He is a laconic boy, at least around her. She thinks sometimes that if she spoke a language other than Turkish, perhaps he would speak to her more, but he spits out Turkish words as though they burn his lips, and so their conversations are sparse. She has heard him talk, on rare occasions, to his brother Radu in hushed Romanian, and his words dance in sinuous rhythms. She wishes that she knew what they meant.
They both know that, in the early stages of their acquaintance, they are watched closely by those whose job it is to keep track of the behavior of Sultan Murad's child hostages. At the beginning, those watchers are glad that rebellious Vlad is showing interest in something that could tie him to Muslim customs. But they expect Vlad to show his affection with plucked flowers and stilted couplets in Turkish. They do not expect his hands, pale from both lineage and captivity, slipping beneath the silk of her veil to run through the heavy gloss of her dark hair. But Meral does.
She knows that Vlad is unlike the other hostages, though the sultan seems not to. She has seen many of them, and indeed has grown up in a world populated to a great extent by foreign princes with their light colored hair and eyes and their odd accents. The young ones are fragile and lonely at the start, but soon are wearing the loose, light clothing that everyone else does and eating sherbet with relish. The older ones wait it out, resigned, sometimes trying to befriend the sultan's son Mehmed. Vlad does neither.
For Vlad has a core of iron in him, which Meral can catch occasional glimpses of in the flashes of his green eyes. One day, he comes to her and there is blood showing through the back of his shirt. She expects a fit of adolescent rage or humiliation from him, a plea for sympathy, but he just goes up to her and kisses her, rough but not careless. She likes it, the lack of couplets on the beauty of her mouth preceding the kiss, and they go together to an old unused room which smells of musty fabrics. He asks her before even starting to remove her clothing or his own, and he keeps asking her throughout, his voice quiet, his hands touching her hair and face repeatedly, as though searching for an answer there as well. It is the first time for both of them (they are equal in so many ways, almost exactly the same age - she is elder by a month precisely - their heights close, neither the eldest, neither the youngest in their own families), and they are slow but hardly gentle, careful but hardly cautious. She doesn't think about what her parents would think of her fucking a Wallachian boy in a back room of the palace, and she doesn't know what he thinks, though she can guess that it would be more prudent for his first sexual experiment to be with a prostitute, and not a noble girl who could possibly end up impregnated.
When it is over, she touches the untreated wounds on his back, and he flinches. She does not think it is because they hurt. She asks him why he was punished, but he does not answer, and his eyes go dark as she asks him, as though he is angry with her.
It is a few months later when the news comes that Vlad Dracul has broken his pact with Sultan Murad. She is afraid for him, with a terrible pain in her stomach that will not let her eat. He comes to say goodbye to her before he is called before the Sultan, but does not actually say it except with his hands, which dance over her face and collarbones as though speaking a language he speaks with no one else. She wants to hold him close and never let him leave her, but she knows that she cannot, and she does not say goodbye either when he turns and walks away.
It is all a gamble. He does not know how those who pay him know of the young voivode Vlad Draculea's predilections toward his own gender, and, indeed, he doesn't know if they do know, or if it is merely a guess formed on the lack of obvious mistresses in the few months since his return to Wallachia. And so Silviu is careful not to be too obvious. He doesn't arrange to be alone in a room with the voivode; he doesn't say conspicuously seductive things. He doesn't need to, a fact of which he is a proud, in a vague manner. He knows ways to stand that will be a clear invitation for those looking for one; he knows the kind of glances that trod the careful line between clear interest and insolence from a servant. And, most importantly, he is aware of his own physical beauty, how striking his pale hair and eyes look against his darker skin. He thinks that this is a job of which he is capable, though it is the most dangerous of all his years of being paid to betray his masters.
During his slow weeks of quietly seducing the voivode, Silviu realizes that Vlad Draculea is, in fact, quite handsome himself. Not in a classic way, not in a way that could make you stop and gaze at him on looks alone, but there is something in the combination of his voice, his features, and his way of movement that makes Silviu think that, even if he weren't being paid, he wouldn't mind the first part of this job. It certainly makes it easier to glance at him slowly, in a calculated mix of admiration and desire.
It requires great patience, but eventually Vlad Draculea does take notice of him. He is unsubtle and unmistakable about it, at least to Silviu's eyes. He looks him up to down, carefully, not quite appraising. It is at a moment when the others in the room are about to leave and, when they are gone, Vlad goes swiftly to where Silviu stands, reaching to touch his cheek so unhesitatingly that Silviu thinks for a moment that Vlad will have him at that very moment, in that very room. Vlad's hand is unexpectedly cold and Silviu can't help but flinch. Vlad's eyebrows raise, and he meets Silviu's gaze quite directly. It seems that he has seen something that Silviu didn't know was actually there. There is a pause, a breath in which Silviu doesn't know what he will do. And then he says, soft, calm, "Come to my room at midnight."
And so, the nearness of success terrifying him, he comes, a knife hidden in his boot. He knocks, and Vlad answers. He was reading, or so it seems from the papers spread out on the desk in one corner. If he manages to get a good look at them, Silviu thinks that he could get a few more coins from his employers, but there will be time enough for that later.
They turn their backs to the other to undress. Sitting on the bed, Silviu reaches down, ostensibly to unlace his boots, and, with a shallow breath of self-reassurance, finds the handle of the slim knife. He slips it out and moves the few paces to Vlad, who is unfastening his doublet, lifting the knife, searching for a place to strike.
But he doesn't have more than a second, for the swift movement causes Vlad to turn around with all the paranoia of a warrior. When he sees the knife, panic doesn't register on his face, but just a stony, impenetrable calm. Moving too fast for Silviu to react, he grabs Silviu's wrist with one hand, holding it immobile, and with the other he twists to grab another knife, hidden in the sheets of the bed (Silviu doesn't know why it was there, but imagining makes him afraid for what the voivode thought he was consenting to). The knife is at his throat in an instant, and Silviu lets his own clatter to the floor. He's been caught.
