Chapter 10 : Eternity Lingers
The Contessa’s suite was just as lavish as Carlotta had expected. As Cassandra led her inside, Carlotta noted the faint smell of cloves and cinnamon filled the air. The same group who she had seen earlier were lounging on cushions or reclining on couches around the room looking like so many young Greek gods. In the corner one youth was playing a harp which just intensified the surreal feeling that she had stepped into some kind of grotto scene from a painting.
Carlotta only realised she’d stopped walking when Cassandra gently took her hand and led her forward.
“Come, Marina is waiting for you in the dining room.”
Trailing wide-eyed behind Cassandra, Carlotta let herself be led into the more intimate dining space. The room was lit by a dozen candles which cast their flickering glow up into the elaborate plaster and gold moulding of the ceiling above. Beside her, Cassandra spoke, “Your guest is here, Marina.”
Carlotta was momentarily startled to hear Cassandra address the Contessa by her first name. However the Contessa herself, who was reclining on a couch and deep in conversation with another of her retinue, only turned with a warm smile.
“Thank you, Cassandra, darling.”
Her voice was rich with a strong indefinable accent although, like Cassandra, her French was flawless. Carlotta knew she should probably say something at this point but her tongue seemed stuck to the roof of her mouth and the sound of her heart thundering in her ears was making it difficult to concentrate. Vaguely, she was aware that she probably looked like a complete idiot.
Cassandra gave Carlotta’s hand a small squeeze before letting it go, “I’m sure I’ll see you later, Carlotta.”
The Contessa’s friend rose gracefully from the couch opposite and followed Cassandra back out into the main room, giving Carlotta a smile and a wink as he passed. Then just like that they were alone.
Carlotta opened her mouth to say something, preferably something charming and witty, but to her eternal horror nothing came out.
Marina smiled and gestured to the now empty couch opposite, “Please, sit.”
Blushing, Carlotta nodded gratefully and sat, feeling suddenly like she was made entirely of knees and elbows.
By contrast, the Contessa looked completely at ease. Her long dark hair was flowing unbound over her shoulders and she wore a dark, red satin gown that complemented her olive skin and deep green eyes. Those eyes were currently focussed entirely on Carlotta with a look that was difficult to decipher. A mix of polite curiosity, a touch of amusement and…something else, a hunger that made Carlotta both nervous and excited at the same time.
Unfazed by her guest’s overwhelmed silence, Marina poured them both a glass of wine from the bottle on the small table between them then leaned back and regarded Carlotta again.
“Tell me about yourself, Carlotta. It’s been many years since I’ve been in France and I must confess I’ve rather lost touch. I’m fascinated to hear about your life here at court.”
Carlotta couldn’t imagine what about her own life could be of interest to the exotic and self-possessed woman sitting across from her but nevertheless she managed to find her voice.
“Well, my lady, I–”
“Please, call me Marina.”
Carlotta felt herself blushing but pushed on, “Well, Marina, I came to court some years ago now with my father and my twin sister.”
Once she started speaking it was like she had known Marina her whole life, before she knew it Carlotta was telling her about life on her father’s estate in Provence, about growing up without her mother, and about her relationship with her sister. Marina laughed at all her jokes, nodded sagely when she confessed her frustrations with life at court and held her hand tenderly when she talked about her mother’s death. Her hand was cool and soft and when their skin touched it was like a shock ran up her arm.
Before she knew it, it was almost dawn and she was fighting to keep her eyes open. The Contessa, by contrast, looked as alert and fresh as she had the night before when Carlotta had first laid eyes on her. Seeing Carlotta struggling to stay awake, Marina called Cassandra to accompany her back to her own rooms.
Before they parted, Marina kissed her on each cheek then, lifting Carlotta’s hand, brushed her lips over her wrist. Carlotta felt her pulse quicken and her breath catch. Marina’s lips quirked in a small smile.
“Sleep well, little one. Will you join me again tomorrow?”
Carlotta nodded mutely, still feeling oddly overwhelmed by her nearness.
As Cassandra and Carlotta strolled through the empty halls in the pre-dawn shadows they kept a companionable silence only broken from time-to-time by the occasional yawn from the younger woman. Finally, they arrived at the rooms she shared with Maddy. Cassandra wished her a pleasant sleep then moved silently off back the way they’d come. Carlotta had the strong urge to run after her and beg to be taken back but the pull of sleep won out. Slipping inside, she tip-toed to her bed.
