The sun is hanging low on the horizon when Seri finally wakes. She looks around blearily, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and slowly pulling herself into a sitting position. The landscape rushing by the window is unfamiliar, all trees and distant mountain peaks buried under a thick blanket of white. It takes Seri a moment to make sense of the image, to figure out that the little tufts of light drifting from the sky are snowflakes, glittering like gemstones in the sun’s deep orange halo. The gleaming coat of snow is pristine and undisturbed all around but for the occasional fallen branch and the tiny footprints of animal tracks.
“You’re finally awake!” Feranya steps into the cabin and slides the door shut, locking it behind her. She holds up a small metal platter. “I brought food.”
Seri gives her a fragile smile. “Thank you.” She reaches up to take the platter. “Where are we?”
“Adzeshti’s Pass. About two hours south of Vin Daritha. We’re on our way down into the Valley.” Feranya smiles back. “Beautiful view, isn’t it? I forgot how much I loved this part of the world.”
“I’ve never seen snow before,” Seri murmurs, her gaze drawn back to the window, held rapt by the alien vista outside. “It’s... I never imagined it would be so... pretty.”
Her companion raises her eyebrows. “...you can’t be serious. How can you have never seen snow?”
Seri shrugs. “It just doesn’t snow on the east coast, I guess.” She swallows a mouthful of rice. “I hope the food didn’t cost too much?”
“We’re travelling for business, remember?” Feranya grins, sitting down on the bed next to her. “Temple’s picking up the tab for all of this. Including—” She points at a small, ornate bottle “—the most expensive bottle of wine they had.”
Seri giggles quietly. “That’s... that’s good. I like it.” She gazes at Feranya as the vampire chews on a melon slice. “Wait, you... eat?”
“Uh, yes?” Feranya glances at her quizzically.
“I mean, I thought— since you were a vampire and all—”
“Darling, one can’t get all the nutrients a body needs from blood alone.”
“Well then... why do you drink blood at all?”
Feranya leaned back against the wall. “If I stop drinking blood, it’s like... malnutrition, I suppose. Horrible cravings. I feel faint all the time. I start to age again. Perhaps worst of all, I wouldn’t be able to charm people into obeying me anymore. Or, well, more like I’d have to do it the old-fashioned way,” she adds with a wink.
“Hang on, hang on, back up. You... don’t age?”
“Not since the day I was turned.”
“So you’re really, like. Immortal?”
“As long as I keep up the right diet.” Feranya grins.
“Wow.” Seri stares at her. “How old are you actually, then? A hundred years?” Her eyes widen. “A thousand?”
Feranya laughs. “Just twenty-four, love.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“You’re only a couple years older than me!”
“Really? I thought you were younger than that.” Feranya uncorks the wine bottle and pours out a glass. “When’s your birthday?”
Seri hesitates. “Um. I... I don’t know. Sometime in 361, I guess.”
“You don’t know?” Feranya stares at her. “How do you not know when your own birthday is?”
Seri looks away. “It’s not like the orphanage kept track.”
“...you’re an orphan?” Feranya’s tone quickly turns from playful to gentle.
“Yeah. Why did you think my name’s just Imaela?”
“I.... I thought that was just... your tribe or something.”
Seri sighs. “‘Imaela’ isn’t a tribe. It’s the word for like... light and holiness and shit. It’s what they call you when you don’t have a proper family or a tribe to look after you.”
“...oh.” Feranya sets down her wine glass and reaches out, taking Seri’s hand. “I’m sorry. You’ve really had a rough life, haven’t you?”
“I...” Feranya pauses, searching for words. “The last day or so has been... insane. It’s just been violence and chaos and fear and this is the first chance we’ve had to catch our breath. To be people, not just desperate refugees.” She sits down next to Seri, wine glass in one hand and the other on the girl’s thigh. “Do you think we could, um. Start over? Try to do this normally this time, get to know each other the right way?”
Seri gives her a small smile. “Yeah. Sure. That sounds good.”
Feranya exhales and smiles back. She reaches out a hand. “Well then. Feranya Adivani, Móravin expat, forger, grifter, thief, and vampire extraordinaire, until recently of Market Gate, Kethrana. At your service.”
Laughing faintly, Seri takes her hand. “Seri Imaela, um— orphan, runaway, apprentice healer, multiple murderer, Keloya survivor, and general all-around fuckup? I think that about covers it.” She blushes as Feranya kisses her palm before releasing her.
“First of all, it’s not ‘murder’ if you do it in self-defense.” Feranya fills another wine glass, passing it to Seri, who takes it gingerly. “That’s called... well, I forget what the courts call it, but it’s not that. Also, where are you from, anyway?”
Seri takes a cautious sip of the wine. “Shit little town called Theriva. It’s like...” She gazes at the rippling surface of the liquid for a moment, trying to conjure up an adequate metaphor. “You know that nasty white splotch you get all over the ground when a seagull takes a shit right above you and you have to stop and make sure none of it got on your skirt?”
Feranya tilts her head. “...yes?”
“Well. Basically, that’s Theriva.”
“Why does that name sound familiar? Wait — you’re not from Taihe?”
