Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Story of the Month: Rubies

A six year old can survive on cats – two or three, if one drinks carefully. But at that age I was wasteful and kept so many of them in my tower, there was barely room for me to sleep. I used to hunt them nightly through the forests that surround our castle and bring them home in handfuls, dangling by their tails and spitting furiously. Papa indulged me, though he gave dire warnings about the danger of scratches, and I grew used to hearing my family discussing my ‘problems’ when they thought I was not listening. “She’s a strange one, that Kryssa,” Grandpa was fond of saying. “Always off on her own. She’ll come to a bad end.”
     This used to make me giggle. Even at six, I knew that none of my family would ever end. Papa was five hundred years old, Grandpa more than a thousand, my eldest sister nearing two hundred. Ending was a great joke – would that I had known.
     But I was very young, and only just beginning to experience that disquieting hunger even a menagerie such as mine could not soothe. Grandpa was first to notice. He had a word with Papa, and then with my sisters, who argued among themselves for the privilege of escorting me on my first flight.
     Viellah came to my room one evening before the sky was truly dark and sat on the window seat swinging her bare legs, curling vines around the fingers of one hand and fending off cats with the other. Her hair, black as mine, glittered with diamonds that outshone the early stars. She seemed nervous.
     “Don’t poke that one around,” I grumbled as she tipped a long-haired tabby off her lap. “She’s pregnant. Due to kitten any day now.”
     “Ugh! I don’t want it breeding all over me.” Viellah screwed up her pretty nose. “Don’t know what you see in the scrawny beasts.”
     “They’re beautiful.” I reached down to stroke those around my feet, made defensive by her tone.
     “But no longer satisfying, huh?” she said, sly. Her dark eyes glittered at me through her fringe. “I know where we can find something truly beautiful tonight. How about it, Krys? Do you want to come?”
     I sat very still, my hair prickling. The breeze that rustled the creepers around my window came in and stroked my skin, making me shiver. “Where? What?”
     My sister giggled. “Better than cats. Better than a kitten, even. Come and see!” And she did a backward flip out of my window, her hair spreading like crows’ wings as she fell.
     “Vi!” I craned out after her, and saw her laughing on her back in the moonlit grass several hundred feet below. There were diamonds everywhere.
     “Come on, Krys! Jump!”
     I shook my head, not liking the look of the fence posts only steps away from where Viellah had landed. “You’re crazy, Vi!” I called down into further floods of giggles.

By the time I had run down the spiral tower stairs, my sister was already on her feet and dancing into the forest, her bare feet white on the dark path. I followed her for an hour or so, unquestioning. But when she started scraping leaves off the shell of a gleaming silver pod, I balked, suddenly scared.
     “Where are we going?”
     Viellah covered me with the broken blooms of bind flowers. Their petals clung sticky gold in my hair. “Don’t ask so many questions. Just get in.”
     “In, I said.” Her long fingernails dug into my elbow, threatening to draw blood.
     “Vi, please...” I stared at her hand in terror.
     “Oh, don’t worry so! Grandpa said you were ready to fly tonight, and I’ll look after you. Or…” Her look turned sly again. “Do you want to be a kitten-sucker forever?”
     We were inside the pod before I knew it, and the cushioned canopy clicked shut over my head. Rich red silk kissed my flesh, reminding me so forcibly of bed that I was nearly asleep before Viellah pressed for take-off. Just as well. The sensation of flight unnerved me and I began to panic. I struggled against the confining cushions until my sister held me tight.
     “Silly,” she murmured. “Silly, Krys, silly. It’s all right. We’re only flying. It’ll be worth it, my darling, I promise. Just relax a little.”
     Gradually my fear subsided, so that I was able to look out at the moon floating past the windows of our pod. I began to enjoy the glitter of the stars. Then came the landing in thick woodland close to a cluster of strange, squat houses with darkened windows. No candles, no sign of life other than owls hunting through the trees. A ghost town, I decided, wondering why we had come.
     But my sister knew better. “Shh,” she cautioned. “They’re asleep.”
     “Asleep? During the night? What sort of people sleep at night?”
     “Mortals,” Viellah whispered back. “People who end after a mere hundred years, sometimes sooner.”
     “Why should they want to do that?”
     She giggled at the expression on my face. “They don’t want to. They just do.”
     “How silly.”
     “They are silly. But you’ll like them. Come.” She took my hand and led me to the nearest house, where I felt the heat of many bodies. My blood rose rapidly, making me tremble.
     “Steady,” Viellah said. “I’ll show you the best way this time, then you can fly as often as you like.” For all her big sisterly knowledge, her hand felt just as unsteady as mine.
     I heard her panting as we tiptoed through the ankle-deep herbs strewn on the floor to stop smells. We slid under a curtained archway into a small room packed with mortal children, shoulder to shoulder on the floor. Their dirty limbs were entwined in sleep under scanty furs. I stared at them in horror – so close together, and with their flesh exposed to the moonlight! Then I felt the excitement rise again. They smelled sweet.
     Viellah let go of me so she could crawl forward. But then she stopped with a little cry and clamped a hand over her mouth. Tense enough to scream, I jumped. “Vi? What’s wrong?” The way the children shifted in their dreams scared me.
     But my sister just pinched her nose with her fingers, shaking with suppressed laughter. “Wild garlic!” She indicated the white flowers by her knees, which I noticed were wreathed in a deliberate pattern around the sleeping children. “Phew!” Still pinching her nose, she scraped a passage clear and beckoned to me. “Sorry about the smell, Krys. My fault. I’ve been here before, and they try to stop me sometimes.”
     I’d heard about garlic from Papa. Like most of the rumours about us, it isn’t true. A nasty stink, yes, and it thins the blood if you eat enough of it, but garlic’s hardly life threatening, wild or otherwise. I wondered how the children slept with so much of it in the room, though mortals are said to have an underdeveloped sense of smell. Or, I supposed, they might have simply passed out.
     “Try this one, Krys.” Viellah was already satisfied, and she seemed anxious that I should be, too.
I eyed the child in her arms. He was tiny, plump, sucking his thumb. A light dusting of gold curls covered his head.
     “No more than a few months old,” said my sister proudly. “Should be sweet enough for you.”
     She laid the child against my breast.
     My heart banged. A wild throbbing weakened my legs so that I was forced to kneel in order to finish my meal. Sweet he was, and rich; so much richer than my cats that I wondered what I had been missing. My veins sang, my head turned light. I felt as if I owned the world.
     “Krys! Krys, come on, let it go now.” Viellah’s hands tried to pluck the child from me, but I cuddled him close, crooning to him. She giggled. “Look at you! Like a proper mortal mother.”
     I blinked at her. The child’s heart was fluttering faintly, and he smiled in his sleep. “Such strange hair,” I murmured, stroking it. “So bright.”
     “You can come again tomorrow if you want.” My sister firmly took the child away and laid him back on his fur. “Though it’s best if you don’t visit one place too often. I’ve a weakness for this town, hence the garlic. Even mortals can get wise if we’re careless.”
     Her warning fell on deaf ears. “I want to take them all back with me.” I grasped for the sweet, sleeping children, but Viellah dragged me away with another laugh.
     “What are you doing, Krys? Stop it! They’re not cats. You can’t just steal people’s children.”
     “Why not?”
     “You just can’t. Come on, we have to go now.” She kicked the pile of garlic flowers across the gap in the circle, forcing me to back off with my hands over my nose. “Children! Whatever next?” she teased as we ran to our pod. “Wait till I tell Papa.”
     “He’ll let me keep some,” I said sulkily.
     “He won’t! He hates them.”
     “Why did he make seventeen of us, then?”
     Viellah snorted. “Why do you think he made only daughters?”
     It is a well known fact only male vampires can breed more vampires, and they don’t do that the way animals do, which is why we don’t have a mama. This reminded me of something I had overheard Papa and Grandpa discussing, and curiosity overcame my sulk. “Is it true, Vi? About mortal women, I mean. That they breed like cats?”
     My sister laughed. “It’s true. Though thankfully they don’t lay large litters. One at a time, usually.”
     I was silent in the red cocoon as Viellah drove a wild dance between the stars. The child’s sweet blood lingered on my lips and the memory of his tiny, fragile body made my heart ache in a way I felt certain my sister would not understand.

