Bemuse

blood of graces prequel | short story

Thalia Saga is a woman used to the attention of men, and not just because of her beauty. This kind of attention is common to all members of her not-quite-human race. But one night on the subway, she meets a man whose attention even she finds intriguing.

 

The last thing former scourge-upon-the-earth Morcant Apcarne thought he’d ever have was a wife. After all the evil he’s committed, he doesn’t deserve any good thing. But he can’t help talking to her. He’s long tried to be better than the vampire he is, but Thalia makes him feel like he actually can.

 

But can two dangerous, inhuman people living in a human world ever trust each other enough to reveal what they really are?

Full Story

Washington, 1987

 

Thalia yawned. Surrounded by artificial light and eerie silence, she stood in the subway tunnel, waiting for her ride home. She’d just gotten off a fourteen-hour shift at one of Seattle’s larger hospitals, the sun was half an hour away from coming up, and she was dead on her feet.

 

A man ambled toward her. Maybe he was simply passing by, working his way down the platform, but she could see that his path led far closer to her than was necessary on the nearly empty platform. She noted this with only a mild awareness of her surroundings, the same as she noted that he was average height, dark-haired, and was probably in his mid-thirties. Even as he neared arms-reach and casually slid his hands out of the pockets of his leather jacket, she did not fear him. Thalia Saga feared no one.

 

When he was three steps away, his feet beginning to angle toward her, she turned her head, met his eyes, and smiled. “Nice night, isn’t it?”

 

The man, whose expression had been veiled and predatory a moment before, faltered in his steps and blinked. “Oh, uh, yeah, I guess.”

 

“Do you know the time?”

 

“Uh . . .” The man scratched the back of his head and looked at his watch. “Seven-twenty.”

 

A horn sounded in the distance, and a train’s rumble approached. Thalia smiled again. “Right on time. Excuse me.” The subway train stopped, and she stepped into one of the cars, leaving the man on the platform staring after her, starry-eyed.

 

Thalia let out a long breath and sank onto the bench that ran the length of the car. She glanced around as the train started moving. Only one other person in the car with her: a man, mid-forties and dressed in the grungy layers of a dock worker. She pulled a paperback from the pocket of her trench coat and pretended to read. Seconds stretched into minutes, and she watched him carefully out of the corner of her eye, over the top of her book. Eventually, she glanced over at him across the aisle. As she’d suspected, he’d been watching her the whole time. Her eye contact apparently gave him the courage to approach.

 

She sighed inwardly as he got up, walked hesitantly over, and sat beside her with one seat between them. He smelled of fish but not sweat.

 

“Excuse me,” he said softly.

 

Tamping down her exasperation, Thalia lowered her book and tried to be polite. “Yes?”

 

His expression was . . . not quite what she was expecting. It was hesitant and hopeful and . . . something else. Like he was trying to place something. His face was handsome under the dirt, with a largish nose, thin lips, nice cheekbones, and soulful grey eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to intrude.” His accent sounded British, but she couldn’t place what part of Britain. “It’s only, you remind me of someone.”

 

“Oh? Who?” she asked, one eyebrow raised. Which line would it be this time? There were a handful of Asian-American actresses and supermodels that men usually compared her to, though an angel was also a popular choice.

 

His answer startled her. “My father.”

 

He had her full attention now. “Your father?” That was certainly a new one.

 

The corners of his mouth turned up in a small, uncertain smile. “Yes, it’s so strange. I don’t mean you look anything like him, but there’s . . . something.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. Look at me, I’m a mess. I didn’t mean to bother—” He started to get up.

 

“No, wait,” she said, surprising herself this time.

 

He sat back down and waited.

 

“Tell me about him. You’ve got me curious.”

 

His small smile was back, but it was sad this time. “He was a good man. A very good man.”

 

#

 

Morcant knew he was being foolish. He’d been doing so good at staying away from women—staying away from people. He didn’t make friends. He spoke to his fellow dockworkers only as much as required to get the job done. Even when he volunteered at the blood bank one night a week (which he did only so he could steal what he needed to survive), he stayed as invisible as possible. Making any kind of human connections meant people got hurt—them as well as him. Besides, even without knowing what he was, what young, beautiful woman wanted to be chatted up in the subway by some unkempt, middle-aged man?

