The best thing about her vampire lover – husband? They’d discussed it but with no ceremony or contract to mark the moment, it all seemed a bit unclear…
The best thing about her vampire, Lisa possibly-Țepeș thought, was that as fussy and clingy as he could be, if she declared that she was going to market because the night was lovely but she’d go mad and transparent if she didn’t see the sun again, he gave her a purse of coin and her pick of the newer, more mundane section of the stable and simply set himself to all the little tasks he was neglecting because the both of them found the other incredibly distracting.
Truly, it was a wonder anything got done in that castle.
Or… Ah. Well, rather a lot got done in that castle, which was why very little else did.
It was equally a wonder her shopping got done, with the way the people of the town – all the towns, any town, whichever town they moved near – stared and gossiped about the lone woman dressed just a little too fine to be the simple butcher’s daughter she used to be, who rode through the gates on a grey palfrey instead of an old nag. She’d already been quite good at discerning when she should leave town before anyone came to drive her out. She’d become quite good at discerning when to leave before anyone came to try and hold her on the belief she’d run from the house of this man or that one, and the lord would come looking.
Oh, the lord would come looking, and she did not care much to see what happened if he did.
‘What shall I ever do if he loses his temper at the humans that goad him? Why, I shall simply reason with him and peace will prevail.’ Oh, what a fool she was to have ever thought it.
Not because she couldn’t reason with him – he listened to her raptly and was immensely self-satisfied when he proved her wrong or when he pleased her by conceding.
No, the true problem was that what enraged him also, it turned out, enraged her. She had nothing to excuse the inconvenience of her fellow humans. She only had her bruised knuckles and a very firm, ‘I have already settled the matter, love.’
She finished brushing down her mare and wiping off the tack, and strode up the stairs with the words already on her lips—
But her vampire was not there to greet her.
“Vlad?” she called into the gloom of the great hall.
No answer. Odd.
She ventured further in, up the curved main stairs, and peered either way down the corridors. There – light spilled from a cracked door across from the large library he’d first shown her. It was a much smaller room with much more esoteric fittings that he often used as a private workspace, which suited her perfectly well. Too much chance for contamination with both of them working on the same tables, and anyway she had no interest in all of his alchemical nonsense, which was surely very impressive but wasn’t going to bring down a fever or clear up a cough.
She knocked lightly on the door, mindful that she wouldn’t want to startle him. She oughtn’t be able to startle him, but he did get very absorbed in his tasks from time to time.
“Vlad, dear? Are you quite busy?”
There was the thump of something like a heavy cabinet closing, and the buzz and hum of the castle’s machinery, and then he poked his head out the door and—
Well. Down to his shirtsleeves and a waxed canvas apron, that wasn’t so surprising. The heavy leather gauntlets, those were certainly new. And what in the world was on his face?
He pulled one glove off and hooked a bared finger into the fabric over his mouth to pull it down, while his other hand pushed up the contraption over his eyes.
“What are you doing in there?” Lisa asked him. She’d never even seen him bother with gloves before, let alone of the rest of it.
“Ah, a metalworker in the region—” he glanced to the side “—came into the possession of a quantity of alloyed gold. I agreed to purify it in exchange for his own services—”
“Oh,” she said, “So you’re being a bartering old miser again.”
“If you spend a coin once, it is gone from you forever,” he said archly. “But if you trade in skill, it is quite impossible to run your coffers dry.”
“It was good enough currency to buy you that velvet surcote. And the astrolabe you coveted endlessly.”
She felt herself flush at the reminder of those particular gifts, and the enthusiastic thank-you that had followed.
Vlad bent down to kiss her cheek.
“Now. What is all this?” she asked him, plucking at the fabric hanging ‘round his neck.
“Simple precautions,” he said as he took her hand to kiss that, too. “The process produced quite a bit of powdered silver that I’d rather not breathe if anything were to go wrong.”
But she only half heard his answer. She reached up to grasp his hand in both of her own. “Is everything quite… stable? Could you leave it for the evening?”
She stroked her thumb over the ends of his fingers – the blunted-off ends of his fingers, where all of his claws had been nipped down to nothing. “When did this happen?”
