Spike tore off the footman's jacket, threw it on the floor and stamped on it.
"For the last time, Angelus, I am not your bleedin' servant."
The words had barely left his mouth when a clip around the ear from Angelus's meaty paw sent him staggering backwards. Then, in short order, he was whirled around, slammed into the wall, and pinned in place by Angelus's big body, while the latest in a long line of hideous (and usually short-lived) moustaches tickled his ear.
"Yes you are, you greedy little bastard," Angelus growled. "And if you don't like it, next time we have guests don't eat all the human servants before they even get here."
"Well, I was hungry," Spike protested. "And how was I to know you were expecting guests? It's not like you mentioned it beforehand."
Angelus's cold breath tickled the back of Spike's neck. "It's Christmas, you idiot. Of course we were expecting guests."
Spike turned his head as much as Angelus's grip would allow, to gape at him in astonishment.
"Yeah, but usually they're carol singers an' we just nab 'em off the doorstep an' eat 'em. We're vampires, damn it all, an' Christmas is...well, nothing to do with vampires, I'm bleedin' certain of it."
Angelus smacked Spike's head against the wall. "You know perfectly well that by 'Christmas' I mean the solstice - the darkest time of year - so don't pretend otherwise. And keep a civil tongue in your head when you speak to me."
"I was bein' civil," Spike said, indignantly. "Which I think is class of me considerin' you've had me workin' my fingers to the bone stockin' the larder from the minute we bleedin' got here. There can't be a peasant left alive between here and Calais."
He wriggled in Angelus's grip, but he couldn't shake it loose. "Why'd we have to come to sodding France for Christmas anyway? Couldn't we have just stayed in England?"
"No, we damn well couldn't. For one thing, your antics have made England too hot to hold us. For another -"
But whatever Angelus had been going to say, he appeared to think better of it. Instead, he let go of Spike and stepped back. "The last thing I need is any lip from you just now," he said, through gritted teeth. "Put that jacket back on and finish decanting the aperitifs. The countess has been here for two nights already. Quite long enough for you to get it into your thick skull that she doesn't like to be kept waiting."
Spike felt the back of his head, where, thick skull or not, quite a bump was rising. He opened his mouth to give Angelus another earful, but Angelus's harried expression gave him pause.
As a rule, Spike didn't mind seeing Angelus discomfited, but he preferred it to be because of something he'd done, and he was pretty sure that wasn't the case this time. In fact, he didn't think he'd ever seen Angelus look so twitchy - not even in that Yorkshire mineshaft of fond memory.
Come to think of it, Angelus had been on edge even before the countess and her retinue had rolled up outside, and he'd only grown more fidgety (and bad tempered as a consequence) when the count (no relation, apparently) had arrived the following evening.
Of course, it could just be down to the fact that the buggers were eating them out of house and home (well, draughty old chateau and former home of a family of recently - very recently -deceased minor French nobility). Or it could be because the first order the countess had given after her arrival had been that all the doors in the chateau should be locked and the keys put into her keeping, and that the shutters should be put up over the windows and nailed down, making escape almost impossible.
But Spike's instinct -which was highly developed when it came to Angelus's sourer moods because he usually took the brunt of them -told him otherwise. There was definitely something going on behind the scenes that he wasn't privy to.
His curiosity was well and truly piqued, and the bugger of it was that no one - not even Drusilla - seemed willing to answer any questions. Instead, it was, "William, fetch this,", "William, kill that,", "William, behave yourself," from sunset to sunrise, and not an explanation in sight as to why they were putting up with this bloody countess woman in the first place.
"So, Countess Bathory," Spike said, in as casual a tone as he could muster. "Know her from way back, do you? And what about Count Frilly Cuffs?" (Spike had conceived a strong dislike of the count and had forgotten his name as a matter of principal). "Looks like he knows her too, and there's not much love lost between them."
Angelus shrugged. "They have prior acquaintance, yes, and hail from the same part of the world, but Vlad has a century or more on Countess Bathory. As for there being no love lost between them, I know of only one other of our kind who thinks of the countess as a friend and ally. Unfortunately, that happens to be the Master."
"The Master?" Spike repeated blankly. Then realisation struck. "Oh, you mean the bat-faced old cove who sired Darla? What's he got to do with all this?"
Angelus's lips thinned under his ridiculous moustache, and his eyes flashed yellow. "Everything," he growled.
For a moment, he stared over Spike's shoulder at something only he could see. Then, he turned on him again, and this time, when he spoke, his brogue was much more in evidence, the way it always became when he was agitated. "Thought I told you to put the damn jacket back on. Why're you still standin' there like a feckin' idjit?"
