I really enjoyed reading all of my tweeps’ blog posts over the last couple of days and their funny and adorable Valentine’s Days stories. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any V-Day memories that stand out like that. But, it does give me a good excuse to share with you all one of my Project REUTSway entries. For those unfamiliar with RUETS and their awesome Project REUTSway competition, you can read about it here. I am super stoked and grateful to have two of my entries selected as runner-ups: Oddly-Timed Bell and Part of Your Underworld. Since REUTS will be blogging those, I have picked for you my Snow White retelling for week-one’s Bloody Ever After. It’s untitled, but it’s filled with love and lots of RED. So, ❤ Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!
Queen Isotta leaned over the bed. Patches of deep crimson seeped through the linens and dripped slowly onto the floor. She watched me as I worked, slicing the Vena Cava and Aorta in the correct locations to keep the whole heart intact.
Decades passed since I last had human blood. The smell made me twitch with hunger. But no, I swore myself from it. She trusted that about me. And she also trusted my apathy toward murder. After all, moral repercussions ceased to exist when you didn’t have a soul.
A moment of silence passed in the room as I finished my work. She lifted the lid off a small, tarnished box, and I carefully moved the delicate organ into it. Shifting the box to one hand, she took the silver-handled dagger from me, still dripping with the king’s blood, and placed it on a purple, crushed-velvet pillow on the night stand. I retreated slowly backwards into the shadows of the room.
Queen Isotta turned to Adolfo, the guard’s captain, watching on in horror. He swallowed his disgust and put on a face of loyalty.
“It is time, Adolfo.”
“You mean Neve, my lady?” Adolfo bowed low in her presence.
“Of course I do,” she replied cooly.”The Vampire Lord, Lord DiMarco will be here in half a fortnight. When he arrives, I shall extend my hand to him and we shall unite our kingdoms under one rule. I will be queen of the alive and the dead. And I will not have any interference. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my lady.”
Adolfo bowed low again.
“You will take Neve deep into the forest,” she continued. “You will kill her and bring her heart to me.”
“Forgive me,” I slid forward from the darkness. “I am curious as to why we do not take care of the matter while she slumbers, like your husband.”
She turned toward me, noticeably annoyed.
“The girl is a light sleeper. We do not need to alarm the whole castle if she were to scream. This is best handled quietly.”
Turning back to Adolfo, Queen Isotta handed the box to him. The dim candle light bounced from it, giving it a warm, golden glow.
“But first, bring this box to chef Gallo. He knows what to do with it.”
Adolfo knelt at her feet, took her hand and kissed the enlarged ruby on her bony finger.
“Your will be done, my queen.”
A sly smile unfolded on her lips. Seeing her pleased, Adolfo rose to his feet, turned on his heel, and strode through the chamber doors.
“His work will not be as clean as mine.” I spoke from the shadows.
“It doesn’t need to be.” She turned back to me. The thirst for power lit her eyes the way blood did mine. “You’ve done more than enough. As far as the people know, this will be a failed emergency surgery. Neve will be eaten by a bear.”
I shrugged and evaporated from the room as Isotta pulled the blood-soaked covers over her husband’s remains.
I looked up from the beaker of antihistamine as I poured it into smaller glass vials for transport to the castle. Setting it down carefully, I made my way to the door, opening it slowly. The winter wind swirled through the crack, clearing to reveal a beautiful young lady. If I had breath, it would have caught in my chest.
“Oh dear,” I thought to myself, pushing up my glasses by the bridge with a single finger. “I wonder how Adolfo’s heart tastes.”
Framed against the snow-covered forest, Neve stood shivering in front of me. Her young, innocent face stared up at me in surprise, a shade peachier than the snow behind her. Bright gray eyes, framed in charcoal makeup, quivered as she took in the sight of me, remembrance setting in. Her bright, red lips had parted and frozen in place, steam rising from them in rhythm with her heaving and falling chest. The only other color was in the flush on her cheeks from running in the cold.
Clearly, she did not expect to see me. I had nothing against the girl. Her father, on the other hand, was vehemently against our kind. I did not mind dragging the dagger through him. But to kill a young girl? Even my apathy pleaded for sympathy.
“Neve,” I said calmly, tracing her with my gentle, dark eyes.
Stray snowflakes fell from her long, flowing black hair as she shook her head in disbelief.
“Curo?” she squeaked.
I nodded, and she took a few steps back. Probably afraid I’d lunge at her, not that I blamed her. I pulled the door open more, so she could see both of my hands, dagger free.
“Neve,” I said again, still calm. “Come in and warm yourself, before you catch your death.”