Vlad pushes him down onto the bed, the knife pressed so close it cuts. "Whose orders are you under? The Hungarians or the Turks?" Silviu hesitates before responding. "You're going to die anyway," Vlad says, conversational but his voice filled with a cold fury that scares Silviu far more than yelling, "but there are many ways to die and you may as well spare yourself the more painful sorts."
"The boyars," Silviu manages to choke out thinking, oh god in heaven, of the impalements that Vlad has already begun to order, traitors and criminals and cowards all screaming and him soon to be beside them, assassin that he was -
Vlad exhales softly, as if this has confirmed his fears. And then, without removing the knife, he leans down and kisses Silviu. Knowing better than to fight, Silviu holds back revulsion.
With many of the old boyars dead, there is room for new nobles to gain power in the land. Aurica's father wants to be one of the first, and their voivode is not the sort of man who will listen to flattery and bribes. But he is still unmarried and, in that, Aurica's father sees a possibility. Aurica is seventeen; she is not remarkably pretty, but flattering clothes and a bit of face paint can work wonders.
She herself does not like the plan, but who is she to argue? And her father's plans so rarely come to fruition. She sits still as the maids powder her face, rouge her cheeks, paint her lips red and her eyelids dark. She is quiet as her mother picks out jewel-bright gowns with low necklines and hands Aurica her own finest jewelry. Aurica has never even met the voivode. She can't even begin to think of what to say when her father tells her to go to bed with him even if he doesn't show interest in courting her as a wife, that a royal bastard who could someday become voivode would be a valuable thing to have in the family.
She is seated near Vlad Draculea at dinner, and he is courteous but does not seem interested. She does not know how to seduce. She has been always taught to be quiet.
She speaks to him first when they are alone in a hallway. "My lord," she begins with a curtsey, not wanting to speak above a whisper, "you are..." And from there she knows not what to say. Handsome? His nose is too aquiline for beauty, his brows thick, an ugly scar showing at his forearm. She has seen his punishments for liars.
But he cuts her off before she can find a compliment, tilting her chin up and speaking gently, as though to a child, "Tell your father that I do not wish him to whore his daughters out to me, lady."
She flinches, at the blunt words and the thought of her father's anger at such a pathetic failure. There are so many things she could say, denials and apologies and explanations, but all that comes from her mouths is, "How did you know?"
He half smiles, "Your father is obsequious to the point of servility. And, however immodest the standards at my court seem to have become, few women dress in so garishly eye-catching a fashion."
She nods at the truth of it. "It was not my idea."
"I have no doubt on that score." He touches the copper of her hair, pensive. "But you are beautiful, in truth, though those clothes do nothing for you."
She blushes, though she does not know how she could have imagined seducing this man, while a compliment from him brings the blood to her cheeks so.
He meets her eyes with his own, green snake's eyes. "I do not wish for reluctant bedfellows. Do you truly want this?"
She nods. She doesn't know why, but she does.
And so he takes her to his chamber, and washes the paint from her face and unfastens the tight laces on her gown. He is gentle, more gentle than she expects, and she actually enjoys it, something she hadn't even dared hope for when she agreed to her father's plan.
The next week her father sends her to his lands, far away from court, and after that she does not see the voivode again. When the child is born, she names him Mihnea, and tells him from the first who his father is.
The lie slips from her lips in a moment of weakness, as thin and as dangerous as the edge of a knife. "I'm pregnant." It could be true, with only a slight bit of luck, for she hasn't had her courses yet that month. It isn't so rash, in light of that, and in light of the way he has always run his hands through the dark curls of her hair, the way he has smiled at the sound of her voice. So hard to be afraid of him with all that, even when he impales monks on stakes as high as trees, even when he has had women flayed alive for adultery. His cruelty to her has gone no farther than a tug on her hair in the midst of passion, his teeth making careless red marks on her shoulder. It is part of the wildness of sex, and somehow separate from his merciless policies as a ruler. He would never hurt her, not really.
He is not overjoyed by the possibility of fatherhood, the way all the stories later shall describe it. He smiles, splays his pale fingers over her stomach. "You're sure?"
Another lie, even briefer. "Yes."
He pushes her hair away from her face, gentle. "I'm glad for you." Serious suddenly, "I will provide for you and the child, whatever happens. Know that."
Why did she say it? He was distant, yes, but hardly more so than he always had been, for there always had been a place behind his eyes that she could never see, a place behind controlled layers of steel locks, a place of such depth of emotion that it could not be unlocked lest it consume her, like Zeus with Semele.
And she wanted to see it. Yes, that was it. The eternal temptation.
Her courses come the next morning, and she curses her own stupidity under her breath. She cannot convincingly fake a miscarriage - Vlad has known too many women to be taken by such a trick. She can avoid sex, but they sleep beside one another at night. He will find out.
He does find out. She cannot keep the secret even twelve hours. Rage boils in his eyes when he realizes, and he tangles a hand in her hair, a gesture no longer with passion in it, only cruelty.
"You disloyal liar," he says, as though it is the foulest accusation he could make, "What did you want? Money? Gifts? Affection? I thought you better than such sordid tactics."
He lets go of her hair and backhands her across the face, swift and unhesitating. "Undress," he tells her, and she doesn't even think to refuse. She lies still on the bed and listens to him take something out of a box on the other side of the room. She rationalizes frantically, thinks of cruel little passion games he could be playing with her, little mockeries of punishment where she shall have to moan and beg for mercy, but all those thoughts turn cold at the sight of the knife gleaming in his hand.
"Stay still," he commands her, as if she would scream and fight, as if she never heard from him his vague admiration of stillness, as if she could forget the guards throughout the castle who would drag her outside to endure whatever this punishment might be in the sight of all the world.