So, Angelus's confiding mood had passed already, had it, Spike thought? And just when things were getting interesting.
Sod him, then.
Leaning back against the wall, he stuck his hands in the waistband of his tight (very tight) footman's knee breeches, and put a sneer on his face, which he knew from past experience was guaranteed to shred Angelus's last nerve.
"Not bloody likely, mate. Do your own dirty work."
Angelus's face shifted, becoming all fangs and ridges. "Do it, William, or I'll make you regret the day you were ever sired."
Spike only laughed. He'd heard that threat so many times in the years since Drusilla had dragged him kicking and screaming into the bosom of her loving vampire 'family' that it no longer held any terror for him. In fact, these days, it didn't even hold any suspense. He was pretty sure he'd already endured the worst that Angelus could throw at him (without actually offing him for good) and survived it.
"Yeah," he sneered, "you an' what army?"
Their gazes locked and for a glorious moment Spike thought he had Angelus on the ropes. It was clear Angelus was actually scared of this countess (whoever the hell she was), and Spike's refusal to follow orders was winding him up even further.
Which begged the question, why had he invited her in the first place?
If he had. Maybe the whole thing was Darla's idea. The countess being such great chums with old Batface, maybe having her come to stay was Darla's way of sucking up to him?
Spike shrugged inwardly. It didn't matter either way, and probably, it would turn out to be just another of Angelus's and Darla's pathetic attempts at social climbing. And if so, he had a moral (or should that be immoral?) duty to make sure it yet again failed miserably.
The stand-off continued. Angelus bristled, Spike sneered. Meanwhile, raised voices were coming from the dining room, too muffled by the heavy wooden doors for even vampires to make out the words. Spike heard the countess's strident tones, followed by Darla laughing, high and brittle, nothing like her normal laugh, then coughing nervously, as if trying to pretend she'd never laughed in the first place. He couldn't help grinning to himself at the thought of someone taking Darla down a peg or two, even if that someone was a bad tempered old bitch like Countess Bathory.
But, when he turned his attention back to Angelus, it was to discover that Angelus's whole demeanour had changed suddenly. He was back in human face and smiling the sort of anticipatory smile that always boded ill for someone, usually Spike himself.
In fact, as Spike knew from bitter experience, it was the same smile the bastard always had plastered across his face during a particularly bloody torture session - a flaying maybe, or something even more unpleasant.
Spike rolled his eyes. If Angelus was trying to unnerve him, he was wasting his precious time.
"Whatever nasty little scheme you're cookin' up, forget it, all right?" he said. "It won't work. I am not bloody skivvyin' for you any longer, an' that's that."
Angelus's smile became a smirk. "No scheme, William. I just thought I'd satisfy your curiosity and tell you a little more about Countess Bathory. Have you really never heard of her?"
Spike tried to cover his sudden unease with bluster. "I know she's a stuck-up foreign bint who didn't get herself vamped till she was a bit too long in the tooth to enjoy it properly. What else is there to know?"
Angelus laughed. "Your wilful ignorance is very amusing. Have I ever told you that?"
He didn't wait for Spike's reply, but went on,
"The countess was born into a noble Hungarian family four hundred years ago. She married a renowned general who fought bravely against the Ottomans, and she was, by all accounts, one of the greatest mass-murderers in history. Six hundred and fifty victims, so it's said, while she was still human."
Spike couldn't help being impressed despite himself (six hundred and fifty was pretty good going, even for a vampire), but he tried his best to hide it. "So, what're you sayin' exactly then, mate? That she could give you a run for your money any day of the week?"
"Maybe." Angelus shrugged again. "Like me, she had - still has, so I understand - a fondness for torture. It's said she can do the most exquisite things with needles, and I don't mean embroidery."
He grinned. "It's also said she believed that bathing in the blood of virgins would make her immortal so the majority of her victims were young women, most of them servants or the daughters of peasants, for whom she had a particular hatred. You'll note that she did not bring a maid with her."
This was true, Spike realised. The countess's retinue were hulking great brutes bristling with weapons, to a man of them.
Angelus's dark eyes glittered in the gloom. "But, as you so astutely noted, William, she didn't learn what would really make you immortal until somewhat late in the day. Now that she has, I fear she is eaten away with resentment for those women younger and more beautiful than herself, and will still destroy them any chance she gets."
A chill ran down Spike's spine. He had a nasty feeling where this was going.