Over the following weeks, as the Contessa and her retinue became the beating heart of the Versaille social life, Carlotta fell into a routine. In the evenings she would join Marina, Cassandra and the others at whatever soiree or entertainments were taking place and then afterwards she would retire with them to their suite for the remainder of the night where she and Marina would spend hours talking and laughing. After a time, Cassandra stopped taking Carlotta back to her own bed to sleep and instead she would spend the daytime hours asleep in Marina’s own room.
Not sharing a room with her sister was a relief as the two had barely spoken since their fight the night the Contessa arrived. Carlotta had the vague sense that she should try to make peace with Maddy but whenever she really considered it she felt the same anger rise up in her again. Who was Madeleine to tell her who she could spend time with and who she couldn’t? Maddy had always treated Carlotta like a wayward child and she was sick of it. This time she would let Maddy be the one to apologise.
One night, they were all seated in the main reception room where Eduardo was doing a spirited impression of the portly marquis who had declared his undying love for Marina that evening at a masquerade ball. The rest of the group roared with laughter as he perfectly captured the drunken speech the besotted nobleman had given. Carlotta, who curled at Marina’s feet, wiped away tears of laughter and glanced up at the Contessa who chuckled at Eduardo’s antics.
Carlotta turned her face upwards and asked quietly, “Do you think you’ll ever get married, Marina?”
Taking her eyes from Eduardo who continued to entertain the group, Marina looked down at Carlotta with a somewhat strange look on her face.
“No, I shouldn’t think so.”
Marina’s gaze searched her own for a long moment as if she were trying to find an answer there. Then finally, she spoke.
“It’s complicated, darling. But if you like, I can show you.”
Carlotta nodded curiously, wondering what Marina could possibly have to show her that accounted for the fact she never thought she’d marry. Marina unfolded herself gracefully from the couch and, taking Carlotta’s hand, led her from the room and into her bed chamber where she shut the door firmly behind her. Then, taking Carlotta’s hand, she pulled her gently towards her until their faces were only inches apart.
Staring into Carlotta’s wide eyes, Marina murmured, “This is why. “ Then their lips met.
Carlotta couldn’t have described what she was feeling had her life depended on it. If holding Marina’s hand felt like it sent a shock up her arm then this felt like her whole body was afire. She pressed herself into the other woman but still felt like she couldn’t get close enough. The palace could have crumbled around them and she wouldn’t have noticed or cared.
When Marina broke off the kiss Carlotta couldn’t have said whether it had lasted seconds or hours and she heard herself make a little involuntary noise of protest. Marina chuckled and drew her further into the room.
Carlotta had heard of men who preferred the company of other men in bed, some of her closest friends were so inclined, but she had no idea it could be the same for women. She had always thought her own lack of interest in romance had just been because she felt there were so many more interesting things to do than fawn over boys or talk about weddings. But that night with Marina she finally understood what it was to feel that another person was the single most important thing in the entire universe.
When Marina and her group announced they would be leaving Versailles there was no question that Carlotta would be going with them.
She had barely been out of Marina’s presence since the first night they had been together and she hadn’t seen her sister for several months except for the occasional glimpse of her at court functions. Vaguely she was aware that Madeleine must be preparing for her upcoming nuptials but everything outside of her life with Marina just felt so…profoundly inconsequential.
As their baggage was packed into carriages and they said their goodbyes under the light of the full moon, Carlotta thought she caught a glimpse of Madeleine at the back of the crowd but when she looked closer she couldn’t see her. Briefly, she considered trying to find her but what would she say? Madeleine didn’t approve of Marina, she had made that abundantly clear. Carlotta thought time and distance would do them both good. In due course she would write her sister a letter and everything would be fine between them again.
The journey to Rome overland was long and they only travelled at night. Marina had explained to her young lover that she had a terrible aversion to sunlight which meant she had to stay indoors during the daytime. Still, the new sights and sounds invigorated Carlotta and she revelled in escaping the confines of court life. However, somewhere around Lyon Carlotta took ill. It started with a sore throat but soon blossomed into a fever that confined her to bed. They took rooms in the city and Marina called a physician but the man could only recommend bed rest. When he offered the service of medical leeches, Marina had him swiftly shown the door.
Carlotta slipped in and out of consciousness over the days that followed. Marina never left her side and during her more lucid moments she was aware of the other woman gently stroking her hair or pressing a cool cloth to her burning forehead. As her joints ached and her breath came in short rattling gasps, she became aware of Cassandra and Marina speaking nearby in hushed tones.
