QUICKLY I REGAINED my balance. His eyes were on me and I didn't have the slightest intention of looking away. Nevertheless, I looked him up and down because I couldn't help it, and because he was as breathtaking as he has always described himself to be, and I had to see him, truly see him, even if he was to be the last thing I ever saw.
His skin was a pale golden that offset his violet blue eyes wonderfully, and his hair was a true mane of yellow, tousled and curling just above his shoulders. His colored glasses, almost the same violet tint as his eyes, were pushed up into his hair, and he was staring at me, golden eyebrows scowling slightly, waiting perhaps for me to regain my senses; I honestly didn't know.
Quickly I realized he was wearing the black velvet jacket with the cameo buttons that had been his costume in the Chronicle called Merrick, each little cameo almost certainly of sardonyx, the coat itself very fancy with its pinched waist and flaring skirt. His linen shirt was open at the throat; his gray pants weren't important and neither were his black boots.
What engraved itself into my consciousness was his face -- square and taut, the eyes very big and the well-shaped mouth voluptuous, and the jaw somewhat hard, the whole more truly well proportioned and appealing than he could ever have claimed.
In fact, his own descriptions of himself didn't do him justice because his looks, though certainly a handful of obvious blessings, were ignited by a potent inner fire.
He wasn't staring at me with hatred. He wasn't steadying me anymore with his hand.
I cursed myself, from the pit of my heart, that I was taller than he was, that he was in fact looking up at me. Maybe he'd cheerfully obliterate me on that account alone.
"The letter," I stammered. "The letter!" I whispered, but though my hand groped, and my mind groped, I couldn't reach inside my coat for the letter. I was wobbling in fear.
And as I stood there shivering and sweating, he reached inside my jacket and withdrew the envelope. Flash of sparkling fingernails.
"This is for me, is it, Tarquin Blackwood?" he asked. His voice had a touch of the French accent, no more. He smiled suddenly and he looked as if he couldn't hurt anyone for the world. He was too attractive, too friendly, too young. But the smile vanished as quickly as it had come.
"Yes," I said. Or rather it was a stutter. "The letter, please read it." I faltered, then pressed on. "Before you. . . make up your mind."
He tucked the letter into his own inside pocket and then he turned to Stirling, who sat dazed and silent, eyes cloudy, his hands clinging to the back of the chair before the desk. The back was like a shield in front of him, though a useless one as I well knew.
Lestat's eyes fixed on me again:
"We don't feed on members of the Talamasca, Little Brother," he said. "But you" -- he looked at Stirling -- "you nearly got what you almost deserve."
Stirling stared forward, plainly unable to answer, and only shook his head.
"Why did you come here, Mr. Oliver?" Lestat asked him.
Again, Stirling merely shook his head. I saw the tiny drops of blood on his starched white collar. I felt an overwhelming shame, a shame so deep and painful it filled me completely, banishing even the faintest aftertaste of the attempted feast.
I went silently crazy.
Stirling had almost died, and for my thirst. Stirling was alive. Stirling was in danger now, danger from Lestat. Behold: Lestat, like a blaze in front of me. Yes, he could pass for human, but what a human -- magnetic and charged with energy as he continued to take command.
"Mr. Oliver, I'm talking to you," Lestat said in a soft yet imperious tone. He picked up Stirling by the lapels and, moving him clumsily to the far corner of the parlor, he flung him down into a large satin upholstered wing chair.
Stirling looked the worse for it -- who wouldn't? -- still unable apparently to focus his gaze.
Lestat sat down on the velvet couch very near him. I was completely forgotten for the moment, or so I assumed.
"Mr. Oliver," said Lestat, "I'm asking you. What made you come into my house?"
"I don't know," said Stirling. He glanced up at me and then at the figure who was questioning him, and I struggled, because I couldn't help it, to see what he was seeing -- this vampire whose skin still glowed though it was tanned, and whose eyes were prismatic and undeniably fierce.