“That?” He turned his hand over in her grip to look at them. “Otherwise, the gloves won’t fit.”
“Well.” She pressed on the very ends of his fingertips and watched a shiver force its way up his spine. “I’ve always liked your hands just as they were. But, you know, they may fit in other things like this…”
“Oh. I—” He didn’t color in the way a mortal man might, but his eyes did get a certain brightness to them when he was especially intrigued. “You might have just asked, if you wanted—”
“I’m quite taken with you just the way you are,” she said. “But if the opportunity arises…”
He made a very quiet, very dignified little snort and muttered to himself, “Arises. Certainly.”
She snickered. “Well, I should hope so.”
“Let me tidy this up.”
“Of course.” Reluctantly, she let him go. “Meet me in the kitchen when you’ve finished?”
“I want a drink!” She grinned up at him, barely containing the urge to bounce on the balls of her feet with the force of her mischief. “Wouldn’t you like a drink?”
The helplessly shocked little noise he made every time she suggested it was something she’d truly never tire of.
It had taken a few tries to formulate a numbing salve that didn’t last too long, or taste offensive, or numb Vlad’s mouth as well as her skin. The current batch did well enough, if they timed everything right and it was wiped off beforehand. Lisa wondered at herself, that loosening her smock and numbing her shoulder had her heart racing and her thighs slick – but Vlad would only bite her during times of affection, and on that point, he was utterly inflexible. She’d pushed him on it until he finally said, ‘Love and pleasure are the only things I want to associate with the taste of you.’
She could hardly argue with that.
She might have resented the odd association it created – that it had trained into her – if it hadn’t felt a great deal like she was training him in turn. Each time, he was gentler, more precise in the placement, more… loving. ‘Behold, the wolf becoming a spaniel!’ she thought wryly – for she wasn’t the sort of gentle lady much interested in a little parti-color pup with a wagging tail to sleep in her lap and play at her feet. No, a friendly wolf was enough for her – and if it crept into town to eat those using bright smiles to hide black hearts, and chased away its fellows with less discerning appetites, all the better.
She pulled the satchel she’d taken to market from her shoulder and dropped it on the table to root through. The few brass hairpins to replace the ones she’d lost, excellent. She wound her braid up and pinned it in place to leave her neck and shoulders exposed and bare. Some tablet-woven bands for Vlad, dyed in madder and weld – not wide enough for a belt, but perhaps as trim for a shirt or a coat? She’d dress him as a mortal peasant and take him out into the world someday yet. Ah, and the leather bottle of cider that the brewster had promised was very good and very fresh. Well, it had better be, because Lisa had punched the inn-keeper and there was no going back to that town.
No. She rolled her eyes. There was no going back to that town without the man what kept her, like is proper.
So there was absolutely no going back to that town and she’d be waking to a new section of the Carpathians tomorrow, or Vlad would be dining on mannerless inn-keep, lightly tenderized.
She fetched one of his fancy wine glasses to pour her good country cider in and took a little sip. Just how she liked it – pale gold and bitingly tart.
As she turned back to the table, she caught sight of Vlad standing in the doorway with his arms crossed and a pleased little grin.
“Why must you sneak up on me?” she demanded as she steadied her glass from spilling and set it aside. “Should we once more go over the list of things that you do which are exceedingly rude? Because it is very long, and I am very tired of repeating it.”
“I like watching you in my castle,” he answered, still with that grin. “At ease in my castle. Making a home in my castle.”
“Ah, well…” She fought down a smile, as suddenly his pleasure became her own as well. “I guess you’ve talked your way out of it. Again.”
“It’s a new skill. I ought to practice thoroughly.”
He crossed the kitchen and bent to kiss her, and she rocked up onto the balls of her feet to better meet his cool lips with her own. With every kiss they shared, it became just a little easier to convince him to stop shielding his teeth behind closed lips. They were fearsome, certainly, but not too much sharper than a— oh, a cat’s or a fox’s. Merely brushing her tongue over the tip wasn’t going to slice her open – but it did make him shiver deliciously.
