From the east, a grey and white curtain of mountains shielded the castle from the sun that threatened to dawn. The grey light picked out tracks on the week-old snow. The dots and dashes of rabbits, the clawed wolf-prints, and the marks of a girl's high-heeled boots, heading away from the castle. The marks were deep, dark in the snow. They should have been red, like her boots, like the velvet cloak she had worn.
"Honestly, darling, you're just letting in cold air."
Alfred registered the blue and silver blur that was Herbert at the edge of his vision. Then he yelped.
Herbert swatted his ear again for good measure. "Will you stop pining? You'd think you're missing some kind of princess."
"She was a princess for me." Alfred looked down at his hands on the edge of the window. His nails were growing long and thick.
"Then go after her! And stop getting frost on my good clothes!" One gloved hand was waved in front of Alfred's eyes as proof, a few tiny crystals gathering on the lace cuff.
Alfred shrugged. "She didn't want me to go."
"You're no fun." Herbert prodded the young vampire's shoulder. "You don't even blush anymore."
Alfred looked up at him. "So - you don't want me to stay here?"
"What - oh, Lucifer and all legions!" Herbert spat.
Alfred took a step back, but before he could take another, Herbert caught him by the arm. Moments later they were in the library, the stairs a dim memory of bruised shins and pushed-over candelabra.
"Father!" Herbert demanded, throwing Alfred forward onto the floor.
Von Krolock looked up from a thick tome. "Herbert?"
Alfred tried to crawl sideways, only to have a satin shoe stomp on his leg.
"He's being silly! Fix him!"
Herbert turned on his heel and stormed out, almost slamming the door on his cloak.
Under the Graf's dark gaze, Alfred picked himself off the floor. He dusted off his clothes, which didn't do much to improve them.
"Alfred?" Von Krolock prompted.
"It's nothing!" It came out closer to a squeak than Alfred wanted. "I - I was just looking out of a window, and Herbert was annoyed that I was letting in the cold air - his Excellency, I mean." It was hard to remember to call the pale-haired vampire by his proper title, when Alfred's most vivid memory was of Herbert constructing bubble-flowers in the bathtub.
The book was placed on the desk, long fingers sliding a bookmark between two pages.
"I think I bore him," Alfred said quietly. "I'm not interesting enough. I don't know how to be interesting enough."
The lining of Von Krolock's cloak rustled as he stood up. He took only two steps to be in front of Alfred. "You wish otherwise."
"I've never been interesting enough for anyone. And - if he doesn't want me, I have to go, don't I?"
Von Krolock's eyes held Alfred's. "You prefer to stay."
"I'm not very good on my own," Alfred admitted. "I'm never sure of what to do. I wouldn't know where to go."
"There are cities where our kind ekes out an existence."
Alfred took a breath, only speaking when Von Krolock nodded in encouragement. "I don't like cities. And - I like it here. It's quiet. And there are books. And-"
Von Krolock raised his eyebrows, waiting.
"I like that you sometimes talk to me, Excellency," Alfred said quickly. "And Herbert. He's - very interesting." He looked down again, searching for words. "I - if I can be useful in some way..."
"There may be a task or two."
Alfred looked up, forgetting to take a breath when he realised how close von Krolock was.
"Some of the libraries have lain neglected," the Graf said. "I know each word in each tome by heart, and Herbert does not have the patience to search for books when he's in the mood for reading."
"I could catalogue them?" This time, Alfred held his breath out of mortal habit.
Von Krolock's eyes closed slowly. Then he nodded.
The door slammed open hard enough to send books tumbling to the ground.
"You're letting me keep him?" Herbert was almost dancing, his smile blinding. "Father, you never let me keep anyone I liked before!"
"This time, you chose an intelligent one," von Krolock remarked.
Herbert dismissed it with a nod, clinging to the Graf's arm to kiss his cheek. Alfred tried to retreat to the hallway, but Herbert whirled around an instant later, snatching his arm.
"Oh, the fun we will have!" he trilled. "You haven't seen half the books here yet! Certainly not the interesting ones!" He changed directions again, beaming at von Krolock. "Father, thank you! We must-"
His head snapped towards the door, his grin growing even wider. In the next moment, he was already out of the room.
"A messenger," von Krolock said. "Let us see."
Alfred did his best to keep up with the Graf's long strides. He stumbled on the stairs, and when a strong hand steadier his shoulder, he almost stumbled again.
When they arrived at the gate, it was already open. Herbert had found a fur cloak during his dash, and he was climbing through the snow to meet a large grey wolf that sat attentively with a scroll in its teeth at the base of the road to the castle. For someone complaining of the cold not half an hour later, the blond vampire was having suprising fun, laughing each time he sank knee-deep into a snow-drift.
"I don't think I've ever seen anyone so alive," Alfred said quietly.
Long fingers rested at the small of his back. "That is why I do not let him go," von Krolock said. "Herbert does not let Death nor the Devil conquer him."
Herbert stumbled back towards them, waving the scroll triumphantly. "It's from Sarah! She's been to Budapest, and she's on her way back, with a hairdresser and a tailor! Oh, I could kiss that girl!"
"Truly, Herbert?" The corners of Von Krolock's lips twitched.
"On the cheek," Herbert said promptly, submitting to a pat on the shoulder that dislodged the worst of the snow.
Next to them, for a moment, Alfred felt more alive than he had been when his heart still beat.