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Sharp

Caroline Cantrell lives in New York with her wife.
The room at The Savoy had all the comforts of modernity: electric lights; a bottle of champagne sweating in a bucket of half-melted ice; and a vampire in the bath. The claw-foot tub was long enough to accommodate all six feet of her, and she lay perfectly still and completely submerged, clouds of dark curls floating around her face like seaweed. She looked like a sentimental portrait of a drowned woman.
It was positively unnerving when she did that, Charlotte thought, wrapped in an old-fashioned velvet dressing gown. She'd fashioned a cold compress out of a thick linen napkin and ice from the champagne bucket and held it to the bite on her neck while Elena lay unmoving in her bath, steam curling above her. She barely disturbed the glassy surface as she climbed out, heedless of her nakedness and the water streaming onto the expensive rug as she walked across the room.
Elena twisted her wet hair into a rope and wrung it out onto the duvet, leaving a large, sodden patch. Charlotte swallowed a grimace. Elena was a wealthy widow several times over and didn't worry about doing damage to expensive hotel rooms. Charlotte, who lived in a tenement in Hanging Sword Alley, couldn't help but flinch at the dark splatter of water spreading across the silk.
"Do you want to eat?" Elena asked.
"I ate while you were underwater," Charlotte answered, indicating the empty dishes. Lightheaded with champagne and blood loss, she'd ordered chicken consomme and oyster cocktail with the telephone set in the corner of the room and paid for it with money from Elena's elaborately beaded handbag. "But if you want to take me out, I won't say no."
Elena stretched across the bed, looking like Theda Bara in repose. "Are you proposing to be my kept woman?"
Charlotte didn't answer. She removed the wet napkin from her neck and placed it on the silver salver next to the champagne bucket in a sodden, bloody pile. The ice had started melting in earnest, sending cold, pinkish rivulets of water down her neck to soak into the collar of her borrowed robe. She patted at her neck with another napkin, this one crisply folded and dry.
"Why do you lie under the water like that?" She asked, attempting to change the subject. They always met in posh hotel rooms, and Elena always submerged herself in a hot bath immediately after feeding.
"It makes me feel warm," Elena said wistfully. "Almost."
"Do you miss being human?" Charlotte asked, feeling bold.
"I miss feeling my heartbeat," Elena responded. "But I remember too much of what it meant to be human to be nostalgic for it." She sat up on her elbows, looking curious. "Do you want to turn?"
"What, now?" Charlotte asked, pulse spiking.
Elena's mouth curved into a sharp smile. "Not now, just... would you want it, if I offered?"
It was the first time Elena had broached the topic, but it was not the first time Charlotte had wondered what it would be like. The mere thought made her ache with fear, and longing, and guilt.
Elena reached out and rolled the cuff of Charlotte's robe back to reveal four fingerprint bruises on her arm. "Do you fear the man who did this to you?" She asked.
Sweat condensed uncomfortably at the nape of Charlotte's neck and under her arms as Elena stared intently at her. She found herself wondering, not for the first time, whether vampires could read minds.
If Elena could read minds, she didn't seem inclined to tell Charlotte about it. Instead, she slipped an arm around Charlotte's shoulders, still warm from the bath, but cooling fast. Charlotte leaned heavily into the tepid comfort of her embrace.
"I turned four hundred years ago," Elena said, "after five years of bad harvests in my hometown. Not so long after, a man in cloth-of-gold came to town on a dapple-gray horse. He was an archbishop on a godly mission to end the years of drought and pestilence by ridding the countryside of the stain of witchcraft." She was silent for a moment. "He and his supporters burned every woman in town and sent their children into exile. They enriched themselves with the property of the dead, and by the time they were gone, I was the only woman in town left alive."
"Why didn't they come after you?" Charlotte asked, feeling cold with horror.
"They were afraid," Elena said, teeth flashing bright in the full-length mirror across from them. "They were weak and cruel and they treated women like monsters. But when they saw a true monster, capable of fighting back, they tucked their tails and ran."
"Why are you telling me this?" Charlotte asked.
"Because you might think humanity has become more civilized. That you've cast aside the shadows of Mediaeval superstition. But the Great War tore heaven and earth asunder, and all across the world, His Majesty's troops murder unarmed men, women, and children. And here you sit, afraid that a man might do you like the Whitechapel murderer some foggy night."
"Aye," Charlotte said. "And what does any of that have to do with me becoming a vampire?"
"You wouldn't have to jump at your own shadow when you walk alone at night. You wouldn't have to cower from the men who leave you bruised and bleeding."
"You leave me bleeding," Charlotte pointed out.
"Yes," Elena said. "But that's not really the same, is it? Not when you beg for it." The low rasp of her voice sent sparks of desire skittering along Charlotte's nerves. She relished the way her body went soft and pliable with Elena's teeth in her neck, and she feared it.
"No," she said, presently. "It's not the same."
Elena traced the curve of Charlotte's cheek with the backs of her cool fingers, with a solemn, mournful look in her ancient eyes. "You can spend the rest of your mortal life afraid. Flinching when men raise their voices or their fists. Or you can become what they fear."
Charlotte swallowed. "That's not much of a choice."
Elena shrugged her fine-boned shoulders. "But it is a choice. Most women of your station don't have one."
Your station. The words roiled in Charlotte's stomach like acid, but she said nothing.
"You're not sure that you want it," Elena said.
Charlotte nodded.
"You're not sure that you don't."
Charlotte nodded again. Elena lay completely still. No rise and fall of her chest, no flutter of a pulse.
"Is this a way for you to keep me forever? For yourself?" Charlotte asked.
"If that's what I wanted, I wouldn't need to ask for your blessing," Elena pointed out mildly. "And if you were like me, I couldn't enforce my will on you. There aren't many of us left, and we're strongest when we're young."
Charlotte tried to imagine what it would be like to be truly unafraid and found that she could not.
"You're hesitant," Elena observed. "Why? Someone you love?"
"Loved," Charlotte said. "A friend of mine, in the same line of work as me."
"Where is she now?"
Charlotte shrugged. "An unmarked grave. She left with a rich man one night, and they dredged her out of the Thames three days later. She'd been knocked on the head."
"She'll be dead no matter what you do," Elena observed, placid as a pond on a winter morning.
"I don't fancy missing her for hundreds of years," Charlotte said. "Would being a vampire heal that wound?"
"No," Elena said. "And you won't be able to stop every man who wants to knock a girl on the head and throw her body away."
"But I could stop a few." A sickening, dangerous excitement fizzed in Charlotte's veins, reminding her powerfully of the first time she saw Elena. "Do I have to decide now?"
Elena shook her head. "I've got time. But you've already decided, haven't you?"
Charlotte didn't answer. "Can I use the bath?"
"Of course."
The robe hit the floorboard with a susurration of heavy fabric. The water was slippery and fragrant with the remnants of Elena's soap. The spicy-floral scent smelled the way Charlotte thought a far-away port might, though she'd never left London in her life. Perhaps someday Elena would take her somewhere else. Or perhaps Charlotte would take herself.
She shut her eyes and slipped beneath the surface. The water closed over her head, silencing everything but the sound of her own beating heart. She drove her teeth into her scarlet-painted lip until she tasted blood and imagined that they were sharp.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 28th, 2020
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