The fabled beauty of Lestat seemed potent as a drug. And the crowning light of the chandelier was merciless or splendid depending entirely on one's point of view.
"Yes, you do know why you came here," said Lestat, his voice subdued, the French accent no more than a beguiling taste. "It wasn't enough for the Talamasca to drive me out of the city. You have to come into those places that belong to me?"
"I was wrong to do it," Stirling said. It was spoken in a sigh. He scowled and pressed his lips together hard. "I shouldn't have done it." For the first time he looked directly into Lestat's eyes.
Lestat glanced up at me.
Sitting forward he reached over and slipped his fingers behind Stirling's bloodstained collar, startling Stirling and glaring up at me.
"We don't spill blood when we feed, Little Brother," he said with a passing mischievous smile. "You have much to learn."
The words hit me rather like a wallop and I found myself speechless. Did this mean that I'd walk out of here alive?
Don't kill Stirling, that's what I was thinking; and then suddenly Lestat, as he still stared at me, made a short little laugh.
"Tarquin, turn that chair around," he said, gesturing to the desk, "and sit down. You make me nervous standing there. You're too damned tall. And you're making Stirling Oliver nervous as well."
I felt a great rush of relief, but as I tried to do what he'd told me to do my hands were shaking so badly that I was again full of shame. Finally, I managed to sit down facing the pair of them, but a polite distance away.
Stirling made a small frown as he looked at me, but it was entirely sympathetic and he was still obviously off base. I hadn't drunk enough blood to account for his dizziness. It was the act of it, the drawing on his heart. That, and the fact that Lestat had come, Lestat had interrupted us, Lestat was here and he was demanding again of Stirling, Why had Stirling come into the flat?
"You could have come here by day," said Lestat, addressing Stirling in an even voice. "I have human guards from sunup to sundown but the Talamasca is good at bribing guards. Why didn't you take the hint that I look after my properties myself once the sun has set? You disobeyed the directive of your own Superior General. You disobeyed your own common sense."
Stirling nodded, eyes veering off, as if he had no argument, and then in a weak but dignified voice he said:
"The door was unlocked."
"Don't insult me," said Lestat, his voice still patient and even. "It's my house."
Again, Stirling appeared to meet Lestat's gaze. He looked at him steadily and then he spoke in a more coherent voice.
"I was wrong to do it, and you've caught me. Yes, I've disobeyed the directive of the Superior General, that's true. I came because I couldn't resist it. I came because perhaps I didn't quite believe in you. I didn't believe in spite of all I'd read and been told."
Lestat shook his head disapprovingly and again there came that short little laugh.
"I expect that credulity of mortal readers of the Chronicles," he said. "I expect it even of fledglings like Little Brother here. But I don't expect it of the Talamasca, who have so ceremoniously declared war on us."
"For what it's worth," said Stirling, gathering his strength somewhat, "I was not for that war. I voted against it as soon as I heard of the declaration. I was for closing the Motherhouse here in Louisiana, if need be. But then. . . I was for accepting our losses and retreating to our libraries abroad."
"You drove me out of my own city," said Lestat. "You question my neighbors in these precincts. You rummage through all my public property titles and records. And now you trespass, and you say it was because you didn't believe? That's an excuse but not a reason."
"The reason was I wanted to see you," said Stirling, his voice growing stronger. "I wanted what others in the Order have had. I wanted to see you with my own eyes."
"And now that you have seen me," Lestat replied, "what precisely will you do?" He glanced at me again, a flash of brilliant eyes and a smile that was gone in an instant as he looked back to the man in the chair.
"What we always do," said Stirling. "Write about it, put it into a report to the Elders, copy it to the File on the Vampire Lestat -- that is, if you let me leave here, if that's your choice."
"I haven't harmed any of you, have I?" Lestat asked. "Think on it. When have I harmed a true and active member of the Talamasca? Don't blame me for what others have done. And since your warlike declaration, since you sought to drive me right out of my home, I've shown remarkable restraint."
