The king is dead. Long live the king.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost
Though he was loathe to admit it, five months ago, Vladislaus Straud—he who had crushed his enemies with sword and fang, seized Forgotten Hollow and led the Windenburg vampires out of darkness, a vampire so deadly that others of his kind called him “The Reaper,” called him King—had made a mistake.
The skin on the back of his neck prickled at the thought, encouraging him to dig deeper, to perhaps consider a more expansive definition of the word “mistake.”
Had he really made just one?
Vlad growled, tossed off his covers and sat on the edge of the bed. He hated this prickling feeling. For the last five months it had been winding itself through his body wreaking havoc on his nervous system—on his mind—forcing him to second guess himself, to think about doing things differently.
If there was one thing that Vladislaus Straud hated, it was doing things differently.
He got up and began to pace the room.
Five months ago he had an…altercation with the new head of the Windenburg Witches. They took issue with vampires feeding indiscriminately throughout the city, and had made their displeasure known in a very public way. The ashes of three vampires who had been left to burn in the sun were found outside of Pan Europa nightclub, along with a cease and desist note from the coven.
They had sent a cease and desist note to him! Vladislaus Straud!
Like they didn’t know who or what he was! Vlad stopped pacing. A slightly hysterical laugh bubbled up.
He had answered the coven leader’s show of power in kind and that was how they ended up in this…this…dispute. He still remembered her exact words: You, Vladislaus Straud, shall be cursed all the days of your life to know the truth of what you have done. A tricky incantation. Complex spell work. It meant that for the first time in his long life, he was experiencing guilt, struggling with his conscience.
It was excruciating.
A knock sounded at the door. “Sir, I have your dry-cleaning here,” Caleb called from the other side.
Caleb had been with Vlad as a valet since 1759. Back then, he was the penniless son of a former aristocrat who had died with debts a mile long. He and his younger sister were eking out a desperate living in Magnolia Promenade. Lilith Vatore was happy wearing patched wool skirts and taking in their neighbors’ washing, but Caleb wanted something more. And Vlad had given him an…opportunity.
Death sentence, his conscience whispered. Vlad winced. “Thank you, Caleb, you may enter.”
Caleb strolled through the door with a set of freshly pressed dress shirts and placed them on the bureau. He looked calm, unassuming, perhaps even a little bit silly with his haircut. No one suspected Caleb Vatore of having a thought in his head.
It was exactly what Vlad had been betting on once he found out how the elder Vatore had used his son to stay on top of so many card games. A king needed a good spy.
And so? Vlad’s conscience asked.
And so first he made Caleb a valet, and then he made him a monster.
Caleb asked him a question but Vlad couldn’t hear it. Guilt was seizing control of his insides. For centuries, he had employed Caleb without a second thought about his origins. Now, when he looked at him, he could only see his deep betrayal of someone who he trusted and depended on. The feeling went beyond words. He doubled over, clutching at his stomach, searching for a way to relieve the ache.
“Sir?” Caleb asked.
“I…I…I’m starving,” Vlad said by way of explanation, though there was no real reason for the lie. Caleb knew about the curse. “Have you gotten an answer from the witches?”
Caleb waited patiently, probably cataloging every possible entry and exit in the room and using his vampire hearing to sweep for listening devices. “I’m sure I don’t know anything about that sort of thing, sir.”
Vlad gritted his teeth. “You don’t know? You didn’t do anything I asked of you? Talk to the witches? Get me a cure?” He sped over to Caleb, invading his personal space: a threat to any vampire.
Caleb did not so much as blink.