Author: H.J. Bender
Summary: A Christmas Eve celebration at Valerious Manor ends painfully for Victor Frankenstein, who is beginning to discover the truth behind the mysterious Count Dracula...
Disclaimer: Main characters, events, original storyline, etc belong to Universal Studios 2004.
A/N: I have taken a few liberties with ages and dates, though minimally. Enjoy.
I love you...
I love you no more.
I love you no more or less
Than you loved me,
When it was still me that you loved.
-Rammstein, Wo Bist Du
X. Unnatural Properties
Snow fell with gentle silence upon the blackened, weathered stone of the Frankenstein castle. From the outside it almost appeared benign, nestled in the white crowns of mountainous rock like a sleeping bird. The light of day was sallow and overcast, typical of the Romanian winters; the thunderstorms would not come until spring, leaving more time to be spent on piecing together the dead components of human bodies. It was a despicable task to be doing on any given day, let alone on Christmas Eve.
Victor attempted to nurse his guilty conscience, repeating to himself for the thousandth time "the ends justify the means" until it seemed to become the mantra of the entire project. Surely he would be pardoned of any misdemeanor when he instilled life in an organism that had never lived before. Surely the scientific community would be too busy praising his success to take notice of a few broken laws. All is well that ends well. Fortune favours the bold. Necessary evil for the greater good of mankind.
It wasn't so bad, he thought to himself as he meticulously tied the suture that connected two rubbery pieces of muscle. The worst crime would be to have such knowledge of science and not use it to help the world. He was, by all odds, doing humanity a great favour by taking the matter into his own hands; the bodies he had stolen would have otherwise gone to waste, but now they are to come together to form something spectacular, something that would go down in the annals of history as perhaps the greatest achievement of modern medicine since the discovery of bacteria. In fact, the relatives of the deceased ought to feel honoured that their dearly departed are to play such an important role in what is to be a milestone in the intellectual evolution of Man. Wouldn't they rather their loved ones be immortalised by science instead of left to feed the worms? Any discerning person would, naturally!
Victor kept reassuring himself until he was nearly cheerful again. Soon he would no longer require excuses, he thought, washing the dried blood from his hands and picking up his log book. Soon the only thing he would have to worry about is becoming accustomed to seeing his portrait on book covers and surgical manuscripts all over the world. All of those narrow-minded buffoons who had ridiculed him at Goldstadf would be tripping over one another to apologise to him, begging his forgiveness for ever doubting his vision. His skeptical colleagues would be beside themselves with envy, his unimaginative professors appropriately silenced and their archaic practises forced into the shadows of obscurity.
The glory of fame appealed to Victor far more than wealth and riches: to be accepted by the academic community once more; to be hailed as a genius for his work; to be able to instruct a new generation of surgeons and doctors as he grew old with his beloved Elizabeth at his side. This he desired above all else. Failure was simply not an option.
"And it will work," Victor said quietly to himself, thumbing through the myriad papers that were the fruit of his brilliant, virile mind. "I have not missed a single detail. My research is flawless, and my abilities want for nothing. I have dreamt it and planned it to its end, and now only remains to do it."
He laughed suddenly, delighted beyond further words at the realisation that it would not be long ere his experiment reached its zenith, and his greatest wishes would at last come true. It was like a fairy-tale, he thought. A fantastic, incredible story in which the long-suffering hero overcomes adversity and triumphs to the tune of "happily ever after".
"Igor!" called Victor, and from high up in the labouratory's network of scaffolding and bridgework the hunchback waddled into view.
"Yes, doctor," he grunted.
"The hour grows late—we have completed enough for the day, I believe; we are ahead of schedule as it is, and it would be a sore loss if we were to err in our haste."
"Very well, doctor. Shall I put the…" He gazed warily down at the corpse Victor had been assembling. "…experiment into the cellar again?"
"That would be very good, Igor. Thank you."
The disfigured little man mumbled something and then disappeared into the shadows with his customary limp.
Victor scribbled something in his logbook and then shut it with a relieved sigh. He glanced at the clock on his workbench and quickly left the room. He had an appointment with the Valerious family, and it would not be polite to keep royalty waiting.