"What are you gettin' at?" he growled.
Angelus's grin grew wider. "Only that, since we've emptied the locality to feed our guests and you've so selfishly eaten all the servants, if the countess craves...entertainment, we may have to provide her with alternative diversions of the female and youthful."
His lips twitched. "Or seeming youthful anyway. And since the Master would not allow her to lay a finger on Darla without his permission-"
Spike gaped at Angelus in shock. He couldn't mean....
Oh yes, he bloody could.
"No!" Spike grabbed Angelus by his silk waistcoat and snarled in his face. "Not Dru." He shook him hard enough to rock him on his feet. "You're her sire, you bastard. How could you even think it?"
Angelus didn't even try to shake him off.
"The way I see it, Willy boy, your selfishness hasn't left me much choice. Every last human in this house is dead or near death, thanks to you. Whatever the countess does to Drusilla, is on your head, not mine."
Spike shook him again. "You wanted the larder stocked, I stocked it. You never said anything about leftovers."
"That's because -" Angelus began, but then he checked himself. Instead, he shrugged again. "Either way, it doesn't matter. The countess is our guest. She's a great friend of the Master's and I don't want to offend her. Not to mention, she has us trapped in this place like rats in a barrel and her minions outnumber us ten to one."
"Well, whose bloody fault is that?" Spike shot back. "If you knew what she was like, what'd you even want to ask her here for?"
"I didn't -" Angelus protested, but then seemed to think better of it again. Leaning forward into Spike's grip so they were almost nose-to-nose, he said, "I don't have to explain myself to you - bloody idiot! This is all your fault, and if you won't 'skivvy', as you put it, for the countess, then someone has to, and if she gets one look at Drusilla in a maid's outfit, believe me, there'll be no stopping her."
He poked Spike hard in the chest with his forefinger.
"What's more, you're right. I am Drusilla's sire. She'll do anything for me, and you know it. If I tell her to, she'll happily let the old bitch do whatever she wants to her, and there's nothing you can do about it."
Again, they glared at each other in silence, but Spike knew he'd lost the argument. Angelus was right, damn him. Drusilla would do anything for him - her only failing, in Spike's opinion -right down to letting some vicious old relic torture her on Angelus's say-so. And he knew from bitter experience that if he tried to spirit her away, she'd turn on him at the first opportunity and run right back to Daddy.
His shoulders slumped. Letting go of Angelus, he bent down, picked up the footman's jacket and slid his arms back into the sleeves, then stood with gritted teeth, while Angelus brushed the dust off it, none too gently.
"That's better," Angelus said, at last. He glanced down at his own creased waistcoat. "I'll have to change, dammit. Get back to work, and serve those drinks in the next five minutes or there'll be hell to pay. For all of us."
"Yeah, yeah." Spike watched him go. Easy for Angelus to say, he thought. The bastard probably had no idea how hard it was to decant an aperitif that wouldn't stop struggling.
This made the process of serving drinks quite hazardous, Spike had found, given that the countess's minions, a gaggle of whom were always lolling around in her vicinity, weren't above sticking their feet out in deliberate attempts to trip him over.
Contrary to current standards of etiquette (which Darla was usually a stickler for), the countess was seated at the head of the table rather than in a so-called place of honour next to the host. This meant that Darla and Angelus were relegated to seats on either side of her and Count Frilly Cuffs was accorded a lower place. From the look of him, this didn't please him much.
But to Spike's irritation, he was making the best of it by flirting outrageously with Drusilla, who was seated opposite him and showing every sign of enjoying his attention. Drusilla was all got up in virginal white, with pink roses in her deep décolletage and matching roses in her long dark hair, which was probably Darla's idea, so as to contrast with the crimson and black of her own ultra-fashionable svelte evening gown.
Either that, Spike thought, crossly, or Darla was offering Drusilla up to the countess on a plate, because from what he could see, the old girl couldn't take her eyes off her.
He sucked in his breath and held it as he leaned over the countess's shoulder to re-fill her glass. The countess smelt none too fresh - and not surprising. She hadn't changed her style of dress since the sixteenth century, and possibly not her clothes either. The black velvet of her strange bulky gown was worn with age, and her stiff white ruff was in need of a good boil-wash. Her jewellery was very fine, though, Spike couldn't help noticing. Her emerald and pearl necklace alone must be worth a king's ransom.
As he moved on around the table, he imagined how it might look gracing Drusilla's slender neck. He imagined fastening the clasp, his fingers brushing against her milky skin. Then, he imagined taking it off her, followed by the rest of her clothes, and what he would do to her afterwards to pay her back for making eyes at Count Frilly Cuffs.