 

But he hadn’t felt this drawn to a woman since the first time he saw Mistress.

 

No, that was something entirely different. That was lust. This was . . . something else. He didn’t even know. This woman was beautiful, yes, heartbreakingly so, but he’d seen many, many beautiful women in his life. It was much more than that. So, despite his resolution to stay out of the lives of any more humans, he’d talked to her.

 

Luckily—or perhaps unluckily, depending on how things went—something he’d said had intrigued her, and even when he’d tried to extricate himself tactfully, she’d asked him to stay and keep talking to her. So he’d babbled on like a nervous schoolboy, telling her all about Carne, editing the story as seemed prudent.

 

He was still going when the train car stopped and she stood. “This is me,” she said, and he fancied there was a tinge of regret in her tone.

 

He didn’t push his luck. Didn’t ask if he could call on her. Didn’t even remember that the current thing would be to ask for her number. He only thanked her for listening to him and gave her a parting smile. To his deep shame, a bit of the old Blaidd came out in that smile. It was the same smile he’d used to lure countless women to his bed, from whence they rarely left alive.

 

If she thought anything of his incubus grin, he couldn’t tell. She was gone the next moment, and the train moved on. If she had any sense, he thought, she’d stay well away from him. If he had any sense, he’d keep his eyes down and his mouth shut from now on.

 

#

 

The next night, when he once again found himself alone in a subway car with the fascinating woman, he kept his eyes on the floor in front of him, his posture loose and casual. Hands folded in his lap, feet on the floor, slouched in his seat like he was seconds away from falling asleep. But his ears were attuned to her every tiny movement and breath, and he could feel her glancing at him. She was pretending to read again, but she never turned the page. When he looked over at her, her gorgeous, dark, almond eyes met his, drawing a smile from him.

 

“Hey,” she said, and her eyebrows came together.

 

Morcant closed his eyes, wiped the rakish expression from his face, and tried again. He wouldn’t have expected it to be this hard, talking to a woman who he didn’t intend to ultimately defile and murder. Even eighty years out of that life, he couldn’t manage it well. Not enough practice. He tried thinking of her as a person, not as a beautiful woman. Focusing on that whatever-it-was that reminded him of Carne made it easier. “Hello,” he said, and the tension in her expression eased.

 

“Are you ignoring me?” It could have come off arrogant, but her tone was only lightly teasing and curious.

 

He opened his hands. “I’m giving you space.”

 

For a long time, she didn’t respond. Then she said, “Thank you,” with very quiet, very real gratitude. She put her book back in her pocket. “My name’s Thalia.”

 

He walked over and took a seat beside her, leaving room so as not to crowd her, and held out his hand. “Morcant.”

 

When she put her hand in his, he very nearly brought it to his lips to kiss it. Only when he felt her grip tighten did he remember that such customs were centuries out of style and would be odd and frightening in this circumstance, and instead gave her hand a friendly shake, gently matching the pressure of her grip.

 

They talked about nothing very personal or important, and the trip went too quickly. Twice, he made her laugh. The sound gave him joy he hadn’t felt in decades. Being with her reminded him that it was worth trying to be better than he was. More than that—much more—being with her made him believe that he could.

 

That, he decided after she left, was what reminded him of Carne.

 

#

 

It had been a long weekend. Thalia had really been hoping for some time to just stay home and relax, but one thing after another had kept coming up. A lot of people had asked things of her, and Thalia never had the heart to refuse them: going shopping with an elderly lady from church, helping a co-worker pick out a wedding dress, attending a neighbor kid’s piano recital. She smiled to herself. The recital had been fun. All the parents had been amazed at how much progress their kids had made, and all the kids had beamed with pride and accomplishment. That had been nice.

But then it was straight back to another long day at work and she hadn’t had hardly any time to herself. As she boarded the subway for home, looking forward to a hot bath before bed, she remembered the interesting man she’d talked to last week and felt a ripple of anticipation. It wasn’t often that she met someone who truly intrigued her.

 

Thalia took her usual seat along the same side of the subway car that she’d entered through, expecting to see Morcant where he’d been before, a short way down and across from her. He wasn’t there. She looked farther. He was all the way at the back end of the car, sitting in one of the forward-facing seats. For one second, her eyes met his, then he started reading one of the ads on the wall near his head.