"No, you haven't," Stirling quietly replied.
I was shocked.
"What do you mean?" Lestat demanded. "What on earth can you mean? I think I've been a gentleman about it." He smiled at Stirling for the first time.
"Yes, you've been a gentleman," Stirling responded. "But I hardly think you've been restrained."
"Do you know how it affects me to be driven out of New Orleans?" Lestat asked, voice still tempered. "Do you know how it affects me to know I can't wander the French Quarter for fear of your spies in the Caf¨¦ du Monde, or wander the Rue Royale with the evening shoppers, just because one of your glorified gossips might be wandering about too? Do you know how it wounds me to leave behind the one city in the world with which I'm truly in love?"
Stirling roused himself at these words. "But haven't you always been too clever for us?" he asked.
"Well, of course," Lestat rejoined with a shrug.
"Besides," Stirling went on, "you haven't been driven out. You've been here. You've been seen by our members, sitting very boldly in the Caf¨¦ du Monde, I might add, presiding over a hot cup of useless caf¨¦ au lait."
I was stunned.
"Stirling!" I whispered. "For the love of Christ, don't argue."
Again Lestat looked at me, but not with anger. He returned to Stirling.
Stirling hadn't finished. He went on firmly: "You still feed off the riffraff," he said. "The authorities don't care, but we recognize the patterns. We know it's you."
I was mortified. How could Stirling talk like this?
Lestat broke into an irrepressible laugh.
"And even so, you came by night?" he demanded. "You dared to come, knowing I might find you here?"
"I think. . ." Stirling hesitated, then went on. "I think I wanted to challenge you. I think, as I said, that I committed a sin of pride."
Thank God for this confession, I thought. "Committed a sin" -- really good words. I was quaking, watching the two of them, appalled by Stirling's fearless tone.
"We respect you," said Stirling, "more than you deserve."
"Oh, do explain that to me!" said Lestat, smiling. "In what form comes this respect, I should like to know. If I'm truly in your debt, I should like to say thanks."
"St. Elizabeth's," said Stirling, his voice rolling gracefully now, "the building where you lay for so many years, sleeping on the chapel floor. We've never sought to enter it or discover what goes on there. And as you said we're very good at bribing guards. Your Chronicles made your sleep famous. And we knew that we could penetrate the building. We could glimpse you in the daylight hours, unprotected, lying on the marble. What a lure that was -- the sleeping vampire who no longer bothered with the trappings of a coffin. A dark deadly inverse of the sleeping King Arthur, waiting for England to need him again. But we never crept into your enormous lodgings. As I said, I think we respected you more than you deserve."
I shut my eyes for an instant, certain of disaster.
But Lestat only broke into another fit of chuckling and laughing.
"Sheer nonsense," he said. "You and your members were afraid. You never came near St. Elizabeth's night or day because you were plainly afraid of the ancient ones among us who could have put out your light like a match. You were afraid too of the rogue vampires who came prowling, the ones who wouldn't respect the name Talamasca enough to give you a wide berth. As for the daylight hours, you had no clue what you'd find -- what high-paid thugs might have terminated you and buried you under the concrete basement floor. It was a purely practical matter."
Stirling narrowed his eyes. "Yes, we did have to be careful," he conceded. "Nevertheless, there were times --."
"Foolishness," said Lestat. "In point of pure fact, my infamous sleep ended before your declaration of war on us was made. And what if I did show myself sitting 'very boldly' in the Caf¨¦ du Monde! How dare you use the word 'boldly'? You imply I don't have the right!"
"You feed on your fellow human beings," said Stirling calmly. "Have you seriously forgotten that?"
I was frantic. Only the smile on Lestat's face reassured me that Stirling wasn't headed for certain death.