“You need to decide soon, Marina. She isn’t going to be able to hold on much longer.”
“She’s too weak, it’s too much of a risk. She won’t survive it.”
“She’s not going to survive regardless. I’ve seen fevers like this, she isn’t going to come back from it now. She has only hours left.”
“I…I don’t…she must have the chance to choose.”
Carlotta heard the rustle of cloth then felt Marina sit on the edge of the bed. Her cool fingers brushed a stray lock of hair from Carlotta’s clammy forehead as she whispered in her ear.
“My sweet Carlotta, can you hear me?”
With great effort, Carlotta managed a small nod and Marina continued.
“My darling, I want to make you better but it will be difficult and it comes at a cost, do you understand?”
Carlotta squeezed her eyes against the pounding of her head and tried to process what Marina was saying through her fever-addled state.
After a moment, Marina spoke softly again, “Carlotta, please, you’re dying. I need you to tell me you want to live, no matter the cost.”
Painfully, Carlotta nodded and she felt Marina’s lips press briefly into her temple. Then, as the fever began to sweep her away again, she heard Cassandra speak once more.
“You haven’t fed in days. Go. I’ll stay with her until you return.”
Pain. Savage, burning, relentless agony. She was dying.
Carlotta felt her back arch as she gasped for air. Her heart felt like it was trying to tear itself from her chest and every nerve in her body was on fire. Vaguely she heard a terrible scream and then realised that it was coming from herself.
She collapsed back on the bed like a marionette whose strings had been cut and heard a pathetic whimper escape her. Another spasm wracked her body as she reflexively curled into the foetal position with a moan of agony. Marina’s voice came as if from very far away.
“Hush, my darling, it will be over soon. You’re almost there. I’m here with you.”
She opened her eyes and gazed at the unfamiliar ceiling above her. The atmosphere in the room felt like the calm that falls after a terrible storm. Her fever was gone. She took a deep breath, she felt…incredible and…absolutely starving.
Still dazed, she turned her head to find Marina reading a book in an armchair at her bedside. At the sound of movement she glanced up and when their eyes met a smile spread across her face. She put the book aside and knelt beside the bed, taking Carlotta’s hands in her own and kissing them.
“I wasn’t sure you were going to come back to me.”
Carlotta’s voice came out in a whisper, “Everything feels different.”
Marina nodded, “It will take time for you to adjust but you will.”
“I will explain fully but for now you must eat.”
She rose and moved to the other side of the chamber where a jug and two goblets sat on a side table. The moment Carlotta’s attention was directed to it, she could smell the contents and an agonising hunger washed over her. Quickly she sat up and when Marina passed her the goblet she downed it all in three huge gulps. With a delicate snort of laughter Marina passed her the second goblet which she had been intending to drink herself. A sense of sweet relief filled Carlotta as she finished the second cup of blood.
With a sigh of satisfaction she grinned up at Marina but then she felt the smile slide off her face to be replaced with a look of complete horror. In panic, she wiped her hand across her own mouth and gasped when it came back covered in blood.
“What…is this…did I…?!”
With a soothing sound, Marina knelt again by the bedside, “Hush, darling, everything is alright. Let me explain.”
Carlotta stood on the Theodosian Walls and felt the warm night air caress her face. Behind her Constantinople was alive with lights and people but here she could enjoy a solitary moment. They had been travelling through the Near East for some time now and were slowly making their way back towards Europe.
Carlotta had seen and done things beyond her wildest dreams. She had walked the streets of Petra by the gentle glow of the stars, she had stood in the colosseum in Rome and imagined she could hear the clash of swords, she had sipped wine on the Nile, and she had held Cassandra tightly as she wept like a broken-hearted child at the ruins of Ilium.
The time since she had become a vampire had been a blur of incredible, unbelievable things and of course at the centre of it all was Marina. Marina who with a look could take her breath away and with a touch could make the whole universe disappear.
Now as she looked west, she closed her eyes and let the smell of the night wash over her. Behind her she heard footsteps approaching, much too softly for any human. Marina’s arms wrapped around her waist and she leaned back into her embrace, her eyes still closed as she inhaled the frankincense and cinnamon scent of her.
“Here you are, my love. I thought you’d slipped away for something to eat.”
“I did, but afterwards I wanted to walk the walls.”