She stopped and looked up at me. She was so sheltered and far too innocent for seventeen. I admit I found it bothersome. A flash of hatred for the queen flickered through me.
“You’re in on it too, aren’t you? Adolfo said that Isotta wants me dead.”
“It is true. I know the Queen’s plan for your disposal. However, I do not work for the Queen.”
She looked at me curiously, pulling her cloak around her tighter.
“You’re her doctor, right? I’ve seen you at the castle with her. Or…?”
I sighed loudly, cutting her off.
“The Queen is blind. My allegiance is to myself and my kind. I have no desire to kill you. You are out of her way, which is all I am sure she wants with you.”
Her face relaxed, and her eyes warmed with more trust as they darted past me to the inside of the cabin. I stepped aside and gestured for her to come in. She followed my lead and eyed me cautiously as I closed the door.
Gracefully, I stepped over to the barren fireplace, tying my silver hair up into a ponytail. I began a fire, ignoring the cobwebs strung across the wood. Neve wandered about the first floor of the cabin, eyes darting back to me but also to the unused kitchen, the blood stained table, and my lab in the corner brimming with vials and jars.
When she seemed satisfied that I wasn’t planning anything, she took a seat in the oversized, green armchair closest to the fire. Then she removed her cloak, revealing a simple, black long-sleeve dress, and held her hands out to warm them. I proceeded to take a seat in the opposite chair.
Once the heat comfortably filled the room, Neve kicked off her black boots and folded her knees into her chest, tucking her feet up into the chair. Her head gently rested against the arm, not quite relaxing. The uncertainty in her eyes let me know that she still had questions.
“So,” she started, testing the atmosphere. “What are you doing out here in the woods?”
There was no reason to give her details, however there was also no reason for me to be callous.
“I lead a coven out here.” I answered.
“Coven?” She raised her head, startled. “You mean, you’re not the only one who lives here?”
I shook my head.
She sat up abruptly, and I put my hand up to stop her from overreacting. Her eyes still wide in fear, she remained still, but continued to stare at me.
I sighed. “This coven does not partake of human flesh. We swore it off centuries ago. It is far easier to go unnoticed within the human population when feeding on animals.”
“How many of you are there?”
A ruckus in front of the cabin startled her. I remained unmoved. I heard them coming five minutes ago. The front door slammed open and in poured the six others and a heavy metallic stench. Neve covered her nose. My stomach rumbled.
Lieto led them in with a grand smile, a tall, lanky fellow with blonde hair as long as mine. Behind him, the perpetually smug Irato shook the snow from his black curls. He cuffed Scemo on the head for bumping into him. Scemo scowled back, rubbing the spot. I chuckled to myself. Perhaps no one told Scemo that Vampires feel no pain.
Malsano came in next, his complexion far paler than any Vampire I’d ever met. Then behind him, Dormo, rubbing his eyes and dragging in Schivo, who’s face always remained hidden by a black vail.
“Dinner time, Curo!” Lieto called out, holding up a struggling rabbit in each hand.
“What is this?” Irato stepped in next, regarding Neve angrily. “Curo! You’re not going back on your oath are you? You bastard.”
Before I could answer him, a commotion began amongst the six, circling a mortified looking Neve. She hugged herself tightly as the others poked and prodded her, picking up strands of hair and getting close enough to take a sniff of her. Only Schivo kept his distance.
“ENOUGH!” I commanded, standing up.
Everyone stopped, watching me expectantly.
“This is Neve Bianco.” I told them.
“You kidnapped the princess?” Malsano started
I waved him off. “Isotta wants her dead. She’s a runaway.”
The others began to comment amongst themselves.
“Quiet…” I warned. Again they stopped and waited for me to speak.
“She will stay here, for now, until we figure out what to do with her.”
A ruffling and clinking at the window interrupted our conversation. We all turned to see a crow pecking at the panes. I sighed, irritated. Did she really need me now?
“You’re being summoned, Curo,” Scemo observed.
A low growl rippled through my chest, and Scemo took a step back behind Lieto.
My eyes locked with Lieto. “Throw me a rabbit.”
He tossed one to me and it squeaked when I caught it easily by the spine. Neve jumped, tears started to edge at her eyes. I did not have time for this. I took a knife out of my belt and tossed it back to Lieto.
“I’m sure after three hundred years you still know how to cook.”
“Yes, Curo, sir,” he replied obediently.
“Make sure she eats something,” I nodded toward Neve, looking at the other live rabbit in his hand.
As I turned toward the door, Neve made a noise.
“You will be fine,” I said to her without turning around.
Once I wrenched the door open, I sunk my teeth into the little beast until it stopped moving and then tossed the carcass into the snow.