He leans over her, holding the knife like a surgeon and like a lover. "I will not waste my time on liars," he says, "nor my affections. I have sought for years now to rid Wallachia of such corrupting vices, which gnaw to the very heart of our land like parasites, only to find you here, in my bed, speaking poison." He smiles, but a smile that she has never seen from him before. "But it is only fair to test your lie. Shall we see?" He places the knife just below her sternum and, in an instant, she realizes what he is about to do.
"No, please, Vlad...my lord...domnul...please, I beg of you -" she rambles on, incoherent, frantic, and he doesn't even respond, just watches her, his eyes never leaving hers, his expression never changing. And then, slowly, he begins to slice into her skin.
She doesn't stop screaming.
If he could, Alexandru would spend hours doing nothing but touching Vlad, hands, lips soaking up the sensations of his skin. But Alexandru knows better than that, knows that Vlad prefers to touch than to be touched, and that Alexandru must abide by what Vlad wants.
He does not mind it, the submission – it is in his nature, he thinks sometimes, and the absence of complex, ever-shifting, uncertain dynamics of control is a relief. He has even learned to enjoy the thrill of fear that Vlad's cool anger gives him, though it is the same anger that could lead him to a kill a lover who lied to him and never regret it.
There are times when it is nearly unendurable, times when Vlad's desire to inflict pain goes beyond the bounds of Alexandru's ability to enjoy it, when a too-familiar word in public causes Vlad to rail against Alexandru with the safe confines of the bedroom.
But the times when it is wonderful beyond belief are far more frequent, and Alexandru knows that his love for Vlad is such that, were there a way to be free from the terrors that come with being the lover of Vlad Tepes, he would never take it.
Things are getting worse for Wallachia, and Vlad knows it. Alexandru has watched his face in council meetings when the numbers in the Turkish force are recited, and he has seen the steely resignation there. He wants Alexandru to become a better warrior before they have to go to battle again, and to that end he brings him to watch and assist in executions, so that the sights, and smells, and sounds of men dying are not unusual to him. Alexandru goes, but he does not like to. Vlad is passionless at the executions, so different from when he holds his fingers tight around Alexandru's neck, and Alexandru does not like to see that side of him.
At the first few battles against the Turks, Alexandru does badly, and Vlad talks to him about it in the tent that they share. "You will be killed if you continue this way," he tells him, and Alexandru knows it is probably true.
At one of the battles, Vlad is grievously wounded, a Turkish sword cutting a long, deep gash from his right shoulder all the way down his forearm. Alexandru tends the injury, washing it out and bandaging it tight. Vlad handles the pain well, as Alexandru always imagined that he must. "Radu is a bad general," he says as Alexandru is bandaging him, "I knew he would be. If they didn't have the advantage of numbers, it would be no difficulty at all to beat them."
Alexandru says nothing, knowing that he has little to say. "Mehmed always seemed intelligent," Vlad continues, his words hardly slurred by the pain, though he has refused alcohol to numb it, "I expected to him to have more sense than to make Radu a general out of sentiment."
Alexandru smiles, hoping to take Vlad's mind off of his traitorous younger brother, "Does that mean that wouldn't make me a general?"
It works. Vlad smiles back. "Of course not. I don't want you being killed."
He is never unkind to her. He is perfectly courteous, if formal, and she knows that she has little to complain of, despite how far his courtesy is likely motivated by her cousin's position as ruler of Hungary. It is an exchange, after all, and she may perhaps be the wife of the voivode of Wallachia in the years to come.
But he has never moved beyond formality with her, and that pains her in a selfish, unfair way. He has spoken never to her of himself, of his family, of his home. In the evenings, she fills the silence between them with chatter about the events of her days, but she can tell that he doesn't listen.
And so she listens to the gossip of him. She learns that Radu cel Frumos, the younger brother who rules Wallachia in his place, is known by all to be the lover of Mehmed II, the Turkish sultan. She learns that Vlad is known as the Impaler, and has ordered more grisly executions than any of his forefathers. She learns that her cousin believes Vlad to have gone mad during his imprisonment here in Hungary.
Such stories make her thrill, and fear, and look at Vlad in a far different manner, but he doesn't seem to notice. He reads, unendingly, books in languages she does not know. He goes out hunting, and comes back with his clothes bloody and his eyes still. He gives her strange looks when she puts on face paint.
Their marriage was consummated on the wedding night, and they have sex once every few weeks. It is mechanical and vaguely unpleasant. He doesn't seem to enjoy it much either. But they have a child within the first year of their marriage, a son. He names the boy Mircea, and, seeing him holding the child, she thinks it is the first time she has truly seen him happy. As for herself, she hopes that motherhood will give her something to do, to be, some substance to her life other than the endless procession of court rituals.
But Mircea dies a few months after he is born. Vlad somehow seems more angry than sad, clenching his fists and opening them repeatedly, pacing about their bedroom. She doesn't know what she can say.
After that, he is gone more and more often. When the twins are born, he barely looks at them, and she must name them herself – one after him, one after her cousin. He grows ever more courteous with her, but also ever more detached, as though he ever spoke to her in public, in view of all the court. She tries not to criticize him, not to question, but it is hard. She still tries to talk to him about herself, as the silence stretches ever longer and more unendurable, but everything she says sounds petty. She knows that he is not listening and wishes that she didn't care.
One night, he gets back many hours after midnight. She stays up, pinching the insides of her wrists to keep herself awake, and when he gets there, she cannot help but ask, though she winces at the anger in her tone.
He frowns, though not at her. She thinks, in the dim candlelight, that she sees a flicker of red within his eyes. "That is none of your concern," he tells her, and his tone makes it a command.
