Place of the Heart, Part 2 of 3 

Charlotte was his first thought on waking. He had dreamed of her, of the 
night they had stood side by side at her window and she had wanted to 
walk outside in the moonlight. That night Meier had not acceded to her 
suggestion that they slip down the stairs and out the back door; why 
risk waking the household with their passing? He scooped her into his 
arms and leapt out the open window, landing smoothly despite the added 
burden. Charlotte had been pleasantly shocked at his gallant audacity, 
and they had strolled together beneath the moon. But in Meier's dream, 
there had been no moonlight, and they had walked in a place Meier had 
never seen before -- an overgrown wilderness, not the well-trimmed lawns 
of the Elbourne estate. And the dream segued, as dreams do, from the 
comfort of Charlotte at his side to the comfort of earth beneath his 
feet, and presently he could see the bare earth, rich and crumbly and 
fertile, and he burrowed into it and felt its embrace... 

She had wanted him to live, and she had wanted him to be happy. At the 
moment the two options seemed mutually exclusive. But Meier remembered 
his dreams so seldom, and this one seemed so vivid and eloquent: surely 
there was some truth in it. Charlotte's estate was on another world, but 
this world was a vast wilderness -- everywhere outside the dome. 

Meier reflected dryly that it wasn't just a wilderness; it was a jungle 
out there. Not literally; the climate was moderate, perhaps even a 
little cool. But all the area he had seen was a mass of thick forest, 
mature hardwoods in full leaf literally as far as the eye could see, 
even viewed from above the great dome itself. Had it always been thus? 
Had a portion of the great forest necessarily been destroyed when the 
city was constructed? Even if so, the planet certainly had forest to 
spare, and the dome was a thing of beauty, if more fragile than its 
makers evidently realized. But was there no earth here? Or rather, was 
it all thick with roots, none exposed where a vampire could dig his 
fingers into it? Something about the forest made Meier want to savor its 
texture and scent, revel in the warmth beyond warmth that earth of any 
temperature offered when it sheltered his kind. It had been a long time 
since Meier had touched earth other than that of the "shrine" at the 
city's heart, and he found himself suddenly longing for it with a kind 
of homesickness. 

The ship had exits other than the docking airlock, and Meier made his 
way to one, unconcerned that it opened well above the treetops. 

* * * 

In his circling Meier spotted a break in the canopy. On closer 
inspection, it proved to be the site of a giant windfall: a 
great tree that had toppled over, probably in a storm. Its roots had 
covered -- now had uncovered -- an area much wider than his wingspan. 
The torn earth was still somewhat moist from the previous night's rain. 
Meier alighted on it, then knelt and drove his fingers in. How to 
describe what the earth was like for a creature that thrived on its 
touch? Meier hadn't realized how grief and frustration had left him 
tense yet drained until that refreshment flowed through him. He sank 
further with a happy sigh, eyes falling shut in release. The earth 
seemed to draw him down, and Meier acceded, stretching out flat with 
no regard for his clothing or his dignity, cape spreading about him. 
For some minutes he was in an almost sleeplike state, lost in the 
earth that succored his nature, and perhaps this was why it was only 
upon opening his eyes that he realized he was not alone. 

Except for his slowly widening eyelids, Meier remained unmoving. What 
gazed down at him from beside the roots of the great tree was unlike any 
Earth animal he had ever seen. It was large -- certainly taller than his 
own height, and greater in bulk as well. It stood on two feet, though 
the white expanse of its belly suggested it would be equally at home on 
four. Most of its fur was gray: the eyes were large and round in a 
short-muzzled face with short upward-pointing ears. Meier tried to 
compare the creature to something in his previous experience and 
tentatively decided that it looked like a grossly overinflated squirrel, 
sans bushy tail. 

Meier couldn't tell whether it found him particularly interesting or 
simply had a naturally wide-eyed gaze, like an owl. At least it didn't 
seem inclined toward aggression; Meier didn't particularly feel like 
scrapping with a large, furry animal, not in this peaceful place. Even 
while reflecting how incautious it was, he let his eyes fall shut again. 
When he opened them at last, the creature was gone. 