 

She cocked an eyebrow, not used to being ignored by anyone, least of all men. Was he angry at her?

 

Oh no. Was he familiar with her kind? Had he figured out what she was and knew to stay away? She fought down the sick twisting in her stomach. The odds of that were low. But if not that, then why the cold shoulder? Had she offended him? Insulted him inadvertently? She thought back to their last meeting . . . and then the two days between then and now.

 

Thalia took a relieved breath and shook her head. Did the man not know what a weekend was? She stood, walked down the rocking metal floor of the subway car, and sat in the seat beside him.

 

He turned his head toward her, a wary, curious, hopeful look on his face.

 

“Hi, Morcant. Have a nice weekend?” she asked.

 

Confusion flickered in his eyes, then relief, and then he huffed a breath and smiled. “I’d forgotten. I work most days, so they all tend to blur together.”

 

“I’m not mad at you,” she assured him, “if that’s what you were thinking.”

 

“So I see. I was . . . afraid I’d come on too strong and scared you off.”

 

“I’m not scared off that easily.”

 

A shadow crossed his face, wiping the smile away.

 

When the silence started getting uncomfortable, she said, “What is it you do, anyway? I’d guess you work on the docks?”

 

He nodded. “Manual labor.” Lower, he muttered, “It’s about all I’m qualified for.” He didn’t sound ashamed of it. More . . . bitter. As if something had stood in his way and he could be qualified for much more if his life had gone differently. “How about you?”

 

Thalia flushed, sort of embarrassed to say now. “I . . . work at a hospital.” She waved a hand vaguely at her scrubs.

 

“Nurse?”

 

“Um, no. I’m a surgeon.”

 

His grey eyes grew wide. Thalia could read people so well she sometimes thought she might be psychic (if she believed in that sort of thing). Or maybe some people naturally broadcast their thoughts all over their face. Either way, she read Morcant’s reaction clearly enough. First he was impressed, then intimidated, and then she saw resignation as he realized that she was way out of his league, even more than she already was by virtue of her greater youth and beauty. He shook his head at himself.

 

Neither of them got up to leave. When Morcant noticed she wasn’t going to move, he turned his face a few degrees toward her and raised an eyebrow.

 

He really was quite handsome, in a rugged, blue-collar sort of way. She waited to see if he’d man up or shrink away.

 

After a few more seconds of silence, Morcant turned his body to face her, his lips spreading in a confident, almost frighteningly charming smile. It was only there for a moment, and then he pursed his lips thoughtfully. “I’m probably being an utter fool, but could I see you sometime? Socially, I mean. With an eye toward . . . less socially?”

 

Thalia barely knew this man, but there was something dashing and dangerous and kind and gentle and utterly perplexing about him. “Yeah. You could.”

 

#

 

The next Thursday evening, they went dancing. Morcant could hardly take her to dinner, and going to a movie was counterproductive when the point was to get to know someone better. Besides, dancing was one of the few skills he had of which he was not ashamed.

 

Holding Thalia in his arms was a pleasure like none he’d ever known. It felt right. It felt like home. Even if it was foolish, he set his mind to woo the woman.

 

The evening was cool and clear, so he offered to walk her home from her subway stop. They chatted and laughed—how good it felt to laugh—and came too soon to her apartment.

 

“Do you want to come in?” she asked, watching him with veiled intent.

 

The invitation sent a jolt of desire through him. The temptation was nearly overpowering. He wanted to yield to it, to say yes, to hold her close, feel her skin against his—

 

“No, thank you,” he said. He would do things right this time, if he did them at all. If God deigned to grace him with a wife, Morcant would have one. But he wouldn’t take what wasn’t his. Not ever again.

 

Besides, how would he explain why his body was so cold? Why he couldn’t perform?

 

The corners of Thalia’s mouth crept up in pleased approval.

 

Amused and slightly annoyed, he smirked back. “Was that a test?”

 

She nodded. “Flying colors. Are you mad?”

 

His smirk spread into a grin. He shook his head and grasped her fingers. “Vixen.” He placed a kiss on the back of her hand, then released it and stepped back.

