When he had first laid eyes on him, Herbert had found Alfred's nervousness and frightful demeanor outright charming. Not least because it made for such a nice contrast to his own reckless, exuberant character. It also brought out Herbert's playful nature. That is to say, playful in way that a cat is playful with a mouse it just caught.
It had, however, become a great deal less endearing when Herbert had found himself stuck fangs first in a library-book, with Alfred taking flight like the devil himself was behind him.
Now, with the boy seemingly unable to look him in the eyes for longer than two seconds at a time, and his constant flinching away from Herbert, all while trembling like a leaf, it was downright aggravating.
Had Herbert been a bit more introspective in nature, he might have realized that the way he acted towards Alfred earlier on in the bathroom, as well as, on a more general level, him being a vampire, could have had something to do with that. And perhaps on a subconscious level he did realize that, for he had at least refrained from his usual flirty approach.
After the viscount had fetched his jacket, he led a tense Alfred down the hallway with the intention of giving him an exclusive tour throughout the castle, because "it cannot be that you didn't get to see the ancestors gallery during your stay here; and believe me, once you've set foot in the ballroom your feet will start to dance on their own accord". A statement which would be highly doubted by Alfred, a professional non-dancer.
For now, Herbert's steps led the pair to neither of these locations; instead the viscount opened two finely crafted doors to reveal the music-room.
At the center of the room stood a piano, surrounded by a fine assortment of high quality instruments. Herbert stared at Alfred expectantly, who in turn had the decency to look appropriately awestruck.
"Do you play an instrument, Alfred?", Herbert asked lightly.
"I'm afraid not."
"Don't be. Afraid, I mean. It's really not that hard to learn, once you understand the principle of it."
With that said, Herbert strode forward, missing the way Alfred pressed his lips to a thin line, indicating that he had just bit back a smart remark, and sat down in front of the piano. It had been a while since he had played, though Herbert had also had more time to practice than most piano players in the world. He still decided on a simple piece; after all, there was so much Herbert still wanted to show Alfred, they didn't have all night.
It was a lighthearted little tune, which made for a nice contrast with the gloomy environment it was played in. Herbert himself delighted in the way his fingers were dancing over the keys. He loved playing the piano, but he was also easily bored. The lean vampire glanced over towards Alfred, and couldn't help a smug little smile when he noticed the young swaying along to the music.
He really was quite handsome, even more so when his features were relaxed and he didn't look as if he was about to jump three feet into the air at the slightest provocation. And the way his short hair, which apparently couldn't quite decide whether it wanted to be blonde or brunet curled on the assistant's head. It would have been a travesty to let those curls go gray.
Alfred eventually noticed Herbert's stare, which had grown less subtle over time, and his face instantly took on a guarded look again. This didn't go unnoticed by the latter who quickly averted his gaze.
He had to keep himself in check this time. If the boy grew too scared, he was likely to do something incredibly stupid, which would undoubtedly lead to Herbert doing something equally stupid, and then there would probably be that confounded Professor with his blasted parasol again, if his father didn't beat the old man to it. Usually his father was very lenient with him, but an embarrassing incident at something as important as the Midnight Ball would be certain to draw his ire.
Too soon, the piece ended, which was followed by a soft clapping. Slightly surprised, but charmed all the same Herbert turned towards Alfred who wore an expression of both admiration and unease, as if he wasn't quite sure whether it was appropriate to applaud or not.
"Are you sure you don't want to give it a try?", Herbert asked, gesturing towards the piano.
"Oh no, thank you, but I … I really could not..." Alfred waved both of his hands in front of himself and took a step back. The viscount was about to offer an argument on why Alfred definitely should try, but the latter's reaction made him think better of it. He gave a small shrug and stood up, making a show of patting non-existing dust of his suit.
"Suit yourself. Come along then, there's still so much you haven't seen yet.", Herbert hooked his arm with Alfred's, leading him out of the music room, and down the next flight of stairs, chatting merrily all the while.
"Not that one night alone would be enough to learn everything about this castle. I do hope you plan on staying a bit longer, then I could show you the wine-cellar and the stables."
