Chapter 19: Never On His Own, Again
In Rome, quite close to Vatican City, though definitely separate from it, there was a house. It was quite normal and blended in with the neighborhood so well that few of the residents ever thought about it, or the strange occupant. On occasion, people would be seen to enter the house at night and stay for several days without being seen before they left at night. The owner of the house, a young woman, was known to be quiet and unsociable. She did not invite neighbors in to dine and did not accept any invitation to the homes of other people.
Count Von Krolock, followed by his sons and Alfred, strode up to the house with purpose in his step. Their journey from England had been thankfully uneventful and they had quickly made the journey to Italy, with their prisoner in tow, in just a few nights. The count did not knock on the door before he tried the front door and, when it didn't immediately open, he wrenched the door handle until they all heard a terrible 'crack' as the lock broke then yanked the door so violently that the chain lock snapped right off. Immediately upon opening the door, he was confronted by a fearsome looking guard, but he snarled and indicated the staked and bound Enforcer Angus dragged behind him.
"I will see Her Honor immediately!"
The guard looked stunned upon seeing Jasper. Then he looked over his shoulder. A door in the hall behind him opened and another man came out. The two strangers spoke in hushed whispers that Alfred couldn't hear, but then the first man stood aside to the let their group pass while the second man led the way through the house.
As they were led up to the second storey of the house, Jasper thumped and bumped his way all the way up as his whole body was dragged up the staircase. Angus took no care with him and Alfred had the distinct impression that Angus would have been perfectly happy killing the Enforcer and only restrained himself because the count had told him to.
At the end of a long hallway on the second storey of the house, the Enforcer leading them went to a large door and opened it. He opened his mouth, as if he would announce them, but before he could, the count stormed passed him. Once inside the room, he stepped aside only enough for Angus, silent and grim, to walk by him and dump Jasper on the floor in the middle of the room. When Angus moved to stand at the count's side Alfred, walking just behind Herbert, was able to see into the room.
There was a desk made out of wood that had been stained so dark it was nearly black. The windows were open, despite the harsh winter wind. There was a brightly colored carpet on the floor and so many lit lamps that the whole room glowed with a warm light. Alfred didn't see any people at all until he peeked around Herbert and saw that, at the far right of the room, a man and a woman sat at a little game table next to the fireplace. They were in the middle of a hand of cards.
Mister Lacroix seemed entirely unsurprised to see them, but watched them with a raised eye-brow. He was dressed very similar to the way he'd been when Alfred had first seen him in Vienna, all in black with a silver sword pin at the throat of his shirt.
Across the table from Lacroix sat a woman. She was quite plain, really. Her hair was pulled up in a tight bun on the back of her head and was a rather unremarkable color somewhere near brown. Her face had nothing notable about it at all. The gown she wore was sensible and gray. But when her eyes flickered over Alfred, as they did with everyone who'd entered the room, he felt quite small and moved to hide behind Herbert. No matter what she looked like, she was not just an ordinary woman.
The woman looked down at Jasper then up at the count. "My guards have much to answer for if they're letting people wander in. What is this?" Her eyes went to the man who'd led them all up to the room, the man who must have been one of her guards. "I would expect visitors to be better announced, Antonio."
The guard, Antonio, bowed his head, silently, "Forgive me, Your Honor, but," he glanced at Jasper's still body. "Given the circumstances, I judged haste to be the best course of action."
"Yes, I suppose you're quite right." She looked back at the count. "I suppose you have an explanation for this rude entrance?"
"Your Enforcer, Jasper, attacked my family without provocation." Count Von Krolock said very softly, as if he were struggling to keep his tone civil. "I would like to know if it was done on your orders, Your Honor."
The woman slowly tilted her head a little to one side, as if she were studying the count, before she answered, "No. I have given no orders regarding you or your young."
"I did not think so." The count removed his hat, which cause Angus and Herbert to do the same. "Forgive me asking, but the safety of my children is my utmost priority."
Her eyes sharpened. "Not prioritized above the Code, I hope."
"Of course not. Now, I think you will also wish to consider that Jasper has been in my custody for several days and nights and I have seen no sign of his partner. Have traditions changed while I've been in my mountains? Do Enforcers work alone?"