She cupped his jaw in her hand as he broke away to let her breathe. “Thirsty, my love?”
“I shouldn’t, if you’re having cider.” That’s what he said, but he turned to kiss her wrist where the skin was soft and translucent and he could surely feel her racing pulse against his lips.
“Only a little. A little for me, a little for you, hm?” She stepped back and pulled out one of the chairs – comparatively simple things, probably meant for the use of servants – and gave it a pat. “Anyway, I’ve already put the salve on, so sit.”
Oh, she did like it when he did what he was told.
She wet a cloth and used it to wipe her shoulder clean. The camphor in the salve made the water feel exceptionally chilled, and she shivered as it dripped down her collarbone and soaked into her smock.
She tried to straddle Vlad’s legs with the intent of kissing him again, but he pulled her down with her back to his chest. The wide cut of her skirts fell over his legs as easily as they’d fallen over her mare’s rump and completely engulfed them. Such a lot of fabric… although she’d never have gotten herself astride a horse in a more modest cut, not without immodestly flashing her legs all the way up to the split in her hose. Vlad plucked at them a bit to spread them more neatly – and then ran his fingers lightly up her front until he cupped his big hand under her breast.
“Ah.” She rolled her hips and leaned back into him. “Why don’t you loosen my laces and fondle them properly, you old hound.”
“For fuck’s sake, Lisa,” he said through a laugh. “Can I not even be rude well enough for you?”
“Were I not sitting directly atop the evidence of your feelings about my henpecking, I might bother to feel guilty for you.” She pushed back against him and felt his thighs flex and tense. “For fuck’s sake, indeed.”
“Why don’t you loosen your laces?” he muttered into the skin of her neck as he mouthed and kissed his way down. “I’m going to have my drink.”
Her fingers jumped to it without much conscious thought, and she was still caught up in the work of pulling the spiraled cord free when his teeth pierced her flesh.
A distraction, of course.
It didn’t stop a small dew of tears from gathering in her eyes from the – not really pain, not with the slight numbing, but it was a sharp pinch and a bit of a shock every time. Even so, Vlad had gotten much better at biting shallowly, just setting the tips of his teeth into her skin to make the blood well up instead of great deep punctures that streamed freely. And he immediately let go to press his cool lips to the wound in a way that spoke sweetly of affection more than hunger.
“Good?” he asked, muffled by her shoulder. He curled his hand over hers – not to pull at the lacing of her bodice, just to hold her.
“Nowhere near as bad this time,” she answered, breathily. She tugged on his hand and slid their twined fingers up to the neckline of her clothing. “Perhaps a bit more oil of clove in the next batch? I know you don’t mind the taste.”
“No…” His mouth on the wound was better to soothe it than any balm or poultice or tincture. The temperature was like – oh like he’d been drinking water from a cold spring, and he no longer drew or pressed on it to encourage the blood to flow, but only lapped up what her body offered him. “But it makes my tongue numb.”
“Ah, well. We’ll—” She cut herself off with a gasp.
He slipped his fingers down into her smock and cupped her breast. With his thumb, he stroked over her nipple. But… Before, his long curved claws had been enticingly foreign to her. Now, she was quite used to them – and his blunt fingers, still just as clever, felt like a stranger’s hand upon her chest.
She took his other hand from where it curled around her hip and pulled it down between her thighs.
That was the only suggestion he needed to grab her clothing and haul it up until he could burrow his hand underneath. He found the edge of her hose and squeezed her thigh briefly before moving up to trace along the split in her braies. She shivered, and he stopped.
“Yes?” he asked, and kissed her jaw under her ear. Both of his hands rested on her very lightly and were very still.
She leaned back into him and pulled her skirts to bunch around her belly, so she could see his hand between her legs. Then, she guided him until his hand was cupped over her – she had to spread her legs wider to accommodate the breadth of it. She dropped her head back onto his shoulder, closed her eyes, and took a moment to just breathe and feel her heartbeat in her cunt against the strangely charged stillness of his palm.
