torch 1995, revised January 1997
flambeau@strangeplaces.net

This story is a work of amateur fiction and in no way intended to infringe on anyone's copyright. It contains spoilers for Queen of the damned, during the action of which it is set. It is part of a story arc consisting of three long and three short stories, meant to be read in the following order: Reflections: Not at first sight, A monument more lasting than bronze, Pandora's box, The lilies and the roses, The last gift, and Epithalamion: The wide world dreaming. Do not archive this story without permission.

A monument more lasting than bronze

Silence. Solitude.

It was over. The queen was dead, destroyed, as he had known she would be, and there was a new queen, whose silence would never be broken. Mekare, tongueless, mindless, infinitely powerful.

To see her so changed from the strong-willed woman he had once known, respected, violated, loved in a way — it made him shudder. He would never know now what she thought, what the endless centuries had been like for her. Whether she remembered him.

That she had still been alive somewhere, he had never really doubted — at least not those times that he had remembered her at all. She'd been the strong one. Now, though, Mekare seemed the one most broken down by time. Had her mind fragmented over the years, splintered from season to season, century to century? Or perhaps the damage had been done all at once as she'd drifted across the great sea in her stone coffin; that unending terror could have broken even her.

Khayman stood outside the Sonoma compound and let the chill night air wash over him. He wished it could wash away his pain, soothe the loneliness within. It was returning already, that old feeling, his constant companion. The rich smell of earth and damp grass was all around him. And the trees, high trees, ancient trees. Younger than he was, but old enough for men to marvel at, old enough — and he, perhaps, too old for this.

Inside the compound, the recovering vampires were making plans. Miami, that was where most of them wanted to go. To the home of Armand. Just to be together for a while. Khayman sensed a need in most of them for quiet celebration, affirmation, 'yes, we are still alive.' The drama and tension had brought them all together and they were reluctant to let go of this new closeness.

It might work. This could please him, too. Company. He had companions now, had he not? These newly discovered ones. And so many of them were wonderful and exciting, and he wanted to be with them. But the hurt, the pain deep inside, the feeling that no one really knew him, or really wanted him...

He watched as a moth fluttered around him, mistaking a white hand for some night-blooming flower. Khayman shook his head sadly at it. There was no nourishment in him that might sustain this delicate little creature. He felt hollow, a dry husk. All those thousands of years.

There was no sound nor feeling of presence to warn him, yet he looked up as he was approached. Maharet looked so much the same as she had in the long-ago days that time seemed to compress into a single instant. Did he look the same, to her? She was watching him with her mortal eyes. Blue.

"You don't need to be alone out here," she said. "They all, we all want you in there." There was a hint of reassurance in her voice. And something else. Perhaps he only wanted it to be guilt.

"A few more moments of solitude won't hurt me," he said.

She nodded and seemed to accept that, began to turn back, to leave the way she'd come, walking slowly like a mortal woman. Khayman reached out and put a hand on her arm, marvelling briefly at the feeling of sameness in their flesh. The stuff that immortality was made of.

Maharet turned back. "Yes," she said slowly. "Yes, there are things that must be said." And seeing her calm acceptance of it, he didn't scream the question at her the way he might have out of sheer desperation to reach her and make her understand. She was listening, and so he whispered it, softly.

"Why did you never look for me?"

He wished he could reach into her mind, show her what it had been like. The eternity that he had lived, alone. Tormented by the blood that he would not give into, never creating companions of his own kind since after that first reckless time so long ago. And mortals withered and died so fast.

The isolation that had gnawed at him and changed him, every time, undermining his essential sweetness, his happy disposition, causing him to spiral into madness and memory-loss, to bury himself in the earth hoping for release only to rise again, live again with the same gradually shattering hopes. A phoenix without a fire.

He had thought her irrevocably gone from his life. And sometimes the whole legend of the twins had faded from his mind for centuries at a time. But she, she must have known he still walked this earth.

"I can't say I didn't know you were alive," she said, confirming his suspicion. "I found out."

"Then why?" he demanded.

Maharet looked directly at him. Eventually Khayman had to look away. With other vampires, their eyes held the whole force of their personality, burning like gems in white faces. Maharet's gaze was less intense but at the same time more unsettling, the dying mortal eyes deceptively unclear, powerless to express the depths of the soul behind them.