She stands, willing her voice steady and calm, not shrill. "You are my husband – you are my husband, and a member of the royal house of Hungary by that token, and none other. My loyalty is to my country, not to yours, and I'm sure that my cousin would be interested to know that his prisoner of state is spending so many hours each night away from his wife's –"
It is the wrong thing to say, she sees that immediately. He looks at her, which is what she wanted, but there is something so hard and cold in him that she is frightened. "I will not hit you, Lady Ilona, because this is not my country and I have not that authority over you. But know that I would, were this Wallachia. Be content that I do not." He turns away again, looking for some object amongst his things. "Tomorrow, I shall move to a different bedchamber from this one. I think it detrimental for a husband and wife to spend so much time in such close proximity."
That is the last time she is alone with him. When Radu cel Frumos dies and he begins to make plans to return to Wallachia, she does not hear about them until they are final, and by that time it is clear that he is not taking her with him. She was transitory, an affectation picked up for camouflage, like his Catholicism. She stays in Hungary, and raises his children, and quite nearly forgets him.
This era bores him. It is true, there are killings upon a larger scale then before, devilishly clever machines that embody cruelty in cold, unyielding metal, but the executions, the inquisitions are beginning to be couched in rationalization, in carefully written laws, the fire-intensity of the inquisitions dulled by a coating of hypocrisy which leaves an unpleasant taste on his tongue. The tyrants, all too often, are neither clever nor mad, while in the past they have generally been at least one or the other. The star of logic is ascending, and logical minds fall not so easily prey to the tricks that he spends much of his time in.
Vlad is a fascinating diversion, though he is as logical as Machiavelli, and though madness only simmers beneath the surface of his skin, not yet cracked open. Vlad is clever, and though he somehow manages to believe the reasoning behind his garish punishments, he does not hide or deny his own enjoyment of them either.
Loki has been watching him since his first reign in Wallachia, but it is only in Hungary, as Vlad clenches his fists in habit and hunts for the enjoyment of it, that Loki thinks his seduction could be of any use. He places himself where Vlad will find him, and though Vlad does not trust him, he is perfectly willing to kiss and be kissed, violently, like a battle.
Loki does not try to hide his power from Vlad, for he knows that it shall be his main attraction. Vlad tells him early on, under the dim sunlight of the forest, that power forms the main tenet of his philosophy. "This does not mean that weakness is to be despised," he explains, as Loki half listens and half plans, "But no one who has the strength to do so should hesitate to take power over the weak, and neither should any see cruelty inherent in that. The weak must be ruled by the strong, in all aspects of society, otherwise –"
"Would you believe me if I told you I was a god?" Loki asks, interrupting.
Vlad stops, looks at him. "I would believe that you are something humans deem to be a god. That doesn't mean I have any intention of worshipping you."
Loki smiles at Vlad's pride, his arrogance. Loki does not wish to break him entirely, for then he would be of no use, but he does need to instill some sense of respect. For he does not, of course, occupy himself so often with Vlad purely for his own gratification, though that is a delightful side effect. He is assembling resources, slowly, over centuries, individuals who are intelligent enough, amoral enough that they will be of use to him, and he will want them around for centuries.
"But what if I wanted you to worship me? What if I wanted a…sort of high priest?"
Vlad winces in some memory that Loki cannot guess, but his expression soon returns to impassivity. "No. I serve no one. It is not in my temperament, and so I cannot accomplish it well."
Loki abandons the topic for the time.
He quickly makes clear to Vlad the possibility of becoming a vampire, with all its strengths and detriments. Vlad listens carefully, and agrees quickly. He watches Loki shape-shift and kill a mortal for blood, hears about the dangers of sunlight and holy objects, and still chooses power and immortality. The two of them have talked for a long time about humanity as a whole and, thinking of the scars on Vlad's back that he hates to have touched, Loki decides that Vlad is ready to leave it.
Loki knows Vlad's love for ritual and protocol, and can see that, if he is to command any loyalty from Vlad in the years to come, he must endow the event of his changing into a vampire with both. And so he brings him far from Hungary or Wallachia, to a dark cave by the sea with stones that smell of ancient sacrifices. There, he cuts Vlad's hair and shaves faint traces of stubble from his cheeks, making his protégé into a perfect image of himself, to be frozen into immortality in the days to come. Vlad is still throughout, spine straight. Even when, under the moon of an unknown country, Loki shifts to a nightmarish, fanged creature and buries his teeth in Vlad's neck, Vlad does not cry out. It is that same pride, Loki thinks, and a hard earned talent for enduring pain.
But Loki refuses to leave that pride untested, and so he drinks Vlad's blood till Vlad must fall to his knees when Loki lets go of him, breathing in the cold salt air with a desperation that makes Loki smile. It is then that Loki makes a deep cut in his own shoulder, kneeling beside Vlad and waiting till his eyes, hazy with blood loss, register the red blood welling up.
"This is how it must be done?" Vlad asks, his voice remarkably steady.
Loki nods. "This is how it must be done."
Vlad smiles faintly, "I like the taste of blood," he tells Loki, and then puts his mouth to the wound.
Loki kills Vlad's mortal body after that, methodically and without much pleasure in the deed. He stays with him, fighting his own habitual boredom, until Vlad awakes, and then he takes him back to Matthias Corvinus' palace and his vapid Hungarian wife. He has already given Vlad the warnings accompanying his new condition, and has little time for the sentiment of slowly teaching his new Fledgling.
At first, Vlad retains enough remnants of nationalistic pride to wish to continue living some semblance of a mortal life, freeing Wallachia from Turkish suzerainty in the process. Loki knows well that Vlad will abandon that aim when he realizes the implausibility of it, but, for the time, he accompanies Vlad back into Wallachia, wondering if later legends of the Imapler's final days shall record an unknown red haired man at his side during battles.
