Park, Downtown Windenburg
Alice led Vlad to the park across the street. “Do you want to go somewhere else? We can leave if it’s too loud.”
“No, I’m—” He looked around, seemingly distracted by the sound of a car whizzing by. “Fine.”
Vlad wasn’t anywhere in the neighborhood of fine. Was it her fault? Did she do this? She forced lightness into her voice, “What happened in there? Usually, corpse pose is the part where everyone chillaxes and falls asleep.”
He stared at her for so long that she feared she’d said something wrong. “It was a misunderstanding. I was thinking of…” he trailed off and cleared his throat. “I mean, thank you.” A dark shadow crossed his face. “Did that teacher call you a psychopath?
Alice laughed. Partly because he had a glint in his eye that could kill Father Winter; it was so icy. Partly because she was trying to subdue the nightmare she’d conjured up of the police showing up at her house and snatching Gwendolyn from the nanny because Alice was in jail for yoga crimes.
You are not getting arrested, she told herself. “It’s cool. They’ll probably try to charge my card but jokes on them, there’s only like 10 simoleons left on that thing. Don’t even worry about it.” Alice dug her toe into the dirt, trying to think about the best way to get him to open up. “So about what happened…we could stay. Maybe talk about until you’re feeling better?”
“Yes, I—” he winced as a group of teenagers turned up the radio. Alice watched him clench a fist, flex his hand, and then close his eyes. When he opened them again, his voice was tight and careful. “On second thought, I have a headache. I think I should take you home.”
He was holding something back, and Alice tried to be chill; llamas help her, she really did. But the universe had other plans for her. “Okay, why don’t we talk about it over dinner later this week?”
Vlad could feel the tension vibrating beneath his skin. This was an old street. He remembered it when it was a tannery, and later, the shops filled in around the turn of the century. He remembered it mid-century too. Things were less fussy back then—no Neighborhood Investment Coalition was slapping historic plaques down to mark was used to be.
Yes, once there was a phone booth on that corner, and wouldn’t you know, you had to ask the operator to connect you! Wow. Unbelievable. Stunning. He was so awash in his disdain and discomfort that he missed Alice’s questions.
“I said, I didn’t know this street had an art gallery.”
“It wasn’t always a gallery.” Vlad couldn’t help himself. “Once, it was an electronics shop charging an arm and a leg for a Simovitch television.”
Alice laughed, “How do you know that?”
“Trivia night,” he lied.
She leaned her head on his shoulder, and it was bliss. “I cannot imagine you ever going to a bar to play Quizzo.”
She was right, but he forced a genuine smile. “The gallery isn’t ever dedicated to one type of art. Today it’s Francisco Battista—”
“Knock-off Battista,” she corrected.
Vlad furrowed his brow, “How do you—”
“The paint isn’t right. The color is Apple 3132, but anyone with a brain in their head knows that Simstil Paints made the 1925 batch with too much tint, which gave them a great color but terrible fading. Battista missed his chance at renown in his day because of a shitty tabloid story, so when he died, his parents sold his estate to pay the debts. They let this piece sit on a display shelf, hoping to lure a buyer in. After that, they moved it to the basement and look,” she pointed, “No chipping on this one and no water damage. It’s beautiful and perfect and a total fucking fake.”
Alice blinked, looking as if she was surprised that the whole speech came pouring out. “Sorry, I have a lot of weird knowledge.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Vlad’s gaze tracked to her mouth and then to her neck. He ignored the ache in his fangs. “I like weird knowledge. His work is on display at the museum. We could go and—”
“No,” she blurted out. With visible effort she lowered her voice. “I mean, no, I don’t really do museums. I had a bad experience.”
They continued on in companionable silence until they reached Kork. Vlad hadn’t been here in years, but the bar was still as lovely and soothing as he remembered. It was small, cluttered, with more candles than electric lights and stone floors that he’d carried in from the old monastery as a gift to the owner. Well, as a gift to his mother, really. He stole a glance at the painting on the wall. He wasn’t really a fan of the owner.
It still stung to recall the yoga class. He could cope with his body failing him; he was used to that. But his mind, he thought he’d wrangled into submission.
“How do you do that?” Alice asked, catching a droplet of Avornalino with her tongue as it rolled down the side of her glass.
Have mercy. “Do what?” he licked his lips.
“Drink and not get drunk?” she swirled her nectar glass, “I mean, I’m a little drunk, and I am not a lightweight.”
“Good genes,” he gave her wolfish smile, “You are full of questions tonight.”
“I am,” she straightened, “Want to answer some more?”