† † †
The doctor's arrival had been anticipated, for a man was waiting outside the main entrance to the manor. He relieved Victor of his horse and bade him to proceed on his own, which he did tentatively, shaking the snow from his coat as he entered the foyer. Almost immediately he spotted Anna at the other end of the broad hall, and was glad to see that the princess was not dressed to the nines for the occasion. Victor himself had been forced to sacrifice a number of the few good suits he had brought with him, and he certainly had not anticipated being invited to a Christmas party by gypsy nobility. It was to his dismay that the only decent outfit he had set aside was now too big for him—apparently his feverish work ethic was beginning to take a noticeable toll on his body. Had Victor been more concerned with his appearance he would have noticed how thin and tired his face had grown, but he was far too preoccupied with his progress to worry about looking his best.
He hung his coat on an ornate peg and regarded Anna from a distance: her long curls were pinned back and she wore a white blouse sprinkled with festive red patterns, dangling thin tassels of crimson, and trimmed with lace. A large crucifix hung about her neck, swinging like a silver pendulum as she bent forward to adjust a strand of decorations at the base of the grand staircase. The red skirt she wore with its layered flounces came to the heels of her black shoes, and Victor was surprised at how feminine she appeared when she was not wearing trousers. Truly now she looked like a proper gypsy princess, and she was incredibly beautiful.
"Mistress Valerious," he called in a friendly tone, and Anna smiled fleetingly when she recognised him. "I hope I am not too late?"
"You are early if anything," she answered. "Come in."
Victor made his way through the great hall, this time able to appreciate its size and splendour now that he did not have to worry about saving the life of a wounded prince. A fire crackled warmly in a massive hearth at one end of the room, and the oblong table in its centre was bare but for a few interesting ornaments.
"I have never celebrated Christmas in a foreign country before," confessed Victor as he approached Anna, who was busily attending a crisp-smelling pine garland at the base of the stairs. "Are your customs much different from ours?"
"That depends upon whom you speak," she asked, not lifting her gaze from the garland she was fastening. "Are you familiar with the Catholic Christmas?"
Victor fidgeted. "Er, well, my family was Lutheran…"
"I don't know the difference. My father would understand—he is more familiar with the religions than I." She finished tying the red ribbon and finally looked at Victor directly, blessing him with one of her rare, radiant smiles. "Velkan has been looking forward to your arrival."
"Has he? Is he here?"
"I think he is still upstairs. He and Papa-" She stopped herself before she could say anything more, and a sad shadow passed briefly over her face. She changed the subject. "Would you like a drink?"
She began to walk towards the bar before Victor had a chance to answer, thus he hastily followed after her. His curiosity pecked away at his better judgment, causing him to jump to conclusions—it was a difficult thing to avoid when presented with such an interesting family as this.
"Velkan…" he ventured, "does he not get along with your father?"
Fortunately Anna was not offended by the doctor's query, though she certainly did not seem eager to talk. "They have their differences. All families do," she stated bluntly, removing two glasses from a lacquered cupboard and placing a heavy bottle of whiskey on the bar. For a moment Anna appeared as if she wanted to elaborate on the topic, but then thought better of it and poured a short glass of whiskey for herself and her guest.
"În cinstea dumitale," she said, raising her glass.
Victor echoed the toast and took a modest sip. When he lowered his glass he noticed that Anna had drained hers in a single gulp. Not only did the princess dress and fight like a man, but she drank like one, too. Not wishing to seem inferiour, Victor haltingly tilted his glass back and swallowed the rest of the fiery liquid. The fumes alone singed his tongue and brought tears to his eyes, which he blinked back with some difficulty.
"Strong," he wheezed, forcing a smile onto his face.
Anna had not even batted an eyelash. "Another?" she dared, raising the bottle.
The last thing Victor wanted was to faint from over-intoxication in front of his hosts, and was just about to decline as politely as he could when there came the sound of footfalls on the stairs. Anna poured herself another glass as Velkan appeared from behind a column.
Unlike the bright, festive attire of his sibling, the young prince wore a simple white shirt with flowing sleeves beneath a vest of black velveteen, studded with gleaming silver buttons. A grey satin cravat was knotted at his collar, and his habitually tousled hair was neatly combed back. His trousers were similarly black, and though he had traded his customary boots for gentlemen's shoes, he looked as if he could be ready to jump bridges and hurdle horses at a moment's notice.
"I see you've already begun without me," he said teasingly to his sister, who smiled wryly at him from behind her glass. He turned his gaze to Victor and gave a shallow bow. "Dr Frankenstein. It is a pleasure to see you again."
"The pleasure is mine, Master Valerious," the doctor assured, nodding his head respectfully and lifting his empty glass. "Perhaps you would like to take my place here at the bar—I am afraid your sister will drink me under my chair if I stay for much longer."