 

“See you tomorrow?” she asked.

 

“See you tomorrow,” he said, and waited until she’d gone inside and shut the door before heading home.

 

#

 

It had been four days since Thalia had heard from Morcant, and she was beginning to get worried. They’d only gone out a few times, in addition to their nearly daily subway rides together, but she was beginning to like him quite a bit. He was kind, old-fashioned, and he cleaned up very nicely. Surely he would have told her if his work schedule had changed. She wanted to call to check on him, but he’d told her he didn’t have a phone, and she didn’t know the address where he lived.

Two more weeks passed, and she saw no sign of him. Thalia wondered if he was in some kind of trouble—or if he’d gotten bored with her.

 

Could that even happen? She’d never had a man lose interest in her before, although she’d mostly avoided dating since the disaster with Matthew in college. Was it possible she’d been misreading Morcant? Was he married and only toying with her? Was he some drifter who only saw her as a temporary distraction while he was in town? It would have been easy for her to get his secrets out of him, but she had no right.

 

Her phone rang while she was getting ready for work one afternoon.

 

“Is this Dr. Thalia Saga?” said a woman’s crisp voice.

 

It was a job offer. A position with higher pay at a hospital in Salem, Oregon, the mid-sized city where her sister and brother-in-law lived. The woman on the phone was the hospital administrator and had heard of Thalia from a mutual professional acquaintance. Thalia knew she should have been more surprised, but things like this tended to happen to people like her.

She hesitated, the silence over the phone stretching out. It was a good opportunity, and she missed her sister, the only family she had left, but moving without knowing where Morcant had gone felt like giving up on him.

 

“Dr. Saga?” the woman said. “Do you want some time to think about it?”

 

“No,” said Thalia. She was an adult woman, not some mopey teenager. “I’ll take it.”


#

 

Five weeks. It had taken five weeks for Morcant to get away from Strafe and Mistress this time. When they’d found him in Seattle, he’d gone with them easily enough, terrified of them finding out about the woman he’d been seeing. They’d tried to draw him back into his old ways, tempted him with blood and harlots, but his will was stronger than it had been before. He’d been feeding himself on stolen blood bags, so his hunger didn’t get the better of him, and the women they tried to give him held no interest.

 

To his shame, he could not say the same about Mistress herself.

 

When they made their way to Strafe’s current residence in Montana, Morcant found his moment. He left a trail that would make them think he’d headed southeast, then ran back to Seattle as fast as his superhuman speed would take him.

 

He went straight to Thalia’s apartment, hoping she wouldn’t be angry at him for being away so long without telling her. Hoping she wouldn’t think he’d lost interest. But how could he explain? All the way there, he rehearsed what he’d say, but he never came up with something that sounded believable. In the end, it didn’t matter. An older man answered the door, saying he didn’t know who Thalia was but he’d only just moved in.

 

She’d moved away without telling him, without leaving a message for him. Was it in some part his fault, or merely bad timing? Was she done with him? She was young, maybe too young to even be thinking of settling down. Maybe it had only been a flirtation. Maybe it had been nothing to her.

 

Or maybe not. Until he heard from her own lips that she was done with him, he refused to give up.

It took him five more months to track her down.

 

#

Oregon, 1987

 

It was after ten p.m., and Thalia had just gotten home from a long day at work. She made some tea, changed info flannel pajamas, and settled into her threadbare couch to watch It’s a Wonderful Life on TV. The small house she was renting was haphazardly furnished with whatever she could find that was cheap and comfortable, but homey enough. A small Christmas tree glowed happily in the corner, decorated with the accumulated ornaments of her childhood.

 

During the second commercial break, someone knocked on her door. Curious, she set her teacup on the coffee table and padded to the door, opening it without thinking to check the peep hole.

 

Morcant stood on her porch, drenched in the pouring rain, his rough-worn jacket as soaked through as the rest of his clothes, rain dripping in streams from the ends of his dark hair.

 

She gasped in surprise, and he stepped back.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to frighten you.”

 

“Morcant?” she said stupidly. She’d given up any thought of ever seeing him again months ago.

