torch 1996
flambeau@strangeplaces.net

This is a work of speculative fiction, intended for entertainment. It is not to be sold for profit or distributed without the consent of the author. The characters belong to Anne Rice; the perverted imagination belongs to me. Spoiler warning: features spoilers for The vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned. The story is set during the action of Queen of the damned and contains sizeable spoilers for the lot and the ending. Fire and ice is the first spec in the Roman Holiday series; subsequent specs are From what I've tasted of desire, Sex and the single vampire, Vestigia flammae, Burn baby burn, and Phoenix of my heart. This series takes place in the same spec universe as And death shall have no erection. So yes, 'they do'... eventually. Not in this one though, so possess your souls in patience. Do not archive this story without permission.

From fire to ice

"Oh love can turn, from fire to ice...
I never could take good advice" — The Associates, 'Fire to ice'

The icy wind tugged at his hair and at his clothes. Velvet cuffs tore and frayed and he looked at them regretfully, blinking tiny hard grains of snow out of his eyes. This had been a good coat. Its fine black nap had been softness itself under his fingertips, the kind of small pleasure he had enjoyed so much.

Then he shrugged that thought away as an unworthy distraction. What did such things matter now! To be thinking of velvet as the end of the world approached. Their survival was at stake, not here in the icy wastes... but all around the globe. Everywhere the sudden flare of fire, the helpless screams. He could sense them as distant whispers on the edge of his consciousness. Santino tugged at an unravelling thread, then let it go.

All around him was nothing but the blackness of night and the whiteness of ice and snow. It was jagged and hard and unforgiving, this land, not meant for walking feet. His boot soles slid awkwardly on the rocks and the ice. He could not get any colder. If he had been mortal, this place would have proven his mortality to him. He would have frozen where he stood, tumbled to the ground like a falling icicle.

But he was not mortal, and he walked on with inhumanly quick and light steps, keeping his mind trained to receive the distress call that was being broadcast from somewhere ahead. It was growing stronger; they were getting close.

Next to him, another slim figure walked with long easy strides. Pandora was also dressed in black, a plain thin robe that offered even less protection against the weather than his velvet; she needed it far less, too. Her brown hair whipped out, a banner against the night sky. She was keeping pace with him easily; could have outstripped him, could have taken to the sky and soared, done this faster and more efficiently except that she needed him. Needed him enough to have bludgeoned him into doing this...

Santino shook his head. She had not really forced him. He had agreed. But then she had chosen him because she had known he would agree, hadn't she? Pandora knew a little too much about him for his comfort.

It did not snow here very often, not in these frozen wastes. The cold was too intense for that. But the wind swirled what snow there was around them, drove it stinging against their skin. It made Santino wince, but Pandora did not even seem to notice. That worried him as much as the sorrowful, withdrawn look on her face and her eerie silence. He had tried several times to start a conversation, but she would give him no more than the bare necessities.

When she had come to him he had been pacing a room in an awkward Roman apartment with long impatient strides, deep in fearful thought at what he could sense from the world all around, occasionally kicking over one of the piles of books on the floor when he was so absorbed in his worries that he did not notice where he was going.

She had appeared in the doorway, politely making her presence known, and he had sensed at once that the years had changed her. Intensely. All her old warmth was gone; she was closed in on herself, seemed almost like a ghost haunting the temple of her own body. "Santino," she'd whispered so quietly that a mortal would never have heard her. "Still alive."

"Yes!" he had answered, almost fiercely. "Pandora, what is this, what is happening..."

She had stood there for a long silent moment, and her face had been a mask and her body that of a storefront mannequin, her hair a tangled silk wig. The unreality of her had shocked him. Then with a great effort, it seemed, she had moved and the life had sparked back into her momentarily, made her gestures once again painfully graceful. He'd been lost as always in admiration of the curve of her mouth as she smiled just a little. Her beauty had always pleased him, made him somehow, obscurely, happy, a happiness that he did not need or want to have explained.

"I need you to do something," Pandora had said, her Italian accented by past centuries. She sounded still the way she had when he had first met her. Even more imperious, perhaps. He'd answered reflexively,

"I should jump to do your bidding?"

"Don't be difficult." The weariness in her eyes and her voice had been so great that he had forborn to press her; she was usually up for a little friendly sparring, but not now. Her wide brown eyes had been haunted. "You must have heard the call..."

Santino had shaken his head. He'd heard something, certainly. Though 'heard' was not the word he would have chosen. Strange dreams had come to him, cries and portents. The image of the redheaded twins was with him night and day now, haunting both his sleep and his waking hours. And beyond that he sensed something else.

Death.

He could feel it happening though he could not tell how, or why. Others of his kind were dying all around the world. Santino had been walking around the room here trying to understand it all before whatever nemesis that stalked them came for him too.

"I don't know what is happening," he had said. "You tell me."

"It's Marius, Santino. I need you to help me to find him. You can hear him as I cannot."

The redundancy of her last words had made him realize that he was staring at her. It was something he had never expected to hear. Pandora had told him long ago that it was not in her interest to force a conflict or stage a confrontation. Oh, from the very beginning she had made it clear, when he had thought that she had come for vengeance, and she had told him that Marius was not dead.

