It took over an hour to drive out of town and up the incline of hills leading away from the city. The landscape was green and lush, with plenty of trees and shrubbery. The scenery was very beautiful, as Dante had said. Once we cleared the thick cover of trees, in the distance loomed a huge castle structure. It was massive, and could have held at least five of Adrian’s and my estate inside it without any effort.
Adrian followed my gaze, and then looked at me with narrowed eyes and a set jaw, and squeezed my hand. His expression made me realize that stronghold must be where Benedict lived. It was extremely intimidating to observe that ancient, stone castle and to know that not only did it look like a haven for vampires, they actually resided in it.
I was sure my eyes grew wider the closer we got.
The castle structure was incredibly immense, and as it loomed nearer, I saw that a large, deep moat surrounded the entire perimeter. The limo crossed a sizable stone bridge, and on the other side was an iron gate that rose when we went under the archway covering the bridge. It was exactly like one of those old medieval castle gates you would see in a movie. I turned around and watched the huge, metal gate close again after we entered into the courtyard, and I suddenly felt trapped inside of this monstrous, creepy, dark edifice. My heart was racing and I tried my best to stay calm, but had to squeeze Adrian’s hand tightly to steady my qualms.
We pulled up to a covered, stone portico that led to an extra wide, immense, wooden double doors, and stepped out of the limo to ascend the bulky granite steps to the entrance. A doorman quickly opened the front door to the castle, and we walked into the vast entry. I gasped; the interior was cavernous and very medieval looking. The entire entrance was made of massive, stone blocks. Rows of knights in armor on horses lined both sides that led into the structure. The overly large size of everything made me feel that much smaller and insignificant, and I held onto Adrian’s hand with a death grip while surveying my surroundings.
A tall gentleman approached us while we stood there. He wore formal butler’s attire, and was pale with very dark eyes. I wondered if he was a vampire, but again I wasn’t quite sure.
“Good evening,” he said formally. “I will show you to your quarters.”
With that he turned around, and we followed him down a large hall and up a set of massive stone stairs. Then we headed down another bigger passageway with huge tapestries lining the walls. It was like a city in here, everything was so overly monumental. Once we were out of the stone entry with the knights of armor, the interior was lavishly decorated. All of the walls had ornately carved paneling and decor. There were no bare walls, and priceless works of art and paintings hung everywhere. If I hadn’t been so intimidated by the whole experience, I probably would have greatly appreciated the artwork around me.
Adrian still had a somewhat annoyed look on his face while we followed the butler down the hall to our room.
When the butler opened the door, we stepped inside and I looked around. Our quarters were very opulent, with heavy, thick draperies, luxurious bed coverings, and expensive wall hangings. The ceiling had mahogany wood panels with carved birds, cherubs, and flowers. Everything was overdone for my taste, almost to the extreme.
“Benedict will meet you in the drawing room in one hour. I will leave you to freshen up,” the butler said in a monotone voice, then turned around and closed the door. He was so serious and stuffy I couldn’t help chuckling after he left.
“He was so overly creepy…it was almost funny,” I had to say.
Adrian looked at me like he didn’t quite see the humor in it. He wasn’t in a very good mood.
There was a knock at our door, and when Adrian opened it, another gentleman was standing there with a cart containing our luggage, which he brought in and put on a table against the wall by the bathroom. Then he turned around and left without a word. I sat on the bed and studied Adrian. He was still standing on the other side of the room gazing out the window, so I got up and stood beside him and took his hand. He glanced down at me and smiled slightly, and then went back to staring at the scenery out the window. I followed his gaze.
There were rows and rows of fountains that had to be at least twenty feet in diameter each, stretching out over acres of perfectly groomed hedging and junipers. Peacocks roamed across the immaculate lawns. You could see the sun setting in the distance in the heavily overcast sky, and the shadows grew longer and longer until they swallowed the house into darkness. As soon as the last light faded, the lights came on in the fountains and bushes; it was very beautiful.
Finally I looked up at Adrian and asked softly, “Adrian, what are you thinking? You’ve been quiet for a very long time.”
He turned to me with almost sadness in his eyes. “I love you so much, Carmen. But it seems no matter how hard I try to protect you from my world, you still end up getting exposed to its ugliness.” He raised my hand to his lips and gently kissed it while he stared intently into my eyes. “I’m sorry I’m not doing a very good job.”
I put my arms around his neck and gazed deeply into his eyes. “I chose to be with you. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it’s easier than trying to live without you. That would be impossible. You are the kindest, most wonderful, generous man I could have ever hoped for.”