Marina’s lips grazed her neck and Carlotta felt herself shiver in the warm night air, “Was there something on your mind?”
Carlotta turned in her arms and looked up into her face, “I saw two girls in the market this evening. They were sisters. Twins. They were walking arm-in-arm and…it made me think of Madeleine.”
Being pressed into the wall and feeling the heat of Marina’s body against her was making it hard to concentrate on whatever thoughts she’d been having about her sister. But despite every cell in her body urging her to forget whatever nonsense she was talking about and instead take full advantage of the proximity of Marina’s mouth to her own, she pushed on.
“I wonder…if I should go see her. Madeline I mean. Make amends.”
Marina, who had been moving closer to Carlotta’s lips by degrees, suddenly pulled back and looked into her lover’s face with an unreadable expression. Carlotta looked back at her, worried she’d somehow hurt her feelings by suggesting she wanted to leave.
“Of course, if you’d come with me that would be–”
Marina shook her head, “No, Carlotta, I…do you know how long we’ve been together?”
Carlotta began to feel a rising sense of dread as she searched Marina’s face, “I…well…I mean, I expect that Madeleine probably has a family of her own now and that she will look older than…than I do.”
Marina’s face was a mask of sadness that robbed Carlotta of any further words as reality began to crash in on her.
“No…no, it can’t be…it hasn’t been…”
Marina pulled her in tight against her as she began to sob, waves of grief and remorse crashing over her. How? How had so much time passed and she hadn’t even noticed? Hadn’t thought?
Marina rocked her gently as she cried herself out, there on those ancient walls. Finally, with a last hiccup, she pulled away.
“How? How is it possible? Why didn’t I realise?”
Marina sighed, “The first century or so of a young vampire’s life is…intoxicating. Turbulent. It is not unusual to become…completely immersed and to…forget one’s mortal life. It may also be a survival instinct, a way to protect oneself from the agony of losing those we once loved.”
Carlotta gazed out again into the night beyond the walls, “I never…I never even wrote to her. Nothing. She must have thought I was dead. And my father…and Marie. Christian. Jean Luc.”
Marina wrapped her arms around her again, offering what comfort she could.
“For many of us this is the hardest part of our whole existence. The grief you’re feeling now is more acute than any you will ever face again.”
Carlotta felt hot tears begin to course anew down her cheeks as she thought of the harsh words she’d said to Madeleine that night when Marina had arrived at court. Of how Madeleine had worried for her and what she must have thought through the long years with no word from her sister.
After a time, Marina kissed her head and murmured in her ear, “Come, my love, the sun will soon be rising. It’s time we were indoors.”
With a nod, Carlotta let herself be led gently away.
With a gasp, Carlotta found herself once again in the hovel facing the Asmodean. Its eyes seemed to be glowing even brighter than before and it was pushing a stopper into the top of the bottle which was now glowing a murky red. Reaching up to touch her face, she found it wet with tears which she wiped away hastily. Embarrassed, she cleared her throat.
“Is that…is that it then?”
Without answering, the Asmodean reached under the desk and retrieved another bottle, this time filled with a glowing blue light. It placed it on the desk and pushed it towards her.
Dazed, Carlotta reached out and picked it up. Tucking it into her jacket pocket she rose from the stool and made her way out through the fabric entranceway. She had only a second to wonder where the others might have gone while she was inside when she saw them standing right where she had left them.
Mindy looked startled to see her, “What happened? Didn’t it work?”
Carlotta frowned, “What do you mean? Yes, it worked. Have you guys been waiting out here the whole time?”
Nisha took in Carlotta’s tear streaked face with a frown of concern, “Hon, you were only in there for, like, one minute. What happened? Are you okay?”
Carlotta shook her head, “No, that’s not possible. I–”
Chet held out his hands for calm, “Ladies, ladies. If I may?”
He turned to Carlotta and put a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “Asmodeans are…emotional parasites sounds harsh but let’s go with it. You may have felt like you re-lived hours, months or even years but in actual fact it extracted the memories, and the feelings that went with them, directly from you in just a matter of seconds.”
He grimaced, “And while we’re on the topic, you might have a bit of an, uh, emotional hangover so just take it easy for a few days.”
To her embarrassment Carlotta felt another tear spill from one eye and begin to make its way down her cheek. She swiped it away but not before Mindy put her arm around her.
“C’mon Car, let’s get home, huh?”
Carlotta nodded mutely and let her sisters lead her out of the market and back through the rainy night, away from memories of the past.
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