Not dead, and those words had put an end to one particular guilt he had been suffering, and begun another. It had been a particular torment to Santino that his followers had killed Marius even at first, when he had believed with all his soul that the strange blond Roman was a heretic and a traitor. Even then he had wondered what might be learned from such a creature.

When his children had taken action on their own, he had not punished them for it. They had done what was right, of course they had. And they had brought him that sweet young one, Amadeo. The one who had transmuted the frantic rituals into beauty. That had been a comfort right there. Many long hours they had talked together, building this view of the world, constructing the reality of the children of darkness, the children of damnation.

Oh, Amadeo had had a real talent for that. And that had made Santino doubt that Marius had possessed any true wisdom, anything worth knowing, anything that did not fit into this all-encompassing truth. If he had, would not that young one have been filled by it, lived by it, instead of submitting so easily to what Santino taught him?

All the same, Marius' destruction had troubled him, and after he had found out the truth of that, Marius' continued existence had been troubling him. The fire in Venice had planted the first cold splinter of doubt in him, and meeting Pandora had been what finally had broken his faith apart. She, the unrepentant rogue, unbelieving, fearless, had talked him through confusion and despair.

The sweet touch of her hands had comforted him.

Without that time he could never have borne all that was revealed to him later. A world of order, of simplicity and dark comfort had been replaced by uncertainty and fear. He had met Maharet and seen, in her mortal eyes and ageless face, disregard and dislike. Unwanted, he had been. Someone whose folly she had had no time for, left to live or go mad as he chose. As he had the strength for.

Had it not been for Pandora, and later, for Eric, Santino now thought dispassionately, madness would have been the most likely result.

It had hurt so much. Not just the upheaval, the burning away of all his personal truths. But having to come to terms with the things he had done, and had sanctioned, in his time as coven leader. That hurt most of all. He had wielded such enormous power in the name of something that was in the end false. Had destroyed so many of his own kind for it. And it had felt good. It had been so comfortable.

Faith and loss. Words ran through Santino's mind like distant thunder. 'Certainty, fidelity On the stroke of midnight pass...' Yes, indeed. And now he was here, in the snow and ice, small icicles in his hair, and Pandora's cold hand in his, forcing him ever onwards, hurrying him on.

:Do you hear him?: her voice demanded in his mind.

:Yes.: The call was very clear now, and even though Marius had been trapped for some time now, his cry showed no sign of weakening.

:Does he know we are coming?:

He hesitated. :No.:

Even against the wind the look in her eyes bit deeper. :Santino.:

"Yes," he said, out loud, and the word blew away into the night. She was right, of course. No need for Marius to be still crying out, still suffering loneliness. They were coming there to help him. To rescue him from the ice that trapped him. Now what they would be taking him to after that was another matter... one that it did not help to speculate on.

Santino closed his eyes for a moment, tried to brace himself for this moment. But he couldn't. There was nothing he could do that would prepare him for this. And so he just reached out in answer to the distressed cry in his mind and said, :Marius.:

Silence, confusion, and then acknowledgement. :Yes! Where — who—:

This was the hardest part. He could not quite find words for it and showed Marius instead, himself and Pandora, the ice all around, their direction. Other images came tumbling along, how they had slept in a crevice in the ice the day before and had been forced to break out of it as the sun set. The look in Pandora's eyes. And then Marius' mind hit out at him with sharp precision.

:What have you done to her!:

:Nothing,: Santino said tiredly. :Nothing.: He let their connection fade. He knew where Marius was now, and they would get there soon enough. Looking at Pandora, he merely nodded once, and she understood. She asked no questions, and he was grateful.

What had he gleaned from Marius' mind? Not much, that was certain. Such control Marius had, it was admirable. Power reined in, but not forcibly curbed; no, power resting like a sleepy lion ready to spring at the right moment but willing to laze on its rock in the meantime. Power... insufficient power, at the moment, to free him from the trap he was in.

And perhaps that had been all of the frustration and anger that Santino had sensed in Marius. Perhaps. And perhaps not. That Marius' mind had gone so swiftly from understanding to accusation hurt him. But then, what did Marius know of him other than destruction?

Santino sighed quietly to himself and the tiny noise blew into the wild wind and vanished. Why did it matter to him... he tried to draw indifference like a warming cloak around his cold heart. The chill of the wind stung no more than the bitter loneliness inside. Repentance, what is that? What is done, cannot be undone, though it is regretted forever.

He walked on.

It was beginning to be an exertion now. He wasn't tired yet, and that was good, because the real work would come when they reached their destination. Not tired, but feeling a little worn. There was no real need for blood in him. But oh, how he would have welcomed the warmth of it.

Pandora's hand in his had no warmth at all. He felt her strength, and knew that she would not falter. She would go on. But there was this strange emptiness in her. For Marius' sake she would go on, yet Santino feared that had she been alone, she would have vanished here, ice-maiden crumbling into crystalline dust, blown away by the wind.

