Elizabeth hated crowds.
Crowds meant there were too many people watching her with cold eyes she could not read, people who might know more than her about who she was, about what her purpose was. And she knew nothing of them, or their purposes, and until she did, everyone in a crowd might be the person who had power over her.
She had intentions, she knew that, even if what they were was not yet clear. And in a crowd, there might be someone who would guess better than she could.
Sometimes she thought of her intentions as vengeance, but that was not it, not really. It was more doing what needed to be done so that things were as they should have been, or something like it. It was as if she were running a treadmill until her breathing was sore, and knowing that one day she could climb down into stillness and breathe without pain again.
Killing Lilah, clearly that was part of it, at some point, just as, right now, loving Lilah was part of it too. She was not so loyal, though, that she thought Lilah more important than she was, though Lilah was also, from day to day, the centre of her world, everything that was.
She spent whole days in their apartment, while Lilah was busy doing lawyer things, looking at herself in a mirror and painting ever more subtle calligraphies of grey and brown and black around her eyes, and thinking, for the tiny cameras and other smaller eyes she knew were there, of how important Lilah was to her. And, without moving a single muscle in her face, of how one day she would snap Lilah's neck like a breadstick. When the time came.
Power - Lilah had power over her, and the power that came from killing and ordering that killing be done. There is power that is handed down and taken away, and there is power that sits still inside you.
She sat and she filed her fingernails and she let one nail grow and sharpened it a little every day. Some things are too boring for them to watch.
Each night, in bed, she moaned under the fluttering of Lilah's needy and impulsive hands; each evening, she watched Lilah take endless delicate sips from waterglass and wineglass, take ever smaller mouthfuls of slivered beef and shaved vegetables, as if she could live in less and smaller. There was no stillness there.
Yet Lilah tried continually to show her the power she had been given, as if it would make Elizabeth love her more. As if there were a more that Elizabeth could love her. Sometimes Elizabeth thought this meant that she should kill Lilah now, that perhaps her intentions were clearer than she knew, and yet she waited.
Lilah drove her fast through the night with silk wrapped around her eyes. Elizabeth counted the turns and reckoned the speed and sniffed the sea or the desert. Lilah showed her white-walled rooms where men with dull eyes shaved off the skulls of creatures with many eyes, where creatures with many dull eyes stood in near total stillness dabbling with their many-jointed long fingers in the pink-gray sludge in the open skulls of men.
As Elizabeth looked with interest at ways of death she had not seen before, she noticed Lilah flicker her eyes around her and breathe in short gasps. Sometimes Lilah looked away from the sights she insisted Elizabeth see - from shattered skulls and broken long fingers. No stillness there and no power.
When they returned, Lilah told her to run blindfold behind the car like a perfect silent slave, and Elizabeth paced through the night, never quite losing track of the faint purr of the car engine, and breathing regularly as she ran the air of the desert, the air of the sea.
She hated crowds, but the stillness of night roads was balm.
Increasingly, they never spoke; Lilah watched her with eyes that grew progressively more purple and bruised and Elizabeth watched her in return, her face a more perfect mask for every day of still contemplation of the mirror.
When Lilah did speak, her words were harsh, threats of pain or damage to which Elizabeth reacted with a simper or a shrug or a blank stare. Then, when the storm of Lilah's sudden uncaused rages burned itself out, Elizabeth would reach up and draw her into languorous kisses until Lilah wept and Elizabeth sucked the salt from her cheeks.
One night, Lilah raged at her more incoherently than ever, tugged her out to the dark-windowed and drove still raging, not even bothering with the silk any more. A blonde woman lay unconscious on a slab in one of the white rooms and a grey-haired woman was cutting a wedge from the blonde's skull, making quiet practised movements into the exposed brain.
Elizabeth looked at the large eyes and tight mouth of the grey woman, noticing the frown of rebuke with which she looked at Lilah. A person entitled to rebuke was a face with power, a face to be learned.