“Mm, yes,” she told him. “But first—” And she stretched her hand out to her drink, which was well beyond the reach of even being brushed by her fingertips.
He had to lean them forward to lift the glass, such that she was pressed between his hand at her front and the stiff line of his cock behind her, still trapped in his trousers in a way that hardly seemed fair. She lifted her drink from his hand and also lifted herself from his lap.
He made a disappointed little whine in the back of his throat, both utterly pathetic and absolutely adorable.
Lisa downed the whole of her drink in several gulps, without stopping for breath, and put the glass back down well into the center of the table. Already her head spun slightly, and the cider certainly hadn’t had time to hit her.
She’d better find her seat.
She leaned over Vlad’s lap to kiss him, one hand braced on his broad shoulder. Both of his found their way to her rump and lifted her onto her toes until she laughed and squirmed in his grasp.
“No,” she scolded him.
Whatever objection he had died in his throat as she pushed his shirt up and freed him from his trousers so she could arrange him, standing quite proud, against his belly as she pleased.
“Now keep yourself there,” she ordered, walking her fingers up the underside in a way that had both his cock and his legs twitching.
“With force of will?” he grunted. “Or may I use my hands?”
“Oh, I don’t really care.” She hiked up her clothing again – skirt, petticoats, smock, all of it, but this time from the rear. She settled herself astride his lap again, and he slid against the cleft of her ass, just as she’d wanted. “There. Isn’t that better?”
“A hand’s breadth from perfect,” he agreed, jerking his hips against her.
“Speaking of hands…” She found his and pulled it back down to cup it over her. “I was getting better acquainted with yours.”
He slid his fingers along her folds, wetting them thoroughly, before he set the pad of his thumb at their apex. Two of his fingers curled at the cusp of her entrance, but didn’t press further.
She canted her hips up to meet them. “Now would be the ideal time,” she whispered, letting her eyes fall closed, letting her head fall to the side so she could hide her face against his neck, “to use your hands.”
His fingers were long and slim and deft and he crooked them as he slid them into her. He pressed them against her from the inside, and pressed his thumb against her from the outside, and she panted his name as her toes curled inside her shoes.
He shushed her and did it again. And again. And again. Until he earned an audible whimper from her.
They tilted back until the chair was obviously balanced on two legs – one of Vlad’s boots thumped against the table-top, because he was an ill-mannered scoundrel – and then further, further, until there was absolutely no way—
She tried to concentrate on the sparks of pleasure he was igniting in her, she really did, but…
“Are you using—” his fingers curled and she squeaked and gasped. “Are you using your bullshit vampire magic to keep this chair from tipping right now?”
“Lisa, honestly,” he said, honestly bemused and infinitely fond. “Whatever is the point of laying with a night-stalking monstrosity if you never let me violate the laws of the natural order, not even once?”
And then he found a spot that made her howl and her vision go grey and indistinct for the space of a few heartbeats, each of which she felt keenly under the steady rhythm set by the pad of his thumb.
“Yes, then go a—” oh, he was very good at finding that spot. She gasped, “yes.”
“Is this what you wanted?”
“Yes, it’s— yes. I want— Have me.” She bit her lip and trailed off into a moan as her hips jerked and she clenched around him. “I want you to exhaust me completely. Leave me senseless.”
“Oh, Lisa.” He kissed her at her temple, where her hair was starting to dampen with sweat, and clutched her to him with his free hand. “My dearest, my love…”
He curled his fingers again and she clenched and shuddered. She panted against his neck and let the edges of her world go hazy and indistinct, secure in his care.
She came back to herself an uncertain time later, nude in the bed they shared and draped with something light and silky, dark as shadow. She pinched it between her fingers and recognized it immediately – Vlad’s long, black cloak. She buried her face in it as she took stock of herself. It was cool against her skin and smelled of him, of clean damp earth and foreign spices.
She was not in her sweaty clothing, but she was glad of it. It all would have been oppressively hot to sleep in, and dreadfully constricting. Her skin had a fresh feeling to it, like he’d dampened a cloth and wiped her down – except for between her legs. There, she still felt quite… well… sloppy. And the lack of a particular slight ache that she was becoming quite familiar with told her that he hadn’t had her at all. Somewhere else ached, though. She poked at her shoulder and found Vlad’s bite… and a rather tender bruise next to it.
