She swept into the chamber more snowflake on the breeze than Empress of all. The swanlike feathers of her ballgown alighted in a mound of purest white, as she paused in exquisite repose. Standing at the top of the staircase, a sovereign amongst her vagabond horde, even the orchestra lingered on a note to admire her. The occasion demanded such excellence, and she delivered.
The Empress of all who remained in our frozen world surveyed the ballroom’s dance floor with eyes of chill beauty. She took in each and every reveller with a single elegant sweep of her head. Seeing through the masks, the flamboyance, the fakery, she appraised us, her human cattle market. When her ice-blue eyes met my own, my breath caught and chest constricted. Those eyes of hers held me in their stare immobile, her pawn. A blink of approval and the weight of the world was lifted. I’d spent so long abhorring life, the iced death of a slow constriction that I’d forgotten what it was to simply breathe. She granted me that if nothing else.
An Arctic wind stirred the cuffs of my shirt, as she placed one elegant stiletto upon that first stair. Her heel resembled a six-inch icicle sculpted to a glittering point and raised her to an even more impressive height. I marvelled at how she even stood upon such a thing let alone do so in such exquisite a fashion. She towered over us all in her majesty, a goddess gazing down from heaven. Her descent was a thing of grace and beauty. Each precise placement of sparkling footwear led her closer to her adoring flock. Every echoing, clipped step was measured to send a shiver of anticipation through the spinal chords of all those gathered to worship her. Judging by the aghast and gaping faces, she succeeded; masks can only hide so many human emotions. The candlelight from the chandelier caught her alabaster skin rendering it almost translucent. We were epidermal reflections granted life by her presence. She owned everything and we with it. She gifted us residence in her own private world; we had no choice but to accept. I thought that if this is what it meant to be immortal, then there was no wonder her court was fit to burst.
The death of the Empress’s consort had brought hope to so many, men and women. Who would she choose? Who would spend the rest of eternity in her arms? Who would live to see the day when the ice swallowed what was left of her world?
When her feet touched the polished, mahogany floor the waltz restarted, the orchestra having at last exhaled. I lost her then, my soul feeling snatched from me, as the sweeping tones of Strauss’s Blue Danube struck up anew. The music could have been written for her all those many eons ago. Perhaps, it was?
When those who survived the creeping ice rediscovered the classics, they had sought to give them new life and in so doing a semblance of a lost past to themselves. I myself had shied away from them preferring not to look back, but forward. I was wrong to have done so, as nothing else could have complimented her flowing liquidity as they.
I found myself standing on tiptoes hoping to catch another glimpse of she who had enraptured me, but the twirling capes of the men and shimmering costumes of the women prevented it. The whirling masks of the masquerade merged into colours of mixed oils and the world seemed too bright. I had lost my pristine ice empress to a world of archaic glamour. In those moments, I knew total desolation. My gaudy, human life had been gifted pure, unadulterated, white perfection. In the space of a breath it was lost.
The orchestra, as if sensing my sadness, altered their stylings and took up the gentle tones of Debussy’s Claire De Lune. It was all too much for me. I knew my moment to have slipped away. It was not to be, and I turned to leave. But as I did the swaying revellers ceased their twirling to part before me, heads bowing so low as to scrape the floor in deference. All went silent and a hush as of the dead at midnight transfused the crowded room. I bowed too, though I knew not why.
“Monsieur, I have chosen you. Yes, you, Varon.” The voice was as honeyed-silk. What’s more, she knew my name! But still I could not believe it. Me, her paramour! She couldn’t have picked anybody with less of an interest in life. Unless, of course, that was what the dead required from the living?
I heard the clipping of her heels, smelled drifting scents of lavender hue, but could not look up. I stood, bowed and humble, frozen by her nearness, a living, breathing statue.
The hand that took me by the chin was like ice, colder than eternity and whiter than snow. It cradled all that I was, and all that I would be and gently lifted me up. And there she was, magnificent! She surveyed me a smile playing over those luscious, blue, pouting lips. A step closer and her lips were mere inches from my own. She exhaled a frost of ice crystals that made me blink, smiling the smile of a mother to a child at my response. That which passed for her breath numbed me, a natural anaesthetic, so cold did it bite into the exposed skin of my neck and face. I was transfixed. She seemed to take forever yet a fraction of a moment, as the gathered crowds gasped, and she in turn lunged. My empress bit deep. All that comprised the being that was Varon changed on the end of those scimitar fangs. I was lost forever.