Vlad heard the dare in her voice. It sent something white-hot spiraling through him. “My, my, is that a challenge, Miss Martin?”
“If you’re up for it.”
Under the table, he surreptitiously adjusted himself. “Oh, I can assure you, I am. What do you want to know? Hobbies? Likes? Kinks?”
She tipped back her head and laughed until it devolved into a snort, and fuck—that sound nearly undid him. He wanted more laughter, sex, and danger with her.
“I’ll start off easy,” she propped her hand underneath her chin and leaned forward, “What did you like to do as a teenager?”
“As a teenager?” he repeated tonelessly. Easy? That was her easy question?
Shit. What had he done as a teenager? It was ages ago, and there was no possible way to make it sound normal. “What did you like to do?” he stalled, hoping she’d fire off a few vague answers he could copy.
Alice laughed. “You can’t answer the question with another question. Come on, the 90s was not that long ago.”
Fuck. Vlad did tell her he was 38, and it was true; the 90s weren’t that long ago, but hell if he could remember what he was doing.
No, that was the 70s.
Damn it. That wasn’t right either. Mortals were in the middle of their ill-advised crusades, the dryads were trying to take territory from the Fae, and Vlad had just met Anastasia. Was that 1096? 1097?
He joined a cult in 1997!
Though that wasn’t really a teenage activity. He was just taking advantage of the fact that they were planning ritual suicide, and Vlad was tired of being on his best behavior.
“I drank,” he said carefully, leaving out the part about it being in taverns. “And spent my earnings on companionship and games of luck.”
—Prostitutes and gambling. Which he could now admit had gotten a bit out of hand. Tired of learning vampiric politics at the end of a sword, his brother sent a thousand letters to their mother begging to be sent home from their apprenticeship. William’s request was granted, but Vlad’s was not.
In response, he fought and fucked and drank and gambled.
“What kind of answer is that?” Alice demanded, “Are you lying to me?”
“You asked, and I answered,” Vlad replied, ignoring the implication of her words. “It’s my turn. What was your job before you were a bartender?”
“I…I…what the hell?” She grimaced, “Why are you even asking that? You want to know about my life, but you won’t tell me what you did as a teenager? You won’t say anything about what happened in yoga. Why are you so cagey?”
Vlad felt his eye twitch. He didn’t understand what she was talking about. He wasn’t being cagey; he was being agreeable—holding back all his (admittedly insane) opinions and not burdening her with his seemingly endless supply of what William called his “dramatics.” Yoga was a slip-up. “I am not being cagey.”
She crossed her arms. “What happened in class then?”
A thousand awful things. Memories so brutal, they took his breath away.
Let us see the heart of a vampire who breaks the rules. Is it really so different from one who does?
He ground his palms against the underside of the chair until he felt the skin break open. “The air was dry and gave me a nosebleed,” he replied, surprised by how calm he sounded.
Was that disappointment in her eyes?
“I’m tired,” she said, “I think you should take me home.”
“I’m sorry,” he said when they reached her house. “Can I walk you to the door?”
Alice sighed. “No, I’m fine.” She glanced back at the house. “Earlier, you asked about my old job, and I avoided answering. The truth is, my old job was really exciting and also fucked up. Sometimes dangerous. Anyway, I did something that failed spectacularly and needed help, so I accepted a favor with a lot of strings attached, which wasn’t even for me; it was for—” She froze.
“For?” he prompted.
“It doesn’t matter,” she pinched the bridge of her nose. “I just needed a fresh start away from my old job, away from Salim, away from everything. I’m trying to start over and not make the same mistakes.”
The mere mention of Salim’s name had Vlad fantasizing about sharpening his bone saw. To give his hands something to do, he gently rubbed her shoulders. “Are you safe?”
“I think I’ve answered enough questions,” she gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Goodnight.”
Vetus Deus Cemetery
It didn’t take him long to get to the graveyard. It was etched in his memory along with a host of other horrors. Alice was right; he was lying to her, and if he had any ounce of genuine bravery, he’d tell her and face the consequences.
But he didn’t want to tell her. She was so lovely, so perfect. Fierce and ornery and full of warmth and humor. Meanwhile, he was a warlord with two grown children and way too many ex-spouses who, embarrassingly, had a mortal form that was literally falling apart. He was neurotic and short-tempered and hand-to-the-occult, out of his mind.
In a different world where he could be his whole unhinged self, he would have told her:
He was intimately familiar with corpse pose. He went into vampiric slumber for nearly sixty years, and when he woke up, it was agony.