He shrugged the fancy away. Pandora had always been so strong, so burningly alive. Memories flickered briefly, distant images, out on a boat in the Aegean with Pandora and Eric; they had sailed long nights together and watched the dolphins leap through the waves. Pandora's warm laughter, her sheer energy. Eric's gentle smile and wicked sense of humor. It had been a good time.

Pandora's hand closed more tightly around his, and he looked up, sensing her discovery, straining his eyes. Santino could not see it yet but he knew it was there. Marius' home, or what remained of it. They began to walk faster.

Soon enough they came upon it. There was not much to be seen above ground. Walls tilting drunkenly, the roof collapsed in upon itself. Everything had fallen inward. Been pulled down. As they got closer Santino saw little pieces of everyday life lying there: pages from torn books blowing away, white and black, into the black and white night; the perfect circle of a blue ceramic plate shattered into jagged triangles; frosted flowers, stiff with cold.

This had been a beautiful place, inviting and filled with all the things that had caught Marius' fancy. Now... it was a little frightening that destruction could also be so lovely. The absurdity of it, the tiny colorful fish sealed in ice, the drift of snow in the fireplace piled up just like wood waiting for the fire. Strange and wonderful, like a scene out of a surrealistic film.

Santino shook his head softly. This wasn't where they would find him. "We must go down," he said.

"Yes," Pandora agreed and walked ahead of him, finding the steep winding stairs, dragging away the rubble that blocked them. She did it casually, but Santino moved to help her anyway. What good was this terrible strength if it could not protect the heart, the fragile mind?

They went down together. The stairs seemed to go on forever, dug into the frozen bones of the earth, the metal ringing under their feet. No use drifting down silently as shadows when the sound of their approach would give comfort.

Though it was sometimes difficult, Santino thought with a small rueful smile, to remember to put your feet down properly as you walked.

Down here there were only the smallest remnants of what had been beauty. The destruction was more complete and more deliberate. Santino saw that the heel of his boot ground a thin scrap of gold into the ice. A smudge of ash there, something that could have been incense, all scent blown away.

And here was the crack, the pit. Pandora walked to the jagged edge, looked at Santino with a small smile and stepped out over it, floating down slowly. He sighed and the cold air bit at his throat and lungs. There was nothing to do but follow her.

His own descent was somewhat faster and less controlled than hers, yet he landed where he should and added his hands to hers as they pushed at the heavy blocks of ice to free the one that lay trapped underneath. It was a strain, the two of them barely managing it together. The ice slid away with a terrible scraping, grinding noise that made Santino shiver. And then they saw him.

He was wedged between two other blocks, and the frozen earth. Blond hair spilled out, matted with blood. The ice was stained red all around.

Santino looked for the first time at this man who had played such a large part in his mind over the past five hundred years. So this was Marius. Covered with blood and mud and ice. He was beautiful and he looked furious. A strong face, regular, with a perfect Roman nose and a wide mouth that might have looked generous had it not been drawn together in anger. Santino glanced from Marius' face to Pandora's, easily able to see why those two had spent so much time fighting.

Then he looked back at Marius again and, with some difficulty, met the other vampire's blue eyes. There was some kind of spark there, an acknowledgement. Santino wanted to talk to Marius, there was so much... but there was no time, truly, nor was this the right moment. Old grievances were nothing when it was a matter of their very survival.

Yet thoughts of what he perceived as the conflict between himself and Marius had at least kept his mind from obsessing about the deaths that continuously presented themselves to his othersenses. There was a war going on! Not the moment, truly, for conversation.

They had to work hard to free Marius, but finally Santino could hold off the last block of ice and Pandora could tug him from the ground. He slumped against her, and she pressed her wrist to his lips.

Santino politely looked away. But he did notice that Pandora's face did not change. She was still uncannily calm. Almost as though this did not mean anything, either. Yet if there was one creature on earth she had felt love for it was Marius.

It was through what she had said, and not said, that Santino had come in some odd indirect way to know Marius. Know something of him, at any rate. Enough to intrigue him, worry him.

Marius pulled back, and Pandora, indifferently, rolled her sleeve down again. Santino eyes him cautiously. One leg seemed broken, but it was healing rapidly. Blood all over Marius' face — not enough to hide how he felt. Such a very expressive face he had for someone that old. This was someone who had never lost the power of the sheerly human gesture.

Marius looked at them both slowly, thoughtfully. Pandora had not said a word, and neither had Santino, caught up in her silence and truly not certain what he could say. Now Marius reached out and brushed his fingertips against Pandora's cheek, and she looked at him. Something passed between them in that look, as it had not done during the taking of blood, before the spark died in her eyes again.

All three of them climbed out of the pit, Marius moving with some difficulty but not inviting any more help. There was something about him that spoke of anger so profound it would not even let him thank them.

They struggled up the endless spiral stairs again and Marius came out into the ruins of his home. There was one moment when Santino could have sworn that Marius paused as if in shock at the sight, although the next moment he was moving among it all, taking it in in silence. Still it must hurt to see such wanton destruction. Beauty ruined for no reason.

Marius' face was healing rapidly, though. The wind blew away the dried blood and dirt, and combed harshly through the white and gold strands of Marius' hair. As Marius moved around, Pandora stood still, watching him. They made an eerie tableau, the blond man in red, the dark-haired woman in black, to the sound of the wolves howling outside.