Just as Loki had predicted, Vlad does decide eventually to create a fiction of his death and live a life outside of the deceits and unnecessary complications of humanity. A headless corpse, dressed in rich garments and with a medallion from the Order of the Dragon around its neck does well enough as Vlad's murdered body, while the voivode himself flees with Loki into Transylvania, where he changes his name to Vladimir and his title to 'Count', and uses his hidden gold to buy an abandoned castle in the Carpathian Mountains.
As Vlad settles into a solitary life, Loki finds himself too bored to linger. He leaves for other projects, returning every few decades to hint to Vlad about new powers he might explore. Each visit, it seems to Loki that Vlad's arrogance is greater, and more intolerable. One night, midway through the sixteenth century, they argue bitterly about subjects which matter greatly to the both of them. Vlad speaks rashly, eschewing deference to the bonds of obedience he owes to Loki as his Maker.
But Loki is stronger, by thousands of years, and by god and jotun blood in his veins. He spells Vlad into immobility, and, after briefly searching through the weapons in the cabinets of Vlad's bedroom, whips him, opening sharp, fresh cuts over his childhood scars.
Loki does not know what he expects when, smiling, he finishes and removes the spells the hold Vlad in humiliating stillness. He does expect, he supposes, some show of humility, of a need for mercy. But, clearly, he realizes later, he has misjudged his arrogant Fledging, for as Vlad stands with the stiffness of the drying blood on his back, Loki can feel another's magic creeping upon him, from the very stones of floor.
"Get out of my home," Vlad says, and his voice is quiet with the surety that he will be listened to.
Loki is still stronger, that he knows, but the safeguards of Vlad's paranoid caution mean that the magic which fills the castle to the brim is not within his capabilities to fight easily. He leaves.
At first, the emptiness of the castle frightens her. She is used to having people about her always, and though she had in the past relished the solitude of their secret trysts, she can hear the echoing silence of the many unfurnished, uninhabited rooms, and something of it is terrible. She is all right as long as she stays near Vlad, but sometimes he is studying (newly published books and poems and plays; languages that she has not even heard of), and he sends her from him with an impatient gesture of one long fingered hand. She knows not what to do with herself at such times, and, occasionally, she curls herself up and cries with the loneliness of it. She can hear the rustle of papers in the distance, and he never comes to find her.
She loves him. That is not in question, and for her it has never been in question. She knew that she loved him months past, as they spent long, secret hours of darkening twilight in the shadowed forest near her town, her listening to his rich voice and running her fingers over the cold skin of his knuckles. She knew she loved him in the deep intensity of desire, as her fingers clumsily unlaced the rich brocaded fabric of her bodice. She knew she loved him when she gasped in pleasure at his nails biting deep into the skin of her back, when he smiled slowly, as if understanding something unexpected about her.
He had asked her if she wanted to come away with him, if it meant never going home again. She had not hesitated, though she knew almost nothing about him, not even his true last name. But she had not known what he was doing when, later that night, he had her drink his blood. She thought it some sexual eccentricity of his, like the brutal violence that she delighted in enduring.
And so it is difficult for her, now, to adjust to the inhuman life that he has determined for her. He has explained to her what she is, the requirements of it, and she was upset at first, that she had not known, that he had not told her what she was getting herself into. But she loves him and so it is not an impossible way for her to live, just a difficult one.
He has lived alone for a very long time, she has learned, and he needs the solitude of hours studying in the library with the door barred. She tries to understand, for he has lived alone longer than she has lived at all, and surely her constant presence must seem strange to him, but it is difficult to accept.
When she obeys him (which is often, which will soon be nearly always) he is kind to her. She likes jewelry, pretty things, and so, though he prefers her white neck bare of ornament and her clothing simple, he buys her things, more beautiful than the most expensive gifts her merchant father bought her mother. She wears pearls, and cream colored gowns, and her wavy golden hair down over her shoulders, and he smiles at her, drawing her close to him. She smiles in return, tilting her head back, gasping and laughing as he bites her.
She does disobey him sometimes, for it is difficult, though she is learning. When she does, he punishes her with humiliation, for, as he tells her, she is too likely to enjoy pain. Such punishments are always terrible, looking at his impassivity as she feels her own face red and blotched with tears. She would like to be a perfect consort to him, bright and witty and glittering and beautiful always, even in the intense honesty of sex, but he does not let her maintain any sort of façade, which takes some adjustment.
But she is getting better. She is learning what he wants, she is finding things to amuse herself while he studies English. He is beginning to say that they should take a trip somewhere together. He is beginning to say that one day he will take another lover, who shall be a friend to her as well. She thinks that she likes that possibility.
She had heard the stories years before, when she was a gangly girl with wiry red hair and a patched dress which showed her knobby knees when she hitched it up to run more easily. She had curled up close to the fire, knees drawn close to her chest, and listened to old, lyrical, ballad-like stories of beloved husbands dead and returned, of cruel tyrants ruling for centuries. In her home they had worn old crosses of carved wood or bone, passed down over years and years, a rare bit of ornamentation adopt the ripped and stained fabric of their clothing.
And so she had known what he was when she first met him, enshrouded in mist, watching her with red-green eyes. She had been angry then, angry with the milky boys who wanted her to marry them so that they would have a woman, pliable and emotionless, to cook their meals and lie in their beds at night. She had been angry with her parents, who bowed and scraped to the lord who owned their land, and wanted her to be quiet and work till her fingers bled. She had been angry at the foolish pettiness and endless monotony of the life she could see spreading before her. And so she ripped the wooden crucifix from her neck and looked into his eyes.
She had grown into a rough beauty by then, with large eyes and hair a peculiarly dark shade of red. That was probably why he smiled and extended bone-white hands to her.