“Yes, my Queen?”
I approached her as she stood in front of a large, gilded mirror with ornate bronze designs and adorned with onyx and rubies at varying intervals.
“Explain this to me,” she said gruffly over her shoulder.
Then she turned her attention to the mirror.
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall. Who’s the fairest one of all?” she asked the mirror in a chant.
Clouds began to form within the glass. A face, no, a mask appeared, moving as if there was life behind the empty form. It appeared to be one of those masks from the Venetian Carnivale, completely white with red lace painted around the eye holes.
“Ah, my Queen,” it said. “Neve Bianco is still the fairest one of all, alive and well amongst the outcast Vampires in the forest.”
If I had a beating heart, it might have sunk in my chest. She slowly turned to face me.
“We were holding her, your Highness,” I covered quickly. “As a blood drink offering for Lord DiMarco when he passes through. Since you had disposed of her.”
“Hmmmm,” delight teemed in her voice. “That’s not a bad idea.”
“Lord DiMarco will be pleased,” I assured her, giving my head a slight bow.
“Very well,” she agreed. “Keep her there. We will be in touch.”
Three mornings later, Neve busied herself with her continued project of cleaning the unused kitchen while I bottled an antiseptic. The cobwebs and dust were nearly gone from upper shelves and she had pots and pans soaking in a basin. Now, she busied herself with scrubbing the old iron stove.
I heard the hooves long before she did, and my suspicions told me it was someone from the castle. When Neve finally heard the whine of the horse, she drew to the door to greet the traveler. I followed closely behind. It was an old woman, wrapped in a black cloak on the back of a white steed. She carried a basket full of pomegranates. I chuckled to myself at Isotta’s disguise. Then I realized, as a human, Neve had no idea she was anyone but a traveling merchant.
“My, my, what a beautiful young lady,” the old woman began. “Come, come.”
She waved Neve forward, and I watched, amused, from the porch. Neve waded towards the old woman. She extended a graceful hand to stroke the horse’s muzzle, and he nudged her softly.
“I’ve come from Firenze through the mountains to peddle my pomegranates. How lucky I am to find you.”
Neve smiled, but then frowned as she looked up the woman.
“They look wonderful! I’ve never had one before. But, I’m sorry. I haven’t any money.”
Isotta waved her words away. “That’s okay, my dear. I will give you your first sample for free.”
I stood up too quickly. Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t say anything without betraying Isotta’s confidence. The woman took a pomegranate in her hands, clutching it on either side.
“It opens like this,” she instructed as she dug her nails into the center and ripped the pomegranate apart. Arils crushed in the split gave up their ruby juice. It ran through her fingers and dripped down into the white snow like blood from a wound. She handed half of the fruit to Neve. Her eyes lit up at the jewels within the pulpy exterior. Bright, faceted rubies gleamed in her gray eyes.
“Ne -” I tried to say, reaching for her, but I caught Isotta’s eyes with a warning. I fell silent instead and waited for whatever she was planning.
Neve brought the fruit to her lips and drank the juice within. Within a second, she collapsed on the spot into the red-stained snow. The pomegranate half rolled out from her hand under the horse. Startled, he reared up with a hearty whine and came back down on the fruit, splattering the deep red nectar through the snow and up its legs. Isotta pulled on his reigns and pat his head to calm him.
“What did you do?” I asked, forcing myself not to run to Neve.
“I took matters into my own hands,” she replied lightly. “Couldn’t have her running off, now can we? She’ll make a great offering for my future husband.” Her disguise completely faded.
“You’ll come to the wedding, right?” she smirked as she tugged the reigns, whirling her horse around. She kicked off, shooting back through the woods. The hooves kicked up dirt and snow, leaving a white haze in the air that lingered in her wake. As soon as she disappeared into the forest, the others came out from their hiding places amongst the trees.
“We heard a commotion,” Lieto said, rushing over to me. “But when we saw it was the Queen, we held back and watched from a distance.”
“Grab the pomegranate,” I commanded, bending down to scoop up the unconscious girl. “I need to assess her condition and figure out what she did to that pomegranate.”
I ran tests for hours, on both the girl and the fruit in the upstairs bedroom. When there was nothing more I could do, I pulled a blanket over Neve’s body, tucking it in around her. The others looked up at me in anticipation as I descended the staircase.
“Her blood showed no signs of decay in her body functions, meaning that she’s still alive. A sort of suspended animation. The work of some kind of dark magic. No mere drug could do this. I couldn’t even find a trace of poison in the fruit.” I told them.
Very dark magic, indeed.
“What do we do now?” Dormo asked.