The blonde, though...That was a face to learn too. There was a stillness to her that was not just that she did not breathe at all. She was still and unconscious and unmoving, entirely manipulated and entirely at the other woman's mercy, and yet life and power shone from her like passion in a lover's eyes.
Elizabeth stood and looked as she was meant to, learning what she saw. Suddenly Lilah turned, a flush on her cheeks, and slapped Elizabeth hard across the mouth.
'You don't look at them, ' she said, 'not with those damned painted hungry eyes. You look down, with respect. With respectful love for me.'
'Of course,' Elizabeth said. 'As you say. Lilah.'
Lilah looked at her, hurt and angry and full of heartbreak. Elizabeth looked back with an abstracted tenderness, as if she noticed none of this. Perhaps it would not be necessary to kill Lilah after all; those who have no power can be made to feel such exquisite pain.
That week, Lilah hardly came back to the apartment, and when she did, the phone rang at all hours; she hardly ate and she came to bed too tired for lovemaking. Elizabeth watched her breathe raggedly through the night and listened for the odd words of nightmare that made it into hearing.
One morning, Lilah sent her to the gym by herself. Elizabeth ran on the treadmill - she danced and she leaped and she pulled herself through the air - she lifted and she pressed and she breathed as if she were walking in the soft breeze of a spring day.
Back at the apartment, she found a long dress of white silk and a note from Lilah; beside the note and the dress, there lay a single rose, its petals so darkly purple that they might have been black. Elizabeth thought that they were the colour of Lilah's anxious needy powerless loving eyes.
She smelled the rose, breathing as deeply in its heady scent as she would have burying her nose in Lilah, and she thought a little of what might come next.
The stiller she became, the more she sensed the invisible currents of events rushing round her.
Sorrow and death and justice. And, in its way, love.
She had been with distant cousins once, when death was in the house, and they had weakened the seams of their garments so that they could tear them in grief when things ended.
Before she readied herself, she sat and meditated and stared blankly as if there were cameras trained on her from an inch away; she drew the eyes of watchers to the quiet enigma of her face and her sharp little finger whispered along each seam, almost invisibly.
She walked into the large panelled room, her eyes lowered, and the people standing around, glasses of wine or blood or other drink in their hands, fell silent, so that her swish of her dress and the click of her heels on the chequered floor was the loudest noise that there was.
There were not enough people to make a crowd, but the pressure of interest was like a buffeting wind as she walked.
Keeping her perfect blank face still, she scanned the room. The grey-haired woman was there, wrapped in conversation with another almost identical woman. At her shoulder there stood a tall being with the bruised face of a farmboy who sang in a choir and the claws of a great beast hanging from the cuffs of his tuxedo.
The blonde was there, awake with hungry eyes and manacled to a chair on which sat a large creature with distorted brutal features and the worst haircut she had seen on a living being.
A serving maid, naked except for chains and sharp teeth, offered her small snails whose shells bore forgotten ideograms - she took two and the small fierce-tined forks to eat them with. As she walked towards the centre of the room, she crunched the shells in her teeth, swallowed the morsels, noted the bite of garlic on her tongue.
There were tables of food and drink around the room, more than even hungry beasts could eat or drink - an ox turning over a fire-pit with its gilt horns bright against the flames and horned men turning it, carving chunks from it with great curved knives, laughing into its mad, pained eyes.
Lilah was there; Elizabeth walked to her, stood by her, looked up at her with perfectly devoted painted eyes. Lilah's face was beautiful still, but like ice that one day quite soon will shatter or melt, and drown all who venture too far; Elizabeth reached up and kissed her firmly on that almost trembling mouth. Here, so near to an ending, it was possible to be kind, knowing that each small mercy might be the one thing that broke her.
It was the ogre who broke the near silence, glowering around him at the other principals.
'Is this her?' he bellowed. 'Is this little girl the thing you let us go on fearing?'
The two older women looked at each other and at the jovial man who stood near them, and shrugged.
'Of course,' the man said, suavely. 'This is our Elizabeth.'