"No, I never forget what I do," said Lestat equably. "But surely you don't mean to take on the whole question of what I do now for my own survival! And you must remember, I'm not a human being -- far from it, and farther from it with every passing adventure and every passing year. I've been to Heaven and to Hell; let me ask you to remember that."
Lestat paused as though he himself were remembering this, and Stirling tried to answer but plainly could not. Lestat pressed on in a measured voice:
"I've been in a human body and recovered this body you see before you. I've been the consort of a creature whom others called a goddess. And yes, I feed off my fellow human beings because it's my nature, and you know it, and you know what care I take with every mortal morsel, that it be tainted and vicious and unfit for human life. The point I was trying to make is that your declaration against us was ill conceived."
"I agree with you; it was a foolish Declaration of Enmity. It should never have been put forth."
"Declaration of Enmity, is that what you called it?" Lestat asked.
"I think those are the official words," said Stirling. "We've always been an authoritarian order. In fact, we don't know much about democracy at all. When I spoke of my vote, I was speaking of a symbolic voice rather than a literal one. Declaration of Enmity, yes, those were the words. It was a rather misguided and naive thing."
"Ah, misguided and naive," Lestat repeated. "I like that. And it might do you good, all of you in the Talamasca, to remember that you're a pretentious bunch of meddlers, and your Elders are no better than the rest of you."
Stirling seemed to be relaxing, mildly fascinated, but I couldn't relax. I was too afraid of what might happen at any moment.
"I have a theory about the Declaration of Enmity," Stirling said.
"Which is?" asked Lestat.
"I think the Elders thought in their venerable minds, and God knows, I don't really know their venerable minds, that the Declaration would bring certain of our members back to us who had been inducted into your ranks."
"Oh, that's lovely." Lestat laughed. "Why are you mincing words like this? Is it on account of the boy?"
"Yes, perhaps I mince words because of him," Stirling answered, "but honestly, we members of the Talamasca think in language such as this."
"Well, for your records and your files," Lestat said, "we don't have ranks. In fact, I'd say that as a species we are given to rigidly individual personalities and obdurate differences, and peculiar mobility as to matters of friendship and company and meeting of minds. We come together in small covens and then are driven wildly apart again. We know little lasting peace with each other. We have no ranks."
This was intriguing and my fear melted just a little as Stirling came back in his careful polite voice.
"I understand that," he said. "But to return to the question at hand, as to why the Elders made this warlike declaration, I think they honestly believed that those vampires who had once been part of us might come to try to reason with us, and we might benefit thereby in meeting with actual beings such as yourself. We might carry our knowledge of you to a higher realm."
"It was all scholastic is what you're saying," said Lestat.
"Yes. And surely you must realize what it has meant for us to lose three members to your collective power, whatever the cause of it, and no matter how it was accomplished. We were stunned by each defection, and mystified as to the dialogue, if any, that might have preceded what happened. We wanted to learn, you see. We wanted. . . to know."
"Well, it didn't work, did it?" said Lestat, his calm demeanor unchanged. "And you weren't content with the Chronicles alone, were you? They told you all about the dialogue. But you and the Elders wanted this eye-to-eye view."
"No, it didn't work," said Stirling, and he seemed now to be possessed of his full dignity and strength. His gray eyes were clear. "On the contrary, we provoked from you more audacity. You dared to publish a Chronicle using the name Merrick Mayfair. You dared to do this even though a great family by the name of Mayfair lives in this city and its environs to this day. You had no care when you did that."
I felt a sharp stab in my heart. My own beloved Mayfair flashed before my eyes. But here was Stirling being positively reckless again.
"Audacity!" said Lestat, his smile broadening as he glared at Stirling. "You accuse me of audacity! You're living and breathing now entirely because I want it."
"No doubt of it, but you are audacious," insisted Stirling.
I was about to faint.