"They do not. Enforcers always work in pairs." She looked down at Jasper with heightened interest. "How curious. I can see I will need to have a long chat with my Enforcer." She made a gesture with one hand and Antonio went straight to Her Honor and bowed. She told him, "Take those things out of him."
Antonio obeyed without a word or hesitation. He yanked both stakes out of Jasper's chest and seemed to be preparing to feed him when Her Honor held up a hand. "No. No, I think not. I would like some answers with as little fuss as possible. Take him to the cellar and secure him, then give him enough blood to wake him, but no more."
Antonio did as he was told and closed the door behind him.
"Now," Her Honor said in the perfectly calm tone she hadn't lost since they'd walked into her room. "I think I saw a new face in your crowd, Boian."
Alfred swallowed, hard. He really had been hoping he might get out of the house without being noticed. But, as always seem to happen, Herbert had other ideas on the matter. He grabbed Alfred's arm and tugged him out of hiding. "This is my Alfred! Isn't he lovely? He's going to be my new brother, soon." Herbert gushed out the words and gave Alfred a charming smile, as if the idea of getting Alfred as a brother was the best thing that could have possibly happened to him.
Her Honor carefully set her cards on the table, face-down, and warned Mister Lacroix, "Don't peek!" Then she stood and gracefully walked to Alfred.
He was so afraid that he almost forgot to give her a polite nod. "Good evening, Miss… ah… Miss Honor?"
Mister Lacroix laughed.
Her Honor studied Alfred head to foot and even walked around him once, to see him from all angles. She really wasn't any taller than he was and that was a bit strange. Most people were taller than Alfred was. She even leaned close to his face and sniffed before she walked back to the game table with the off-hand comment, "He will need more blood, Boian. It is wearing off. Now," she picked up her hand of cards. "Tell me exactly what led up to this moment."
The count told her of their travels and what happened in England. Her Honor accepted it as though he were talking about the weather and, when he finished his story, she merely asked, "And this book? You are sure it is destroyed? There is no save to it?"
"It is ash, Your Honor." The count's eyes flickered to Mister Lacroix before he quickly looked back at Her Honor. "I do beg your pardon for this interruption. Not only do I beg you, but also my esteemed sire. However, as there seemed to be an Enforcer acting without his partner and without orders - I was fairly sure you wouldn't authorize him bothering people who hadn't disregarded the Code - I felt that the situation was important enough to risk poor manners."
"And you are correct." Her Honor studied her hand of cards and laid down one on the table. "My Enforcers are the law-keepers of our community and must be above reproach. If our people begin to believe that my Enforcers have turned renegade, there will be no respect, no regard for their authority. I won't have that. I will question Jasper myself and we will see what has happened to his partner and his motivations." She sighed, then set her cards on the table. "I fold. Lucien, you always best me." She gave Mister Lacroix a fond smile, before she stood and left the room, saying, "I will attend the interrogation, now. Do see yourselves out."
Mister Lacroix stood in that slow, graceful way he had. He smiled at Alfred. "If the tale my child has told is to be believed, it seems I should keep you close at hand, young man. I think my family would not have survived their trip without you." Then he gave the other vampires in the room a scathing look. "Thankfully, you had a mortal around to take care of you. I despair of my own family. Well, at least this absurd book is gone so there is no reason for me to EVER hear you prattling on about magic, is there, Boian?"
Alfred spoke up, "But sir, it was real! I saw the terrible things Doctor Alibori did with it and there was a smoke-man who- " Alfred broke off when the count shook his head.
"Never mind, Alfred. He is quite right – there is no reason to talk about that book ever again. It is gone and good-riddance, I say."
"Excellent," Lacroix said. "Now, I would like more details on how you managed to best an Enforcer. In your story, you and Angus chased him away for a time, before you faced down that Doctor Alibori. Jasper was over one hundred years your senior. How did you manage to take him captive?"
The count answered, "As Enforcers are trained to fight in teams, he had no idea how to fight alone when Angus and I faced him. Angus enjoys playing dirty, so while I kept Jasper occupied, Angus would attack from the rear. We kept that up until he fled and we went to find Herbert and Alfred. When Jasper returned, he was enraged at the destruction of the book and began to fight without any sense. Alfred distracted him and, while his back was turned, I staked him."