The ogre rose from his chair and paced towards Elizabeth.
'It is an insult that she is here, an insult to me and my Master. She should live broken to pain, away from sight.'
The grey surgeon stepped forward and the other woman restrained her. Again, their eyes met and they looked at the man who stood beside them.
'Luke,' he said. 'None of us is here to prevent your doing what you feel you must.'
Lilah cried out in anguish.
'Holland,' she said.
'Lilah,' he replied. 'Let us test your work.'
As the ogre lumbered forward, Elizabeth had kicked off her shoes and was already in the air, leaping to his shoulder height and jabbing at his eyes with the two small silver forks she had palmed; big was less dangerous if blind. She needed her hands free and so she left the forks where they were, hammered with the palm of her hand into his bleeding sockets.
As she touched the floor, she spun and ripped away the lower panels of her dress, letting two of them fall and twisting the others into a cord that she whipped around Luke's neck, sticking one small foot into the small of his vast back, and pulled tight, forcing him to the ground and hammering at his sockets again with her free hand as he fell.
For a second, her lower lip trembled in concentration and disappointment; she had known she could not choke, but had hoped the corded muscles of his neck would not keep his neck from breaking - still, down was down.
Once he was down, she pulled the cord ever tighter and dragged the heavy load of him across the floor.
He reached up behind his head with those massive hands and groped blindly for her - she danced away, elbowed one of the servitors in the face and grasped the huge knife with which he had been hacking at the great ox, swinging it down two-handed at Luke's neck and severing it with that single stroke.
He turned to dust almost at once. She had not anticipated that, noted it for the future, pulled back the suddenly free silk and twisted its loops around her wrist.
'Interesting,' said the second grey-haired woman.
'Lilah,' the smiling man said, walking forward and clapping as he walked. 'You really have not let her train in such things.'
'No, Holland,' Lilah said, anxiousness to please cracking her voice. 'As you ordered, just the gym.'
The moment Lilah mentioned orders, Elizabeth was across the room with her knife at the man's throat. She did not welcome his applause; she did not like his smile.
The second grey-haired woman clapped her hands and the slight bespectacled man who stood almost unnoticed at her sight pulled a pistol and aimed it at Elizabeth.
Elizabeth pulled the knife across Holland's throat - this might be the last thing she was able to do before the end and he seemed like a man who needed killing - then she dived to the floor and rolled, never losing possession of the knife or the silk cord.
As the slight man fired, Lilah shrieked 'No' and dashed forward, taking his bullet full in the chest and collapsing with blood on her lips. Elizabeth noticed this with surprise as she took shelter beside the blonde chained to Luke's ornate chair.
The blonde looked at her with an interested smile.
'Well, isn't this cosy?' she said, with a husky catch in her throat.
Elizabeth noted, with distant amusement, that the blonde's affected voice was to some part of her like honey or a caress. She reached up and wrenched the arm from the chair, then snapped it in half so that the blonde hands were free, even if her wrists were still chained to the wreckage.
'Why, thank you,' the blonde said, surprised. It was impressive that her voice could be so breathy when she did not breathe
Elizabeth hated to see living things caged or chained.
She peered around the room from cover - the tall being with green demon hands was standing so as to shield the surgeon and the other grey-haired woman had taken the gunman by the arm.
'Let it be, Price,' she said, and then said, 'Elizabeth, you can go.'
Price pulled away from her, his gun never wavering.
'There is no point,' the woman went on. 'She knows almost nothing; it would be wasteful to kill her. I do not want to die, but it will be interesting to see what she does in the world we have made. No-one else needs to die today.'
A young man with floppy hair and a down-home accent spoke from further away.
'I would not be authorised to agree to her death,' he said. 'Only Holland could have done that and...'
His voice tailed away into a shrug.
'Elizabeth,' the woman said. 'You can make a place in this world we have made. What is done is done, and things have no longer their accustomed place. Live and we will let you live.'