"Audacious and proud of it," Lestat fired back. "But let's get one thing straight. I am not the sole author of the Chronicles. Blame your own versatile David Talbot for the Chronicle of Merrick Mayfair. It was David's story to tell. Merrick wanted the Dark Gift. Merrick Mayfair was a witch before she was ever a vampire. Who should know that better than you? There was no lie there. And it was David's choice to use her name, as well as the name of the Talamasca, I might add. What is all of this to me?"
"He wouldn't have done it without your blessing," said Stirling with astonishing confidence.
"You think not?" demanded Lestat. "And why should I care about some mortal family of witches? The Mayfairs, what are they to me? And what is a great family, pray tell, a rich family? Vampires loathe witches, whether they're rich or poor. Anyone who reads the story of Merrick Mayfair can see why. Not that Merrick isn't anything but a princess among us now. Besides, our eager readers think it's all fiction, and how do you know what's real and what's not?"
I wept inside thinking of my red-haired Mayfair! And on they talked.
"Thank God your readers think it's fiction," said Stirling, becoming faintly more heated, "and the Mayfair family is unaware of the truths you told; and a great family is one that has survived the ages, and treasures bonds of love. What else? You seek a family, always and everywhere. I see it in your Chronicles."
"Stop, I won't listen to you," said Lestat sharply but without raising his voice. "I'm not here to be judged by you. You've had corruption in your ranks. You know you have. And I know full well myself. And now I find that you're corrupt, disobeying your Elders to come here. You think I'd give you the Dark Blood?"
"I don't want it," said Stirling in suppressed amazement. "I don't seek it. I wanted to see you, and hear your voice."
"And now you have, and what will you do?"
"I told you. Write about it. Confess to the Elders. Describe it all."
"Oh, no you won't," said Lestat. "You'll leave out one key part."
"And what is that?" asked Stirling.
"You're such an admirable bunch," said Lestat, shaking his head. "You can't guess what part?"
"We try to be admirable," said Stirling. "I'll be condemned by the Elders. I might even be removed from Louisiana, though I doubt it. I have other important work to do."
Again, there came that stab in my heart. I thought of the "great family of Mayfair." I thought of my red-haired love, my Mayfair witch, whom I would never see again. Was that his important work? I wished with all my heart I could ask him.
Lestat appeared to be studying Stirling, who had fallen silent, staring at Lestat, perhaps doing that little mental trick of memorizing all the details about which he would write later on. Members of the Talamasca were especially trained to do it.
I tried to scan his mind, but I couldn't get in, and I didn't dare to try with Lestat. Lestat would know.
Lestat broke the silence.
"Revoke it, this Declaration of Enmity," he said.
Stirling was startled. He thought for a moment and then he said:
"I can't do that. I'm not one of the Elders. I can tell them that you asked me to revoke the Declaration. That's all I can do."
Lestat's eyes softened. They drifted over Stirling and then to me. For a long moment Lestat and I looked at each other, and then I weakened and looked politely away.
I had glimpsed something as we looked at each other.
It was something I'd never heard mentioned in the Chronicles -- a shade of difference between Lestat's eyes. One eye was almost imperceptibly larger than the other, and colored by a little blood. I'm not sure that as a mortal I could have detected such a small difference. I was confused by having seen it now. If Lestat counted it as a flaw, he would hate me for seeing it.
Lestat was gazing at Stirling.
"We'll make a deal, you and I," he said.
"I'm relieved to hear it," Stirling said. It had the same gentle arrogance of his earlier remarks.
"It's a simple bargain," said Lestat, "but if you refuse me, or if you go against me, I'll go against you. I could have done that before now, I'm sure you know."
"David Talbot won't let you hurt us," said Stirling with quiet spunk. "And there's an old one, an ancient one, one of the grandest in your tales, and she, the great authority, won't let you harm us either, isn't that so?"
"Stirling!" I whispered before I could stop myself.
But Lestat seemed only to weigh this for a moment. Then:
"I could still hurt you," he said. "I don't play by anybody's rules but my own. As for the ancient ones, don't be so sure they want to govern. I think they want utter privacy and complete peace."
