easily, our friendship, and I enjoyed her company.

She was terribly bright, and had a brilliant sense of humor, despite her shy nature. We would discuss all manner of things during the day, covering all the subjects in Aro’s library, after I had taught her how to read. She had been a slave, after all. But she learned quickly, I never had to repeat anything twice, and she had a voracious appetite for knowledge that reminded me of Aro. I had actually begun to wonder if she were more suited for Aro than for Caius.

Then one day, the ladies came back.

Sulpicia had visibly calmed in the months she had been away, her whole demeanor much softer, her eyes still blazing red but no longer crazed. Whatever my wife had done with her had worked, for she could smile and laugh and no longer had the jittery, spastic mannerisms of a newborn. She greeted me with a little incline of her head and apologized for the trouble she had caused before. The strength of the bond between her and Didyme was almost visible to the naked eye without my gift: Didyme had thoroughly bound Sulpicia to her, wrapped her in layer after layer of enforced devotion, until there was no question she would ever do anything to cause Didyme pain or distress.

I looked my wife in the eye and knew she saw me measuring them. She smiled a bit sadly and put her arms around my neck; I wrapped my arms around her and lifted her off her feet, holding her close: I never wanted to let her go.

“I know what I have done, Marcus, and you must know I hate myself for it,” she whispered into my ear, once Sulpicia was out of earshot in the house.

I pulled back a little to look into her face, reaching up to trace the line of her brow, then her nose, then her lips, engraving every inch of her into my consciousness. “My love, you did what must be done. We all work for the good of the family.” I chuckled. “”Wait until you see our Athenodora. I think you will be pleased, and surprised.”

She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Is she—did you…”

I nodded and silenced her lips with a kiss. She sighed and gave up speaking, wrapping her legs around my waist, pressing her body against me as if trying to merge her body with mine, damn the clothes. Her touch was a warm golden rain that washed away the stress her absence had caused, every cell in my body felt alive and tingling. She was the lodestone to my magnet, the sun to my planet.

“I love you.”

“And I you. More than anything.”

“Shall we…”

Yes.”

We would join the ladies later. We had a long-overdue reunion to attend to.

We found that Sulpicia and Athenodora together as immortals were quite different than they had been before the change.

Whereas before Sulpicia had been clearly dominant, and Athenodora had hung on her every word, had doted on her, now the dynamic was very much altered. There was an almost tangible air of competition and antagonism between them, but they refused to acknowledge it aloud. They were always together, as if the best of friends, but atmosphere between them was almost poisonous, their conversation always civil and prettily worded, but always intended to cause hurt. They were like a couple of alley cats sometimes, backs arched, fur standing on end, spitting and snarling.

“My, Athenodora, how lovely you are this morning. What a beautiful gown. Truly, green suits you. Much more so than that blue one yesterday. It made you look positively ill.”

“Oh, thank you, Sulpicia. You would know about that, I’m sure. After all, it is much the same with you. Truly, blue is not your color. Would you like to borrow this dress?”

“No, thank you, Athenodora, I don’t think I could, after all, your hips are so much wider than mine, it would positively hang on me. But you’re too kind!”

“Not at all, my friend. But you should let me do something different with your hair tomorrow, I think, it makes your nose look terribly large, to have it pinned up that way. Perhaps like this…”

“Oh, yes, you’re perfectly right, Athenodora! Of course you can help me. After all, you were a slave before, so I am sure you’re quite good at such things.”

“Yes, you’re right, I did dress hair before. It’s a pity that I couldn’t have attended you for your wedding. I am sure the old man would have loved what I could do, to deflect attention from your nose, and from that receding chin…”

And so on. Endlessly.

They drove Didyme and I to distraction with their catfighting. I didn’t know what to do with them. The bond I saw between them was bizarre, like an elastic band, constantly contracting and stretching and snapping and rebounding, the colors mottled and sick-looking. I hoped things would calm down soon, perhaps it was just their overly-sensitive newborn temperaments, clashing with each other.

Then, one day, two years after they had left, Aro and Caius came home.

The four of us, myself, Didyme, Athenodora, and Sulpicia, were sitting in Didyme’s garden; Didyme and I sat between the other women, keeping them physically separated, Didyme holding Sulpicia’s hand and plying her with her gift, trying to ease the rivalry. I had quietly tried to reason with Athenodora to be more patient and ignore Sulpicia’s barbs, as I felt Athenodora was the one with the most common sense, but she didn’t want to listen. Finally, Sulpicia got up and left the garden; a moment later, Athenodora hastily excused herself to follow, intent on finding something to insult the other woman for.

Then, they were there. Aro and Caius were richly dressed, smiling expectantly at Didyme and I. We looked up at them in mild surprise.

“How wonderful to see you, brother, sister!” Aro boomed, reaching out to take my hand. It was no greeting gesture, really: it was his asking for a report on what had transpired in his absence.

I steeled myself for his reaction and took his hand, looking intently into his eyes as I felt him sifting through my thoughts.

The joviality drained from his face as he listened to my mind. I felt him go through my breaking his code, reading his journal and notes. His eyes widened at Didyme bringing the girls home, at the images I know he saw of Sulpicia and Athenodora. Avoided the memories of my intimate moments with my wife like the plague. Dodging around my speculations about his motives for anything and everything.

“My lord!”

Aro dropped my hand and stepped back, looking up to see Sulpicia standing in the garden doorway, his eyes wide and shocked.

She was beautiful, regal, gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight, her light blue gown not making her look ill at all. She smiled gently and made a neat curtsy to Aro, casting her eyes downwards, her lashes thick against her cheeks as she looked surreptitiously up at him through them.