He smiled wistfully at me. “You definitely have a better opinion of me than you should. I’m a vampire, and vampires are evil.”
“Only that one side of you. There are two sides to every coin, Adrian.”
He smiled slightly at my words and pulled me to him, his eyes deep, dark pools. “There is no way that I deserve you, sweetheart.”
Then he brought his lips down to mine and kissed me, wrapping his arms around my waist and pressing me firmly against the wall. After a few minutes he reluctantly pulled back, sighed, and said, “I guess we’d better go and meet with Benedict.”
As Adrian and I approached the drawing room I could hear laughter and music coming from behind the closed doors. I grabbed Adrian’s arm at the elbow and held onto it with both hands while we walked up. He put his hand over mine and gently patted it to reassure me.
There was a butler standing in front of the entrance, and when we approached, he opened the doors for us, walked inside, and announced, “Adrian and Carmen Tallinn.”
We entered the room, and the music stopped and everyone quieted, all eyes on us. I felt very self-conscious. The place was full of vampires, and sitting in the corner by the window was Benedict. He appeared very dark and malevolent, even from across the room, while eyeing me guardedly.
His eyes were black and his hair dark. He had on an ebony suit with a white ruffled shirt and large, ornate gold buttons. The cape he wore was black with a deep purple velvet lining and golden accents. He looked like he’d just stepped out of an old Dracula film, and I couldn’t help my heart skipping a nervous beat while I stared back into his face. His appearance was that of royalty used to being far superior to all around him, and he scrutinized us with narrow eyes.
Beside him on the sofa were two young women. They seemed totally enthralled with him, even though he ignored them and stared directly at me.
“Good evening, Adrian,” he said with a haughty smirk.
“Benedict, it’s good to see you again,” Adrian replied with no emotion. “This is Carmen, my wife.”
Benedict’s eyes squinted and he eyed me carefully, sizing me up and down. “Carmen, I have heard quite a bit about you. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“It’s good to meet you too,” I said watchfully. I could tell he didn’t like me, that he considered me a threat.
“Sit down and have some conversation with me,” he said to us, and nodded slightly with his head to indicate the settee across from him. Then he turned to the two women that were hanging on his arms. “Go away. I will see you later,” he said in a disdainful tone. They immediately jumped up and hurried from the room.
I sat down next to Adrian, who continued to hold my hand.
“Benedict,” Adrian started. “We’re only here for a relaxing vacation. Carmen was injured badly during our last uprising, and she’s still recovering.”
“Yes,” Benedict said. “I heard about that. You are very good at what you do, Carmen, aren’t you?”
I looked at him cautiously. “It’s only for protection. I do it because I have no choice, not because I enjoy it.”
“None the less, it would be interesting to witness. I can’t even imagine a pathetic human being able to kill a vampire,” he said with contempt in his voice. I couldn’t help stiffening a little at his blatant insult, and he smiled arrogantly at me. “You are strong and opinionated, aren’t you? You wouldn’t do well over here.”
I could see Adrian bristling beside me at the turn the conversation was taking. “Benedict,” he interrupted, “we’ve been courteous enough to come here as you requested, but we’re here on vacation and this is not a formal visit.” I could tell he was starting to get annoyed.
Benedict’s eyes glinted and he stared darkly at Adrian. “I realize that officially you did not have to come here, Adrian, but you must understand my concerns with your bringing this dangerous creature onto my soil. I am within my rights to detain you until I’m confident that there is no risk to me…or my associates.”
“You know that she’s no threat to you!” Adrian said irately.
They sat there and glared at each other for several moments while I held my breath and watched.
Finally Benedict eyes gleamed threateningly and though his tone was calm, you could hear the clear warning in every word while he sat there and smiled at us. “Indulge me, Adrian, and then you can have your vacation. If you cross me, things could get ugly.”
I looked into his eyes and could tell that he meant it. We did not want to get on Benedict’s bad side. I squeezed Adrian’s hand. He was still glaring angrily at Benedict. “It’s all right if we stay here for a couple of days, Adrian,” I said cautiously to them both. “I’ll be fine.”
Benedict turned his eyes to me. “Your wife is very smart. You should listen to her.”
Adrian’s eyes were hard and black, and his jaw was tensed. He was still staring down Benedict with a heated expression.
I squeezed his hand in mine. “Adrian,” I said softly. “It’s okay…really.”
Finally Adrian relaxed slightly and said, “All right, Benedict. You win, we will stay for a couple of days…but that is it.”
Benedict smiled like we were all good friends once again. “That is great to hear. We are having a large gathering tomorrow evening, and I insist that you both attend.”
By C.S. Wolfe
Fire and Ice Books