 

“Thalia.” Even through the downpour, she could see the trace of relief on his face. “I didn’t mean to leave,” he said. “I was . . . caught up. But when I came back, you were gone, and I’ve only now found you. Maybe . . . maybe it was nothing and you want me to leave you alone, but if that’s so then you need to tell me. Tell me, and I’ll be gone. But I didn’t want to just let you slip away.”

 

Thalia’s mind spun, trying to keep up with what was happening. Trying to figure out how she should respond. If this were any other man, she’d have been frightened that he’d tracked her down and followed her here after only having been on a few dates. But the truth was she was glad to see him, no matter the strange circumstance.

 

She stepped aside. “Come in and dry off. Then you can tell me what happened.”

 

#

 

Thalia directed him to her small bathroom, waited until his hand emerged to pass her his clothes, and went to put them in the wash. Ten minutes later, Morcant came out with a towel wrapped around his waist and another draped over his shoulders as if to preserve some semblance of modesty. It didn’t hide his firm abs and well-shaped calves.

 

“I’m sorry,” Thalia muttered self-consciously. “I don’t have any men’s clothes, but you can wear these until yours are dry.” She handed him a bundle of fabric: a terrycloth robe that was oversized on her and a pair of men’s boxers that she’d bought to sleep in after sewing up the fly.

 

“Thank you.” He took them but made no other move right away. It suddenly occurred to Thalia that he was a big man: at least six feet tall and well-muscled. If she were a normal woman, she probably would have feared him, but all she feared were the feelings he aroused.

He retreated to the bathroom, and Thalia put on some more tea.

 

Morcant came out of the bathroom with the thick, blue robe wrapped tightly around himself.

 

“Tea?” she asked, already pouring herself some.

 

“No, thank you.” He sat at one end of the couch with his legs self-consciously pressed together.

 

She sat at the opposite end of the couch, hands cupped around her tea.

 

“I want to tell you the truth,” he said, which seemed to Thalia a slightly worrying start. “I ask that you let me finish before sending me away.”

 

Thalia raised her eyebrows. “You’ve got some time. It’ll take a while for your clothes to be washed and dried.”

 

He sent her a dubious, sidelong look. “Nevertheless, I won’t stay a minute longer than I’m welcome.”

 

Thalia pulled her legs up to sit Indian style, facing him. “I’m listening.”

 

Morcant didn’t turn toward her but stayed facing the coffee table, not even looking at her. “There are some people in my past who I’ve been running from for quite a while. They catch up with me now and then, pull me away from my life, and it takes a while before I can escape.”

 

“What do you mean? What kind of people? Are you an escaped convict? Is this some kind of mob thing?”

 

His jaw clenched as he searched for an answer. “Maybe that was the wrong place to start. Perhaps I should . . .” He took a deep breath, let it out, and turned toward her. “I’m not what I look like. I’m not . . . human.”

 

Thalia gasped. Could he like her? Was that why they were drawn to each other? Even as curiosity flooded her, she felt a sense of relief. Maybe they weren’t so different after all. “Okay. What are you?”

 

“I’m a vampire.”

 

Thalia stared, wrapping her mind around the word. That was not what she’d been expecting. “There are vampires?”

 

He smiled at her reaction, but it vanished as quickly as it appeared. “Yes, I’m sorry to say. Do you . . . believe me?”

 

She peered at him. “I don’t know.”

 

He sighed. “Then I’ll show you.” And then his appearance shifted in a way that seemed physically impossible. His hair and eyes changed color, turning silver, and his ears grew long and pointed. Thalia gasped, marveling at the sudden, impossible change. He shifted back to normal almost immediately.

 

“Fascinating,” she breathed.

 

His eyebrows quirked. “Do you not mean ‘terrifying’?”

 

“No, Morcant, I’m not afraid of you.” She was afraid of no man, not even one with fangs.

 

“Then you’re the first human who isn’t, and perhaps you should be.”

 

This was the moment for her to share her own secret, to tell him that she wasn’t human either and that fact had everything to do with why she wasn’t scared of him. But she didn’t, because she was a coward. “I’m still listening,” she said instead.