Elizabeth stood up, warily, and pulled the blonde to her feet, keeping her between herself and Price's never-wavering gun. She knew little of these things, but it seemed unlikely that the blonde was a thing that could be much hurt with guns.
'You will be coming with me,' Elizabeth said in a definitive voice.
'Whither thou goest,' the blonde said, her eyes half-hooding and her lips promisingly full.
Lilah cried out from where she lay in a pool of her own blood on the chess board flor. Elizabeth picked up the lengths of silk she had abandoned and padded them against the gunshot wound - there was too much blood and there was a froth to it as it oozed from her chest.
Elizabeth looked at the two grey-haired women as they turned their faces away and walked from the room, each accompanied by her courtiers and guards.
'Help me,' Lilah said with a throaty gurgling whisper. It was as if only Elizabeth and the blonde even noticed her existence. The room emptied around them as efficiently as if it was being danced and each of those who left only noticed the dying woman to the extent that they took good care to keep their feet from her blood.
'Hush, my love,' Elizabeth said.
She knelt and kissed Lilah on the lips. As soft as the wind, and then reached around and twisted her neck. Lilah's neck was far too delicate not to break. Odd, Elizabeth thought, that at the end I should almost be kind in the kill.
'I might have turned her,' the blonde said. 'I cannot bite, but I could still have sucked her blood and let her drink mine. She could have lived forever.'
'No,' said Elizabeth. 'No-one can live with a broken heart.'
She pulled the blonde down to where she knelt, and twisted her around so that she lay with her head on the dead woman's body. She kissed the blonde's lips which smelled faintly of old blood and the blonde's tongue darted out to pick the last flecks of Lilah's blood from Elizabeth's mouth.
'I'm sorry,' Elizabeth said. 'You must be starving'.
And stood and watched as the blonde drained the cooling blood from Lilah's body. Lilah had always been lovely - frail and white and empty in death, she was an ivory carving with dark hair and dark dead eyes.
The blonde finished and rose and stood by Elizabeth, eye to eye.
'And that was my fee?' she said, running her finger along Elizabeth's jawline.
'Ah, no,' Elizabeth said. 'I had hoped it was the sealing of a partnership. I need someone who knows this world they have made around us. And you, if I am not mistaken, need someone who can - well - cut up your food for you.'
The blonde's laugh was as breathlessly breathy and enchanting as her voice.
'Perhaps,' she said, 'we should seal the partnership anyway.'
And lay herself down against the white beautiful dead woman, and drew Elizabeth down to her, stroking her arms and her neck and her naked thighs, calling to her in languages Elizabeth had never heard.
Suddenly Elizabeth found herself crying, crying for her new love and her old dead one, crying for the child she had been, the woman she was and what it was she would become. It was a relaxation to weep in the blonde's arms, to move quietly and tenderly against the blonde until she found herself gasping through the tears in the relief of feeling something again, even if tomorrow she would be hard again as ice or ivory or sharp teeth.
'Poor child,' the blonde said, only half in mockery. 'What have they done to you, poor Slayer?'
Elizabeth looked up, tenderness forgotten in crisp enquiry.
'What's a Slayer?' she said.
'Poor child,' the blonde said, calculation riding on her lips as she spoke. 'You have so much to learn.'
Suddenly Elizabeth was on her, twisting her neck around so that the blonde felt her new lover's strength and power to pain, forcing her to stare into the dead woman's eyes.
'Never forget,' Elizabeth said.
The blonde stood up, impressed and contrite.
'And then again,' she said,' some things you already now. As if you had learned them from a Master.'
She laughed again, leaned forward and kissed Elizabeth as if they were sisters, her hands on the younger woman's shoulders. Elizabeth pulled her into an embrace and for a few eternal seconds they were perfect there.
Both looking steadily into the other's passionate unreadable eyes.
Alone in the chessboard room, with the panelled walls, and the dying ox dripping its sizzling fat into the flames, and the dead woman staring up with dark eyes.
Elizabeth had always hated crowds.