Windenburg Woods, Dryad Territory
“Step two,” Cyrus instructed, “Is to make sure Marjorie does everything we say and doesn’t give us away. Now, I would usually suggest money or blackmail, but I’m out of my depths with immortal beings.”
“Dad!” Alice gasped. “She’s an old lady. We can’t—”
“This is my forte,” Vlad interrupted, an idea already forming in his mind. “I am quite good at making creatures comply. Gwendolyn is restless; it’s about high time we had an outing.”
Restless was an understatement. Gwendolyn was struggling. She had an abhorrent sense of time, so even though things would be wrapped up in a week, it felt like an eternity to the tiny terror. She swung from being quiet and withdrawn to outbursts of rage and frustration. Vlad recognized the behavior all too well.
“Torture,” Alice corrected with a scowl, “You mean you’re good at torture. And you want to take our nine-year-old kid with you.”
She was practically vibrating with hostility, which meant Vlad had to remain calm. It would be better to burn it off with a few rounds of sex, a violent sparring match, or preferably, both, but he was making an effort to charm her parents.
He gave her a serene smile. “You say torture; I say quality time.”
Vlad drummed his fingers on the table, wearing a flinty expression. Despite his earlier claims, he actually intended for Gwendolyn to learn the finer points of negotiation. If you killed everyone outright all the time, you’d have nothing to bargain with. It was why his father would, on occasion, actually keep his word. Kingdoms were willing to send envoys on the off chance they could make some deal.
“This needn’t end violently, especially since you play a very pivotal role in our plans. Simply acquiesce, and there will be no more threats issued to you.”
Beside him, Gwendolyn squirmed impatiently. Like Alice, she could not keep her every emotion from playing across her face.
“It was a perfectly good Dicoatl card!” she barked.
The tiny witch sitting on the other side of the table crossed her arms and gave them an unamused look. Whoever was training her was doing an admirable job.
“You tricked me,” she retorted, “When I was playing against Tim the other week, I lost because of you, and I hate losing to boys. No deal.”
He gently patted Gwendolyn’s head, a reminder to take a breath even if she didn’t need one. She could quickly lose control of her dark form, and now was not the time to show weakness.
“Are you a vampire now?” the girl asked, “Is that why you’re out of school? Everyone says it’s because you’re covenless but—”
Vlad’s nostrils flared.
Gwendolyn squared her shoulders and answered calmly. “Everyone at school is stupid, that’s why I don’t go anymore. But if you don’t want my Suintor card, then I can just take my business elsewhere.”
The witch’s eyes widened, “You didn’t say you had a Suintor…”
“Did I say that?” Gwendolyn feigned concern, “I didn’t mean to let that slip.”
“Give it to me!” the girl cried, already reaching across the table.
“I can’t just give it to you.” His tiny terror looked thoughtful for a moment, “But you could try to win it. That would be more fair. If you beat him” —she jerked her head towards Vlad— “at Space Invaders, then I’ll let you have it.”
The girl smiled, but Gwendolyn wasn’t finished. “But if you lose to him, then I get to keep my card, and you make us another homunculus. A good one this time.”
That was his cue. This was not his favorite part of the plan. Even if he disliked arcade games, he disliked pretending to be bad at them even more. “Infernal machines, my harried adult brain can hardly understand how they work,” he muttered.
“I can beat some old man!” the girl cried.
Old man? Vlad was mildly insulted.
“You have to swear to it with a binding spell,” Gwendolyn insisted.
The girl nodded. Vlad had never been more proud.
“You did well, hellion,” Vlad said as they walked out of the arcade. “It’s a shame we’ll have to wipe her memory as soon as she completes her task. I quite enjoy the part of video games that is lording your win over your opponent.”
Gwendolyn shrugged. “I guess. I’m starving.”
She was rarely not starving—vampirism wreaked havoc on the system. Still, Vlad worried that her constant demands for plasma were more about comfort than hunger. “You are quite sure you don’t wish to return to the arcade?”
She stopped short and turned on her heel. Vlad could see she was crying. “I miss ice cream! And cookies and candy and soda. I’m hungry, but I don’t want to eat someone,” she hiccuped, “I mean, I do, but I wish sims were ice cream. Everything is terrible and I hate this!”
For a second, her dark form wavered.
Vlad ushered her out of sight.
She regained control, but continued crying. “I miss being a witch. Even if I was alone, I was more like everyone else. And I didn’t like school, but now that I don’t go, I miss it because being home is boring. I don’t have any friends, you guys are always busy, Alice is always angry,” she sniffed, “Actually, everyone is always angry. I’m beginning to think this having a family thing is a racket!”
Vlad hid a smile at her use of Alice’s favorite phrase.
“And I like Deacon, but I think he’s dumber than I am.”
The zombie was guileless, which had to be frustrating. And the household was on edge as they rushed to set everything in motion. Vlad crouched down and gently wiped her tears. “I know things are not ideal, hellion. Everything is hard and demanding, and we are asking a lot of you.”
“Ya think?” she said flatly.
“Alice is not angry at you…” he hesitated. Vlad had suspicions about Alice but there was only so much information Gwendolyn could handle. “She’s just angry in general, right now. Being a god is difficult.”
“Cyrus says she’s going through an ego adjustment and it’s making her cranky.”
Vlad sighed, “Yes, well, let’s not repeat your grandfather’s observations to Alice. Now, look at me, hellion,” he tilted her chin up, “I know you are not getting a lot in return at the moment, but we are doing this to keep you safe. Just be patient a little while longer, and then I promise we will find ways for you to feel happy again.”
“What about ice cream?” she stressed.
Vlad stood and gave her a sad smile, “Your diet will not change, I’m afraid. You are more like me than other vampires. Mortal food will always taste like ash on your tongue.”
“The heart is a delicacy,” he reminded her, “I know you like them.”
Her lips twitched, but she still looked forlorn, and Vlad mourned all the things it was not in his power to give her.
“Perhaps there is a happy medium,” he offered, “I am in a baking contest after all. Let us experiment with turning your favorite food into the dessert of your dreams.”
She finally smiled, “Okay!”
He grabbed her hand as she twirled around, “Not so fast,” he said, faking a stern voice, “First, we have to go shopping for ingredients.”