 

He told her his story, holding nothing back. About his evil past and how God had changed him. About Carne’s true role in his life. Thalia paused then to move his clothes into the dryer and also to hide her reaction. She could see what Morcant couldn’t: who—or rather what—Carne really was. Maybe that had something to do with why God had brought Morcant into his life. And into hers? When she returned to the living room, she didn’t tell Morcant about this, and he didn’t see that she was hiding it from him. He merely continued his story, explaining about Mistress and Strafe and their endless hunt for him.

 

When he finished, she stared at him, amazed. What a remarkable man, to work so hard against his own nature and against his past to be a good man. The kind of willpower and courage that took . . .

 

“From the sound of it, my clothes are dry,” he said at last, “and you haven’t told me to leave yet.”

 

“I haven’t.”

 

“You’re not disgusted?” he asked, genuinely surprised.

 

“Honestly, I’m impressed.”

 

He gazed at her, gauging her reaction, and the lines of tension in his face gradually eased. “Then I should say this before you regain your senses.”

 

“There’s more?”

 

“Why do you think I’m here? It is my intention to court you, Thalia Saga. Will you allow it?”

 

She almost laughed. A lot of men had used a lot of lines on her, but this was a first. “I suppose so, since you asked so nicely.”

 

He flashed a devilish grin before wiping it away. Thalia retrieved his clothes from the dryer, and he changed in the bathroom. When he headed for the door, Thalia asked, “You’re leaving? It’s after midnight and still pouring out. You should . . . probably stay here.” Even as she made the offer, she wasn’t certain it was such a good idea.

 

Morcant shook his head. “No, thank you,” he said as if sharing her thought. “I’ll manage.”

 

“At least let me give you some money for a hotel.”

 

“No, thank you,” he repeated. “I’ll manage.”

 

She grabbed an umbrella from the coat rack and shoved it toward him. “At least take this, you stubborn man.”

 

He took it with a grin and kissed the back of her hand. “Thank you. I’ll be in touch soon.”

 

So now I’m being courted by a vampire, Thalia thought as Morcant walked out into the rainy night. Huh.

 

#

 

Thalia was already nodding before Morcant had finished the question. “Ye—”

 

“Don’t answer yet,” he said, putting a finger to her lips. “There’s . . . one other thing I haven’t told you yet.” He hated to see the happiness fall from her face, but it would not be fair to keep this from her any longer, loathe though he was to admit it. With a smooth motion, he rose from his knee to sit beside her on the couch.

 

They were in his apartment, which was sparsely decorated and functional. He could afford one now. Thalia had helped him get a job as a guard at the maximum security prison outside of town. (After all the crimes he’d committed, he finally ended up in prison but on the wrong side of the bars. The irony amused the deep, dark part of him that was still Blaidd.) Somehow, she’d worked it so that she was the one to perform the physical exam the position required. His lady, he had come to learn, had a certain way with people. Over the centuries, Morcant had learned to be persuasive when he wanted to be, but Thalia did not even need to try.

 

He took her hands in his. She didn’t shrink from the unnatural coolness of his touch. “Before you agree to marry me, you need to know that there are some things I can never give you. I cannot grow old with you.”

 

“I know that.”

 

“I cannot . . . give you children.”

 

Her mouth tightened, but after a moment, she nodded. “I had thought that might be the case.”

 

“And you can accept this?”

 

“I won’t say that I’m happy about it.” She took a deep, rallying breath. “But I love you, Morcant. If that’s the price for being with you, I can accept it.”

 

He saw the shades of doubt in her eyes but believed her words. “That’s not all. The reason I cannot give you children is that . . .” This was harder to say than he’d thought it would be. Even after centuries, the shame and embarrassment and anger bubbled up inside him. He tried to push it down so he could continue. “I am unable to . . . perform certain husbandly duties . . . in the traditional sense.”

 

Thalia’s eyes grew wide as his meaning sank in. She didn’t blush, as some women would have when discussing such things. He’d found her much more blunt and unashamed about bodily matters than he was used to women being. But then, he hadn’t known many women doctors before. “Oh,” she said at last.

 

He looked away.

 

“Of course,” she said to herself, thinking it through. “Because your heart doesn’t beat. I hadn’t thought about . . .”