He hadn’t put his teeth to her again, but he’d certainly drawn enough blood up that she wondered if he couldn’t taste it through her skin. The thought brought up a quick snatch of half-formed memory, of his mouth wet on her shoulder while he worked at her with his fingers, the both of them wanting and whining with equal desperation. And if she clung to that thought and pulled at it, she could draw another memory up from the dark well of her mind, of being cradled to his chest and carried through the castle, of his lips on her sweat-damp hair.
‘Forgive me, my dear. You were so warm and smelled so lovely, and I got a bit carried away.’
The marks were not all he’d left her to find. There was a jug of cool water, and a couple thick slices of cozonac heavy with dried fruits, and a squat little orange with one green leaf still artfully attached to its stem.
She smiled fondly and reached for his offering.
Nothing to forgive, love. Nothing at all.
She half-expected him to mention it over the following days, but he never did.
Finally, some days later, on a night that they spent together, each reading their own text in silence, his head pillowed on her lap—
Finally, on that night, she could stand it no more. She closed her dusty herbal treatise with a decisive snap.
“You could have fucked me, you know,” she announced with no preamble.
Vlad blinked up at her. “Have I not been?”
“In the kitchen. When we…” She toyed with a lock of his wavy dark hair, twisting it ‘round her fingers. “You had my permission. I didn’t mean for you to get nothing out of it.”
“Ah, that.” He let his own book fall carelessly to the carpet. “I wouldn’t say I got nothing out of it. I was quite satisfied.”
She touched her shoulder, already fairly well healed. “Yes, the bite, but—”
“Ah, the bite. No.”
He reached up to stroke the backs of his fingers across her cheek. His claws had already grown back fully, and drew a shiver from her as they slid feather-light across her skin.
“Your trust,” he continued, “was bliss enough for me that evening. That you put yourself fully in my care, that you wished me to push you past the brink of exhaustion and still believed you’d be safe with me… It is a less earthly and more intellectual sort of pleasure, I suppose. But I was glad to drink my fill of it.”
“But that was enough for you? I didn’t leave you… wanting?”
“Wanting?” He plucked at one of her curls and let it spring back up by her chin. “I’ve wanted you and nothing else since the first slice of your sharp tongue. But no, I wasn’t left unsatisfied. What you gave me was a gift, and I’d thank you for it.”
“I love you,” she whispered to him.
For truly, what other answer to that was there?
It was some days later again after that, that she passed by the open door to the hall with his strange mirror, shattered and floating, and found him conversing – politely! peacefully! – with some other vampire in place of his reflection.
She lingered by the door, caught between curiosity and the fear she was intruding, for too long, and was simply caught.
“Ah, and this is your fair apprentice?” the vampire in the mirror asked, in a lilting foreign accent. He made an odd contrast to Vlad, dressed in bright colors and rich jewels, with wide dagged sleeves on his robe and a chaperon perched atop his head.
Vlad glanced back at her, and though his brow creased, he gestured her forward.
The vampire in the mirror bowed to her graciously. “Raffaello, Signora. I keep our Master Dracula in silks and gossip.”
“Never enough of one, and too much of the other,” Vlad grumbled.
“But what else am I to do, my lord, when my Mircea will live in your lands and no other?” Raffaello asked, with mirth glittering in his wine-dark eyes. “One day I will steal him back to Venesia, and you will miss us both.”
“I’m sure I won’t,” Vlad answered, completely flat.
Lisa rushed to smother her snickering.
Raffaello winked at her. “Before I make my delivery, master, I thought you should hear – La Contessa has taken to calling herself ‘queen’ instead.”
Vlad sighed. “Queen, countess. What difference is there, when she rules over nothing? Tell Zufall to put a watch on his borders. If there’s nothing else?”
“No other mischief but mine, my lord.”