But there was no time really to watch it and try to understand. Finally Santino broke the silence, saying, "We must go."

Marius turned towards him. Cool blue eyes appraised him again, seemed to weigh him, hold him up and compare him to some inner standard. Santino had the uncanny feeling that he failed to measure up. It disturbed him more than he had thought it would. Yet he hadn't expected approval. He had counted on resentment, anger even. Something. Anything. Not this, this calm dismissal. It sent a flash of sudden and unreasoning grief through him.

Perhaps only because Marius was real to him now as he had never been before, and that reality was infinitely more intriguing and tantalizing than the image he had had in his mind all these years. This Marius was someone he wanted to know. He wanted to tell the full story, all that lay behind that fateful time long ago, who he had been then, who he was now. Wanted to look for — oh, not forgiveness — understanding.

But this was not the moment, and that moment might never come. Pandora added her voice to his, soft, almost listless. "Yes," she said, "the meeting has been called, we should leave."

"A meeting," Marius said, and there was something in his voice that sounded almost like a bitter little laugh.

"Yes, Maharet wants us to come to her. She is waiting, she's calling us all."

There was definitely bitterness there now, though the answer came slowly. "Summoned, are we?"

"To stand together," Santino said. Marius' unsuppressed emotions gave him an edge of his own. "Unless you would rather stay here?"

The blue eyes sparked and Santino remembered that the heart of a flame burns blue. It was almost enough to warm him; at least Marius saw him now, was with them in the present.

"I'll come," Marius said roughly. All the blood was gone, cleaned off by the wind and by fastidious hands, and he only supported himself lightly on the poker he had picked up to use as a cane. That fast, he'd healed. Now he looked ready to take to the sky.

Pandora closed her eyes for a moment. Giving in to his worry, Santino moved to her side, putting a careful hand on her arm. And the look that Marius gave him then could have scorched the flesh from his bones.

"You should release them," Pandora said. She looked up, one brief glance at Santino, then a longer cooler look at Marius. "They will starve."

The wolves, of course. Still howling out there, hungry and upset. Santino doubted setting them free would help much, but he kept his thoughts to himself. He walked that way, but the way was barred by rubble and he turned around, found an unbroken space of wall to lean against.

"Very well!" Marius said. "I will do it. I will do all that's necessary. I'll go with you to this meeting and this Maharet. Of course."

"Stop it," Pandora murmured.

One blond eyebrow rose. "Stop it? But I thought this was what you wanted me to do."

Not now, Santino wanted to say. It couldn't be too much to ask that these two spend ten minutes together without fighting. Could it? The slow powerful anger in Marius was rising nearer to the surface, it seemed. And perhaps he couldn't see that things were different now, or perhaps he didn't care...

"It's what's going to happen," Pandora went on tiredly. "Stay if you like. Come if you like. You are wanted there."

"I suppose I must come," Marius said, "since I don't seem to have the faintest idea what is going on here! Oh, I'll come. I will do as this Maharet says. I'll—"

:Stop it,: Santino spoke firmly into Marius' mind. :Take your anger to Maharet if you wish. But not here and now. There is no time. And Pandora is too frail, you should see that.:

If he had not been lounging against the wall, the look Marius shot him would have made him back up a step. As it was he stared back levelly and hoped Marius could not tell that his knees were shaking. This was the 'goody two-shoes' of Pandora's stories, the wise and kind gentleman of Lestat's flamboyant book?

More to him than that, it seemed. And that was all to the good, no doubt about it. But Santino did not wish to be confronted with the darker sides of Marius' temperament just now.

Then Marius turned away as if abruptly deciding Santino was not worth his attention. "Let's go, then."

He strode out through the wreckage and Pandora and Santino followed more slowly. Santino wanted to hold her, hold her up, but he didn't dare touch her really. He thought it might make her collapse and cruel as it seemed, there was no time for that. It seemed clear that something was happening to her, something profound and grievous, but it would have to wait.

Outside in the howling wind Marius was freeing the wolves and they danced around him for a moment, lean grey shapes moving this way and that, until they suddenly vanished into the snowstorm. As soon as they were gone, Marius shot a swift glance at Pandora and Santino over his shoulder, then rose into the sky.

With a soft smile, Pandora turned to Santino. "It seems..."

"You're leaving me here?"

That actually brought a tiny laugh from her. "Let's fly, piccolo santo." She drew him close, quite affectionately. And they followed Marius into the sky.

This was something that struck fear into Santino's heart, and he did not dare to show it. Pandora hated this. What if, suspended between earth and heaven, she should simply choose to let go? And he, helpless in her arms... Heights frightened him. And the thought that he could not entirely trust her frightened him even more.

:You did not tell me,: he said, :what he was really like.:

There was love and weariness in her, in almost equal measure. She seemed just to love everything, and to be so very tired of it. And the openness with which she let him perceive this was disturbing. :I do not think I could,: she said. :I know him too well for that.:

Santino sighed. :He despises me.:

:I think,: Pandora said quietly, :that he despises everything now, he is hurt, he poisons his own heart with bitterness. It's the pride in him.:

:Still,: Santino said, :he is — he is—:

:Yes. He is, isn't he?: And Santino knew that she did indeed understand.