Anna laughed lightly at what was to her a flattering comment, and beckoned her brother to join them. "Yes, come along, Velkan. I need to drink with a man who can hold the Transylvanian whiskey better than our foreign friend here."
Velkan obligingly nodded his head and smiled. "Perhaps that is something that can wait until after dinner. I was hoping to borrow Dr Frankenstein for a few moments." He looked directly at Victor. "Would that be too inconvenient?"
"N-no," replied the doctor, quite certain that he would never cease to be perturbed by the prince's powerful gaze. "I can accommodate."
"What do you need to discuss?" Anna asked flatly, obviously unhappy with the prospect of being discounted from their conversation.
"I just have a few questions regarding my surgery," said Velkan as he took Victor by the arm and began to lead him away. "We will not be long. If father asks for us, we shall be in the library."
Anna said nothing in reply, instead taking a swill from her glass and purposely avoiding Velkan's questing gaze—he took it as a sign that she grudgingly consented, and walked Victor out into the hall once more.
"She certainly is strong-willed," he commented as he and the prince ascended the stairs.
"That is her definition," Velkan answered, easily hopping the steps with that energy typical of youth. "If she were anything but strong-willed and stubborn, she would not be my sister."
"It is nice to see siblings who are so close," Victor continued, not wishing to bear the burden of an awkward lull in conversation. "In other parts of the world, brothers and sisters regard each other so trivially, perhaps even less than family."
"When you live in a place like this, family is all that you have," murmured Velkan as they reached the top of the staircase. "Friends are few and far between."
Victor followed him down a dark corridor, looking about with uncertainty. "I feel somewhat honoured by that…" He trailed off as Velkan pushed open a door and bade the doctor inside; he entered hesitantly and Victor heard the door close behind him. Almost immediately he noticed that something was wrong.
The room was cold and dim, lit only by a single paraffin lantern burning low on a sconce. Heavy curtains were drawn over the windows, and Victor felt as if he were standing in a tomb, a place of acute suffering and misery—the epicentre of all the unspoken anguish that poured from Vaseria's heart. A dishevelled bed rested against one wall, its covers unmade and strewn about as if its occupant had suffered violent, restless nightmares the night before and had abandoned it upon waking. The large, gaudily-framed mirror that hung on the opposite wall bore a circular cluster of splinters in the centre, as if it had been struck with a fist; thin lines of cracked glass spread out like the delicate silk of a spider's web, distorting the reflections it cast. Books were strewn hither and thither, pages folded or otherwise marked to preserve the reader's place—they cluttered bureau-tops and bedside tables as thickly as dust, and Victor's eyes caught a few of the titles: Ancient Royalty of Wallachia; Demonology: Myths & Lore; Vampyres & Their Kin.
"This is not the library," he said quietly, straining to keep his voice steady.
"No. It is my room," said Velkan, stepping forward to stand before Victor. "I need to ask a favour of you, doctor."
"Favour?" Victor's voice momentarily broke in his anxiety, making him all the more conscious of the situation. "What sort of favour?"
With a soft, relenting sigh, the prince slid his vest from his shoulders, loosened his cravat, and began to unbutton his shirt.
A thousand thoughts suddenly screamed through Victor's mind from every corner, crashing together in the centre of his head and all but disengaging his senses completely. He lost the faculty to speak, and though he knew he should look askance, he could not tear his eyes from the bare skin that was emerging in front of him.
With the last button unfastened, Velkan stood silently with his face turned away, and when he spoke his voice was hushed with something that could have been shame: "Can you remove them?"
Victor was unable to answer for a moment, too astonished by Velkan's odd behaviour to notice that the lacerations on the prince's abdomen—the same ones Victor had only last week sewn shut—were almost fully healed. When finally the doctor reckoned the barely-visible scars, his reaction was alarmingly calm.
"You want me to… remove the sutures," he reiterated quietly. "But, how did…?"
Unable to resist the urge, Victor moved forward to touch the wounds for himself, just to be certain that it wasn't the dim light playing with his eyes. No; Velkan's skin was surprisingly cool to the touch, and the scars were indeed real, even if they looked to be years old.
He raised his eyes and found Velkan staring at him knowingly, pleadingly, as if the phenomenon of his recovery was a dark thing of which he could not bring himself to speak; as if it were causing him more pain than the actual wounds he had received.