I quickly learnt to drink from children with the same efficiency as I drank from my cats. I learnt also to keep silent about those strange feelings that came over me from time to time when I held a mortal child to my breast – though Viellah never missed an opportunity to tease me about the way I had wanted to add the babies to my menagerie. I mastered all the tricks – how to avoid detection, how to tell when it was safe to visit a mortal community, when to fly quietly by – and for a while I was happy. Yet, as the years passed, I grew dissatisfied even as I had grown so with my cats, and began to return from my flights irritable and wanting more. Papa watched me with a knowing look in his eye. My sisters, giggling, told me to be patient. Grandpa whispered behind my back. Then, on my hundredth birthday, Papa made me a present of a mortal man.
     Even Grandpa went all sentimental when my sisters helped me dress for the occasion. I remember him springing up my tower with a bowl of rubies in his strong hands, bursting in on us just as Viellah was drying my hair.
     “Perfect timing!” he cried. “Here, girl – weave these into that black curtain, and we’ll see if we can’t make little Kryssa dazzle a bit.”
     He poured the rubies into my lap, where they pooled like fire against the purple silk of my dress. I was nervous, but such a gift could not go unremarked.
     “Thank you, Grandpa,” I whispered, running my fingers through the jewels, watching them burn in the torchlight. Viellah picked one, threaded it on a cord and began to fix it into my hair.
     “Don’t tremble so,” she murmured as she worked. “You’ll enjoy it. Papa’ll have picked a good one for you. He won’t suspect a thing.”
     “What was your first man like, Vi?” I asked.
     She stared at the creeper, where one of my cats stalked a branch, its tail shivering for balance. “Wonderful,” she said. “Remember your first taste of a child? Well, better than that. Just – wonderful.”
     So I came to my first man in style, with gold against my flesh and rubies in my hair. Papa set the pod down on the other side of the hill, and I walked the last bit slowly, letting the night breezes caress my skin, stopping at every lake and pool to admire my reflection in the darkness there. Yes, I could see myself. Or, at least, I could see moon-pale flesh shimmering with gold, and the pinpricks of red stars surrounding me: Grandpa’s rubies blurred with the millions of worlds above. That was how the mortal man would see me, though not if he looked in the pool. There he might see darkness and be afraid.
     His house was a grand affair of white walls covered with roses, lit by cunning lamps hung in strings across the gardens. Fountains arched high over my head, gold and green against the lamps, and servants met me at the door with a cup of wine. I let them lead me to his fireside, where I sat sipping the wine and ignoring their curious glances until the one I had been waiting for stepped into the room. I stood, alight with anticipation, and stared at his golden hair. A cat came and rubbed my legs, but I hardly noticed its small heat.
     The man stared back at me with eyes luminous as moon-daisies. He whispered, “They told me you were beautiful, Kryssa, but never that you were a goddess.”
     Then he took my hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed it...

Muse warning: Adult material follows!

You can read the rest of this story, and six other tales of fantasy heroines, in my ebook collection for Kindle DEATH SINGER (US readers click here). Suggested reading age 12+.


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