Rain fell softly on the cobblestones, the murmur of the water turning the street silver-white. Two figures stood waiting in front of a door that suddenly opened, suffusing them in a warm and intoxicating glow of incense and candlelight.
The room was a dark and gaudy fantasy of Arabia, rich hangings and cushions, smoke curling from pipes. Young men lounged in various attitudes around the room.
The woman at the centre was more stark than beautiful. Her white skin stood out against the cushions; her fiery hair curled over a bare shoulder. She put a cigarette to lips as red as the velvet, with delicate fingers ending in long nails keen as razorblades. Colours around her brightened in comparison.
Life is livelier around death.
The door opened, and a breath of night air moved through.
“Messieurs Dorian et Magnus Grey,” announced the man at the entrance. The men in the chamber turned towards the door, vaguely curious in their opium haze.
Desdemona sat up as she recognised the newcomers, shaking the rain from their cloaks.
“Seals,” she said, “What are you doing so far from the sea?”
“We could ask you what you are doing here,” said Magnus, his voice gentle, soft, insinuating, as he looked around the room. The young men struggled to their feet, despite their state of delirium, and crowded around her in defence.
“It's all right,” she said to them, smiling with white teeth,“these are...old...friends.”
The young men resumed their original positions, but all had turned toward the selkies, watching them with wary eyes.
“Desdemona – ” Dorian began.
“You had me banished, Dorian Grey,” she snarled, “You know exactly what I am doing here. Your kind is not welcome.”
“You'd prefer life in the Highlands? Everyone died, Desdemona! Everyone. The Highlands are empty. You don't want to be there.”
“You had no right to make that choice for me,” she said, “they were my people too.”
“You fed on them,” said Dorian, “Your kind were making things worse.”
“I'm a vampire, Dorian!” she said, “It's what I do. Humans eat steak. Selkies eat fish. You're a hypocrite. You can't banish an entire Highland species! They are my people too.”
“You're set up well here,” said Magnus, looking around the chamber, and at the plentiful supply of both food and wine, “You're in Paris, in the centre of art and culture, with men on whom you are able to feed. I don't see what you have to complain about.”
“When you are exiled, you can tell me how it feels,” said Desdemona, “Come with me. I will show you something.”
She stood and walked into the back of the room, and pulled on a golden rope. A red curtain moved aside to reveal a staircase winding away into darkness. They followed her down the steps into the underground chill. At the bottom, the staircase opened out into a cavernous wine cellar. Countless bottles lined the walls, and stood lone sentinels on barrels, covered with dust. Her white hand touched one of them, and she pulled out a bottle from the rack, handing it to Dorian.
She looked at him, her green eyes bright.
“I have travelled the entire world, Dorian Grey,” she said, “I hadn't returned to Scotland in centuries. Word came to me of the suffering there, and so I returned in secret. Although it had changed much and seemed strange to me, the land – the bones of the country – remained the same. I knew it as I know myself.”
She paused, remembering. She indicated the bottle Dorian held in his hands.
“Here,” she said, “is blood from a woman in 1746, just after Culloden. I taught myself how to bottle it – like wine, it improves with age.”
“You were part of the suffering!” said Dorian, “how could you do this at the worst possible – ”
“Dorian,” Desdemona interrupted gently, “let me explain. This woman gave me her blood in exchange for safe passage out of the country for herself and her children. A vampire, by night, can do many things – and inspire fear – when others cannot. Especially a baobhan sith who knows the dark and lonely roads of the Highlands. The loss and suffering was too much for us to bear, and many of us – including me! – changed our ways to prevent the further sorrow of our people. Then, as now, I drink only enough to stay alive. I drink what is freely given. This woman lived a long and full life! So do her children, who today prosper because we monsters chose to do what others would not.”
Desdemona gestured at the bottles.
“All of this comes from people I helped,” she said, “escape to America, to France, to anywhere Scotland was welcome. There are Scots all over the world because I helped them. Think of how they may have been annihilated if they had not been able to emigrate! Scotland's children survive, the various bloodlines intact, because vampires helped them cross the sea. So get off your high horse, selkie, you have limited imagination.”
Dorian stared around the room. He touched one of the bottles.
“And this?” he asked.
“That's the champagne rack,” said Desdemona, “I like to drink the blood with alcohol, since this commitment means that many baobhan sith are in a state of permanent near-starvation. Absinthe is best, and seems as though it were made for the purpose. The alcohol doesn't do much for me, but I enjoy the flavour.”
She sighed, folding her arms across her chest.
“I'm a vampire, in the end,” she said, “There is no real way I can be considered on the side of good. I saw what happened to our people, the starvation and the suffering. I watched the soldiers...Scottish soldiers, on King William's side. It seemed, in fact, that King William's side was the Scottish side, as there were more Scots with him than with Charles. The soldiers refused to help any of their own, even women who were not allowed to drink the blood of their own slaughtered cattle. They starved to death. Starved, while the soldiers watched and laughed."
She looked down, tears in her eyes.
"I saw our people die too, Dorian. So I helped – in the only way I knew how. Even monsters have their limit, and that was mine.”
“I am sorry, Desdemona,” said Dorian, “I had no idea.”
“Of course you didn't,” she said, rounding on him, “that's who you both are – strike first, ask questions later. Your recruitment to the police force is not a surprise.”
“I like to think I am not like my brother,” offered Magnus.
“I know you do,” Desdemona replied, “and you're wrong.”
She shook her head, and turned away. She climbed the stairs again, returning to the warmth of the room above. The selkies followed her, and as she returned to her seat the doorman announced another name.
“If you'll excuse me, boys,” she said, “I have some friends coming to visit, and you must go. Give my love to Scotland. I will return one day, despite the edicts. It is my home, whether you like it or not.”
A handsome young man had entered, and he bowed to them as they went past, ushered out into the night by the doorman. The room with its rich tapestries and pillows vanished like a fevered dream as the door shut, leaving the two alone on a front step that gave no indication of the world within.
Outside, the fresh and damp air of a spring evening seemed too real, as they breathed in the cool night and exhaled steam. As if the door had closed on another world, Paris by comparison seemed to hold no magic. The sky was dark, and rain fell as the selkies pulled their cloaks close around their shoulders.
“Well, that shows us,” shrugged Magnus.
Dorian said nothing, but kept his head down as they walked, and spoke not a word the rest of the evening.