“Nah. I was born here. Well, in Seprena, I mean. I’ve never even been to that shit little island. Mercifully.”
“Oh! I’m sorry I assumed,” Feranya replies. “...you must get that a lot.”
Seri sighs. “People see the color of my skin and talk to me like I’m a dumb foreigner. Like Seprenese isn’t my native language.”
“Don’t you speak Taihera?” Feranya glances at her quizzically. “You were cussing in it earlier.”
“Sort of? It’s complicated.” Seri takes another, less cautious sip from her glass. “I mean I speak it just fine. The orphanage was run by the Temple, right? Immigrant workers and priests and shit. So Taihera and Sepreni both were all around me. It’s just, I don’t know. I guess when I was living on the street nobody spoke Taihera much.”
“...living on the street?” Feranya looks horrified. “What happened to the orphanage? Did they kick you out or something?”
Seri sighs. “Nope. I spent the first ten or so years of my life in that atukita ka shithole. They didn’t care any more about me than that na’era ka kunimela... the fucking whore or whoever who ditched me. So I ran away first chance I got.” She looks down, hands shaking slightly. “Better being homeless than how they treated us.”
“Tch. You poor thing.” Feranya tilts her head. “Has anyone been nice to you? Like, ever?”
“Kerith was alright. And...” Seri looks away. “Well, you’ve been... you’re...” She trails off, stammering, her cheeks burning.
“If you think I’ve been nice to you, you have incredibly low standards, tiani.”
“Shut up, you have?” Seri looks up at her suddenly. “Just because... look, I’ve done bad things too, okay? Worse’n you did to me. I know what’s it’s like needing to survive. Believe me, I know. You... every time you look at me, you...” She hesitates. “You make me feel like I’m... human. You treat me like I matter.”
“Well, you are, and you do.” Feranya touches her gently on the arm. “Can I give you a hug? You look like you need a hug.”
Seri nods, and Feranya pulls her close, putting a hand tenderly on the back of her neck. She can feel the girl’s heart pounding, arms trembling as she buries her face against the vampire’s shoulder. “Thank you,” she mumbles.
“Of course, dear.”
The train begins to slow, the distant rumble of the locomotive falling silent. A muffled whistle roars. Seri jumps slightly as someone pounds on the door.
“Kashtin Siraðda, coming up on the Kashtin Siraðda platform!” comes the conductor’s voice from the hall. “Last stop until Vin Daritha!”
“Are we going all the way west?” Seri asks, reluctantly extricating herself from Feranya’s grasp. Feranya nods.
“Short of Tiel Tanara, the City of the Valley is the best place we could wind up. It’s why I’ve been travelling this direction for so long.”
“It didn’t sound that way when you were talking to the stationmaster.”
“Oh! That was for her benefit, not yours.” Feranya smiles sheepishly. “Sorry, I’ve been on my own so long I’m... I’m out of the habit of explaining myself. No, that was just an act. No woman of the Temple would ever be glad to lay over in Daritha.”
“Why’s that? Full of heretics or something?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” Feranya grins. “You’ve lived back East your whole life, so the only Seprena you know is the one where the Curia is all-powerful and the only way to get by is to keep your head down and do as you’re told. But the West is a very different place. Especially the Valley.”
“You mean... you can go against the Curia out here?” Seri’s eyes widen. “In Seprena? How is that even possible?”
“Well. Back on the coast is where the Seven Families got their start. It’s where they have their homes, their armies, their factories. And Seprena is big.” Feranya gestures expansively. “So think like a paranoid tinpot industrialist with more slaves than sense. Do you spread yourself thin or do you keep your armies close at hand?”
“Well, close, obviously,” Seri replies, furrowing her brow. “Especially if everyone else is doing it. The head of the gang always keeps her boys where they can protect her if someone else gets big ideas. She never walks to the butcher’s alone, yeah?”
“Exactly.” Feranya nods approvingly. “We’ll make a nualédan out of you yet. No, law and order isn’t what the Seven are after. It’s just a tool. All a patrician really cares about is her own profligate hide.” She hesitates. “Well. Usually. You hear stories sometimes about the really far gone ones. But for the most part you can count on a patrician to burn the country down rather than risk one frill of her waistcoat.”
“You’re so smart.” Seri gazes up at her admiringly. “Where did you learn all this shit?”
Feranya laughs. “Well. I mean. Most of this is just what they teach every kid back in the old country. Know your enemy, and all. But, well— I did also spend a good few years traipsing all over this country and causing trouble. It’s amazing what you pick up when you spend enough time running from squads of angry legionaries.”
“You’re gonna hafta actually tell me some of your stories one of these days.” Seri leans closer, eyes alight with fascination. “So Vin Daritha... it’s far away from all the Curia’s armies, because none of them live out here?”
“Exactly, nuele melinye. Even with the railways, there’s only so far the Curia can project force, and gods know the East Coast takes up enough of their attention as it is. Daritha is on the very fringes of their power. It’s nearer to Berethir and King Eomand than Kethrana and the Curia. Out here, honor and money rule, and the Seven only have as much influence as they’re willing to buy.”
“What about the Temple?”