 

“Only in the traditional sense,” he said, meeting her eyes again. As a virgin, perhaps she didn’t know what else he was hinting at—or perhaps she did. With women these days, it was hard to guess what they knew or didn’t. Though even in previous times, it wouldn’t have been unusual for a respectable virgin to know of such things, if she was an adult woman in her late twenties as Thalia was.

 

Fortunately, he did not have to go into more detail.

 

“I believe you,” she said in response to his unspoken assurance.

 

“Are you certain?”

 

She nodded. “Can I say yes now, or is there more?”

 

Amazed and in love, he said, “You can.”

 

She held out her left hand to him. “Yes, Morcant, I’ll marry you.”

 

He took her hand, slid a slender silver band with a tiny piece of jade onto her finger, and placed a reverent kiss on her palm.

 

#

 

Thalia stood at the door of her sister’s house with Morcant’s hand on her waist.

 

“Why do you appear so nervous?” he murmured to her. “You’re not the one meeting your fiancée’s family for the first time.”

 

“And yet you’re not nervous,” she said, deflecting the question.

 

His brow creased. “Should I be? You didn’t tell them what I am, did you?” he asked in a lower whisper, worry creeping into his tone.

 

“No,” she answered. They’d probably need to at some point. Thalia could protect Morcant’s secret from almost everyone, but not her sister and brother-in-law. She wouldn’t even be able to lie to them when they eventually saw that he wasn’t aging or picked up on the fact that he was never out during the day. The only way to avoid them getting suspicious would be to avoid seeing them for the rest of her life. She was willing to give up a lot to be with Morcant, but not that.

 

But telling them what he was could come later. That wasn’t what she was nervous about right now.

Thalia knocked, and a few seconds later the door opened. Elijah stood in the doorway with Susan just behind his right shoulder. Susan’s expression was neutral and flat. Elijah’s held barely-concealed threat as he glared at Morcant. This was not quite the welcome Thalia had been hoping for.

 

“Hi, guys,” Thalia said. “Morcant, this is my sister, Susan, and her husband, Elijah. And this is Morcant, my fiancé.”

 

Elijah stepped back. “Please come in.”

 

“Thalia,” Susan said in a calm, unperturbed voice as they all moved into the house, “would you help me get the dishes on the table? Then we can eat.”

 

“Sure.” She glanced at Morcant, who gave her a reassuring smile, as if this cold reception was to be expected and they’d warm up soon. He didn’t even seem bothered by the prospect of eating normal food. He’d told her that he could do it, it was just unpleasant and took several days for his body to pass it, undigested, through his confused system. Given the importance of this meeting, it was a sacrifice he was willing to make.

 

As she followed Susan into the kitchen, she heard Elijah say, “Morcant, would you join me in the office?”

 

Thalia heard Morcant follow Elijah down the hall, then the click of a door closing. “He’s not really going to interrogate him already, is he?” she asked, slightly panicked. “He does know I’m not some teen—” She cut off when she saw the crease of concern in her sister’s forehead.

 

“I’m not sure what he’s doing,” Susan said with an edge of irritation.

 

Thirty seconds later, a loud thump reverberated through the walls, and the two women ran to the office. Thalia threw the door open to find Morcant with his back to the wall and Elijah with a bloody lip. “Elijah!” Susan snapped at the same time Thalia cried, “Morcant!” but neither man paid them any attention. They glared daggers at each other, and there was a tinge of silver in Morcant’s eyes.

 

“Get out,” Elijah growled.

 

“Make me,” Morcant growled back.

 

“Stop fighting!” Thalia shouted. Finally, the men looked at her. “I don’t know what this is about, but you’re my family and Morcant is going to be my husband, so you’d better sort it out in a way that doesn’t involve any more violence!”

 

“You can’t marry him,” Elijah spat. “He’s a vampire!”

 

Thalia gasped. “How do you know?”

 

The question was out of her mouth before it occurred to her to play dumb or treat Elijah’s accusation as ridiculous.

 

“That’s what I want to know,” Morcant muttered, but Elijah and Susan both were gaping at Thalia in astonishment.

 

“You knew?” Susan asked.

 

Thalia gaped right back at her sister. “You knew? How? You just met him.”

 

Elijah moved to stand before her, looking seriously at her with pale blue eyes. “Never mind that. Thalia, you can’t trust vampires. They’re evil. You can’t possibly be thinking of marrying one.”