Granted the last part was ever so slightly mean-spirited, and Herbert relished in the way the young man went tense, and was so clearly trying to come up with a response that wouldn't offend his host while being honest at the same time. A little bit of needling must have been allowed.
The pair walked down another corridor, passing by a lot of different rooms, their use Alfred couldn't really decide upon, other than it might intimidate other people to have more rooms than necessary, because that was working just fine.
At the end of the hallway a slim staircase presented itself, spiraling downwards. Seeing as they could not fit on it walking side by side, Herbert took the lead, while keeping a light grip on Alfred's wrist.
"Here we are", Herbert announced superfluously, as there were already paintings all over the tall walls to be seen. Alfred tried his best to study them, though he only caught a brief glimpse at best, since his companion continued in his pace, clearly indifferent at the display of artistry and craftsmanship surrounding them. As far as the student was able to notice however, most of the people portrayed looked deathly pale and deathly serious. He hoped that was just the artist's own personal touch, but he couldn't bring himself to believe it.
Finally, they reached the end of the staircase, where Alfred found himself in a long, narrow hall with high looming ceilings and gigantic chandeliers hanging from them that would have looked absolutely ridiculous in any smaller room. Several rows of paintings stretched as far as he could see.
It was stunning, if slightly unsettling, not least because it felt like the paintings were watching him. To distract himself from the vastness of the room, Alfred stepped closer to the nearest picture, with a vague intention of studying it.
It was a man's portrait, his face not unlike the Count's, though the golden nameplate embedded in the wooden frame entitled him as Duke Aderkas. It was indeed craftsmanship; though Alfred understood little of the fine arts, the painting was lifelike in the most eerily way imaginable. In fact, the young scientist was slightly afraid to look away out of irrational fear that the man in the painting might move when Alfred turned his back. Herbert was not as patient.
"Oh, why do you waste your time staring at that silly old fool? He's not that good-looking."
Alfred felt himself flushing.
"Wha-? That's not why I was …" Realizing how childish he sounded, he decided to leave his rambling unfinished. Herbert maintained a good humored smile.
"I don't really come here often, but it is, in a way, the centerpiece of this castle, and an absolute must-see for visitors", the tall man explained, as they began to wander the hall. "Father loves it here, though."
"Does he?", Alfred asked, suddenly feeling like his stomach was made out of lead. Dealing with one vampire he might have managed, but if Herbert's father were to pop up now as well, the young assistant thought he might just as well kiss his life good-bye. The blond vampire gave him a curious glance and his smile had won a certain edge.
"Yes, I suppose the depressing paintings just provide the right atmosphere for his brooding habits. But I think he is currently preoccupied with the last preparations for the ball."
"They are a bit gloomy", Alfred agreed, careful not to let too much of his relief show, "but also quite lifelike. Maybe a bit too much so."
"They still make for lousy conversation-partners, trust me." Herbert gave a short laugh, but Alfred caught on to something.
"Not many people in this castle, are there?", he asked tentatively, hoping he didn't overstep his boundaries. Herbert turned to face him with an unexpected sober expression.
"No, not really. Unless you count the sleepers in the graveyard, but they only ever come out once a year and they are not good for much beyond dancing and mediocre company."
"And do you never go out the castle by yourself? Surely you must, I mean, you can't stay -"
"Well there are horses in the stables, I can always go out for a ride.", Herbert interrupted in a slightly raised voice. Glancing aside, he quickly strode over to the right side of the hall, stopping in front of a painting, which also bore a striking resemblance with Herbert's father, even more so than the previous one.
"Oh, would you look at that! I almost forgot about this picture of father."
Well, that explained it. Alfred took a step closer as he inspected the portrait. The Count looked as ominous and severe as ever, if a bit younger. It was easy to see where Herbert got his eye-shape and jawline from.