Feranya snorts derisively. “This city would eat them alive.” Her eyes suddenly open wide. “Wait! I remember now! Isn’t Theriva where—”
“We don’t discuss the Fourth Street Fiasco,” Seri replies primly.
“How did you know I was—”
“It’s the only reason anybody’s heard of Theriva.” Seri downs another mouthful. “Are you sure this was their most ’spensive wine? It just... tastes like wine. I mean, it’s good, it’s just... wine?”
Feranya tilts her head. “Are... are you for real?”
“This is a genuine ’28 Jadarin Maðri reserve.” Feranya speaks as though someone just insulted her god. “They only made five hundred barrels! I thought the train company was trying to scam us when I saw the name on the menu, but, no — this is the real thing, I’d know that taste anywhere.”
“O-okay, but it just...” Seri stifles a burp. “...i’just tastes like wine.” She narrows her eyes. “H-hang on. Hang on. Alcohol causes vaso...vasodilation, right? Makes blood vessels expand and shit? Are you getting me drunk so’s I bleed easy?”
“Guilty as charged,” the vampire replies. “Idea is, I can make a smaller wound and still get enough before you start to clot. But also,” she adds, gesturing expansively as if to indicate the very universe and the whole of Fate by a wave of the hand, “I just really fucking needed a drink.”
“I’ll drink to that!” Seri lifts up her wine glass. “To booze.”
“To booze!” Feranya agrees, clinking her glass against Seri’s. She frowns, looking down. “Oh. I think... I think we did that wrong.”
“I don’t think the glasses are supposed to be empty.”
Seri giggles, flopping back on the bed. “C’mere,” she says, yanking her tunic over her head and tossing it against the wall. Feranya blushes slightly at the sight of the girl’s firm little breasts and her landscape of cruel scars. “Better do this ’fore we sober up.”
“...are you sure you’re okay with this?” Feranya puts a gentle hand on Seri’s neck. “I’m... I don’t want... I don’t want to hurt you, I...”
“Now you’re all worries?” Seri pouts. “It was okay when you fucked with my head to make me let ya, but now as I’m askin’ ya to you feel bad?”
“I felt horrible for what I did to you!” Feranya bursts out. “Siniela nualénye cu rimíté sámiane, I still feel fucking horrible for that — I preyed on you, I hurt you, I—”
Seri sits up, turning her bare back to Feranya and relaxing against her. She taps her neck. “It’s — it’s okay. Please. You fuckin’ saved my life. Lemme do this for you?”
Feranya takes a shuddering breath. “...okay,” she murmurs after a moment. “If you’re sure. I’ll... I’ll be as gentle as I can.”
She leans forward, her cheek brushing against Seri’s as she digs her fangs carefully into the girl’s delicate neck. Seri gives a little gasp as her skin breaks, twitching in Feranya’s arms as the vampire’s fangs sink into her. Her warm blood flows freely; Feranya fights the primal urge to dig deeper into the girl’s warm, soft neck.
“T...take as much as you need,” Seri murmurs, her muscles slackening. “It’s... it’s okay.” She lets out little cries and gasps, faint little sounds of pain and emotion, as Feranya laps at her neck. As the vampire withdraws, Seri shudders, the shiver running the length of her body.
Feranya wipes her lips clean with a napkin, putting pressure on Seri’s puncture wounds with her free hand. “I’m... I’m so s—” she begins as she looks up. And stops.
“...are you blushing?” she demands.
“Mmh. I guess.” Seri giggles quietly.
Feranya takes a deep breath. “You enjoyed that.”
“Yeah.” Seri smiles distantly. “Felt nice.”
“Anur alive!” Feranya cries out. “So that’s why you were so eager for me to feed on you.”
“I tol’ you you shouldn’t feel bad about it.”
“I— How—” Feranya shakes her head. “After all the torture and pain you’ve been through and you... you get off on a vamp drinking your blood?”
“Mm.” Seri turns, snuggling up to Feranya. “Never felt anything like it before. It’s so... intense.”
Feranya runs her fingers distractedly through the girl’s hair, eliciting a happy sigh. “You’re ridiculous.”
“Is it really that weird?”
“Oh, I mean. Sure. I’ve met plenty of people into vamps.” Feranya takes a deep breath. “In Móravin sex clubs. Angsty, sheltered twentysomethings in black eyeshadow. Not... not fucking torture survivors fresh from Keloya!”
“...you have clubs for sex in Moravin?”
Feranya rolls her eyes. “Everywhere has sex clubs, you poor deprived thing. Ours are better, though. Where did you think I got turned, anyway?”
“You got turned at a Moravin sex club?” Seri can’t contain her giggling anymore.
“Look, when you’re an angsty twentysomething looking for catharsis and a... a cute boy in black leather makes you feel things you’ve never felt before—” Feranya’s dark cheeks flush with embarassment. “He had really cute fangs, okay?”
Seri gazes up at her with wide, adoring golden eyes, her fragile body cradled tenderly in the other woman’s soft arms. “You’ve got real cute fangs too.”
Feranya stares at her for a moment. Then finally, with a scoff of exasperation, she takes Seri firmly by the neck and kisses her hard on the lips.