Content Warning: References to child abuse and domestic violence.
Vladislaus Straud, who had been known to devour creatures whole—blood and bone and sinew and skin—was now living in inexorable fear of crossing a wide-eyed mortal named Alice Martin.
Don’t you dare fucking follow me.
He paced the halls of Straud Manor like a caged animal. This place, that up until six months ago, had been one he never wanted to leave, suddenly felt like a trap. He wasn’t ashamed of Alice, he was ashamed of himself.
Caleb and William would be delighted to hear that he considered Straud Manor unsuitable for company.
Delighted and probably filled with schadenfreude.
But it was the truth. Straud Manor was a tomb and he couldn’t imagine Alice would enjoy that. Commandeering Herr Bramley’s downtown apartment seemed like a good idea, a way to keep her from leaving him until…
She was mortal, but he couldn’t stop himself. Every time he thought about leaving her to her own devices, it summoned up an emotion he had no name for. Something bright and hot, with an edge of panic to it.
He tried to lose himself in plans for obtaining The Owl, but that only reminded him of yet another obstacle: how to ensure Jimena handed it over without further infuriating the woman who had told him to “get bent.”
On top of that, there was the summons from the Sages, the aliens Caleb kept ranting about, plus all the competitors he’d have to kill in the interim.
He wasn’t even sure why he wanted The Owl anymore. All his initial reasoning felt wrong. Get rid of the curse but lose everything he felt with Alice? Undo every change to the world he despised but in the process, destroy all the things she liked? Bring back his wi—
He clamped down on the last thought before it could finish.
Sacrifices and violence, that’s what it would take to get The Owl. And Vlad was made to endure the means to get to the end.
He tried sending Alice another message.
And so, with the dignity afforded to him as a king, Vlad launched his phone straight into the wall.
It wasn’t that William had never seen Vladislaus throw anything into a wall before. But wasn’t the point of a conscience to smooth out these rough edges? Wasn’t “feeling” supposed to bring about a calmer Vladislaus who thought about consequences before he acted? Had William misunderstood the curse?
He hardly got a word out before his old friend was on the defensive.
“Am I now to suffer a lecture from Aurelius William Redding too?” he spat, staring William down with cold eyes.
It was meant to hurt—vampires wielded names like weapons. For his part, William had not heard his real first name uttered in centuries.
Once upon a time he had been Aurelius. Back when Josef Straud rode into the backwoods to snatch the strongest teenagers to serve the guard. His mother declared his name proudly and the King, who loved nothing more than to destroy the things that others wanted, declared he would only ever be William.
“I’ve not been Aurelius since my mother took me ‘round the side of the cottage and shook me ‘til my teeth rattled in my head,” William replied calmly.
It was his clearest memory of his mother. What have I taught you, Aurelius? Only a fool would let them see what he truly wants. Only a fool would let them see him upset.
“The same mother who didn’t bother to see you off?” Vlad sneered, “What was it she said? Oh I recall now: I’ve other mouths to feed.”
Another jab. But Vladislaus was wrong. It wasn’t until William watched his mother’s retreating back that he knew she truly loved him.
Only a fool would let them see him upset.
Chuckling, William kept his tone purposefully light. “What ails you, Vladislaus? At this rate, courtship will kill you before the week is through.”
Vlad’s answering look was bitter. I would not deign to tell you, it said, but William knew better.
He remembered the boy who would creep into the barracks, having been beaten within in an inch of his life. He recalled stitching up wounds and resetting bones by candlelight, always careful to tell Vladislaus what his own mother had instilled in him: learn to play dead.
Desire is weakness, Josef was fond of saying. It was his favorite lesson.
Taking a step forward, William softened his voice. “I’m not your father. I’ve nothing to take from you and I’m not searching for weak spots.”
For a second, Vlad’s whole body went rigid. Then, vulnerability flashing in his eyes, he relented.