With a shrug, Sebastian flips off the switch, then sits with his long legs stretched out in front of him. "I understand the anger you feel for Nikolai and Murdoch," Sebastian begins in a measured tone. "I hated them too, you know. For so long, I yearned for revenge. But life can be good again. Better than ever before."
"According to you? There's nothing wrong with my life." Everything's wrong with my life... . How much longer till I can see her?
"Then you'll like it even better sharing it with your fated Bride," Sebastian continues. "She'll calm you, and will help you find clarity. I was on the edge myself before I met mine. One day I had nothing, no real home, no friends, no family. Then as soon as I recognized her as mine, suddenly there was possibility."
Sebastian's obviously musing about her right at this moment, his expression so satisfied. Sickening. "I want you to meet Kaderin soon. Once you're recovered."
They're acting like it's a given that I'll heal.
Impossible. He would know if there was a way to come back from bloodlust. There is no return. No instance of it.
But his brothers' confidence forces him to wonder.
"Kaderin's had... well, her history with fallen vampires is extensive, even for a Valkyrie."
"Kaderin the Coldhearted?" he asks with a slow nod. "An assassin like me. Rumored she snaps vampires' fangs from their decapitated heads, strings them together for her collection. Sounds really fucking calming, Bastian."
Darker outside... The female appears backlit by an iridescent source. He can't discern her features yet. But he can see the outline of her figure. His lips part. Of her breasts.
Sebastian shrugs. "Like I said, Kaderin has a long history with them. Which means we're fighting on the same side. Who knows, you might even have a Valkyrie for a Bride."
Darker. Valkyrie were strange, fey-looking women, with far too much strength for their small bodies - and no hesitation to wade into battles or start wars. If one was his Bride, he'd greet dawn.
And there the female is.
Though her image is flickering and colorless like an old TV show, he can make out her dress and her bared arms and shoulders. She's turned away as though perched on the window seat, with her head leaning against the window. He begins to see that she's not entirely colorless. Her nails, her choker, and the ties at her bodice are all a deep crimson.
Are those red petals sprinkled in her wild hair?
The more he can discern of her hazy form, the more he... likes.
She's small in stature, but she has generous breasts. His hands fist behind him again, his fangs subtly aching for that plump flesh. He's never drunk from a woman - and why in the hell has he never drunk from a woman?
He can make out the shine of her nails and the sheen of the slipper ribbons laced up her calves. A slit in her dress climbs up her thigh to reveal a garter.
For some reason, he raises his brows at this. As a vampire who hasn't encountered his Bride, he has no sexual ability or need; her breasts and garters shouldn't interest him whatsoever, not any more than food would.
But they do.
Then... for the first time, he sees her face. And just stifles a curse. He hadn't been deluded that first night.
Figures she'd be fucking beautiful. He grates a short laugh. He would imagine nothing but the best.
Those big blue eyes are another shot of color in her black-and-white image. She has a pert, slim nose and smooth, translucent skin. Her lips are pale, but they're full, especially the bottom one.
As if she feels his scrutiny, she turns to him, easing to her feet. Eerie grace. He makes his expression blank while keeping her in his field of vision.
She tilts her head. Is she studying me? Can she see without the light?
No, she's not real. There's a line between having hallucinations and interacting with them... Can't cross the line.
She appears to walk, though she is floating off the ground. And she's coming directly toward the bed. What does she want from him? Closer... closer...
He dimly hears Sebastian ask, "Do you know what will happen to you when your Bride bloods you? Your heart will start to beat again, and you'll begin to breathe once more. The air is cold and heavy in your lungs, but the pressure feels good if you don't resist it. And then, with some encouragement from her... all of you will come back to life, like a fire's been lit."
A fire lit. In other words, he'll be able to get hard again.
But unlike every other vampire he's known, he doesn't want to be blooded. He likes the stillness within him, will hold on to it with everything he is. Dying isn't so daunting a prospect when you're halfway there... .
Creeping closer to his side, the female lowers her tilted head. Listening to my chest? She's heard Sebastian explaining the lack of a heartbeat and decided to see for herself. Which means she's sentient.