"There was much I didn't know," she said, softly as though speaking to herself. "And the last I saw of you you were so reckless, so full of anger and... you remember. Surely you remember those days. Everyone who crossed your path you made into a vampire, you gave them the blood whether they wanted it or not. And I could feel the madness of that, but I didn't know what to say. It was only afterwards that I could understand the futility of it."

He waited for her to go on, but she was silent as the night sky again. "Was that it?" Khayman asked. "Ah, Maharet. That did not go on. I came to understand that this would not be a story that was told quickly. Though I never expected it to take this long. I was foolish to create the angry vampires of Egypt, yes. But could you not have forgiven me that? Have you never made a mistake in your fledglings?"

Maharet smiled, shrugged. "I surely have."

"Besides, you could have talked some sense into me."

Instead of the response he expected, he saw her smile slide away, disappear into uncertainty. "Do you remember when we last saw each other?" she asked abruptly. "When the Queen's soldiers caught up with us?"

"Yes," he nodded. He remembered everything now, would have remembered it even had Maharet not told the story before. He remembered more than she had said, much more. The heat of that night, the soldiers rushing them, overwhelming them outside the gates of Saqqara. Darkness and the smooth forevers of sand and sky, and then sudden sharp glints stabbing at his unaccustomed eyes: stars, starlight on metal, torches. Oh, how the mere light of a torch had hurt him then. And he'd seen it all, even the tiny reflexes glittering in the soldiers' eyes, even the gleam of blood spraying as he fought for his freedom.

All three of them had been so weak then. Or what seemed weak to him compared with the way he was now. He was the only one who had managed to break loose. Khayman suspected it was because the Queen's orders had emphasized capturing the red-haired twins. He had only been an afterthought to her, perhaps, and the soldiers had paid him less attention.

That could have been the way of it. That could have been why he had stumbled away into the night, dazed and alone, while Maharet and Mekare were taken captive yet again.

"In the nights of our wanderings together," Maharet said slowly, "I had come to feel affection for you again, even though you would make a blood-drinker out of everyone, and preach revenge even to those poor bewildered souls who had never seen or heard of your Queen. That was passion, and I could respect it. But when we were made prisoners and you were free, and yet you did not save us — the old resentment began to grow again."

"The old resentment," he whispered. "What do you mean!"

But he thought he did know, after all, what she meant. To no one else had he done so much good and so much evil as to this woman. This woman, and her sister. Her twin. It frightened him suddenly that those two who had been as mirror images of each other had been forced by distance to grow apart and become separate. What had it done to them?

Mekare, the strong one, had gone mad. And Maharet, the gentler one, she had turned hard over the years, all of her, body and mind. It was the mark of her survival, this hardness, this relentlessness in her. That she would see things, and speak of what she saw, and never lie. There was no room for lies in her.

"No matter how kind you were to us," she whispered, "you were always the one who came to take us away. Khayman, the bearer of bad tidings. And how I wished that you had said no, had refused your king and your queen and left them. But you did everything for them. Khayman, the loyal servant. You acted for your King when he could not do himself what he wanted to do."

Yes, he had done that. He remembered. His brown fingers against their pale skin, almost as pale then as it was now. Taking them, forcing them, unable to refuse the command his king had given him. And that they had ever forgiven him for this act had seemed a miracle to him at one time. And then he had just accepted it, and not thought about it, because it hurt too much to think about it. To think about what he had done.

Things had changed so much between him and the two redheaded twins. From the moment when he first beheld them as proud prisoners, to the time when he had seen them sealed into the horrible stone coffins and flung into the sea, taken by the tides and carried far away before he could do anything to save them, the ties that bound the three of them together had been constantly changing.

They had played out the roles of captives and captor, of violator and violated, of rescued and rescuer, and finally, he had thought, they had been friends. Perhaps he had been wrong.

"So you never did forgive me," he said.

She shrugged, such a curiously human and indecisive gesture that he would never have expected it from Maharet. "At first. Yes. For that. There was no point in harboring any resentment, after all. And then there was Miriam." A tiny smile showed on Maharet's face. "You never did see Miriam."