That was the moment I became immortal, Emperor of all but she. I would rule over those who remained in name only, no longer a man but something far worse. If only I’d known what it would cost me later, I would have taken my chance with the glaciers beyond the city walls. For I had not been gifted immortality, but cursed with it. I was hers until she willed it not.
“Pardon,” I replied, turning from the tower window.
“You always brood. Do you not have everything you could have ever desired? Are you not an emperor? Are you not safe from the creaking ice that encases this doomed world?”
I did not answer, instead, preferring to turn my attention back to the glacial expanse. I wondered what it would have looked like before the sun’s demise, before perpetual night, as the citizens performed menial tasks far below. I often pondered such things; there was nothing else. The distant ice rose above the city barricades in spikes of gleaming silver reflecting a bright, full moon. The celestial broach shone upon the world in a seeming effort to replace the sun, but it couldn’t, and it didn’t.
“I’m waiting for answers, Varon.” She was by my side in less than the blink of an eye. I could not see her, but felt the ice chill of her words upon my bare back.
“I have no words to express my gratitude, Empress.” I chose my pleasantries with care in a vain attempt not to incur her wrath. It seemed to work.
“So you should. I could have chosen anyone I wished, but I chose you all those centuries ago.”
“Has it been so long?” The words left my mouth before I could stop them.
“Do I sense tedium in your response? I could always select another companion to spend eternity with.”
“Oh, I am well aware of that, Lucrezia.”
“Then do not test my patience and return to bed.”
I did. But my mind did not. A mannequin without strings, I flopped beneath and above her. I reacted as I thought she would wish; I was an expert at it. I loved her with the cold passion that she relished, and I detested. She was everything a man desired, yet not. Those ice-blue eyes regarded me throughout, unblinking, testing, waiting for a slip. My own black ones stared back with false love. She sought my desire like a leech did blood. She wished to control me both body and soul. If she could, she would have even mastered my mind. But that was one freedom she could never possess. Instead, my astral self roamed our opulent chambers, large enough to house generations of human families, but that were restricted to me alone. Finding nothing I hadn’t seen a million times before, I cast my mind out of the barred window. I traversed the glaciers in search of release, wandering the ice fields, questing beneath the stars. I searched for what I had lost until I finally fell asleep by her side. I would have travelled them still in the realms of the dreamer, but a vampire does not dream. She had even robbed me of nightmares, at least, those whilst not awake.
I awoke to another sunless morning, or was it evening, wondering what it must have been like to see that once golden orb overhead. I yearned for it more each day even though it had been gone since long before I was still human. The thought of my humanity so early in my daily routine of doing nothing was an ever-constant depressant.
Sitting up and looking around, I swept the room with my eyes. It didn’t take long to realise the inevitable: Lucrezia was gone. She would leave me for days at a time and never say why. I didn’t care, the longer the better.
I dragged myself out of bed and staggered over to the window. A coating of frost covered the glass impeding my view. Bereft of warm breath, I scraped a small area clear with one long talon and peered down, down, down to the city streets below. The place was all but deserted. A few fur-clad citizens were going about their business slapping at their sides to generate heat, but what business that was, I for one had long ago forgotten. The world of mortality was one of unfamiliar ways. The select few of humanity that Lucrezia kept on site were off-limits to me. Only the Empress of the world, my wife, feasted as a vampire should. I was relegated to carafes of some dilute, crimson liquid that neither passed for blood nor true sustenance. My refreshments were brought to our chambers twice daily, always by a male servant, and always on time. How I wished they’d forget. She kept me weak to control me, the only person left on the planet with the potential to defy her.
I don’t know why I did it, why I left our, or rather, her chambers. Possibly, the boredom had grown to the point where I no longer cared what she did to me. Or whether somewhere in the depths of my subconscious I heard her suspected moans from elsewhere in her fortress of towers, spires and constraints and sought to seek her out rather than ignore. Either way, I left in nothing but a towelling dressing gown and exited the opulent chambers to the crystal corridors that formed her private world.