He's held out hope that she is a mindless spirit, unaware of her actions. Or that she's been like him in bloodlust - unthinking, reacting on instinct. Instead, she is very aware. Suddenly, his position embarrasses him. Chained in bed, at the mercy of others. This is the weakest he's ever felt in his entire life.
No, there was another time... .
Up close, he can see flashes of her ghostly hair tumbling over her shoulder. He swallows, closing his eyes as he waits to feel her hair across his skin. He can't perceive more than electric pinpricks. They don't hurt him; they're not unpleasant.
When she flits away, he cracks open his lids. Her lips are parted in surprise. "How strange, d¨¦ment... your heart's truly still."
He just stops himself from jerking back from her, because the ghost is addressing him directly.
That's it. He's lost his fucking mind.
Her echoing words come slowly. As if they've traveled from miles away. He can scarcely hear them - which means no one else would be able to. His hearing is ten times more acute than even his brothers'. A hundred times more than a human's.
He knows she's not speaking to him in the hope of a response, seems to be just testing speech. She looks like she's tasting the words, determining how they feel rolling on her tongue.
Wait... Did she call me d¨¦ment? It means madman in French. He feels heat on the back of his neck. Though most times he reacts just like an animal, sometimes, very rarely, he suffers the emotions he thought he'd lost - like shame.
There's a line... But is that how she sees me?
"You know all this, don't you?" Sebastian asks, exhaling. "Aren't you even curious about being blooded? We were forced to do without so much. There is a lot that your Bride could make up for."
This yanks his attention from the ghost. Don't you dare, Sebastian! Don't bring this up... .
Sebastian lowered his voice to say, "Wouldn't you want to bed a female once more? It isn't like you were a man of experience, glutted on women, Conrad. If you're anything like me, you can count the number of times on one hand."
Conrad didn't deny his brother's words, instead grinding his teeth, his jaws bulging. The number of times on one hand? How awful, N¨¦omi thought, floating to the foot of his bed to hover there in a sitting position.
Though she herself hadn't taken as many lovers as she would have liked - the specter of pregnancy for a working ballerina was too daunting - the ones she'd had, she'd enjoyed to the fullest.
Even with the filth covering Conrad's face and the scars on his body, she could tell he had pleasing features. Women would find him attractive. At least enough that he could bed one when he wanted to. And Sebastian was handsome, yet he'd said they'd been forced to go without. She'd heard them talking about their small country having been decimated by plague, embattled for decades - were there no women to take succor from?
"Le d¨¦ment... isn't a man of experience?" she murmured in her weird, ghostly voice. "Int¨¦ressant."
Though it was still difficult to speak, she marveled at how much more readily her words came with each try. The more she talked, the easier it was becoming, like training oneself to run through knee-high water. Too bad no one would answer, just when she was getting good at it.
Yet even if no one responded, talking made her feel more... real. Sometimes she felt like the proverbial falling tree in the forest. It could be argued that because no one had seen her or heard her since she'd died, she didn't exist.
She sighed and drew her legs to her chest. When the slit in her dress rode up, she had the strange impulse to cover her legs in front of the vampire. But why? She couldn't be seen, and she'd certainly never been modest when living. Indeed, she was just the opposite.
Any inhibitions had been drummed out of her when she'd been young. She'd been raised in tiny lodgings above a burlesque bar, with her dear maman eventually becoming one of its best draws.
From an early age, N¨¦omi had flitted in and out of the performers' dressing rooms, fascinated with the silks, makeup, and exotic perfumes, enthralled by the sensual strains of music that compelled her to sway to them... .
Yet she could have sworn there had been a lustful aspect to the vampire's gaze.
No. It was time to face the facts. Either he found her spectral appearance beautiful, had mastered his blink reflex, and simply refused to acknowledge her - or he was just like every other person who'd set foot in this house over the last eight decades.
She gave a humorless laugh. "If I thought you could see me," she began slowly, "I'd show far more than a garter."
Besides, Conrad wouldn't be interested in her like that. Never once in the past week had he grown erect. Was it impossible for him? Was that the "fire" that would be lit by his Bride?