“Welcome home.”

He took a deep breath, his mouth slightly agape as he stared at her. He was so still, I could tell he was thinking intensely, making and changing plans, perhaps altering them to include her. He knew we meant her for him, and I could see that he wanted her.

Aro took a step toward her and held out his hands to her. “My lady?”

She smiled and swept forward, and reached out to take his hands in hers.

They stared into each other’s eyes for a long, wordless moment, as he read her thoughts. She never lost her serene smile, her ruby eyes never wavering from his, as if daring him to find her unacceptable. He stared at her with an unreadable expression, shaking his head a little, as if trying to deny what he was hearing from her, what he was feeling for her.

After several minutes, he closed his eyes, the tension draining from his body. Then he looked up at her again and his smile was…different. Possessive. Covetous. Determined. Lustful.

“My lady, shall we take a stroll through the countryside? It is a lovely day, and I should be very glad of your company,” he murmured, then raised one of her hands to his lips to kiss.

The color and intensity of their bond was growing, solidifying, thickening as I watched, amazed.

She smiled sweetly at him and inclined her head to him. “But certainly, my lord, it would please me most of all.”

Then they were gone, without a backwards glance. I exhaled in relief and looked at Didyme, who smiled the smile of a satisfied cat with cream on her whiskers.

“Wasn’t I right?” she murmured to me, squeezing my hand gently. “Perfect for each other. Just perfect.”

I had to agree. Then I realized Caius was standing there before us, had been watching the entire thing, his face closed, enigmatic.

“Welcome home, Caius.” I stood and extended my hand to him in goodwill, praying to every god I did not believe in anymore that he would take it.

Sometimes prayers are answered, even when undeserved. Caius took my hand in his and leaned forward to embrace me with his other arm, as if we were long-lost brothers, just reunited.

“I am glad to be home with you, Marcus, my brother. And to see Didyme, my mother, again.” He turned and took Didyme’s hand, kissing it, but not like Aro had kissed Sulpicia’s.

Caius looked around, smiling slightly. “So, where is my intended? I am sure you have one for me as well, if you brought one for Aro.”

Didyme grinned. “Oh, my dear, do not worry. I think you will find her much to your liking.” She looked around. “Athenodora! Where are you?”

“Here I am.”

Caius turned at the sound of her voice, which was like a ripple of harpstrings, and he froze in place.

Athenodora came into the garden like a spring breeze; her hair was down, the long white curls falling down across her slight shoulders like fresh snow, her eyes alight. Caius’s eyes widened as he watched her advance toward him, his whole body tense, as if he were intending to flee. He began to tremble the closer she came, his lips parted, his hand came up unconsciously as if to reach for her.

“I am pleased to make my lord’s acquaintance,” she breathed, making a low, elegant curtsy to Caius as if he were a king. The slave, the son of a common man, watched that lovely young woman honor him as if he were royalty, his breath coming faster as he took in her luminous face, her glowing eyes.

“A-and I yours,” he whispered, reaching out to take her hand, as he had seen Aro do. “Very much so.”

I had never seen Caius more vulnerable, more open, more…more human. Is that what it took, being absolutely and completely slain by the deference of this girl, to awake something remotely alive in him?

She allowed him to take her hand and kiss it. “Thank you, my lord.”

He swallowed. “May I…may I take you for a walk? I know it isn’t original, but, perhaps, we could…we could…talk?”

Athenodora grinned, the smile lighting up her face like the full moon shining upon snow. “I should like nothing better than to talk more with you, my lord.”

And just like that, it was done.

Thank all the gods above and below, that my wife, bless her, was not given to gloating. Well, that is to say, not much gloating.

Much later, as we lay together in bed, molded together, she reminded me how she had told me that she would do a good job in picking wives for Aro and Caius. I wound one long, springy dark-golden lock of her hair around my finger, letting her babble on for a while about it, until I could bear it no longer.

“Enough.” I rolled on top of her, pinning her to the bed, and proceeded to tickle her mercilessly, until she was almost screaming.

“Stop, Marcus, enough! All right, I’ll stop! Enough!” she cried, gasping, almost sobbing, laughing.

“Stop, shall I?” And then it wasn’t tickling anymore, and she wasn’t begging me to stop.

And so we became a happily paired six, no longer one joyful couple and two misanthropic bachelors.

Aro and Sulpicia and Caius and Athenodora wed the next day, in Didyme’s garden, beneath the cloudless blue sky and surrounded by her flowers, which breathed their fragrance into the warm spring air and cast their vivid colors everywhere. The priest of Hera who officiated over the ceremony was blind and ancient, but what did that matter? All the better for us, after all.

Each bride presented her new husband with a ribbon, Sulpicia’s dark blue, Athenodora’s brilliant yellow, drawn from their own hair, which they wound about their mate’s wrist. It was a tribute to us, the original lovers who had bound each other with Didyme’s ribbon so long ago, in the apple tree, forever.

I held my Didyme’s hand in mine, and I looked down at the red ribbon still twined around my wrist. It had faded with time, but it was still there, carefully, zealously guarded. It marked me as hers, just as she was mine, completely, body, heart, and soul. My wife smiled at me, peaceful, and she loved me with her eyes as our brothers and their new wives pledged themselves to each other.

“This is it, Marcus. This is what it means to be happy,” she whispered to me, touching the ribbon with one finger, then touching my lips. “Truly. Happy.”

And we were happy.

Oh, how I wish it could have been forever.