Victor saw this deep inner turmoil and kept his mouth shut, nodding once in affirmation. He knew better than to question what was obviously a profound and personal subject to the prince, and bade with clinical coolness, "Very well. I will need a pair of forceps, and it would be best if you were to lie down…"
Velkan had smuggled the old medical bag from the armoury into his room, and he gave it to the doctor before tidying his bed in preparation; he laid down near the middle while Victor took a seat on the edge and leaned over to do his work. No words were spoken between them as the stitches were quietly removed with a "snip-snip" from Victor's scissors—perhaps the gravity of the prince's words had robbed all point of idle conversation.
There was something disturbingly intimate about this moment, Victor wondered as he coaxed the thread from the miraculous flesh it had held together so briefly. Velkan had entrusted him to keep a secret, one that he had obviously not disclosed to his family. What reasons did he have to deny them of this knowledge? What could have frightened him into silence? Was it that perhaps his family's superstitions would lead to false assumptions? Surely it was thus, for no ordinary human could have healed so quickly, not unless they possessed an extraordinary ability to regenerate.
Victor had to force himself to abstain from inquiring further and found it nearly impossible. If Velkan were indeed experiencing some unique physical anomaly, perhaps it would aid in the doctor's experiments… no. No, he would not even consider it. He could not consider it. Velkan was a living person, and to use him as a test subject would not only be unethical, it would be unspeakably cruel. However, the desire for knowledge was strong in Victor; surely there was an untapped spring of scientific phenomena stored within this incredible body, though he doubted that Velkan would embrace the thought of offering himself to the operating table alongside a dozen stolen corpses. If only he knew of the things the doctor had done…
"Why do you trust me, Velkan?" he asked softly, not lifting his eyes from the thread.
The prince did not reply at first, but silence persisted as the question waited for its answer. "Because I know you are a good man, Frankenstein," he said, "even if you feel that you are at odds with your own conscience."
Victor abruptly paused as Velkan's words echoed through the walls of his mind, and he felt his throat tighten as everything became suddenly clear to him. "You are very special, Velkan. I have only met one other man who seemed capable of reading the thoughts of others."
The young man's breath suddenly hitched, and when Victor lifted his head to see his reaction, he found Velkan staring at him fretfully.
"You know this man, don't you?"
"As do we both, it seems," Velkan said in a voice scarcely above a whisper.
After a lengthy silence Victor returned his focus to the final thread. They did not speak for the remainder of the procedure, although their thoughts seemed to exchange as easily as spoken words. When at last the task was finished, Velkan sat up gingerly while Victor cleaned the instruments and returned them to their leather case.
"Thank you, doctor," he said softly as he began to button his shirt.
Victor nodded in acknowledgement and allowed a brief smile to flicker across his face. "It was no trouble."
Velkan swallowed nervously. "You… won't tell anyone, will you?"
Never did Victor expect to hear a note of fear in the young man's voice; however, he found that Velkan seemed to possess limitless means of surprising him.
"I never planned to in the first place," he replied, placing a warm hand of reassurance on Velkan's shoulder. And when he forced himself to stare directly into the prince's eyes, their familiar hollowness confirmed the truth that he had suspected all along. "Do not fear, Velkan. Your secrets shall die with me."
† † †
They found Anna loitering impatiently at the bottom of the stairs. "I was tempted to call a search party when I didn't find you in the library," she quipped indignantly. "Where have you been all this time? Dinner is ready."
"My apologies, Anna," said Victor quickly. "I am finding your home most fascinating, and your brother was kind enough to give me a brief tour."
If Velkan was impressed by the doctor's quick thinking, he showed no signs of it. "We must have lost track of the time," he added without missing a beat, moving close to hook his arm around his sister's. "I'm certain that father will excuse us."
"Your confidence in what father will or will not abide by has been terribly inaccurate lately," Anna glowered in a hushed voice; Victor imagined that she was speaking of the argument between Velkan and Boris that had occurred earlier that evening.
The prince leaned close to Anna's ear and whispered in Romanian, "Can we not speak of this now? Or perhaps you've taken a fancy to ridiculing me as well?"
"You know that is untrue, Velkan. Father is only concerned for you-"
"He of all people should know that I-"
"Goodness me," declared Victor suddenly, "I hope we are not keeping anyone waiting…?"
There was a pause, and then Anna relented with a nod of her head. "Yes, we should hurry along before the food gets cold." Her arm still looped with Velkan's, she pulled him gently past the staircase and Victor followed closely behind.