However, there was another picture right next to the one of the Count's that Alfred found even more fascinating. It was a painting of a young woman with an equally serious expression in her eyes, though her face seemed otherwise gentle. She had a pale complexion, but not in an undead way, such as their hosts. Her light blonde hair was in an up-do, which added to her serious expression. She had prominent cheekbones, as well as a narrow nose and lips. The last of which gave only a hint of smile which combined with the grave look in her eyes gave her an air of superiority. The harsh shadows under her eyes stood in contrast with her youthful appearance, but didn't otherwise distract from her overall fragile beauty. While Alfred had never seen her before, she still looked familiar. The student had a distinct idea why, and after reading the nameplate even more so.
Dorothée von Krolock
"Is she … she is your, your mother, isn't she?", Alfred asked hesitantly. He turned towards Herbert, who seemed lost in the painting himself, and his somber expression spoke for itself.
"I – I haven't seen her here so far." As soon as the words were out Alfred realized how insensitive he must have sounded, but either Herbert hid his displeasure very well or he hadn't noticed.
"She died a long time ago." His voice was soft and eerily calm and somehow didn't fit at all with Alfred's view about him.
"I'm sorry." The words seemed empty and useless to the budding scientist; as if being sorry would somehow bring that person back to life, or could cure someone from an ancient sadness they apparently still carried around with them.
"Father never told me how she died", Herbert continued and Alfred was beginning to wonder whether his companion was still aware of his presence. The expensively clothed man had his hands folded behind his back, still staring at his mother's portrait as if willing it to talk to him through willpower alone. Alfred found it all very odd. He looked almost as vulnerable as he did a few hours earlier in his coffin.
"He never talked much about her. I remember when I was younger, I asked him why she couldn't live with us. He asked me if I had ever seen a flower blooming in the night."
This was all so very wrong. Vampires couldn't be vulnerable. Here he was, young Alfred, prospective vampire-hunter (more like vampire-escaper at this point), trying to convince himself of vampire's inherent wretchedness, together with a vampire who talked to him about his dead mother.
He attacked you, he told himself. He attacked you, he would have bitten and turned you into one of them, and would have done God knows what else to him, had he had his way.
"I cursed him for his poetic answers back then. But now I think I understand. It would have broken her."
"Like a china cup.", Alfred heard himself reply, and instantaneously felt like the proverbial bull trampling them in the china shop. Herbert turned towards him with an expression of badly contained laughter, which held for about half a second before he broke down wheezing. Alfred, partly out of mad relief that Herbert hadn't threatened him with immediate disembowelment, began to join in. It was oddly freeing. The stress of the last few days of their journey suddenly began to lose their weight on Alfred's shoulders, who only now realized that he hadn't laughed like that in more than two weeks now.
"I regret to put a damper on this merriment"
A deep voice cut through their laughter, and Alfred instantly began to freeze. Sure enough, Count von Krolock stood in front of them, who had apparently decided to materialize out of thin air. Alfred would never admit to have taken two inconspicuous steps behind Herbert, his newly selected almost-human shield. The Count continued unperturbed, but the student was sure that the corner of his mouth was twitching upwards.
"The ball is about to start in less than an hour. Herbert, if this young man is to accompany you to the ball, I suggest you find him something fitting to wear. After that you will see to our guests."
"Of course, father", Herbert said, the only person it seemed to Alfred who could make a simple movement such as a nod look elegant and refined.
The Count left without another word, and Alfred was almost surprised to see that he used the door this time.
"Guests", the young man repeated feebly, dread filling him at the thought of what was about to come. Herbert looked amused, raising one eyebrow mockingly.
"Well, it would hardly be a ball if only father and I attended it, would it?", he teased, before adopting a more thoughtful pose while eyeing him attentively.
"I'll always greet our guests. That might take some time, so you best stay close, they're always very hungry.", the viscount elaborated, before tutting in discontent. "Father is right, you know. We'll have to find you something more festive, mon ami, this coat just won't do."
In a heartbeat Herbert had clasped his hands around Alfred's shoulders and began to lead him back upstairs, while contemplating which color would look best on his companion. Said companion meanwhile wholeheartedly hoped that Herbert wouldn't notice him sweating, while his brain operated at top speed, trying to figure out how to smuggle his little wooden cross out of the pocket of his coat and into his new wardrobe without the vampire noticing.