"Do I understand this correctly?" Mister Lacroix asked. "You used his weakness and lack of judgment against him. You fought in an underhanded manner and took advantage of your enemy's folly in order to win without any consideration of your honor."
Mister Lacroix patted the count on the arm, approvingly. "Good boy."
All was well, after that.
They all left the home of Her Honor together and traveled in peace back to Vienna where they collected Sarah and the clothing Janette had procured for them. Sarah was thrilled to see them all and greeted them with warm hugs all around, but for Alfred who was thankful to get a mere hand-shake. He didn't know Sarah well enough to want a hug. Sarah was far more cheery than when they'd left her and took great pleasure in telling them about all the fun she'd had while under the care of Miss Janette and Mister Nicholas. However, she did eagerly ask Count Von Krolock, "When are we going home?"
Miss Janette was very pleased to show off what she'd purchased for Sarah.
"We have only been gone a couple of weeks," Count Von Krolock said as he stared at a half-a-dozen trunks filled with Sarah's new wardrobe. "How did you have time for all this?"
"It is wondrous," Miss Janette said, smugly, "What a good seamstress can do when provided with enough money."
"Did my Sarah need so much?"
"Of course. These are only the bare essentials, really." Janette indicated a smaller set of three trunks. "And these are for your Alfred. He may need more at a later time, but I'm sure Herbert can easily deal with that."
With all the trunks, they were forced to use the train to return to Transylvania. It took some time and careful instructions to the staff on the train, but they arrived at the nearest train station to the castle at night and were let off with the luggage. From there, it was a matter of hiring three sleighs to ferry everything back to the castle. The count, Angus, and Herbert each steered a sleigh with Sarah riding with the count and Alfred riding with Herbert.
Back at the castle, Koukol was very pleased to see them all and began a report on what very little had happened while they were gone as he unloaded the luggage. Alfred helped, as did the vampires, and soon all the trunks had been placed in the front hall before Sarah's were taken up to her room. Sarah dug into them to unpack and shooed everyone out of the room when it came time to unpack her 'unmentionables'.
Alfred hurried to his room. What a thrill it was to have a room of his own! He would never get over that.
Alfred was delighted to see the toy bunny with pink eyes sitting on his bed, laying against the pillow. Alfred picked it up and ran his fingers over the bunny's head. It brought back to him just what a short time ago it was that he' suffered through that horrible ball and how nice it had been to find the stuffed toy in the bed with him when he'd woken.
"Alfred," Count Von Krolock stood in the doorway. In one hand he easily held one of the heavy trunks Janette had loaded with clothes for Alfred. "May I come in?"
"Yes, sir. Of course." It was very polite of the count to ask, but Alfred couldn't imagine refusing him. It was the count's castle, after all. He was being very generous in allowing Alfred to stay there, so it would have been outright rude to refuse him anything.
The count glanced around the room then set the trunk down in an empty corner. "We need to discuss your conversion."
"Me turning you into a vampire."
"Oh. Yes, that."
"Do you still wish it to be done?"
Alfred was very aware that he was still holding the bunny, but it gave him a strange comfort. "Well… I was thinking about that, sir. I was wondering… maybe… would it be alright to just keep going as we have been for a little while?"
"Do you mean you would like to stay a Blooded for a time? That is no permanent solution, remember. Sooner or later you will have to make the choice between being mortal and becoming one of us."
"Yes. I understand, but I thought this way, I could still walk around in the sun for a while. I'm stronger now than ever so I'm happy." He also hoped he might grow a bit, more. The count was very generous with his food and Alfred hoped he might get just a little bigger. He quickly added, "But we can do it now, if you think it's best. I trust you."
The count chuckled. "No. We can wait a bit. No more than a few years, though. Now, Sarah's things are all taken care of you need to start unpacking." He gestured to the trunk he'd brought up with him. "Try everything on and if it doesn't fit, set it aside and we will get it fixed."
"Good boy. I'll fetch your other trunks and be right back."
Alone, again, Alfred looked back down at his bunny. "I'll name you Poppy," Alfred muttered to the bunny. "Poppy Junior."