"No." Khayman kept his voice level. "No. I never knew — that I had any children — that I left anything living behind me when I became one of the undead. I thought all I could create, all I would ever create would be the children of the night." The pain was there, no matter how he tried to hide it.

"But then," Maharet went on as though she had not heard him, "when we were captured and you were left free, and you never came to rescue us, I thought differently. That brief eternity I was at the mercy of the sea, during that time I learned to hate you. Hate you for not rescuing us, even though I knew you could not. Hate you for taking us out of our land, hate you for the rape, hate you even for your hope, your blind faith that Akasha would be overthrown and that this evil which had been loosed on the world — on us — could somehow be undone. I knew that wasn't true! I knew even then that this change was forever. And Mekare and I were not together any more, and it seemed like your fault, all of it."

He turned away from her and from the violence of her words, feeling stabbed to the heart. Yes, he could have done things differently! And how he wished that he had. And perhaps then he would have died in that long-ago time, that small world of sand and hate and blood and night, and never have had to experience this moment.

But was life to be a matter of regret? He had never stopped loving it. Never. The beauty of the simplest things moved him unbearably. And for all the harm he had done he could never see himself as entirely evil, either.

"It happened," he said finally. "You can blame me now, but it will not help. This — this railing against fate is unlike you, Maharet. You sound like that young one, Lestat, the lover of Akasha. Like the feelings coming from his mind."

There was time for an instant of surprise on her face, then she began to laugh. A soft, helpless laugh, so contagious that Khayman found himself smiling too. "Yes," she gasped, "yes, perhaps I did. How terrible." And she laughed again.

Very carefully he reached out and touched her hand. "I never meant to do harm," he said. "I was foolish then. I was trusting. And I still am. Maharet, I have spent a long time learning to judge things for myself, rather than trusting others. Is there anything I can do to earn your forgiveness?"

She looked at him. Then she gripped his hand firmly. "Come with me," she said. Khayman followed her back into her home, wondering if she was merely taking him back to the others. Perhaps she would prefer it that he seek companionship among them, and leave her alone.

But she did not lead him to the large living room where the others were talking, the sound of their voices falling into the silence of the night like pearls spilling from a torn necklace. Instead, she took him up another stair to the chamber he had only seen once before, not so long ago, the glass-roofed room that contained the records of the Great Family.

Khayman stopped in the middle of the room, abruptly, as soon as she let go of his hand. Again, his eyes traced the intricate structure of lines from mother to daughter, from a single mother and a single daughter to all the peoples of this living world. His blood. His human blood. Something of him lived on in these men, these women.

"And I never knew," he whispered in anguish. "I could have killed any one of them, on a night much like this one."

Maharet was watching him closely. "Jesse is your daughter," she said.

He shook his head, not in denial, but unable to take it all in. "It is too much. All this, and I never knew."

"I have forgiven you," she said. "I did, long ago. That I did not trust you, that was my mistake. And for the pain I've caused you, I am as sorry as you are for the pain you've caused me. But as you said yourself, it happened. It all happened. We can't change anything about the past except the way we see it. Don't forget. Don't deny it. This is what I can give you." Maharet gestured towards the walls, the computers, the clay tablets. The names. The lives. "This, this is you as much as me. This came from us. And though I have watched and guarded, there would have been no Great Family without you, Khayman, and I could never hate you for that."

She stepped closer to him again, moving slowly and with measured steps. When she was close, she held out a hand but did not touch him, merely looked at him with her unsettling eyes. Waiting.

And Khayman felt himself being filled with the lives of all these mortals he had never met, with their essence, the reality of them. Even if he walked the earth alone to the end of all time, if he never spoke to another soul again, he could look at mortals and see something of himself mirrored in them, in their existence. The fine silver threads of their lives bound him to reality.

Perhaps he would be lost again, perhaps not. It did not matter. All this life would go on, and create new life. Even his loneliness was a small matter, next to that.

"Yes," he said finally. "Yes, this wonder, this miracle..."

He turned to Maharet and put his arms around her. She did not lean against him, nor he against her, but they stood silently together for a long time.

Later, they would go down to the others, and take part in what was being said and what was being done, and plan for the future. Now they were content to stand here and share a brief moment of forever. What they had created would endure for all time.

* * *

Pandora's box

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