“There’s nothing I can do for her. We put her in a coffin and offer her to Lord DiMarco when he passes through.”
The others nodded solemnly.
We dragged a coffin up from the basement that afternoon, the ebony one, the first coffin I owned four-hundred and forty-six years ago. We cleaned out the cobwebs and washed a fresh set of linens for inside. I laid her down gently and carefully tucked her in as if she were merely sleeping.
Lord DiMarco arrived as scheduled, shortly after midnight with twenty companions. He appeared dapper in a suit, and an exquisite ivory mask with a long pointed beak encrusted with gold set diamonds and sapphires. Gold rimmed the eye sockets, making his ice-blue eyes appear to be surrounded by fire. His confidants wore elaborately beaded costumes of fine silks in deep purples, blues, greens, and reds, with masks to match. They were fit for Carnivale. Was it February already?
“My Lord,” I bowed before him, the others following my lead. “How does this night find you?”
“Ah, Curo,” Lord DiMarco approached. “I had word you requested my presence.”
I stood, coming face to face with my master. I had been his doctor once, Nicolo DiMarco, when we were but 21 and 28. I older than he, both alive, tending to the prince’s ailments when he had no idea that he was a Vampire. Needless to say, I got too close.
“I did, My Lord,” I replied, adjusting my glasses. “We have a gift for you.”
“Oh?” A smile spread across his lips. “And I have brought gifts for the seven of you. You will be joining us for the wedding, yes?”
“Of course, My Lord, if you would have me there,” I replied.
His men brought forth six extra masks, all burgundy with gold filigree patterns. Then a seventh, for me, a black to gold gradient with gold rimmed eyes and sapphires set into the corners.
“Thank you, My Lord.” I bowed low and received my mask. “Come, your gift awaits.”
I led him inside where the ebony coffin greeted us from the center of the cabin.
“She’s still alive,” I assured him. “Just under a spell.”
He rubbed his hands together, clearly excited for a fresh meal. Better her dead than caught in this dark magic, I reasoned with myself as I slid the coffin open. But when I revealed her, the smile faded from him. His eyes grew wide and puzzled.
“How old is this girl?” he asked.
“17,” I replied.
I stopped and turned to look at him in disbelief.
“How… how did you know?”
“I was approached by a young woman almost twenty years ago. Liana, her name was. She pricked her finger on a rose in the dead of winter and thought that there was nothing more beautiful. Her deepest desire was to have a daughter with snow white skin, blood-red lips, and hair like a Raven’s feathers.
“I made a deal with her. I promised her a daughter fitting that description. I gave her a tiny vial of my own blood to drink when she became pregnant. The venom would be enough to make her look like one of us, but not turn her. In return, I asked for her daughter to be mine when she was old enough to wed. I thought this wedding invitation I received was to make good on that promise at last. I don’t quite understand.”
I stared at him for a moment, letting it sink in.
He slid his finger through her dark hair and traced them down her jawline.
“I loved this girl since the day she was born. She was always meant to be mine, an arranged marriage at birth.”
“Her name is Neve,” I told him and took a step back.
“Neve, of course, my beautiful snow,” he breathed. He positioned himself above her and cupped her cheek with his hand. Removing his mask, he slowly drew himself downward, closing his eyes, and meeting her lightly with a kiss. He held her there for a moment and then withdrew himself. She did not stir.
“Tell me, Curo,” he turned to me. “Who is the person who did this to my betrothed?”
“My Lord, her step mother, the Queen Isotta, the one who invited you to wed this very night.”
His face contorted with disgust.
“She will pay dearly for her mistreatment.”
Then he turned back to Neve, cupped her neck with his hand this time, and drew himself down to her again. He bared his fangs and sunk them into her neck. Drinking for just a moment, he pulled away as if it pained him to do it.
There was no writhing, no screaming. The Vampire blood she consumed in utero must have negated those effects. Instead, her eyes shot open, revealing a beautiful cerulean blue. The tiny amount of color drained completely from her face, but her lips remained scarlet, stained from the same blood. She tipped her head to the right and saw me over Lord DiMarco’s shoulder.
“Curo,” she winced. “What happened? I feel strange.”
“In order to break the dark magic upon you, our last option was to change you. I am very sorry that we had to.”
“No, no,” she said tenderly. “It feels natural. Like I was always meant to be this way. It just feels weird not to breathe anymore.”
She tried to sit herself up. I moved to help her, but Lord DiMarco insisted. She looked at him curiously. The awe with which he looked upon her must have been strange from someone she did not recognize.
“Do not be afraid,” I told her. “This is Lord DiMarco, my master. He’s here to help.”