The large table in the great hall seemed to be reserved for grander occasions, Victor observed as he was led into the dining room where sat a relatively smaller table. Apparently this room was used by family only. He was quite honoured when he was offered a seat beside the king; Boris sat at the head of the table, his children to his left and the doctor to his right. He gave an unusually sombre prayer at the beginning of the meal, followed by an equally sombre toast. Victor felt as if this were dinner in the wake of a funeral instead of a cheerful holiday feast. No one seemed to be in the mood to talk, and if not for Velkan's single attempt at conversation the whole meal would have been spent in complete silence.
"Tell us, doctor," said the prince lightly as he poked uninterestedly at his food, "what other lands have you seen in your travels?"
"Quite a few, actually," replied Victor with an almost grateful air. "I've studied at several international universities over the past few years, most of them only for a few months, and I've given several lectures in countries where a translator has been required."
"Go on," Velkan urged, resting his elbows on the table and leaning forward. Though his manner seemed earnest, his expression was melancholy. "It must be quite adventurous, travelling the world."
"Some of the time it is, yes," said Victor, picking up his wine glass. "There are people who are better suited for travel and foreign living, and I must confess there were times that I thought if I had to leave home one more time I would rather become a tailor instead."
Velkan smiled. Anna took interest in the conversation at that point, and listened readily.
Victor continued, "I've spent quite a lot of time in Austria-Hungary, it being quite close to my mother land, and Vienna is famous for its association with the sciences. Every doctor and physicist in the world dreams of going to Vienna…" He trailed off.
"Any other countries?" prompted Velkan hopefully.
"Goodness, yes. Quite a few: England, France, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, practically every major European city. The profession of medical research is one of endless treasure hunting and travel. It can be most tiresome, and unfortunately I'm quite susceptible to sea-sickness so I try to-"
"Sea?" Anna interrupted, suddenly intrigued. "You have travelled the sea?"
"It's quite difficult to avoid it, especially when one must reach England," Victor jested lightly.
"What does it look like? The sea, I mean?" she asked reverently, and the doctor immediately got the notion that the girl had yet to visit the shore—in fact, she had probably never left this dismal town for more than a day, perhaps her brother as well. No wonder these poor children were so starved for visions of the outside world; they were practically prisoners in this horrible, dreary place. The doctor could not imagine living in Vaseria for so long—the very idea made his heart weak.
Victor cleared his throat and his voice took on a more tender tone. "The sea… the sea is never the same two days in a row, my dear. Always is it changing. Sometimes the surface is as still as a looking-glass, and sometimes it churns enormous waves like… like a steam engine, so powerful can it be. It can sink a ship in a single wave or float it in the same place for weeks. Sailors have a saying, 'a red sky at night is a sailor's delight—a red sky in the morning and sailors take warning'. They are correct most of the time, such unusual accuracy…"
Anna appeared so enraptured that Victor wanted to keep talking, just to see the light twinkle in her eyes. "And the colours… sometimes the water is a pale green, other times such a dark shade of blue that it almost looks black. When you stand on the deck of a ship and look down into that… that depth, you could almost imagine that it goes on for ever, straight through to the other side of the world. And the shore is-"
"Come now, doctor," Boris interrupted with vague annoyance, "surely you must have more of which to speak besides the colour of water?"
Anna became suddenly defencive of Victor, and said sharply, "I happen to find Dr Frankenstein's words quite interesting. Wouldn't you agree, Velkan?" She glanced expectantly at her brother, but the prince sat back in his chair and said nothing, although he raised his eyes to cast a mournful look at Victor.
Boris harrumphed with his customary gruffness and muttered, "Children are bedazzled by such trivial things."
"I do not think that the rest of the world is so meaningless, father," Anna snapped with unexpected vehemence. "Who are you to judge the worth of things? You have never left Vaseria-"
"Anna," Velkan whispered warningly, placing his hand on his sister's arm in an attempt to calm her.
"True, I may never have gone beyond the forests of Transylvania," the king said sternly as he stared at his daughter, "but I know what purpose it is that I must serve, and I need not traipse over land and sea in search of my heart's fancy when I know I am needed here."
Silence descended. Anna pinched her lips together and looked as if she could either burst into tears or begin shouting fit to start a war, but she held her tongue and turned her head, glaring down at her plate without another word. Velkan gave her arm a gentle squeeze and then placed his napkin upon the table, likewise cowed into silence.
Victor released the breath he had been holding and hoped his hands were not shaking as badly as he felt they were. "Well spoken," he said unsteadily, raising his glass in a small toast. "To purpose. May we all find ours as easily."