He was jolted out of this pleasant reverie by the sound of Angelus clearing his throat loudly and another false-sounding laugh from Darla. When he looked up, every eye around the table was fixed on him. In particular, fixed on his nether regions, which were suddenly feeling even more constricted.
For a moment, Spike actually considered grabbing a napkin and holding it in front of him, but he dismissed the notion at once. That was something prudish little human William would have done (if he hadn't expired on the spot from sheer embarrassment) but he was a different person now. Why should he care what any of them thought - except for Drusilla, and if she would only tear her eyes away from Count Frilly Cuffs' for a moment, the bloody woman ought to be flattered.
Grinning at the assembled company, he indicated his importunate nethers. "Sodding breeches. Too bloody tight by half."
"Oh for..." Angelus muttered, while Darla cast sidelong glances at the countess, her expression a curious blend of fury and terror.
The countess herself looked scandalised, which struck Spike as a bit rich given her history.
"Is this...this creature the only servant you have?" The countess's English was heavily accented, but the contempt in her tone was perfect. It hardly surprised Spike at all to see Darla wither beneath it. He felt a little withered himself, though in his case it was because he was sure Drusilla was twining her ankle around Count Frilly Cuffs' under the table.
"Indeed he is, countess," Darla wavered. "Since our arrival here a week ago, there has unfortunately been no time to train any others. Once we are settled, of course - "
But the countess interrupted her, as if Darla hadn't spoken at all.
"That is a sad state of affairs," she fumed. "No servants, no...amusements. Even the food is barely tolerable. You realise, of course, that the lack of suitable hospitality is a huge insult to me and drags the good name of Aurelius into the dirt? What the Master will have to say about this when I report back to him....well..."
Her voice trailed off, but the implicit threat hung in the air like a pall of dirty smoke.
There was a short, tense silence. Spike realised he was holding his breath. Then Angelus said, in a placatory tone, "Where amusements are concerned, countess -"
But the countess turned her basilisk gaze on him, and he stuttered into silence again.
"Tell your minions not to speak to me unless they are spoken to," the countess snarled, at Darla. "That one in particular. He has far too high an opinion of himself." Then she banged her fist down on the table. "Boy, my glass is empty."
Spike stifled his laugh at Angelus's discomfiture and muttered, under his breath, "Coming, your high-and-mightiness."
Avoiding the outstretched feet of the countess's sneering minions, he hastened to her side with as much lack of haste as he thought he could get away with and poured more blood into her goblet. As he did so, there was a sudden piercing pain in his left thigh, as if someone had stuck a giant needle in him. He yelped in surprise and dropped the heavy crystal decanter. It hit the table right in front of the countess and sort of bounced over the damask tablecloth, spilling its contents everywhere, including over her.
"Bloody hell!" Spike exclaimed, before he could stop himself (not that he tried very hard). "What'd you stab me for, you evil old hag? Now look what you've made me do."
He grabbed a table napkin and began to dab at the wound on his leg, which was oozing steadily.
It bloody hurt.
He looked up into a shocked silence, broken only by an audible intake of breath from Darla, and a great deal of throat-clearing from Count Frilly Cuffs. Angelus had half-risen to his feet, but at once two of the countess's minions, who'd been lurking in the shadows behind him, stepped forward and forced him down again.
Then the countess's bony hand grabbed Spike's wrist and twisted hard. Spike howled. Bloody hell, but she was strong. Far stronger than Angelus. No wonder the bastard was scared of her. Tears of pain sprang to his eyes as he fought against her grip. It felt like she meant to tear his arm clean out of its socket.
In the end he had to bow to the inevitable, and fall to his knees in front of her. The pressure eased a little, but she didn't let go of his wrist. He looked up into her cold face, white as chalk, the skin a mere covering over bones so old it was a wonder they didn't crumble to dust of their own accord. The countess's thin lips lifted in a contemptuous sneer, her unblinking dark eyes bored into him in a way that made him come over all queasy. He wasn't at all sorry when they slid past him and fixed themselves instead on Darla.
"He has spirit at least," the countess said. "But look how clumsy he is - not fit to be waiting on company as high-ranking as myself. And the insolence of him." She let go of Spike's wrist suddenly. Then a small, hard foot in a black velvet shoe kicked him in the midriff, sending him skidding and sliding across the varnished wood floor as if he weighed nothing at all. "If he were mine, I would have his tongue ripped from his mouth. But since he is not..."