"That's so sweet." Herbert strolled into the room. "I think Poppy would have liked to leave her name to the bunny. The bunny was mine when I was very small, you know. I had named him Piggykins, but I think Poppy Junior is even better. We should unpack your new wardrobe, don't you think?"
Alfred looked at the large trunk, warily. It was exciting to have new things – brand new clothes that no one else had ever worn before! – but it was a bit overwhelming. "I still don't think I needed quite so much."
"Father doesn't mind the cost and he likes seeing us all well-dressed. Besides, Janette had a splendid time picking out fabrics and colors and styles. She really is very fashionable. She'll be very happy to see you all dressed up the next time we meet. Well, if you don't want to deal with the clothes right now, we'll go for a walk."
The moment they walked out of the room, Herbert slipped his arm over Alfred's shoulder. It felt strange and exciting.
"I love you," Herbert whispered.
Alfred's happiness cooled. He chewed his bottom lip and looked nervously at Herbert. "But… Herbert… what if I never want to… ah… you know."
"Go to bed together? Have intimate relations? Fornicate?" Herbert drew out the last word as if merely saying it was a pleasure. With every word, Herbert made Alfred blush harder. Herbert squeezed Alfred close to his side and winked. "It's alright. I don't mind if you don't want to."
"Oh," Alfred said, disapprovingly. "That's a lie."
Herbert was completely unashamed. "Perhaps, but I have decided that the utter joy I get from having you in my life is far more important than those 'games' you don't like. We can do other things together. In the spring, there is path from the castle going down to a small lake in the valley and it is the most beautiful thing you have ever see when the full moon shines down on it. Father wants to teach you to read better and, when he does, I have a very exciting poetry book we can read to each other. And you can admire me playing my pianoforte. Even I know there is more to life than carnal delights. But," he smiled wickedly at Alfred. "If you ever do decide you'd like to try a few of those carnal delights with an experienced partner who would be very enthusiastic about making sure you are having fun, I do hope you'll keep in mind that I should be your first choice for a partner. I'm dead certain," he giggled at his pun. "That I could show you how very enjoyable that sort of thing can be when it's done with someone who cares for you. But, if you decide you never want to do that sort of thing, that's alright, too."
"You could really be happy with just that? Walks and reading and music?"
Herbert tipped his head over and bumped it gently against Alfred's. "I think I can be happy anywhere, doing anything, so long as I'm with you, dearest."
Alfred had no reply. He felt his throat close up with emotion. He didn't even know what the polite thing to say in such a situation was.
Angus walked up behind them and gave Herbert a slap on the side of the head and, when Herbert snarled and turned to see who'd hit him, Angus snatched Alfred away. "You stop embarrassing my puppy, Bertie."
"Give him back!" Herbert made a grab for Alfred, but Angus spun him away and put his own body between Herbert and Alfred.
"Nope. Walks and poetry? Ha! This wee lad needs to learn drink and smoke and how to handle a weapon."
Herbert indignantly cried out, "If anyone is going to teach him how to handle his weapon, it's going to be me!"
"Ugg!" Angus shuddered and gave Alfred an apologetic look. "Sorry, laddie, but," he looked back at Herbert. "I wouldn't get involved with that for all the gold in the world!"
Then, once again, Alfred's arm was snagged and he was pulled away from Angus. Alfred looked up at Count Von Krolock's serene face. The man put his arm around Alfred's shoulders, which caused his cape to drape over Alfred. "Enough horse-play, children," the count said, firmly. "Come along."
"Yes, father," Angus said, hurrying to catch up and walk at the count's side.
"Yes, father," Herbert, just as quickly as his brother rushed to walk next to Alfred.
The count looked down at Alfred. "I just put your other trunks in your room. You haven't eaten since yesterday, have you? I want you to head down to the kitchen and get something to eat."
Without thinking, Alfred answered, "Yes, father." Immediately, Alfred froze. His feet just stopped moving and he very slowly, cautiously turned to look up at the count.
Count Von Krolock smiled down at Alfred, fond and approving. He gave Alfred a reassuring pat on the shoulder, but said nothing.
A surge of joy spread through Alfred. The count didn't mind. He didn't mind a bit! Alfred had a home, food, a bunny, and family – there was nothing at all in the whole, wide world that could have possibly made him happier. He knew he'd never be on his own, again.