Of all the subjects the men discussed, this Bride concept intrigued her most.
Earlier, she'd heard Sebastian on the phone with his, earnestly assuring her that she didn't need to be here, that she should keep working with her sisters, and that he would be home soon. Even the mere phone conversation with this Kaderin had seemed to consume him.
Nikolai had also phoned his Bride, another Valkyrie named Myst, and was equally attentive. But with her he'd sounded less confident about Conrad's recovery than he'd been with his brothers. In a low tone, he'd said, "We might have to use Riora's gift."
Who is Riora? Another mystery.
The two men's devotion to their wives brought on N¨¦omi's own longings, because nothing was sexier to her than a thoroughly smitten male.
She called her desire longings since it was different from the physical symptoms of lust she'd felt while living. She suffered from what she remembered of desire, still hungering to touch and be touched, but now the need was more akin to an electrical stimulation, a charge that built and built. It was like having pinpricks and itching all over her, but no way to scratch.
N¨¦omi had eighty years of those pent-up longings. As it was impossible for her to alleviate them, sometimes she felt like a ticking bomb set to go off - an aching, hungry, N¨¦omi-shaped bomb.
In the face of her never-ending frustration, she tended to behave... badly.
And when the brothers all returned to the room, the temptation was too much to resist.
When she rises from the bed, he waits a moment, then casts her another glance. And nearly coughs. Sebastian's money clip is floating from his coat pocket into her outstretched palm.
Then she deposits a... pebble in exchange? Sebastian doesn't notice, even when she transports the clip away.
Telekinesis? Yes, and well controlled.
After a cagey glance at him - he swiftly makes his gaze blank - the female prowls for her next mark. She maneuvers around them, yet even with her speed, sometimes they pass a hand or an elbow through her. Each time she grows still, then quivers as though shuddering.
Nikolai is next. With a wave of her hand, a cell phone floats out of his jacket. Again the entity drops a pebble before floating the phone over to the corner.
This cat-and-mouse game entertains him, and he wants her to fleece the bastards. She's far more interesting than Sebastian's patronizing speech about family and honor and forgiveness.
He wonders where the little being takes her spoils. Why does she take them? Is she playing now? Or is it a compulsion, like his need to kill?
For Murdoch's turn, she plucks a woman's jeweled hair comb right out of his pocket. Just who is Murdoch buying combs for?
She smiles delightedly at her prize. That smile... Her eyes glitter, her lips curving. She might as well have been carrying a weapon.
As she glides toward the corner, she raises her slender, bared arms above her and does a flawless pirouette. Then another. Her skirts flare out, and he hears them rustling. A single rose petal wafts from her wild hair to the bed, landing on the sheet beside him.
Her lithe body, the way she moves, those slippers - she must have been a dancer. A tantsija. Of course.
When she twirls around again, she suddenly laughs. The sound is haunting. But for some reason, his lips curl in response to it. The grin turns to a scowl when Sebastian regards him as if he's completely gone. A vacant grin from a madman.
Because he is mad - there is no raven-haired spirit who wants to show him more than her garters.
And still he can't take his eyes from her as Sebastian starts up again. He hears snippets of his brother's words. As he tends to do when he's weary and wanting to be left alone, he repeats them, muttering back in a different language. "It eats at Nikolai, the guilt... they've been fighting the Vampire Horde for three centuries... . We can join their army... kill them off... . Not all vampires are evil."
He blinks when Sebastian falls silent.
With a narrowed gaze, Sebastian says, "You haven't been talking to yourself. You're repeating all of our words. This time in Greek! You weren't hallucinating - you were listening." Sebastian nods, as if he's encouraged by this. "I wonder what else you can do that we don't know about?"
I can see ghosts. In Estonian, he asks Sebastian, "To your right, you see nothing strange? No female in the room?"
Sebastian glances around. In the same language, he answers slowly, "There are only the four of us in the room, Conrad." His tone is one he'd use to explain, "Actually, brother, the sky isn't green. It's blue."
The female seems to have concluded her stealing and appears slower, fainter. Is she tired?