Meier did stare at that. He should have heard its coming or at least its 
going; his ears could detect the movements of much smaller creatures. 
Yet this huge being had come and gone, silent as a ghost. Meier briefly 
considered the possibility that he had been hallucinating, but discarded 
the thought; he doubted he would have imagined _that_. And if he had 
imagined an intruder, he probably would have found its presence annoying 
at best; more likely threatening. This creature had simply been ... 
_there_, like the forest. It had belonged, like the rain. Meier closed 
his eyes again. The rain, the vines, the breeze, the very earth: what 
else had the city's dome shut out? Had he never discovered the dome's 
breach, he might not have found all this either, nor ever seen the 
peaceful wide-eyed creature. Why think of it as peaceful? Meier could 
not answer this; it simply seemed true, like all the rest. Meier once 
more let his eyes fall shut, and above him the stars turned their paths 
through the sky. 

The horizon was growing lighter when Meier at last retired to his 
coffin. He had separated himself from the earth with mixed feelings; 
lying there, he felt as if he had somehow come home again. He had 
considered burrowing underground for the day but decided against it; 
there were too many unknowns on this strange planet. And that day he 
dreamed again -- of the comfort of the earth, and of Charlotte at his 
side. He had gained her trust the night he scooped out a grave for her 
pet, concealing the little hole under masses of periwinkle. Later 
Charlotte had told him she wanted flowers on her grave too, especially 
if they would grow there. Meier had thought the periwinkle was primarily 
for concealment -- no one in the household had been particularly 
sympathetic to Charlotte's grief. 

"It's not just that, Meier," she had told him. "When we put flowers on 
graves, we do it in memory of the dead, but it's out of feelings for the 
hearts of the living. When someone dies, it leaves an empty place. When 
we put flowers on a grave, it's a way of filling that ... filling that 
emptiness with something beautiful until something else can grow 
naturally in its place. Don't you think it would be wonderful if flowers 
grew there naturally? I don't know why more people don't plant flowers 
on graves, so they can grow there all the time. Meier --" she looked at 
him suddenly "-- you'll put flowers on my grave, won't you? Maybe ... 
maybe even plant flowers there...?" 

"Charlotte, you'll live for so many more years --" 

"But I want to be buried in a beautiful place, someday. Where there are 
flowers and trees and sunshine..." 

Meier woke with the echo of her words in his ears. He preferred not to 
contemplate sunshine, however Charlotte might have loved it. But there 
was certainly no dearth of trees on this planet, and surely where trees 
grew there would be flowers. 

"Is that what you want?" he asked as he gazed at her cold, placid 
features. "You dreamed of living here with me just as you dreamed of 
being buried in a beautiful place. At least I can make that second dream 
come true. If I can bear to part with what remains of someone I've loved 
so deeply." 

That was the worst of it, Meier reflected as he lay on the earth again. 
The experience lacked the novelty that had given it spice the previous 
night, but it was still pleasant to lie on the earth, even that of an 
unfamiliar planet. Meier could feel the difference now, in some 
indefinable way. Perhaps the magnetic field differed, or the 
gravitational pull, or perhaps the lifeforms here had evolved along 
totally different lines from those on the planet where he had lived all 
his long life. The place was alien, if only in subtle ways. Would 
Charlotte have found it beautiful? Meier thought so. The canopy seemed 
unbroken -- indeed, Meier started his perambulatory exploration at the 
foot of the great fallen tree because he didn't particularly care to try 
descending anywhere else. But the branches that blocked his flight also 
blocked sunlight from the understory; there was very little undergrowth, 
and Meier often found it easy to imagine that he was not out of doors 
but in a great hall with a leafy roof and rough-hewn columns, the floor 
carpeted with leaves. The Vampire King himself could not boast a castle 
so extensive as what had grown here; what king might claim such a 
domicile as this? 

Meier pulled aside a mass of cable-like vines and recoiled as clouds upon 
clouds of yellow and brown fluttered aside, up, away, a few right over
his head. They were moths, huge moths, their wings brown and yellow 
and not far from silent. As the mass of them dwindled, Meier realized he 
had come upon a grassy clearing, and the moths had been thronged 
about the great gray creature he had seen the evening before. It was
sitting up like a bear, hind legs extended before it, and its ears twitched 
up attentively as it looked across the clearing. 