* * *

They stood there like actors on a stage, all of them elegantly posed. Santino found it hard to believe that this ballet of terror was unchoreographed, that all this was happening, that it was real and not a dream, a fiction. His eyes went from one immortal to another. All of them like angels, beautiful and burning with their own flame. All of them like works of art, unthinkable that they could be destroyed.

Yet so many had died already. Vampires like these. Some he had known. Some he would miss, if he survived this. He could feel no fear. Oh, it was there somewhere, buried deep inside him. Somewhere underneath the pain.

Akasha did indeed look like a goddess. Beautiful beyond words, she was, as she looked at them with eyes at once imperious and pleading. Cut them to ribbons and expected them to love her. How could this one be so strangely naive?

Yet she had cut to the heart of his personal suffering, and he hated her for it even more passionately than he disbelieved in the world she was offering. To have a purpose. He did not want a purpose! She had chosen the wrong thing to tempt him with. He did not want ever again to be a slave to belief and to do strange and cruel things in the name of something beyond himself.

And had she but known that, she would have chosen a different appeal. With this one she had lost him forever. Never again, he knew that. He would never give over his personal responsibility for his actions to anything or anyone ever again.

And it seemed he had perhaps a minute to live by his convictions. Then he would die by them. Santino knew there was nothing he could do. He had said what he thought, but she wasn't listening. Six thousand years of living inside her own mind had not taught her to be reasonable.

Instead he looked around at the others again, thinking it was a fine company to die in, at any rate. Eric and Pandora, so dear to him, though Pandora was fading and Eric was edgy and upset. Armand, dearest Amadeo. He could not help smiling. How he would have loved to speak with Armand yet again, and there had been nothing more than a look passed between them, but enough in that for Santino to feel happy in Armand's company.

And he was fascinated by Louis, so calm and yet so tender, utterly unafraid for himself but caring so deeply what happened to Lestat. Such apparent contradictions in this, perhaps the most beautiful of them all, yet there was an essential oneness to him; he knew himself well.

Oh, Santino wanted so much to speak with so many of them. If he was going to die here, he had at least been in the presence of the most splendid gathering of immortals... Even Maharet and Mael, with whom he had never been able to get along, were wonders, legends.

In fact, Santino knew that he himself had been a legend for a long time among the Roman vampires, until his name had all but faded from memory in recent years. It was just as well, he thought. He would rather be forgotten. Except that Lestat had put his name into a book and made sure everyone knew what he was responsible for...

He shrugged to himself, eyeing the blond one, Akasha's prince. So everyone knew now. There was not much time left. Was this, how did they say, his fifteen minutes of fame? Lestat was beginning to look desperate. Ah, he loved Akasha. It was so clear. Swept off his feet by her. Yet he was coming to realize that he could not believe; that it was all wrong.

The sight of it wrung Santino's heart. He knew this, he knew exactly how it felt. What Lestat was suffering now was the compressed version of what had happened to Santino centuries ago. Yet there would be no use telling Lestat that. Lestat would just have to go through it on his own.

And she, the Queen, clung tighter to him, sensing what was happening.

Marius, recovered now from his tantrum, still believing in the power of words, tried to reason with her and she knocked him down with such utter ease. The fear Santino could not feel turned into sympathy. No gratitude for all that devotion. And how that must hurt Marius. Possessed of a mystery once, now caught up in an older and uglier story by far.

It seemed only natural to Santino to move quietly that way, reach down and help Marius to his feet again. The blank stare he received at first turned into a grudging nod. Marius straightened up, not badly hurt, rubbing a little at his leg where it had been broken before. Then he paused and looked at Santino again, really looked at him.

"Thank you," he said quietly, grudgingly. Santino made a sarcastic half-bow, then returned his attention to the ongoing drama. But somewhere inside he was oddly pleased at having received that much; it had not merely been for this little help that Marius had thanked him.

He sighed and went on waiting for death.

* * *

He said that he felt free, liberated and relieved. But that was nothing but a lie. It must be a good lie; it seemed that they all believed him. And as he sat in that deep leather armchair, reading one book after the other and smiling calmly, no one questioned his state of mind.

Marius could only assume, among so many talented telepaths, that they saw no farther than the things they wanted to see. The only one who seemed to guess something of it all was Armand. From time to time there was a certain look in his eyes, a certain sweetness and consideration in his manner. But Marius did not wish to burden the joy of their reunion with what was happening inside him.

Enough of a wonder that he and Armand could be together again, and know peace. They hunted together. Talked slowly and affectionately of love and other things. Marius was getting to know Daniel, an unquenchable spirit, one who would burn brightly for many nights to come. A good choice of companion for Armand, certainly.

So, on the surface he could be calm and that calm would be accepted. Under that... he could not really tell himself. Layer after layer of emotion and he hesitated to try to untangle it all, uncertain of what he would find.

The Ones Who Must Be Kept were no more. Ah, an unwieldy expression, he would not miss that. And it was true that he would not miss having them to watch over, to be tied to considerations of their security, feel obliged to tell half-truths and discriminate among his acquaintance. They were a secret he was glad to be rid of.