At the time, she had pictured an eternity as a dangerous, insubstantial spirit, coppery blood upon her tongue. She had pictured clawing with jagged nails at the earth to bury herself at dawn, spending nights free from walls and obligations, traveling the world and watching the way people lived, without participating. She had not pictured the life that she now lives, with all the locked doors of his castle.
She fights him sometimes, still, though his harshness and iron will is breaking the habit in her. He, like everyone else, talks about obligations, and she spits at him, angry tears in her eyes. It is not that she does not like him, does not find him attractive, for she does, very much, but it is that she imagined a dreamlike coupling surrounded by mist and then a goodbye, leaving him only a vague memory in her mind. She thought that vampires were solitary creatures, ones who traveled alone, feet driven to fleetness by the dancing fires of hell. She did not imagine that there would be such a hierarchy, that he would want to keep her with him forever and that he would be capable of that.
But she is slowly beginning to think that, though it was not what she wanted and expected, it might be a manageable life after all. He takes her hunting with him, teaches her about killing and the joyous exaltation of it. He understands what she wants and why she wants it, even though he will not give it to her.
She does not mind Ecaterina, though she found her irritating at first. Ecaterina is teaching her card games, and she does not dislike Ileana, which Ileana feels she herself would do were she in Ecaterina's position. Ecaterina tells her that there are times when Vlad locks the door to the library and only emerges hours later, hands stained with ink. She says that, at those times, she will be glad to have Ileana there.
One night, all three of them go out hunting together. Vlad is teaching Ecaterina to hypnotize mortals, and with that skill she draws a young, handsome man to them. Her face is drawn with the effort of it, and Ileana watches, half resentful, as Vlad speaks softly, perhaps comfortingly, to her about it, but then his face changes and, smiling to Ileana, he draws short, sharp nails over the man's face, calls Ileana to lick the blood from the open wounds. Thus, under cover of the rich forest, only occasional traces of moonlight visible through the branches, the three of them kill the man slowly, in many steps, though Vlad and Ileana take more pleasure in it than does Ecaterina. Vlad guides Ileana's hands in some things, shows her ruthless care in place of her habitual haste, and when it is over and she can feel her cold hands hot with quickly drying blood, Ileana kisses him, and does not mind that he holds her hair tightly as he kisses her back.
She has never spoken much. When he first meets her, she is hardly out of the awkwardness of her adolescence, but already there have been young noblemen at courtly dances who have commented on her silence. "You're a quiet one, aren't you?" they asked as the lutes played, and she feigned a smile, wishing that no one expected some comment of coquettish flirtation.
He does not seem to expect anything from her but the reactions that she falls into naturally, and that is so unusual that it seems to frighten her more than anything else. He does nothing but smile gently when she weeps, and her screams when he bites her make him kiss her with bloodstained lips. She does not disappoint him. She feels herself weak and frail beside beautiful Ecaterina and wild Ileana, and so the fact that he draws her to him with arousal red in his eyes just as frequently as he does with them is a surprise. She feels herself awkward, all thin angles, too tall for the softness of her features, though it is true that, out of the high necked, richly embroidered gowns of courtly life, she is more comfortable.
She hates pain. That is an obstacle, though when he first brought her to the castle and locked her, confused and frightened, in a bedroom, she did not think that he would ever give such things consideration. But she has learned, slowly, that he has been careful with her and that, when he leaves cuts or bruises on her skin, it is always in the deliberation of careful punishment, and never pure sadistic passion.
When they have sex, he is gentle with her, gentler, she already knows, than he is with the others. Often he restrains her, with ropes knotted around her wrists or chains fastened to the bedposts, but that does not frighten her. There is, in fact, a sort of safety to it, a permanence, a sense that, yes, she will stay with him for all the centuries that he says she shall, and things will remain as they are.
If he leaves her alone too long, it feels as though something snaps in her. For weeks, she could not sleep lying alone in a coffin in the dark, purgatorial cellar. She would lie, eyes wide, staring at the wood above her. When the sun set, he would look at her with concern, and she would know that the exhaustion must show on her face, making her already unfashionable thinness into something haggard and wrung dry of vitality.
When he learned of her insomnia, he brought her to sleep in his coffin, and, curled up against him, her head fitting into the curve of his shoulder, she could sleep. Months of that, and now she is all right, finding the stillness natural in his presence even when alone.
He spends time alone with her when he wants that sort of stillness. He sits reading on one side of the room, while, a few feet away, she embroiders careful, intricate patterns (once she asked him, he was happy to buy her many-colored silks and sharp needles). When she considers that tableau, she realizes how almost conventionally domestic it is.
Sometimes, though, she accidentally pricks a finger with her sharp, gleaming needles. At such times, he normally ends up burying his fangs in the thick veins at the edge of her wrist, and then holding her wrists together above her head and pushing her against the wall. The swiftness of such things means that her hair gets in her eyes, and she cannot see him as she would like, but after so many decades, even just the pattern of lines on his palm can evoke for her all of him. Sometimes, she closes her eyes and kisses him as much as she can.
Much of Adriana's embroidery is unfortunately bloodstained.
She respects him. The respect is unusual in her, and so, from the first, she considered her relationship with him differently than the other, more fleeting romances in which she has been involved over the past several centuries. He is as smart as she is, though no smarter, and, despite his monetary wealth and royal upbringing, he knows what it means to fight, and to suffer, and to be helpless. Too many of the other vampires she has known have grown complacent in the idleness of immortality, smug with their superiority to humans, and such often proves their undoing. He is not like that, with his paranoid protective spells and silvery scars.
It is true, however, that he chooses to spend immortality in a different fashion than she has. She has never lived in one place continuously for over a half century, and now has properties scattered over Europe (seemingly abandoned manors falling into disrepair, high stone towers that were old when she came to them, shabby rooms in the attics of lodging houses), while he has made his castle into a home and fortress in which to live out eternity. She has made a point of never creating Fledglings, limiting her love affairs to those already of her own species, while he has three women who he has changed to vampires, his lovers and prisoners and dependents, one not even a century old when Clara meets him.