"Conrad, do you see someone else?" Sebastian asks. "Your kind is supposed to suffer from severe delusions... ."
His "delusion" is now listening in on Murdoch and Nikolai's murmured conversation at the edge of the room. "He reeks of blood and mud," Nikolai says. "He might be improving, but to others he wouldn't look like it. If we ever had to defend our plan... "
Without warning, she's on the bed beside him. From too close by his ear, she asks, "Is this true, vampire?" Her words come much more quickly, almost normally. He's able to discern that she has a tinge of a French accent.
"Do you reek, d¨¦ment? I can't smell. But it makes sense... considering how dirty you are."
He becomes acutely aware that his face is caked with blood and mud, his hair stiff with it. D¨¦ment. Is that all she sees him as? A madman to be ignored? Or worse - pitied? That is how she sees him.
A filthy, sexually inexperienced lunatic.
She's seen him spit blood. Did she witness him mindlessly banging his head against the wall? Damn it, he's beginning to dislike this clarity! Again, he craves the oblivion of memories. It's easier to be awash in them, to hate, to hurt... .
Yet the female beside him moors his mind to the present like an anchor.
"They should give you a bath," she says in her whispery voice, just as Sebastian intones, "Rest easy, Conrad. The hallucinations will disappear before you know - "
"Leave me!" he snaps. He almost said, "Leave us."
The ghost drifts away, readying her loot to depart. No, not you! When she and the items vanish, all that's left of her is the petal on the sheet. He inches over, wanting to touch it. But it begins to fade. Then gone.
He shifts in the bed, restless and chafing in his bonds. Want her here.
Sebastian rises. "Very well, we'll go. Call out if you need anything - or if you feel like drinking."
They leave him in the darkened room. "Have you seen my cell phone?" Nikolai asks on the way out.
Before he has time to analyze why her absence could possibly disappoint him to this degree, others' memories bubble up in his mind as though from a wellspring.
Over the years, he hasn't killed honorable men, actually has taken out some who were even more monstrous than himself. And their memories, now his memories, chill him to his bones.
He sees scenes of torture he hasn't inflicted, harrowing murders of women and children he never committed. Glassy, sightless eyes stare up at him - but not him.
These memories demand to be acknowledged, to be experienced. Before they'll be allayed, each must be relived, eking away his sanity.
And he has none left to lose.
N¨¦omi was fairly much an open book - open about her sexuality, her body, her opinions. But she had two dirty little secrets.
One of which was her penchant for relocating an odd item here and there that didn't belong to her.
Inside her hidden chamber, behind the concealed Gothic entrance, she placed her new acquisitions on the display table. Here lay all of her trinkets and treasures picked up from tenants over the years.
The table was nearly filled. Soon she'd have to employ the coffee table. Not a bad take, considering Elancourt had been occupied for only about a third of her afterlife.
So I tend to steal a lot.
She didn't necessarily appropriate things of value, more items that intrigued her. Among the contraband: a battery-operated TV with the batteries long dead, a fairly modern bra, a gramophone, and a box of condoms she would've paid thousands for in the twenties.
She had matchbooks and Mardi Gras doubloons, candy she'd never eat, and about a dozen spray-paint cans confiscated from myriad teenage vandals.
With slammed doors, flying sheets, and tempests of leaves, she'd scared les artistes graffiti past the point of spontaneous urination, at which time they always dropped their paint and ran. This was N¨¦omi's home, her entire world. She refused to read poorly crafted "art" for the rest of her days.
Like a bird feathering her nest, she'd collected things from outside and brought them within her hidden enclave. This room used to be her dance studio - with ballet barres, a wood parquet floor, and wall-to-wall mirrors. The studio itself was largely untouched, though newspapers were stacked everywhere, and the mirrors had been modified to fit her current appearance. In other words, she'd broken them.
In the days after her death, when movers had brought in boxes for all her belongings, she'd yearned so passionately to smuggle them back to this room, they'd actually moved. That was how she'd first recognized she had the ability to transport things with her mind.