But he still felt a great deal of anger against her. Dead and gone, Akasha was very much on his mind. She had used him and betrayed him. Marius frowned. He had cared for her out of love, and only now did he realize that she had taken it simply as her due.

In the pit of his stomach was a cold coil, a whisper of impotent fury, the weight of all these years...

For her, I did so much just for her?

The trouble he had gone to, the fortunes he had spent, the time he had wasted. The others he had killed. The loneliness he had lived through. The things he had suffered...

...memory of darkness and fire...

And in the end he had meant nothing more to her than that she had been able to leave him trapped in the ice, that she had laughed at him as she left, mocking his naiveté. That was perhaps what hurt most. He had been taken in, made a fool of.

He felt his mouth twist. Never had he believed himself so vain. But now he knew. It hurt to admit it, but he had felt privileged for a long time, and now he had been forced to realize that he had merely been a convenience.

Lifting his eyes from the book, Marius looked around the room. Lights burned, and candles in lovely ornate silver candlesticks that looked looted from a church somewhere. In that gentle illumination Marius could make out so many delicate preternatural faces, beauty enough to saturate the soul.

No one appeared to have noticed that he had not turned a page in twenty minutes. Most of them were busy catching up on old friendships, establishing new ones. The only exception was, he thought with a sinking heart, Pandora.

She worried him. And, perhaps, everyone else here, too. She simply was not there. The sparkle was gone from her eyes and there had been no sign of her warm smile, or her wicked temper.

Right now she sat on a chair at the other end of the room, watching the ongoing game of chess. No way of telling if it fascinated her, or if her mind was elsewhere. Pandora was wearing the clothes he had brought her, modern and elegant. They seemed to mean nothing to her. She accepted them, as she accepted other things he gave her, quietly.

It was as though the effort of rescuing him from the wreckage of his home had been the last thing she had been able to summon up energy for. Now she barely even moved of her own volition. It hurt to see her this way. She had been so passionate! He had loved her so. Still did, though the one here was only a shell of the woman he'd known.

Pandora had come for him. He'd repaid her with harsh words, too. Marius felt a great deal of regret for that. Many times here he had tried to make up for it, whisper softly to her of the genuine gratitude he felt. But there was no way of telling if she listened. He somehow felt he had lost his last chance to reach her then, somewhere in the ice where he had lost so many other things as well.

The ice.

Cold and heavy, it had held him down, and he had lain helpless and suffocating, crying out. Trying to warn the others. Marius had not called for a rescue at first. It was too important that everyone should know of the threat Akasha presented.

But then, ah then the fear had begun to grow in him. Because he could not get free. He was hurt and he was cold and he was losing blood and he was frightened. It wouldn't kill him. But that realization had come to frighten him too, because that meant he could lie here for ever and ever...

Unreasoning panic had alternated with a lucid state where he kept on calling and calling. Hoping against hope that someone would come, not knowing on whose love and affection he had enough of a claim to be granted a rescue. Not daring to think that his beloved brat prince would come, for surely he was what the Queen wanted.

It had been draining, and the only thing keeping him sane was that he had gone through worse things. One worse thing at least. He'd fought against that too, his old terror, soothing it with his present plight. Odd that, to swing from fire to ice, from ice to fire. Using one fear to combat the other.

And then finally, finally a touch in his mind. The acknowledgement he had waited for. In the present Marius hissed softly at the memory, and clenched his jaw. Of all the vampires who might have come for him he had expected that one the least. The very touch had sent a shock through him. Santino.

Santino with Pandora, and Pandora in pain. Had it been so strange, the conclusion he'd drawn? And after that, though help was on its way, things had grown stranger and worse.

Marius disliked thinking back on it. He had been the worst kind of idiot then. The last moment when he might have reached his beloved Pandora with words, reclaiming their closeness, and he had wasted it cursing absent Akasha, and in prickly annoyance against present Santino.

He'd never seen that one before. Of course. Had not believed he ever would. Rumour had it Santino had vanished, gone into the ground, gone into the fire. Marius had considered that good riddance and thought no more about it. Evidently it had not been true. Fire and Santino... those two subjects were eternally, inextricably linked in Marius' mind. And seeing Santino, finally, had nearly brought it all back.

Marius laughed dryly to himself. Wouldn't that have been a fine thing, he thought, for him to have panicked there in the ice merely through fear of fire. But no one was going to know of that. No one, ever, and certainly not that black-eyed devil. Anger fluttered in his mind again, sent a claw down into his guts. Santino had been so damn calm, so self-possessed, standing there in the snowstorm in his fancy velvet clothes.

The even temper Marius prided himself on all but vanished as he looked up to see the same calm on Santino's face now, as the black-haired vampire bent over the chess-board. Playing chess with Armand, indeed. This was one subject Marius and Armand had not come to discuss yet. Armand and Santino had made their peace effortlessly and now got along as well as any other two members of this coven. Marius couldn't understand it.

But it wasn't his business. He fought down the flutter of emotion inside. Armand's friendships were his own. Armand had put the past firmly behind. And Marius would rather like to do that, too. But he did not seem to manage it.