I wandered the desolate passages occasionally listening like a little mouse to the sounds of distant pleasure, my feet splatting to a stop on the cold floor. On and on I walked not knowing where I headed. It was ironic that I had lived as a kept man for so long, yet knew nothing of my home. The reflective walls marked my passage in tears. I did not like what I saw. My own reflection was an abomination. I was not the man that I should have been. After all, I was still alive. Or was it undead?
“Master, you should not be here.”
The voice was that of one of the male servants. He stood in the centre of the passage barring my way.
“I am wandering,” my simple reply.
“But you must not!” he panicked. “The Empress strictly forbids it.”
“I do not care.”
“I’m sorry, master, but I live only because I do.”
The servant made to shoo me away with his white-gloved hands. All I saw was yet another insult to my status, an obstacle to my release. I reacted.
His blood entered my throat as a new awakening. The sweet, metallic tang of another’s life coursed into a system laid stagnant for too long. For the first time in millennia, I knew warmth: I rejoiced in it; bathed in it; felt shame in it.
When I finished feeding, I allowed the man’s dead body to collapse in a heap to the floor. I regarded what only moments before had been a loyal, if misguided, living being.
“No! This is not I. This is not what I would wish. This is not a life!” I cursed and bellowed, stomped and raged, and all the time her cries of pleasure beckoned me on. For better or worse, I followed them.
I found her in a chamber almost identical to our own. The steel door stood open; a careless lapse on her behalf. I strode with renewed purpose over the inch-thick carpet past treasures of bygone times: stuffed animals, images of a once real world, curios and the like. When I found her, she sat astride a man who turned to me, as astonished as I. When he bared razor incisors, I knew the truth. I was not the only consort to death.
Lucrezia took a moment to appraise the situation. The look on her face was worth any torture. She could not believe that she’d been defied. I just sniffed.
By the time she flew at me, I was already out of the door and replacing the key she had been a fool not to use. With a twist and click of the metal lock, I was free of her. Good riddance.
It took some time to extract myself from those labyrinthine passages even though I could see through most of the crystal, interior walls. The odd stray servant would gasp at my presence and hurry away at my venomous looks, but none could I reach. When I eventually happened upon a young girl, one of the few newborns, as we called them, she was as shocked as her older colleagues.
“I need to find my way out of this hellhole. Please show me,” I asked in as nice a manner as a man bordering on madness could.
“It is forbidden, Sire,” her reply. But a quick glance behind her showed I was closer than I’d suspected.
“There is a gentleman lying dead further back towards my mistress’s chambers, he said the same.”
“But you are no killer, Sire. Not like… she!” Her pause offered more contempt than any words of my own ever could.
“You wish to be free of her?”
The girl looked to her feet and blushed. Her long, blonde hair slipped forward exposing her bare neck and I marvelled at her beauty. And in that fraction of the girl’s heartbeat, a heartbeat I did not share, I knew what to do. I bit her.
I exited the fortress doors, the girl dead in my arms. Her golden hair hung limp to my left, her blood still dripped from her feet at my right. It did not go unnoticed.
“Th… that is forbidden!” cried one man from across the sombre city street.
“She was just a youngling!” cried a passing woman.
“I know,” I said shaking my head. “The Empress has gone mad. She is in there killing at random. I barely escaped alive.” I tilted my head to reveal the gash that I myself had inflicted upon my neck and exposed shoulder. The crowd of folk already gathered about gasped as one.
“But what does that mean?” a burly man of middle age questioned.
“It means that she has broken the truce that she herself created. Your Empress has forfeited her kingdom. We must all leave before she kills us all in her madness.”
“But this city is all of her kingdom. We all know that. There is nothing else,” snapped an old man who leant against a wall for support. His wrinkles intrigued me, and I wondered what my own would have looked like.
“Yes,” he replied.
“On whose say so.”
“Do you not think she could have lied?” A murmur went through the crowd. So many people were there already that I thought the whole city to have turned out. “Listen. Hush now!” I hissed, and all did. “You hear her?” The sound of her rage swept through the corridors and out of the doors I’d exited. The pounding of fists on wood and screaming of a deity affronted echoed through the moonlit city.