 

“I tried to tell him,” Morcant said. He hadn’t moved from where he was now leaning with his back on the wall, but the hint of silver had faded from his eyes. “I’m not like other vampires. Not anymore. Not for a long time now.”

 

Elijah’s expression turned hard, but he didn’t look away from Thalia. “And I told him I don’t believe it.”

 

“It’s true.” Thalia met Elijah’s gaze, trying to convey what Elijah and Susan would understand but which she couldn’t say in front of Morcant. “I believe him.” In almost a whisper, she added, “I think he needs me.”

 

Elijah’s angry eyes darted over to meet Susan’s, then came back to Thalia’s and lost some of their heat. He licked his bloody lip. “Has he ever bitten you? Did he ever drink your blood?”

 

“No,” said Morcant. “And I don’t intend to. I don’t want to. Not her.”

 

Thalia shook her head, confirming Morcant’s words. “I buy blood for him through the hospital. He doesn’t need to bite anyone.”

 

After a second’s thought, Elijah moved back to Morcant and pointed a finger in his face. “Give your word that you’ll never drink her blood.”

 

“You’d trust the word of a vampire?”

 

Elijah snorted. “No. But if you won’t leave and she won’t leave you, it’ll have to do.”

 

“And if I were to break my word?” He was just needling Elijah now.

 

“Then I’d find some way to kill you.”

 

The two men stayed locked in a battle of wills and angry glares for several seconds. “I give my word,” Morcant said, calmly, earnestly. “I will never drink Thalia’s blood.”

 

Thalia could hear how much he really meant that. Maybe Elijah did too, because her brother-in-law backed away, his stance relaxing a bit.

 

“Okay, then,” said Susan. “Can we have dinner now?”

 

#

 

Thalia let out a sigh of deep satisfaction, her fingers loosening their grip in Morcant’s thick hair. In the years since they’d married, Morcant had certainly made good on his unspoken promise to her. She’d had some secret doubts at first, but she’d never have guessed how varied and inventive a determined man could be. There were times she ached for the kind of physical connection they could never have—and he clearly ached for it as well—but she knew as well as he did that there was no use dwelling on impossibilities.

 

She shifted her legs and pulled him up to her, curling her body against his, letting him wrap his muscular arms around her. His body was cool, but not cold. She’d gotten used to it by now. As her breathing slowed, she said quietly, “Do you think we might adopt?”

 

So maybe there were some impossibilities she couldn’t help dwelling on.

 

Morcant stiffened infinitesimally, then relaxed again after a moment. He ran a hand tenderly through her long, black hair. “If that’s what you want,” he said as if he’d expected the question sooner or later.

 

There would be complications, logistical problems, she knew. They’d have to figure out whether or not to tell the child about Morcant’s vampirism and when. There’d be scheduling issues since he couldn’t be out during the day. A baby complicated anyone’s life, but it would complicate theirs more than most.

 

And yet he’d agreed without any argument. He was so good to her. Better than she deserved. No matter what he’d been in the past, the way he treated her proved how much he’d changed.

 

She should tell him her own secret. It was unfair of her not to, after he’d laid bare everything to her. She thought to do it right now, as they lay in bed together, but terror stopped her tongue. It was the same fear that arose every time she considered it. Fear that he didn’t really love her, that it was entirely her influence over him that kept him beside her. Fear that if the spell was broken, he’d see her as Matthew had seen her: a witch, a seductress, a mind-stealer. Fear that his love would turn to hate. Fear that without her influence, he would return to his old ways, that she was the only reason he was able to be good and without her he’d be like any other vampire. Fear that she was as wrong about him as he was about her.

 

Thalia knew she should tell him regardless. Susan certainly thought she should; she’d made that clear. But Thalia always reminded Susan that they didn’t know if telling Morcant would also remove the protection Thalia gave him from those who hunted him. It was to keep him safe, she insisted. That was all.

 

But Susan knew that wasn’t all. Thalia could lie to almost anyone, but she’d never been able to lie to her sister—or to herself.

 

She held Morcant tighter, silently thanking God for him and asking forgiveness for her cowardice.

Bemuse copyright Shawna Canon 2017

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