His breath caught as Santino looked up from the board and caught his eye momentarily. It took a few seconds for Marius to collect himself enough to wrench his gaze away. Again! He would find this happening, every night. As though Santino was looking for something, some kind of acknowledgement. Marius growled soundlessly. He was lucky not to find himself incinerated. Fire, it all came back to fire...

Then Marius chastised himself. Santino had, in fact, assisted Pandora in rescuing Marius. And Marius given him only the most rudimentary of thanks for it. He just couldn't bring himself to do any more. Did not even want to speak to Santino if he could avoid it.

Unkind perhaps, but necessary for his peace of mind. Mere thoughts of Santino disturbed him enough. The momentary camaraderie under Akasha's assault had vanished again. And why care about that now... There were other more pressing matters he should deal with, Marius thought, trying to calm himself yet again.

His eyes found a flickering candle-flame to rest on. Warm gold surrounding a tiny blue heart. It danced, refusing to settle down, sensing some tiny draft he knew nothing about. So easy to see visions in there, see changing shapes and familiar faces. Hands that reached out. Hands that grabbed him — white cold faces twisted with hatred and mockery. Too many of them, too strong all of them together, yet he fought. Fought wildly as everything he cared for was put to the torch. The red and golden firelight spread, flames rising with a roar. The walls burned, the floor, the ceiling. His clothes caught fire, his hair was aflame, and through it all he heard a desolate voice cry for him...

My love, my Amadeo! Fire, and he couldn't breathe and had forgotten that he did not need to, and his skin blistered and broke, peeled, he had to get out, had to get—

With a strangled gasp, Marius rose from his chair, the book dropping to the floor. The thud of its fall drew the others' attention, and their curious looks made him control himself yet again. No pain, it is just imagination, now breathe, damn it!

He bent to pick the book up, and smoothed a few pages that had become crumpled in the fall. Putting it aside, he walked towards the door.

If he could not keep himself in order while he was in the company of others, it was best to leave. Alone, he might have some hope of recovering his composure. Marius did not want anyone to ask him questions. It was best if they went on believing him happy and content. He was, really. Mostly. As soon as he could take Pandora away from here, as soon as he did not need to see Santino any more, he would be perfectly all right.

Roaming the luxurious rooms of Armand's pleasure palace, he felt himself finally begin to unwind. The panic attacks were painful, but seldom lasted long. In the past he had always been able to hide them from everyone until he could reason the fear out of his soul. As he walked in blessed solitude, looking out through every tall window he passed at the sea and the sky, Marius by slow turns became himself again.

Yes, he was going to have to leave, he realized. No matter how happy it made him to be with Lestat, with Armand, with Daniel and sweet Louis, he would have to leave. Pandora needed peace and quiet, and he would supply her with it. And, not so coincidentally, himself also.

It was best, Marius reflected to himself, pausing to see a boat pass by outside with great speed. Some of the others, perhaps, out playing. He would not remain here for long enough to let anyone else spy out his weakness. Peace, solitude and calm reflection would soon have him recovered. And no matter that five centuries had done little to ease the terror that haunted him.

He turned slowly, and began to walk to the room allotted to him. Like all other rooms in this incredible house, it was luxurious, large, airy and beautiful. Armand had been most considerate of his taste. The velvet drapes around the huge bed were just his favorite shade of red. It made Marius smile.

Pushing the door open, he paused on the threshold for a minute and let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light. Then he began to wonder why there was any light in here, and stepped inside quickly, looking around.

A tall, broad-shouldered figure rose from the chair over by the window. "You don't have to go through the spy movie charade. I am the intruder you search for."

At the sound of that deep voice, Marius froze. Then he swept out with his right arm and every lamp and candle in the room blazed full force. The light illuminated every corner of the room, and shone on the face of Santino, standing in the very place where Marius least of all wished to see him.

"What do you want?" he asked tightly. A sharp glance at Santino told him nothing. The younger vampire had perfect control of his features and his voice. There was something stark and uncompromising about him. Beauty he had, certainly, in no less measure than any of the others, yet it was understated and underplayed. The plain black of his clothing matched the black of hair and eyes. No ornaments, nothing that softened the impression. Regal, yes. But the glint in Santino's eyes, was that sarcasm, or cruelty?

It was a trick of the mind Marius had never fallen for, to judge a vampire's strength by his physical body. Mortal habits could be dangerous when dealing with the undead. Yet he found himself instinctively and irrationally distracted by Santino's greater height and powerful build, though he knew himself well enough to be the stronger of them.

"To speak with you, of course," Santino replied. "Did you think I came to admire your wallpaper?"

He came a little closer, and Marius stepped aside. "Sit down." It was more an order than anything else, and the tilt of Santino's eyebrow seemed to mock it even as he obeyed, sinking down again with consummate grace. A man as big as that should not move with such splendid ease.

Marius took the chair opposite, though he would rather have remained on his feet and kept an advantage. He had to keep reminding himself that this was a friendly encounter, not a prelude to hostilities. At least, he hoped it was not. He certainly owed Santino more than enough to at least try to trust him. Though it went against the grain to do so.