"I'm sorry -- I didn't mean to intrude," Meier said reflexively, before 
he realized how foolish he sounded -- apologizing to an animal. And the 
creature in fact seemed to expect no apology; it bared its teeth in what 
certainly looked like a grin, then motioned downward, toward something 
near its side. 

Moved as much by curiosity as compliance, Meier crossed the soft grass 
to stand near the creature -- and recoiled again, for the object of its 
attention was a small, clear spring. Running water! Meier had no desire 
to be near even such a small amount of it. But the creature rose to its 
full two-legged height -- a good head more than Meier's own -- and 
motioned toward the spring, and Meier hesitantly drew close enough to 
peer into the water. 

It was very clear, and the current was not too strong. The bottom was 
common earth and rocks and ... 

"A shellfish," Meier realized, and murmured the words aloud. 

The creature responded with an "Awwwww" and bent over to dip a great 
paw into the water. One claw very deliberately extended and tapped the 
shell, and it slowly opened to reveal a mass of pink muscle and a tiny 
pale globe -- a pearl. 

Meier watched, fascinated. This was not the normal response of a 
shellfish to a tap on its carapace; that much he was sure of. Was it 
magic? Mesmerism? Or -- ? 

Meier's first thought was that the great creature sought a shellfish 
dinner; his second, that it had chosen an innovative method of pearl 
harvesting. The creature stirred the water, swirling a paw around the 
shellfish so that the pearl trembled and then was lofted out. It lay 
still on the mud for a moment, and then the claw-tips closed about it 
like pincers and lifted it out as the shellfish drew shut again. The 
creature turned toward Meier and stretched its mouth, baring great, 
square teeth in an impossible smile, then extended the pearl toward him 
so it nearly touched his chest. 

Meier did touch his chest. "For me?" 

"Awwwwp," the creature confirmed. Meier extended his hand a little 
uncertainly -- had he understood? -- and the creature pressed the pearl 
firmly into his palm. It gave the pearl a gentle tap with a claw-tip, 
then gestured aside and up. Meier's gaze followed the gesture; the city 
dome was visible over the trees. The creature pointed to the pearl, to 
the dome, to the pearl, and then to the dome again. 

"You want me to take the pearl to the city?" Meier asked. The creature 
closed Meier's hand around the pearl as if to be certain he wouldn't 
lose it. 

"I do accept it. I wish I understood you." Not knowing what else to do, 
Meier half-bowed in acknowledgment and thanks, then looked from the 
pearl to the dome and back. 

"Awww," the creature observed, perhaps favorably impressed with Meier's 
efforts. It crossed the clearing, looked back with another impossible 
smile, and seemed to vanish into the forest. Intrigued, Meier followed. 
What had seemed trackless understory was now manifestly a path, and 
the creature paused on it to turn back and smile again. Curiosity truly 
piqued, Meier strode along after the great furred form. The forest 
seemed to open about them, and small moths fluttered up from the nearly 
silent leaves to crisscross their paths in blurs of gray, then vanish 
beyond the trees. Time had ceased to exist. There were only the quiet 
sounds of the forest and the two sets of footsteps: the great gray form 
padding along with speed and hush that should have been impossible for 
its size, and Meier with a vampire's grace and dignity in its wake. 

Meier wondered if he had been in a trance; he hadn't been aware that he 
or the great creature had stopped, but they were standing at an edge of 
the forest -- and beside the dome. Bushes grew thick here, thick all 
about -- but on the side toward the dome, the leaves were crumpled and 
yellow. A great claw stroked the length of one so gently it never moved; 
when Meier reached out to echo the gesture, a sprinkle of leaves floated 
down to join their graying companions on the ground nearer the dome. 
There was a zone of emptiness about its pallor. 

"The dome kills them," Meier said softly. It made sense; whoever had 
placed the city here would not have wanted tree roots unseating the 
foundation, or branches poking through the city's skin. Something had 
breached that dome in one place anyway, but for the rest, it still 
produced whatever substance or radiation kept the vegetation in check 
about it. 