She has good reason to distrust him, the green-eyed tyrant, solitary intellectual, amateur linguist. When they first met (at a party of sorts, an eclectic mix of humans and vampires, artists and aristocrats) he reaches, far too early in their courtly flirtation, to remove the pins from her white-blonde hair. She doesn't let him, and she can see the danger in his coiled up need for control. But he is so handsome, so clever, so thoughtful, and so much what she desires after the stagnant circles of acquaintances (her relationships all seem too absent in intellectual challenge, too much about some brutish, unthinking physical need without the endless complexity she demands) that she leaves the party with him anyway, though it is not that night that she takes down her carefully tied up hair for him.
They talk often, after that. It seems that they could talk for many centuries more, though at first their conversations are only intellectual – guarded and never personal. She does not speak Romanian, and she does not want to speak the Germanic languages of her mortality with him. He favors English, which he speaks with the graceful turn of phrase of Queen Elizabeth's court, while she likes Italian, the language of that new form, opera, which sounds to her like music. Together, they play chess, which they both play with great skill, closing their minds to the other so that it is impossible to guess each time which one of them shall win.
They grow more intimate, slowly (emotionally, for physical intimacy came swiftly and easily to them), their conversations actually turning to their own pasts. Neither of them spares the other their opinions, even when the things that they tell are difficult. The honesty tastes to her like a clean sea breeze, and eventually, one night, when they both have bruised one another in passion, she tells him things that she has told no one else, of the vulnerabilities that she has managed to forge into shining steel. He touches the line of her jawbone and nods.
But still she avoids coming to his castle, and when finally she does, she wraps her magic around her like a night-blue cloak, for still she does not trust him. He introduces her to his Fledglings, beautiful, broken women who smile at her with an odd tinge of wonder. She knows already how Vlad manages them, that he does not let them leave the castle alone, that with physical and emotional violence he has trained them to obedience, but it is different to see him with them, almost off-handedly in control. She is not disgusted, but that day she has nightmares of the silver magic in the stones of his floors binding her up into helplessness.
He wants her to come live with him. She refuses, knowing too well his desire to be in control of everything around him. His castle is so unequivocally an extension of himself that, if she were to live there, she fears the equal balance of power between them might shift. They fight bitterly over it, in cruel words, threats of magic (she has the power to alter memories, and he that to hypnotize wills – both are potent weapons against the other), and eventual physical fights, which neither of them wins. Never, in the course of all that, does either of them deny that they love the other, a fact that has become intensely clear over the course of their acquaintance.
Eventually, she does agree to live with them, though she makes sure that it is not a capitulation on her part. He gives her a room on the top floor of one of the towers, near the wind. She sleeps there during the day, far distant from the morbidity of Vlad and his Fledglings in coffins underground. Her fears are not realized, not even in the slightest degree.
But something about it does not work. They argue, as they always have, but their constant closeness worsens the arguments somehow. His habitual solitude seems even more contrary to her accustomed way of life – it is beginning to seem to her like an escape from all the world but the limited one that he can control within the walls of his castle. Obligations matter to him – he has told her that – but she is hearing more and more stories about young vampires accidentally dying in sunlight or being killed by superstitious humans with stakes and crucifixes, and she is beginning to think that her idea of responsibility extends wider than his.
They argue, in cruel bruises and in crueler words. She begins to leave for trips that last months, and whenever she returns, things between them are better than before she left. That fact makes things clear. With civilized calm, they mutually decide that she shall leave his castle, though the room at the top of the tower remains hers, should she ever need it. She visits him once every few weeks, and savors the smooth ivory of his chess pieces against her fingers, and the soft-hard feel of his mouth against her own. Such things, she realizes, are better as rare, anticipated delights.
During her most recent visits, she notices that he has been reading about the British Empire.
A stranger comes out of the darkness one night, as Petru walks home through the streets of Bucharest. Petru first thinks of a mugging, and steps back, wishing that he carried a knife with him. But when the stranger steps out enough that Petru can see him with some clarity by the lights in the windows of nearby houses and the brightness of the full moon, it is clear that, whoever this man is, he is no petty thief. Petru may only have arrived in Bucharest from the countryside a few months past, but the tailored cut of the stranger's clothing is unmistakable, as is the expensive fabric of his dark cloak. The man's face is pale as a nobleman's, and his eyes look as dark as the sky in the dim light. He is darkly, dramatically attractive. Petru bites his bottom lip and promises to himself that he shall say his rosary an extra time this evening for the thought.
"Excuse me, sir?" Petru asks, "Are you lost?"
The man smiles, in a twist of disconcertingly red lips. "No. No, I do not believe that I am. I am here…looking for something, but I believe I have found it."
Petru has had secret, unrealistic fantasies that begin with words such as that, but he forces the thought of them aside. His will is not, however, quite strong enough to permit him to give the man a nod and continue on his way, which would be the most logical course of action. As though held by a force outside himself, Petru feels that he cannot move, that he must strand there in perfect stillness, looking at the man in an impolitely direct manner.
Then, as though he is truly inhabiting one of a thousand detested fantasies, the man takes a step towards Petru and leans in close, extending a hand to touch his face. His fingers are cold.
Petru forces himself to turn his face away, as though trying to jolt himself out of a dream and into waking. "What do you think I am?" he half cries, old paranoia turning his voice loud.
The man laughs, and places his hand instead at the back of Petru's neck. "What do I think you are, Petru Brezeanu? I think I know quite well." Petru feels those red lips against his jawbone, and he does not pull away. There is a vague mist slowly filling his mind, dissolving his objections and restraints, and a weakness has entered his joints. "Come to my home tonight. I promise I shall be finished with you by morning."