† † †
After dinner Anna announced to Victor that she and her father were going to attend Mass as was the custom of the villagers on Christmas Eve. The doctor declined the invitation to join them, excusing himself due to the late hour and the work that was waiting for him at the castle. He thanked his hosts for dinner and prepared himself for departure as Boris and Anna took their leave into the snowy, star-lit night.
Victor was pulling on his coat as Velkan bade farewell to his family from the front door, and he could not help but to inquire, "Are you not joining your family at Mass?"
The prince smiled in such a doleful way that Victor felt his heart suddenly ache for the boy. "I keep watch over the manor," he spoke hesitantly, looking away and fiddling with something in his trousers pocket.
"Ah." Victor nodded once, and decided not to comment on his observation that Velkan wore no crucifix about his neck as did the rest of his family—and the rest of the villagers, for that matter. But he likely had his reasons, and debating religious customs was something the doctor cared not to do at this hour.
Velkan lifted his head. "How kind of you," he murmured.
"I beg your pardon?"
The young man shook his head dismissively. "Never mind. Doctor, I…" He struggled to find his tongue. "I am afraid I must ask another favour of you."
"Anything you wish."
Velkan acknowledged the doctor's answer and then turned, beginning a brisk walk towards his father's study. Victor, uncertain of whether to wait or to follow, decided the latter and hurried after the prince.
When finally he entered Boris' study, he found Velkan hovering over the writing desk in the corner, scribbling hastily onto a piece of paper with an ink pen. Upon finishing, he returned the pen to its well and gently blew on the paper to make certain that the ink had properly dried. Then he folded it neatly, slipped it into a letter envelope, and then reached into his pocket, producing a small object that Victor could not identify. Velkan tucked it into the envelope, lifted a nearby letter opener and, to Victor's horror, pressed the tip into his thumb, piercing his flesh until a bead of rich red blood formed.
"Be careful!" cried the doctor, rushing forward to offer his aid, but Velkan halted him with a single glance.
"It is nothing serious," he said in a low tone, squeezing his thumb so that his blood dripped upon the back of the envelope. "I do this frequently enough."
Victor could only helplessly watch as the prince poured a small pool of blood onto the paper; then when he had collected enough he took up a wooden stamp bearing the Valerious family crest and pressed it into the blood. The stickiness formed a natural sealer and the envelope was effectively closed, bearing the Valerious mark.
Velkan brought his thumb to his mouth and sucked away the remaining blood as he handed the envelope to Victor, who received it carefully. "Give that to him," the prince instructed, turning away.
"Him? You mean… Dra-"
"Do not speak his name. Not here. Now take the letter and leave. Bring him this last message and then leave Vaseria for ever."
"Leave? What are you saying? Velkan, please, I don't understand why I-"
"Go," he ordered sharply, and then apologetically softened his voice. "Please, doctor. Just go."
Victor found it difficult to swallow for the sudden lump in his throat, unable to comprehend the prince's drastic change in behaviour. Had he in some way offended him? What of their friendship? Was it truly destined to be so brief? Victor silenced his questions and decided that perhaps these matters were best left untouched. "Thank you, Master Valerious," he said in a painfully formal tone. "I hope we shall soon meet again."
He waited until Velkan had given an answering nod of his head, then Victor turned with newly-acquired glumness and left the room. A few moments later the echo of the heavy wooden doors reverberated throughout the manor with grim finality, and the doctor was gone.
Velkan, still standing motionless in the study, allowed himself the luxury of letting a single sob escape his throat and a few tears shed themselves down his cheeks before resuming his hardened façade; he wiped the tears from his face and sniffed, collecting himself once more.
"I'm sorry, Dr Frankenstein," he whispered, gazing down at the crimson smear of blood on his thumb. "I have done all that I can."
But in his heart, Velkan knew that his efforts had not been enough—and he was correct.
December 24, 1886, would be the last time Victor Frankenstein was ever seen by living eyes.
† † †
The cold, drafty castle was even more dreary in spirit than Valerious Manor, Victor thought sullenly as he entered by way of the front gate. Though the gathering had obviously been to commemorate a happy occasion, it had unintentionally ended on a chilling note—especially after his strange dismissal by Velkan, and the prince's foreboding instructions to deliver the letter he had written to Count Dracula. What could it possibly say? And what was the object sitting in the bottom of the envelope? Victor had been tempted—but only once—to open the parcel before thinking better of it; the Count would surely detect any tampering, and although Victor had yet to see his benefactor lose his temper, he could imagine that Dracula was a man given over to anger as passionate as his interest in science.