The creature picked up one of the leaves, balancing it on a claw tip for 
a moment before it fell again. 

"It is a shame they die," Meier allowed. "But I can't undo this ... I can't 
control the dome." 

Through all this he had held the pearl in his fist, and he opened his 
hand to look at it again. The creature once more pointed to the pearl 
and then the dome. 

"They're connected." His companion meant as much, but Meier followed it 
no further. 

"My mother had a pearl tiara," Meier said absently. "She had a lot of 
jewelry, but I always especially remembered that. I saw her wear it only 
once. There was a great meeting of Nobles when I was still very young; 
too young to really understand. But the ladies were all so beautiful in 
their finery. She let me hold her tiara while a servant adjusted her 
hair, and I asked her what it was made of. She told me, 'They're pearls. 
Shellfish make them for us. Most gems come from the earth, which serves 
us with many kinds of them. But among living creatures, only shellfish 
honor us this way.'" Meier frowned pensively. "I'd never thought much 
about it. I've never seen where pearls come from before. The little 
animals make them..." Unconsciously, his hand closed about the pearl 

* * * 

He was still gazing at the pearl when he sat by Charlotte's side shortly 
before sunrise. It had been a night of strange events. He didn't know 
what to make of the creature he had encountered. Surely it spoke a 
language, even if not one he could understand. It had been very 
concerned about some connection between the pearl and the city dome -- 
but what? Would Charlotte have understood it better? He thought of an 
old vampire who had told him a number of stories that had scandalized 
his father: forbidden myths of the Nobles' descent, old human ballads 
that turned their bright mirror on an impossible world. There had been a 
tale of a pearl who was not a pearl, a city that was not a city, and 
eternal life of a sort the Nobles barely deigned to sneer at. But the 
only clear detail that Meier could remember was a place where flowers 
bloomed all about the pearl... 

* * * 

Meier did not recall his dreams of that day, but the stuff of them must 
have coalesced in his mind. Charlotte was a thing of earth, not a 
porcelain doll to be hauled about like a child's toy. He had lost her 
when she lost her last breath; cryogenic preservation of her body was a 
sham that dishonored her. Her memory lived in his heart, and was he not 
also a creature of earth? As he had found comfort lying in it, so would 

After instructing the computer to initiate the process of thawing 
Charlotte -- he would carry her to her grave as the body of his beloved, 
not an elaborately attired icicle -- he asked for information on pearls. 
Meier found that his attention wandered when he tried to listen to the 
ship's synthesized voice, and it displayed the information on a screen. 
Shellfish didn't simply produce pearls as part of their life process; a 
pearl resulted from the introduction of foreign matter. The shellfish 
would coat a grain of sand or a chip of rock with layer on layer of 
nacre, covering over the foreign matter with the stuff of its shell. 

<<The pearls that we treasure are irritants to the creatures that are 
their hosts,>> Meier reflected. <<Even a layer of nacre doesn't stop it 
being an irritant; the creature adds more and more as long as it's 
there. Shellfish can't spit things out, and we exploit their weakness...>> 

It would take twenty-four hours to restore Charlotte to room 
temperature. Meier spent most of the night performing an aerial survey, 
trying to find that glade where he had communed with the great gray 
creature and received the gift of the pearl. He had thought he had an 
excellent sense of direction, and it had to be nearby; he and the 
creature had simply walked to the dome from the clearing. But although 
Meier could find the great fallen tree where he had sought comfort in 
the earth, he never saw another cleared place. All around the dome was 
unbroken forest. Whatever his own feelings about sunlight, Meier knew it 
was humans' rightful milieu, and Charlotte had loved it; she should lie 
under the open sky. Very well; if he couldn't find the clearing from the 
air, he could retrace his steps on the ground. If he had reached it once, 
he could once more. 

Meier was still telling himself that well into the next evening as he 
bore Charlotte's form through the magnificent woodland. He had walked to 
the opening where the great tree's roots were exposed, and had taken 
what he was sure was the same direction -- now for much longer. The gray 
understory seemed endless, more endless than the grandest of castles 
among the Nobility. A vampire might rule a castle. But who ruled a world? 