In a mad dash, she'd levitated all the things she'd valued: her jewelry, clothes, scrapbooks, her prohibited stash of liquor, and even her weighty safe, conveying them to the hidden studio.
Yet now she could do nothing but watch her possessions age right before her. Just like her home. She couldn't feel any of them, couldn't run her greedy fingertips over a spill of cool silk or the tickling tip of a feather... .
"Now what?" she asked aloud.
The echoing silence seemed to mock her. Alone... alone... alone...
N¨¦omi considered materializing to the vampire's room - or tracing there. She assured herself it was the pressing quiet that spurred her to debate returning, and not the madman himself. But he did seem to sense her the best of anyone who'd ever come to Elancourt.
Even if he was insane and unwashed, something about him drew her. She had the undeniable urge to talk to him more.
Yet in the end, she was too exhausted to return, her essence depleted from all the energy she used for her concentrated telekinesis. Needing to rest, she floated to her cot.
Long ago, she'd brought it into the studio. Though she couldn't feel it or the blankets she'd strewn over it, she slept there almost every night. As much as possible, she liked to behave as she had when alive - except for drifting through walls and tracing, of course.
She curled up an inch above it for her reverie. N¨¦omi termed her ghostly sleep a reverie because it differed from what she'd known when living. She didn't have to have it every day. If she didn't use telekinesis for more than moving the newspaper, she could go days without it. Waking was instantaneous, with nothing altered except her energy level. She still wore the same clothes, her hair was unchanged, and she never needed to shave her legs and underarms. Normally, she only lost consciousness for about four hours.
That is, until the sliver moon came each month. On that one night, some force compelled her to dance. Like a ghostly marionette, she spun to the same gruesome end, left exhausted and shaken, wishing for a true death.
There were only three days left until her next performance... .
Her maman had always said the sliver moon was lucky for people like them - people who hold on to the sky with all their might, and do it again and again. No matter how many times they lose it. That was why N¨¦omi had scheduled her party on that night.
Lucky wasn't the first term she'd use to describe that party - the one meant to celebrate the achievement of all her dreams. At twenty-six, N¨¦omi had bought this place on her own, after working her way out of the Vieux Carr¨¦ - all the while managing to keep her shady background a secret.
Her uptown patrons had never found out that N¨¦omi was a French ¨¦migr¨¦e's bastard born in the seedy French Quarter. They hadn't connected N¨¦omi Laress to Marguerite L'Are, the infamous burlesque dancer.
They hadn't discovered that, for a time, N¨¦omi had been one, too.
After her maman had succumbed to influenza when N¨¦omi had just turned sixteen, she'd begun doing shows. N¨¦omi had been well developed then, and with the right makeup and costumes, she'd passed for twenty. Times had been tough, and the money was good.
She'd had no inhibitions, no moral convictions against it. Everyone got what they needed, and no one was hurt by it. Though she'd never been ashamed of what she'd done, she'd kept it secret because she'd understood that others wouldn't view it the same way she did.
After a year of saving up money, N¨¦omi had quit. She'd always dreamed of being a ballerina and hadn't wanted to waste all those lessons her mother had scrimped to afford - and all the work N¨¦omi had done to justify the incredible sacrifice. And somehow, she'd made it... .
Then I died.
She wished Conrad could have seen her as the ballerina she'd once been - onstage in a luxurious costume, flushed with pride, inundated with lusty applause. Would he have found her pretty?
She sighed glumly. She would never know... .
What would tomorrow bring with Conrad, the vampire assassin with his powerful body and ailing mind? As she drifted off to reverie, she wondered, Can we save him when he doesn't want to be saved?
The ghost doesn't return the entire night.
And he resents her for it.
It takes till late the next afternoon before he smells the scent of roses. The room is lit with afternoon sun, but he can still see her floating directly through the closed door. He knows what to look for now, how to look for her, like a hidden message in a visual puzzle.
She acts as if she's never left, absently lying back across the mattress and stretching her slender arms above her head. Her long hair flows out over the sheet - shining black, stark against the white. Her pale breasts are barely contained by her dress.
If he isn't blooded, then why does this view captivate him? Why does it make his fangs ache?
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