"I am sitting down," Santino said softly. "And now, may I speak?"

That teasing note again. Marius tensed, feeling the black eyes on him. "Do," he said, "though I can imagine what you want. I owe you thanks."

Santino slowly shook his head. The smooth black hair, so severely straight, shadowed his high forehead. He had a long narrow face, like a carved saint's, with strong cheekbones and slightly hollow cheeks that hinted at austerity. Marius tried to imagine that face lit up, fervently preaching to the crowds. Savonarola, he thought. Though far better looking, indeed.

And so much more unsettling. Marius did not want to look at Santino for too long, fearing the disturbing emotions that roiled just beneath his own calm surface, but neither did he want to look away. It would feel like taking your eyes off an adder lying by your foot.

"No thanks," Santino said with startling abruptness. "It was I who owed you something. For Venice. For what my children did."

Marius clenched his hand on the arm of his chair. His nails dug into the velvet. "For what you ordered your children to do." The words slipped out, despite his best intentions.

All that answered him was a gentle sigh, at first. Santino's eyes were still on him, pinned him in place. "I did not," Santino said, and thoughtfully added, "but you'll believe what you choose. There are no other survivors to tell the truth." Then he shrugged. "That's not to say I might not have ordered it sooner or later. So you can be as free with your blame as you please."

The gentleness disoriented Marius. And it was at odds with the cynical gleam in Santino's eyes. "It's in the past," he said, brusquely. "And now you have helped in saving me. It's well enough."

A small smile played on Santino's face. "So I have your forgiveness, then?"

"Sit venia verbo... non!" Marius gasped, and recovered enough to make his thoughts return to the casual English of their conversation. The Latin had slipped out, as always when he got agitated. Santino, of course, had understood perfectly.

"Persona non grata sum," he said with a lazy grin, his accent medievally slurred. "Capito."

"I didn't mean—" Marius was at a loss for words. He didn't know exactly what he had meant. But there was the truth of what he had said. Forgiveness, no, it wasn't in him. "Let's just forget about it."

"Oh, by all means," Santino agreed, so readily that Marius sensed he was being mocked. "It's not important. I'm used to it." This time the edge was a little sharper, and Marius did not instantly perceive how it could cut both ways. "Keep your forgiveness then, Marius, if it's too precious to give."

Watching the haughty face, Marius knew that this was perhaps the only time this would be asked of him. The only chance he had to make peace with his past. Santino was not one who would humble himself easily, and he had tried now. But memories of flame burned in Marius' mind and would not be quiet.

"Ask me again," was all he was able to say, then he instantly regretted it.

Santino was already on his feet, and now his black eyes blazed. Marius, accidentally meeting that gaze, wanted to jump back. A lightning touch of fire, of ice, ran up his arms and down his spine. No, there could be no forgiveness here. His mind raged, tumbled through terrors.

"A regular pleader, you'd have me?" Santino's voice was all razor blades and velvet now. "Your client, patron? I think not." Then a smile flashed, no more reassuring. "But you'll see me again, never fear."

Marius rose as well, as though pulled to his feet by the tension in the room. "Get out of my sight!"

Instead Santino stepped closer, and though he made no overtly hostile move, menace radiated from him. Marius found himself actually, for one brief moment, afraid. And that woke his anger as nothing else might have done. He lifted his head, raised his chin and for a moment they looked at each other, practically snarling, like fighting cats.

"I won't cower for you," Santino hissed. "I may deserve your anger, but by God, you won't despise me!"

Marius clenched his fists. "Get out!"

"Very well." Half a step backwards, and then Santino swept him a bow, elegant and mocking. "For the time being, Marius." Turning, he walked away slowly, out the door and was gone.

Marius half fell into his chair again. He covered his face with his hands, ran his fingers into his hair. What the hell had just happened here? It would have been so easy to say just thank you, of course, you're forgiven, now let's just forget it. And then he would have been rid of the obligation and the past alike.

Instead he had angered Santino and been given the promise — threat — of further attentions. Utter folly. The thought of Santino's reappearance burned in him. Fear, and shame at that fear. He was trembling with it. Infinitely more powerful than Santino, he nevertheless feared him. What a perfect torment.

Marius groaned out loud. He could never let Santino know that. It was time for him to leave. Too much to hope for that he would never see the other again, but he could at least be granted some time to calm himself. He'd take Pandora, go and find himself a new place to live, somewhere warm, and quiet. There had to be a way out of this. Sooner or later, he would recover.

His fears would go away.

As they never had in five hundred years.

Straightening up, Marius took a deep breath and smoothed his hair back into its customary order. What, would he let his life be weighted down by this, one irrational fear and one angry vampire less than half his own age? Together with Pandora he would find peace. Santino and Santino's demands would be forgotten. All the strangeness that had entered his life since Akasha's awakening would be worn down and smoothed over. Everything would be all right.

With that comforting lullaby singing in his head, Marius returned to the company of the others yet again. But the first thing he did when he entered the living room was to snuff out all the candles.

* * *

Roman holiday II: From what I've tasted of desire

the vampire chronicles || e‑mail