Meier stopped in the trackless woodland and gazed at Charlotte's face. 
What would she think of this? Couldn't he at least find a place that was 
green? Who would know where the green places were on this planet? 

The great creature. This was its -- his? -- world. He mourned his dead 
too, if his reaction to the poisoned bushes near the dome was any 
indication. Surely he would understand if he knew -- Meier also wanted 
to do right by the dead, if he could only find the way. 

"Where are you?" Meier asked softly. "Charlotte would delight in the 
place where I saw you last. What must I do to let her rest there?" His 
shoulders drooped. "Where are you, friend?" 

<<Friend. Why did I call that animal "friend"?>> But the world subtly, 
silently shifted, and a great brown-and-yellow moth blundered into 
Meier's face, so he sputtered and blinked and stumbled backward a pace 
-- for with Charlotte in his arms, he couldn't readily brush it away. No 
sooner was his vision clear than another moth flew toward him, and 
another, and another, until the world was a mass of moths that danced 
blindingly about him. But they had presaged the great creature two 
evenings before, and Meier stepped forward into them. 

Three paces later the moths had vanished, and Meier stood at the edge of 
the little clearing -- alone. 

Meier stood blinking in wonder at the impossibility of it. He could hear 
the spring where he had seen the shellfish. There was grass -- not dead 
leaves -- under his feet. And where grass grew, the good, welcoming 
earth lay beneath. 

Meier gently laid down Charlotte's form and dug his claws into the soil. 

He had kissed that cold cheek and pressed his own into it, had felt the 
surrounding earth like open arms, like a waiting home ... but for 
Charlotte only, creature of earth though he was. He could not bear to 
watch her vanish into that final darkness but averted his eyes to the 
earth-mound that rapidly dwindled beneath his hands as he filled in what 
he had dug. At last he knelt at the foot of the grave and let his 
gaze travel up its length. He had heard no sound, but there stood the 
creature, its great eyes solemn. The two held silence for a long moment 
before Meier said, "I hope you don't mind. Charlotte ... should rest in 
a green place under the sky. Here in your world." 

"Awww," the creature assured him. Meier had not noticed before, but it 
bore a sprig of green in its claw-tips -- the one delicate part of that 
great furred bulk -- and it bent over and carefully pressed this into 
the head of the earth mound. 

"Thank you," Meier said softly. He felt a little embarrassed that he 
hadn't thought of adding plant life and wondered if the creature's gift 
was confirmation that there were no flowers in this place; even honoring 
the dead, the creature brought not flowers but... 

Meier stared. The sprig was moving in the windless night -- no, it was 
_growing_. Shoots emerged, and leaves unfurled from them, and the shoots 
branched and multiplied, the leaves grew thick and hid the bare earth, 
rolling like a wave along the length of the mound until it was as green 
as the green all about it. And then tiny gems of purple appeared and 
unfolded: blossoms of periwinkle, like those on the grave he had dug for 
Charlotte's pet sparrow on the night she first truly spoke with him. 

Meier simply froze. The periwinkle runners edged into the grass, their 
growth slowing to a halt as green met green mere inches from his knees. 
At last -- with great effort -- he extended a trembling hand toward 
them, but stopped short of contact. If it was an illusion, it might be 
fragile as a soap bubble -- and even if it was only an illusion, Meier 
could not bring himself to shatter it so nonchalantly. 

Unhesitatingly the creature stooped and plucked a blossom-tipped runner. 
Meier watched, his amazement growing -- if that was possible -- as it 
came to his side and bent down to extend a tiny bit of miracle. 

Meier at last found his tongue and the power of motion. With a murmured 
"Thank you" he carefully extracted the sprig from those claws that 
dwarfed his own. He had thought himself alone on this planet, had 
thought the City of the Night his only refuge. But here was both 
companionship and comfort, in the wilderness outside the city walls. The 
realization freed something within him, and unthinking he pressed his 
face into the silky gray fur that was suddenly so close and so soft, so 
welcoming and so much warmer than his tears. 

* * * 

End part 2 of 3 

Part 3
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