Granted, Professor Abronsius' hearing might not have been what it had been twenty-five ago anymore, but the way the rusty old door to the battlements creaked every time it was used was enough to wake the dead. Therefore he ought to be forgiven for uttering a small piercing shriek, when he turned to find himself face to face with the Count, who had the audacity to calmly stand there like he owned the place. Oh, wait.
"Good evening, Professor.", the Count greeted him without batting an eyelid.
"Good evening, your Excellency."
"It's rather late.", the Count said with a glance to the starry night-sky as if it had just told him the time. Maybe it had. "Surely you haven't been up all day?"
"As a matter of fact I have.", Abronsius replied defensively. He had never liked having his abilities questioned, and this one clearly stemmed from the 'an old man like you should mind their health'-area, and no he was not overly sensitive, thank you very much.
Count von Krolock moved past him to lean on the railing, eyes still fixed on the sky. The old scientist found it hard to blame him, when Orion was shining radiantly this night.
"Did you have a chance to visit the library?", their host asked. Abronsius peaked up immediately. If there was one topic that could swipe away his suspicions and bad moods it was books.
"Certainly, your Excellency. Allow me to compliment you on the excellent condition of your collection. I hope you will forgive me for inspecting some of your books more closely. It was simply breathtaking – what I wouldn't give for the original manuscript of Goethe's Faust!"
"An exceptionally well-read man.", the Count commented softly, elegantly leaving open whether he had referred to the unappreciated Professor or the gifted writer.
"And all five classics of Konfuzius in their original state." Abronsius' excitement almost spilled over every syllable, and for the briefest of moments it looked like the Count was actually smiling.
"Believe me, it wasn't easy to bring those into my possession." With that he turned towards the old scientist and his smile had now won an unpleasant edge.
"But for now, you'll have to excuse me. I am sure we will have all of eternity to continue our discussion from this point."
"Of – of course, your Excellency", the old man replied uncertain, all previous enthusiasm cast aside after that slightly foreboding declaration.
The Count headed towards the door in no great hurry, before pausing for a moment, then turning his face towards the Professor once more.
"Do you know where your assistant is currently residing?", he suddenly wanted to know. Abronsius mentally braced himself, he did not at all care for that sly tone.
"Alfred always has to inform me on his current whereabouts.", he replied briskly. To his growing discomfort, the count began to smile again.
"You'll do well to keep an eye on him. Before you can use him as one of your study objects."
And at that, Professor Abronsius exploded. Waving his trusty parasol around for emphasis, the old scientist let loose.
"You! Just you wait, you girl-seducing, sleazy, bloodsucking, long-haired scourge of humanity! Alfred will defeat you in the end, I know he will!"
Von Krolock's face remained impassive, but the old man did note a slight strain in his voice when he deigned to answer.
"You are mistaken, Professor! Alfred's soul already belonged to me since he set foot into this castle."
Indignantly the old scholar gasped for air.
"Don't you dare touching a hair on the boys head or I'll show you 'mistaken'! I'll pickle you in alcohol! You – you innkeeper-biter!"
Oddly enough, the Count appeared to have taken offense to that last insult. He bared his fangs ever so much, and there was cold murder in his eyes. One might have thought that the Professor had just made an obscene remark about his mother.
"You're already standing with one foot in your grave and you hardly even notice it. I could say I felt sorry for you, but now I am really starting to enjoy this.", the Count all but hissed, before he vanished with a dramatic cape-gesture and no indication of using a door.
Abronsius' rage didn't vanish quite as quick, however, and was not at all lessened when he went for the door and found it locked.
"The scoundrel!", the old man shouted, having to vent his anger somehow. "Oh, but if he thinks, he'll get rid of me that easily, he's sorely mistaken. I'll show him, the villain …"
Grumbling and muttering dark curses that might even have impressed the so darkly cursed Count, Professor Abronsius went to work to free himself, as it was getting freezing out there on the battlements.
It was a good thing really, having learned how to pick locks in his youth.