Vlad lifted a moderately sized chest and pushed it through the surface of the mirror, which rippled like water a stone had been skipped across. Raffaello took it and opened it, and Lisa glimpsed several bars of gold. Bars, which Vlad had handed over as though they were meaningless.
“There were six bars of silver, as well,” he said. “But I’ve kept them.”
Raffaello bared his teeth and shook his head. “And you’re welcome to them! Neither Mircea nor I have use for that trouble. Here, master. The items you were promised.”
The box that was offered in turn was a great deal smaller. The wood was dark, richly stained and oiled, but the whole thing fit neatly into Vlad’s palm.
“Four times, he recast these,” Raffaello sighed. “Four times. ‘For Master Dracula, they must be perfect. They must shine like mirrors.’ I hope you’re pleased with them.”
Vlad opened the box and glanced inside, but Lisa was quite unable to peek around him and see for herself.
“Yes,” he said softly. “These will do.”
“Mircea will be pleased. We thank you for your custom, my lord.” And he glanced to her with a peculiar expression upon his face before he removed his hat and bowed once more. “Signora.”
Vlad ran his claws across the mirror’s surface and it rippled once more. As they cleared, the only thing shown in it was their reflections. But he did not look at the mirror, or at her. He still stared at the contents of the little wooden box.
He turned the box so that she could see into it. A pair of silvery rings, brightly polished to a glossy mirror shine – a perfectly matched pair, alike in every way except size.
“They’re only pewter, I’m afraid. Pure gold is too soft, and—”
She rested her fingers on the edge of the box, struck too dumb to speak, too struck with wonder to touch them.
“—apologize for offering you such a common material, but I—”
“Oh, but you gave him so much gold for these! I can’t— I’m not—” It was not at all what Lisa intended to say, not that she intended to say anything, but they were, nonetheless, the words that escaped her. She pressed her fingers over her lips.
“I traded only my skill in refining it. Some may say that was worth even more. But…” Vlad took her wrist, gently, and drew her hand away from her face so that he could weave their fingers together. “The value these hold to me doesn’t come from the cost of the metal, and so… it’s quite impossible that I could ever pay enough to equal it.”
She tilted her face up to him, seeking a kiss, and he easily obliged.
“I love them,” she whispered. “I love you.”
The best thing about her husband, Lisa thought, was that he loved her openly and honestly and generously, and never shied away from showing it. She’d started by wishing he would go out and see the good in the world, but now she wished he’d go out so the world could see even half the good in him.
“Let’s go somewhere,” she urged him.
He glanced to the side. “If you feel restless…”
“Whenever I go into a town I am bothered. ‘Where is your husband, woman?’” She scoffed. “I want them to meet my husband. You’re too good to be hidden away here. Let’s go somewhere – somewhere that interests you, someplace we’ll both enjoy. Can’t we?”
“I don’t care to take you where vampires dwell. Not because you’re shameful,” he rushed to add. “Because they’re…” He finished with a vague sort of hand gesture that nonetheless said much.
“Well, we mortals are quite fascinating on occasion, too – or so I’m told by a very clever man.” She laid both hands upon his chest and leaned into him, brimming with excitement and enthusiasm. “Come, now! Where shall we go?”
“Ah… Venesia?” he asked, obviously at a loss and just grasping blindly.
“Venesia!” She laid her hand over the box with the rings, closing it between their two palms. “For you, I’ll even pretend – a lord and a lady from foreign lands, to tour the Republic’s famed workshops?”
“You are a lady now,” Vlad said, catching her other hand in his own as well. “Mine, precious above all others. Very well, we will go to Venesia and see what we shall see. The glassworkers are quite skilled, and there are a few that I…”
Promises of beautiful gowns or exceptional paintings held a general sort of appeal to her – she liked them in the same vague sort of way people usually preferred to have nice things where they could. But the promises of glass workshops where she might get things made to her liking – alembics and flasks and retorts – that was proof that he understood and encouraged her.
Lisa Țepeș stretched well onto her toes to give her husband a kiss that he obligingly bent his head for.
He was quite correct – there were some things, like pewter rings and promises of foreign-made glass, that were beyond all measures of worth, and no sun-bright gold would ever equal them.