As Victor made his way into the bleak and poorly-lighted parlour of the castle, he wondered how he was to take the letter to the Count, or if he should simply keep it with him until the next time Dracula came to the castle to observe his progress. Victor did not have long to wonder further, for a voice came from the shadowy corner of the room: "I trust you were not exhuming graves this evening, were you, Victor?"
The doctor had long since grown accustomed to the usual sensation of terror that burst through his veins upon being startled by his mentor, and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Dracula, dressed in his familiar black apparel, standing by the window and staring meditatively through the grimy glass with his hands clasped behind his back.
"N-no, Count," spoke Victor when he regained his ability to speak once more. "I was… invited to dinner by some of the villagers."
"How generous of them," said Vlad, turning away from the window and striding slowly towards the doctor. "You seem to be making friends quite quickly. Need I remind you that you first and foremost have an obligation to fulfill? Or have you lost interest in the project, hm?"
"Never!" exclaimed Victor whole-heartedly. "Igor and I have been making excellent progress and the machine should be ready in a few short months. Right now I need only concern myself with piecing together the body's components, and the work is coming along quickly."
The Count smiled thinly. "That is fortunate news. I would hate to think that my generous charities are being spoiled by procrastination." He stopped within a few paces of Victor, and the doctor saw a strange expression pass over his associate's features as he took several deep breaths. "It is the eve of Christmas again, isn't it? I had all but forgotten that wretched holiday. Do tell me, how is the Valerious family? Depressed and quarrelsome, I wager?"
Victor looked astonished. "How did… you…?"
Vlad grinned, but beneath the shallow gesture of mirth lurked an ominous, threatening core. "I find that people often have a difficult time keeping their secrets from me—one way or another they are always… revealed." He approached the doctor, and any aloofness he that had been present about his demeanor was abruptly replaced with something sharp and dangerous. "So," he murmured lowly, transfixing the man with his hollow stare, "perhaps now you would prefer to tell me what intimate affairs you have been keeping with Prince Velkan."
Victor was so shocked that this supposedly-confident information had been disclosed that he instinctively took a step back to distance himself from the Count, but Vlad had been anticipating such a reaction; he placed his hand heavily upon the doctor's shoulder, holding him in place.
"Don't be so alarmed by my knowledge," Dracula breathed, his face uncomfortably close to Victor's. "I can smell him on your clothes."
There was something sinister which gripped the doctor at this very moment, and suddenly he felt that he had every reason to fear for his life. Fortunately his panic lasted but briefly, for his thoughts suddenly returned to the blood-stained envelope that he carried in his coat pocket.
"I-I bring a m-message for you, Count," Victor stammered uncontrollably, reaching within the breast of his coat and producing the letter. The red seal of Valerious was facing upwards as the doctor delivered it into Vlad's hand.
Abruptly he released his hold on the doctor and stepped away, staring at the envelope with a chilling quality of light illuminating his once-dark eyes. He uttered an unintelligible whisper before turning his back to Victor—where, out of sight, he brought the envelope to his face and licked the dried blood with barely-restrained ecstasy. "Velkan," he whispered again, and then proceeded to tear open the envelope, unfolding the single piece of paper within it:
I know not what evil plot you have destined for Victor Frankenstein, nor do I hold any means of bargaining for his life to be spared from your wickedness. Therefore am I reduced to begging of your mercy:
Grant this man his body and soul once more, and allow him to be freed from your power. He possesses kindness and goodness for which you shall never find a use, and I beseech you—as your Son, your Enemy, and the Soul which belongs to you—release Victor Frankenstein from your darkness, and I shall for ever be indebted to you, even unto Death.
Velkan Alexandru Valerious
"Count…?" Victor inquired gently after a lengthy silence had persisted. He was presently startled by the sound of paper being torn, and when Dracula turned about, Victor's breath caught in his throat. Two lines of tears streamed down Vlad's angry face, though his eyes betrayed his true emotions: empty, forlorn, destitute of all things but agony.
However, the thing which caught the doctor's attention was the small object clutched in the Count's trembling hand—a slender ornament, most likely a pin for the hair, carved from black onyx; the large end was fashioned into the shape of a roosting bat, and two tiny gems gleamed from its eyes. Victor knew not the significance of the item, but he knew that this was surely a state of distress in which he had never before seen his mentor.