“I say again, we must leave.”
“But there is nothing but ice beyond these walls. We should all surely die without shelter from the cold.” The old man breathed a cloud of his soul into the air to indicate what he meant. Others about him nodded in agreement. “The glaciers will one day encompass all that is left of this accursed world, the city crushed beneath it. That is the day we shall be free of our curse and only then. That is the day when our Empress will die. That is the legacy we promise each of our dwindling generations,” he sighed.
I sensed the crowd to be with him. They stared from me to the old man, some to the fortress behind me. Not knowing how long we had, and forever to my shame, I did the only thing I could.
The old man screamed upon the end of my fangs; I made it hurt. When I’d rung all I could from him, I tossed his body aside to land with the girl I’d dropped and all looked at me in fear.
“Now, I’m going to say this one more time. We are leaving.”
As a biblical event, my new disciples and I swept though the city to those gates of near one hundred feet in height. I didn’t think they’d ever been opened and they almost nearly didn’t. But those few quarts of blood had instilled me with the strength of many and between us they creaked open on ancient hinges. We were met by ice. It towered before us, almost above the very gates themselves. It sought to prevent our departure, but I would not be stopped.
The initial climb, although simple for myself must have been hard for the populace. I led on; they followed in their droves. Men, women and the few young folk remaining carried heaped remembrances of the world they left behind. Bags of food and sacks of I knew not what were strapped to all. Not a word did they utter. Not even when we crested the glacier to look at the city from above did one of them speak. It was a most silent exodus, a creeping departure. But, as was her way, the ice-blue eyes of the Empress observed all. She stood at the tower window, imprisoned and seething. The room that trapped her was too high to jump from, even if she could have broken the window bars, and too distant to be heard from. Despite all her power, and all that she was, she had not been able to break down those purposely strong-built chamber locks. Her own quest for decadent privacy had been her undoing. She was struck impotent with only her latest conquest to feast upon. Lady luck was to thank for my finding her door open when I did. I would not live to regret it.
“You see, my friends, she is no more than a caged beast! You are free of her! As you are now free of me! Go live, whilst still you can!” I shouted the words so all might hear, then turned and walked away.
I did not know if any followed, nor did I care. I sought only to wander the ice in search of that which I’d lost: freedom. I would do so until the ice crept over my vampire form and I could search no more, or so I thought. Or so I’d hoped.
Lucrezia escaped. Of course, she did. Somewhere, deep down in the confines of my frozen heart, I’d always known she would. Someone was bound to obey her sooner or later. Fearing the wrath of not releasing her was more frightening to them than not doing so. Her misguided servants had released her upon the world. I pitied them. If only I’d insisted that they all came with me! I could have, if I’d really wanted. If only I’d sought out all of the populace before leaving that most abysmal of refuges. But, I didn’t, and she escaped.
It was beautiful out under those stars for the short time I spent there. Holed up under her roof as I was, I’d forgotten the simple things. Sensations one can only ever find amongst nature had been quite lost to me: fresh air on skin, the feel of the planet beneath one’s feet. I revelled in the twinkling of the stars, the light of myriad distant suns. If I could have reached up and plucked one from the sky and set it about our world, I would have. But I couldn’t. It was such a shame, such a terrible shame. I gazed at the majesty of the cosmos right up until the screaming started.
Those who were once committed to servitude had tasted freedom and would not go back. That had been my gift before she butchered every last one of them. She tracked them down one by one, and massacred them. So inflamed was her anger that Lucrezia even killed the young ones. In their slaughter, she condemned her future self to a desiccated death. In truth, I think she knew that. Lucrezia was as bored of existence as I. It was only a matter of time before she found me; I did not hide. When she appeared, stepping from behind a huge chunk of glacial deposit draped in the crimson vestments of slaughter, I smiled. I nodded to her out of some misplaced respect, and then looked up to the stars. Even when she tore my frozen heart from its ribbed cage and showed it to me, mad eyes gleaming, did I smile. For there at the end of the world did I finally realise the cold, hard truth of existence that even iced hearts can shatter. And mine had long ago.
by Richard Ankers