Her eyes darted back to him with wonder.
“DiMarco… as in Nicolo?”
Lord Dimarco’s eyes grew wide.
“You know who I am?” he asked.
She contemplated him for a moment.
“My mother had betrothed me to a man before I was born. My father told me. Since she died just after my birth, he only knew his name. Lord Nicolo DiMarco.”
Lord DiMarco smiled lovingly at her and reached up to caress her face. She blushed into it, placing her hand on top of his.
“I always dreamed about the day you’d come for me.”
Her eyes sparkled as they took in the curve of his lips, the gentle tousles of his dark hair, and the way his bright eyes gazed longingly upon her.
“I used to whisper your name at the stars outside my window,” she continued. “Nicolo DiMarco… over and over until it sounded strange to say.”
He bent forward and kissed her lightly on the cheek. She giggled at his touch.
“Would you, then,” he replied. “Wed me this very night?”
“Of course.” she said coyly, offering her hand to him.
“Come then, my betrothed,” he smirked, helping her down from the coffin. “We have a wedding to get to.”
Lord DiMarco fitted his mask over Neve to hide her identity. Then he wrapped her black cloak around her, pulling the hood up over her hair.
We were a masked army of Vampires. I and my six armed with daggers under our cloaks. Lord DiMarco led his men armed with their teeth and a new-born up though the castle to the throne room where the ceremony was scheduled to be held. Baskets of red roses flanked the large double doors and two guardsmen opened them for us.
The fanfare was deafening – mistrals and drummers, manservants with trays of Firenze’s finest wine, maids with trays crammed full of delicate tarts, roasted legs of lamb and spiced duck. Dancers with ribbon leapt and pranced up and down the aisle waiting for Lord DiMarco’s arrival.
When we stepped through the doors, the throngs of party goers ceased activity and fell silent. They parted like the Red Sea to allow us through. Queen Isotta stood in front of her thrown above a small set of stairs. An ornate black ball gown severely cinched her waist with silver laces. A woman of her age would never be so naturally thin. And her dark make-up, black hair twisted up into a jagged silver crown made her appear like a spire on an old cathedral. Beside her, a nervous-looking minister with his open Bible made the sign of the cross from head to chest to shoulders when he saw us. Guards were positioned on either side of them.
Her sharp eyes remained fierce as her lips split into a triumphant grin when she saw him. The guards closed the door behind us, and I took the moment of distraction to jam one of my daggers into the locking mechanism. The twenty-six of our party went before him, lining the aisle in pairs, cloaked and festively masked as if we were part of the spectacle.
All eyes followed Lord DiMarco as he strode to the make-shift alter. The power and authority that poured from him, and his lack of a smile, made the revelers shrink back even more. I followed behind him with Neve between us. Finally, Lord DiMarco reached the alter and took his place where a groom ought to stand, Neve and I on the stairs. The Queen turned to him and offered her his hand.
“My Lord,” she said. “You came for our wedding.”
He took her hand in his, and a grin more sinister than hers unfurled on his bloodthirsty lips.
“Of course,” he replied. “However, I came for my wedding.”
Her brows tilted in confusion.
“What do you mean, my Lord?”
He dropped her hand and offered it to Neve who took it and gracefully ascended the last two steps until she stood between them.
“This,” he said. “Is my bride.”
The Queen, teeming with shock and disgust, ripped the mask from Neve’s face, knocking her hood down. Recognizing her face and her new, unmistakeable Vampiric qualities, she took a step back, paralyzed with fear. Neve smiled and lunged at her step mother, pining her arms to her side with her newborn strength and digging her fangs into her neck.
Deafening noise erupted from the revelers: a cacophony of screams, wailing, clattering sliver and shattering glasses. The Vampires split themselves amongst the guests in a full bloody massacre.
The two guards jumped. I took one out with another dagger, and my Lord took out the other by tearing his throat out. Petrified, the minister tried to dive behind the throne. I caught him and pulled him forward, his eyes shut tight whispering hurried prayers.
I leaned into his ear. “You have a task at hand.”
Isotta’s body went still. Neve released her and she toppled down the stairs, landing in a crumpled heap of blood and black satin on the floor. She turned, wiping the blood from her mouth, to face Lord DiMarco. He took her hands in hers, and I held the priest sternly by the arm. He stumbled his way through the vows, pausing to twitch every time a shriek resounded. Tears began to pool at the corners of his eyes, and he fought hard not to breakdown in fear. I neglected to tell him that Vampires have an aversion to killing holy men, and most certainly would not drink of one’s blood.
“I do,” Neve replied.
“And I do,” Lord DiMarco repeated. “Forever.”