Tossing the shredded remains of the letter into the glowing hearth, the Count strode purposefully past Victor without another word, his dark cloak billowing behind him like a wrathful storm-cloud. Moments later the front door was thrown open as if with great force, and then silence fell within the castle.
The room seemed to grow suddenly brighter with Dracula gone, and Victor—still shaken from the frightful ordeal—turned to gaze after the departed Count, aware of the furious, frustrated wake that continued to linger in the atmosphere.
"So," said the doctor softly, staring into the shadows, "you are his father after all."
† † †
Alone at Valerious Manor, Velkan was lying despondently upon the chaise in the parlour, drowsy and dwelling upon woeful thoughts, when a sudden rush of cold air swept against his back, causing him to shiver. Immediately he sat up and noticed one of the windows across the room had come unlatched, and he left his comfortable position to investigate.
The shutters were opened wide, and no breeze blew in the snowy night beyond the glow of the candlelight; Velkan cautiously shut the window and secured the latch tightly.
"You cannot frighten me as you used to," he declared suddenly, and then turned around to behold Vladislaus Dracula standing in his midst, looking oddly at ease within the lamps' light.
"No," the Count smiled coldly, allowing his cloak to fall to the floor. "You are too much like me now."
Velkan tensed suddenly, anticipating Vlad's next move; however, he was not yet fast enough to evade an attack from his immortal father. The Count's hand wrapped about Velkan's throat as he was slammed into the wall, but the prince was remarkably undaunted and did not even attempt to fight the arm which held him pinned in place.
"I take it you received my message?" he asked calmly, staring directly into Dracula's eyes.
"That I did," Vlad confirmed, "and it warms my dead heart to see how greatly you care for a man even more corrupted than yourself."
The Count smiled sweetly at Velkan. "Silly little prince, did you honestly believe that your dear Victor is a good man? You have not seen what he is building for me, nor are you aware of the crimes he has committed against his God and his fellow man."
"I know that he is faulted," Velkan snapped angrily, "but he is not blinded by evil intentions! I saw it in his heart-"
Dracula drew close to his son's face, uttering, "And still I see him in yours."
Velkan shut his mouth and turned his eyes away, unwilling to bear the weight of Vlad's smouldering gaze.
"Never forget, Velkan," he murmured, placing his free hand to the prince's pounding breast, "that this belongs to me, and me alone." He paused, allowing his hand to trail down Velkan's open vest, coming to rest upon the tender wounds still scarring his abdomen. "I apologise for these," he said softly, with unusual sentiment. "Know that I would have had the beast put to death were it not already destroyed."
"There is not much to regret," Velkan muttered, "considering that Dr Frankenstein was there for me when I needed him."
The fingers at the prince's throat tightened a little, reminding him of his place. "You will not see that man again," said Vlad, darkness dripping from his every word. "I have gone to great lengths to secure him in my keeping, and I cannot allow you to meddle in my affairs. He is here to serve me, and when he has outlived his usefulness I intend to dispose of him. Save your precious tears for one who matters, Velkan. All others are worthless of your affections."
Blue eyes returned to hollow ones, defiant and at the same time wretchedly loving. "I hate you," whispered Velkan as the tears began to build in his eyes.
"No more or no less than I love you," answered Vlad, and squeezed his hand about the prince's throat until he began to sputter for air, sinking to the floor as his senses left him. The Count collected Velkan's limp body in his arms and carried it to the chaise, where he laid the unconscious young man down and checked to see that his pulse was normal—yes, he would only be senseless for a little while. Perhaps when he awoke he will have forgotten all about Victor Frankenstein.
"The things you would do to gain my confidence," sighed Vlad, lifting Velkan's limp hand and examining the swollen wound still on his thumb. "Unnecessary, but nevertheless endearing." He brought the thumb to his mouth and reopened the puncture with his tongue, savouring the brilliantly warm blood that he had not tasted for many years.
"Still you are sweet inside, despite all the bitterness that shows on the surface," the Count murmured, brushing the auburn hair from Velkan's forehead and giving a final lick to the prince's thumb, effectively healing the injury; he laid the hand back upon the young man's chest, but not before wrapping the warm fingers about the cold pin of onyx, the very same pin which Velkan himself had taken from Dracula when they first had met, sixteen long years ago.
"Keep this. You have paid more than what it is worth," said Vlad hoarsely, rising to his feet, gazing down at the peaceful-looking prince. "Sleep well."
A few moments later the curtains were catching the tiny snowflakes as they drifted in through the open window, and a dark shadow soared north across the starry skies.
To Be Continued...