Petru thinks of hours of pleasure, and vaguely decides that this is a dream. He sighs and nods, and then feels the man's grip around his wrist. For some reason, he closes his eyes, and when he opens them, everything has shifted. He is in a room with stone walls and a large bed of carved wood a few feet from him. Before he can begin to wonder, the man kisses his lips deeply. His teeth must be sharp, for Petru can feel them cutting him slightly.
The man draws away slowly, smiling. Petru does not know why, but can see that his eyes have acquired a reddish tinge. The man says, still speaking in his quiet, seductive tones, "I am going to kill you tonight, Petru. I am going to give you exquisite pleasure, but then I am going to kill you, slowly and deliberately and very painfully. Do not think that I have any dislike of you, for I do not, but I promise you that I will not be swayed to mercy by any entreaties."
Petru can see fangs in the man's mouth and a savage look in his eyes, but he is far too dizzy to do anything but scream.
He cannot think. He cannot think clearly and that is…that is not right, for he has always been good at thinking, at keeping things organized. He has always been able to remember the clean characters of shorthand, the mind-numbing details of the law, the fine points of documents. He does his work and he is good at it, he is doing well for someone his age, he knew that on this, the most important job he has gone on, he would do equally well. He would be careful, he would keep his papers organized, he would be polite in the face of the eccentricities of his client. He would learn to enjoy Romanian dishes. All of that should be true, and this job should be going just the way it was planned. It is going right, isn't it? He thought so. The Count liked the property, he was impressed with it, but –
The Count. He is what is not right. Something is wrong, not only in this dusty labyrinthine castle, but within Jonathan himself, and it comes from the Count. Who he cannot quite, no matter how he tries, manage to compre –
The Count is polite. He is interested in British customs. He is interested in Jonathan's personal life. He is complimentary about Carfax. He keeps a large, wonderful library. His cook is very accomplished. He has done everything imaginable to make Jonathan comfortable.
But. Something else. Those pale fingers dug deep into the mortar of the castle wall. Those green eyes blazing red with anger at ghoulish, monstrous women. That cultured voice, with its bare breath of an accent, saying soft, cruel words of sin and damnation.
In Jonathan's odd, hallucinatory dreams, the Count steps out of his wrinkled, aged skin as though it were a badly fitted suit of clothes. He is young and calm and cruel, and there is red blood all over his hands.
He must not think those things, however. He listens to the Count's long stories of centuries past. He obediently tells him of railways and streetlamps and steam engines. He tries not to wonder what has happened to his portrait of Mina.
There are things he has not dreamed. His locked door, his broken shaving mirror. Reading his own journal entries, he thinks that the other, vaguer things are not dreams either, but to think that would be to drive himself to madness, and his thoughts are unclear enough.
Whatever, whoever the Count is, Jonathan knows that something about him, about the mad, impossible reality of him is doing something terrible to Jonathan. It is fraying him at the edges, crumbling him to dust. He no longer knows whether, if he were to see himself in a mirror again, he would even recognize his own expression. Perhaps he has been changed, altered, turned into something on the Count can understand or explain.
She knows so little of him that it seems a likely possibility that he is simply something she created out of her own, overactive mind, the dream-nightmare result of a few gothic novels she read as a schoolgirl, and too much time spent around graveyards. Her imagination, she thinks, would not be strong enough to create out of nothing a being with a history, with a home and a family and everyday obligations. So it created him, who appears at night and is gone in the morning, a creature made only out of sensation and unreliable promises.
If he is real, than she is ashamed of her knowledge of him, which is not the sort she would know how to demurely bring up at a garden party. She knows the shape of his fingers, the rhythms of his gestures, the ways he likes to touch her. She knows the feel of his teeth in her neck and the taste of his blood. She knows, so remarkably well, the precise color of his eyes.
Sometimes, even that knowledge seems to dissipate, and in her half closed eyes he becomes nothing but a nightmare shadow silhouetted against her window. The dark folds of his cape turn to wings, and she smiles, a fever smile, laughing at her own foolishness. He doesn't exist, and so what he is does not matter.
She decides that it is one of the symptoms of her illness, her invention of him. He is a creation of her dizziness and anemia, an overly dramatic explanation for the small, untheatrical cuts upon her throat. Even her fluttering mother would laugh at the idea of such a creature, a thing out of the penny dreadfuls.
But, as Arthur falls asleep at her bedside and the room stinks of garlic, she is glad that is there, holding her in bed with his cold arms as she dies.
Mentally, she makes a list of all she knows about him. She would never write down such a list, of course, for there would be all sorts of dangers in that – to imagine Jonathan unwittingly reading such a thing would be too cruel. But she can make a list within the confines of her mind (an uncomfortably crowded place, since he began inhabiting it), for the sake of practicality and her own sanity.
- He was born at some point in the fifteenth century. This, she has approximated from the details that he has given her of his early life, as well as the historical documents she has been able to find. Neither source is anymore specific than that.
- Impalement is his favorite method of public execution, for the dramatic visual possibilities, but in private tortures he rarely uses it.
- He is, whatever the Professor might say, very intelligent.
- He very much likes Flaubert.
- He speaks at least seven languages, probably more.
- King Lear is his favorite Shakespeare play. He saw it in its original performance. Of this, Mina cannot help but be envious.
- He never intended to deal with Lucy the way he intends to deal with her.
- He loves the vampire women who attacked Jonathan. This, Mina does believe, against her own better judgment.
- He never, not even as a mortal, had particular care for the Christian religion.
- He has some sort of grudge against the Ottoman Empire which Mina is not entirely sure she understands.
- He collects translations of his favorite books.
- He has very nice handwriting.
- He feels sexual attraction for men as well as women (she refuses to think about this in relation to Jonathan, absolutely refuses).
- He has a startling numbers of scars.
- He loves her.
That last item she is, of course, thinking of crossing out.