Stirling reflected, then said quickly, "I see your point."
"You despise me now, don't you?" Lestat asked with engaging sincerity.
"Not at all," was Stirling's quick reply. "On the contrary, I see your charm. You know I do. Tell me about this bargain. What do you want me to do?"
"First off, go back to your Elders and tell them that this Declaration of Enmity must be officially withdrawn. It doesn't matter that much to me but it matters to others, and besides, I know that if you swear honorably to be no more than observers in the future, then you won't annoy us, and with me that counts for a lot. I loathe being annoyed. It makes me feel angry and malicious."
"The second request stems from the first. Leave this boy completely alone. This boy is the key point which you must leave out of your report. Of course you can say that a nameless Blood Drinker assaulted you. You know, have it all make sense and do justice to whatever you think you may have learned here. I anticipate your inevitable fascination with all that. But this boy's anonymity must become a point of honor. . . and there's more."
Stirling was silent.
"You know his name," said Lestat, "you know where he lives, you know his family. All that was plain to me before I interrupted him in his bumbling attack on you. Now you know that he's one of us, as the expression goes. You must not only leave him out of your records, you must leave him completely and utterly alone."
Stirling held Lestat's gaze for a moment and then he nodded.
"You move against this boy," said Lestat, "you try to take up your combative posture where he is concerned, and as God is my witness, I'll wipe you out. I'll kill all of you. I'll leave you nothing but your empty libraries and your overflowing vaults. I'll start in the Motherhouse in Louisiana and then I'll move to the Motherhouses all over the world. It's a cinch for me to do it. I'll pick you off one at a time. Even if the ancients do rise to protect you, it won't happen immediately, and what I can do immediately is an enormous amount of harm."
I went from fear to astonishment.
"I understand you," said Stirling. "Of course you want him protected. Thank heaven for that."
"I pray that you do understand me," said Lestat. He glanced at me again. "This is a young one, an innocent one, and I'll make the decision as to whether he survives or not."
I think Stirling let out a little gasp.
As for me there came a flood of relief again, and then another wave of intelligent fear.
Lestat gestured to Stirling.
"Need I add that you're to get out of here now and never trespass on my property again?" he asked.
Stirling rose at once, and so did I. Stirling looked at me, and there came over me again the total realization that I'd almost ended his life tonight, and a recurrence of terrible shame.
"Good-bye, my friend," I said in as strong a voice as I could muster. I reached awkwardly for his hand and held it firmly. He looked at me and his face softened.
"Quinn," he said, "my brave Quinn."
"Farewell, Lestat de Lioncourt," he said. "I think I understate my case when I say I'm deeply in your debt."
"You do but I find ingrates all around me eternally," said Lestat, smiling slyly. "Go on, Mr. Oliver. It's a good thing you have one of your prowling limousines waiting for you only a couple of blocks from here. I don't think you're up to walking far or driving a car by yourself."
"Right you are," said Stirling, and then with no further words he hurried down the hallway and out the back door, and I heard his heavy rapid steps on the iron stairs.
Lestat had also risen, and he came towards me and gestured for me to sit down again. He took my head in both his hands. There was no dreadful pressure; there was no pain. It was gentle, the manner in which he was holding me.
But I was too afraid to do anything but look up into his eyes quietly, and again I saw that small difference, that one eye was larger than the other by not even a fraction of an inch. I tried to repress the mere thought of it. I tried only to think I will do whatever you want of me, and without meaning for it to happen, I closed my eyes as if someone were about to hit me in the face.
"You think I'm going to kill you, don't you?" I heard him say.
"I hope not," I said shakily.
"Come on, Little Brother," he said, "it's time to leave this pretty little place to those who know so much about it. And you, my young friend, have to feed."
And then I felt his arm tight around me. The air was rushing past me. I was clinging to him, though I don't think I needed to, and we were out in the night, and we were moving towards the clouds.</