Again, her words trailed off ominously.
There was a pause, during which Spike thought of pointing out that everything had been going fine until the countess had put her horrible old mitts on him. But before he could do so, Darla laughed the same nervous laugh, and said,
"But he's not mine either, countess. Indeed he is not. Angelus's Drusilla sired him, quite against my wishes. The girl is mad of course, but -"
There was another silence. Then Darla said, "That is...I meant..."
"Oh, there is no need to explain," the countess crowed. "I understand quite well. You have no control over your own household. Not over that brute you waste your time on, or over those he sires. You are a disgrace to your lineage, girl. A disgrace. This cannot be allowed to continue."
Spike sat up gingerly, in time to see Darla's and Angelus's eyes meet across the table. A muscle ticked in Angelus's cheek, but he said nothing - and not surprising, given one of the countess's minions was standing right behind him with a crossbow aimed at his heart.
Darla was gaunt and pale, as if she hadn't fed for weeks, but Spike could almost see her gathering the shreds of her dignity around her, as she addressed the countess again.
"Of course I regret that you feel that way, countess. Let me make it up to you. Take the wretched boy if you wish. Do whatever you want to him."
Spike glared at her. Bitch, he thought.
Though he could hardly say it surprised him.
But the countess shook her head. "The boy is a filthy stain on the name of Aurelius and will die before I leave this place, but he is not what I desire."
Even from his place on the floor, Spike could see who the countess was looking at.
Drusilla broke the pregnant silence.
"Spike?" she said, in a forlorn voice.
"Keep your grubby old mitts off her!" Spike was on his feet at once, but at the same time, Count Frilly Cuffs rose smoothly from his chair. He was tall, very pale faced, and had long dark hair, which made him look quite theatrical in Spike's opinion.
No wonder Drusilla was so impressed with him, he thought crossly. She always had loved the theatre.
"The incident was unfortunate," Frilly Cuffs said, in a strong accent similar to the countess's, "and the boy clumsy and badly-trained, but, my dear Elisabeta, surely it is too small a thing on which to base such an important judgement. Also, I disagree with you about the hospitality on offer. In my opinion, our hosts keep a very fine table, and I shall tell the Master so when I see him next."
He lifted his glass towards Darla and saluted her with it. "An excellent vintage, my dear. It has a delightful earthiness to it. Your superior sort of peasant, I believe? I do hope there is more?"
If it weren't that Darla was incapable of it, Spike would have called the look she gave old Frilly Cuffs pathetically grateful.
"Why, thank you, cousin. I'm glad it meets with your approval." At once, she turned on Spike.
"Well, don't just loll about like that, you stupid boy. Cousin Vlad wants more blood. Go and fetch it. And make sure it's from the same source."
Spike felt inclined to respond by asking her who the bloody hell she thought she was to give him orders, especially after she'd practically handed him to the countess to torture and maim wrapped up in a nice satin bow.
But then Darla said, "And take Drusilla with you. The countess is quite right. One person serving at table isn't enough when we have guests of such high status. Find a maid's outfit for her quick as you can, and make sure it fits. And if you cannot find such a thing, she is to go to her room and stay there. We cannot have her serving at table if she is not properly dressed."
Her eyes bored into Spike's as she spoke, as if she were trying to tell him something, but Spike had no idea what. On the other hand, getting away from the countess - and more importantly getting Drusilla away from her, and from Count Frilly Cuffs - was an idea that appealed to him a great deal.
He expected the countess to raise some protest, but instead, she sat back in her chair.
"Why not?" she said. "They cannot escape, and I have a great desire to see this girl in clothing more...appropriate to her station." And she licked her lips, in a way that struck Spike as positively indecent.
"Come on, Dru."
Keeping an weather eye on the minions and their crossbows, Spike sidled around the table, grabbed Drusilla's hand in his and made for the door. As they neared it, the countess exclaimed, "What?", and for a moment, Spike thought she'd changed her mind. He froze with his hand on the doorknob, expecting a crossbow bolt in the back at any moment.
But, when he risked a glance over his shoulder, it was to see that the countess and Count Frilly Cuffs seemed to be having some kind of staring competition.
Hurriedly, Spike wrenched the door open. As he did so, the countess shuddered all over then banged her fist on the table again in outrage.
"How dare you try to use those cheap gypsy tricks on me?" she snarled. "You filthy...Wallachian!"
Spike had no idea what a Wallachian was but he didn't stay to find out.
"Come on, Dru."
Then they were out of the room, the door safely shut behind them.