Chapter 4: The Carrot and the Stick
This was torture. For the past few days, Myra had been allowed to dine alone in her room, but tonight the Prince had decided it was time for her to start joining the evening feast. Food, however, was the last thing on her mind. All her thoughts were focused on keeping herself from being sick as she took in the scene around her.
Three vampires stood in the corner, playing violins. By all rights, she should have been happy - she had always dreamed to hear skilled musicians play beautiful music on high-quality instruments. They had neither the resources, nor the knowledge, to produce music like that at the Resistance, and Zack had never placed creating art among their top priorities. And yet, her current predicament felt more like a nightmare than a dream come true.
The rest of the guests were seated at a long, rectangular table, covered in a silken red cloth. The Prince sat on a high chair at the end with Tristan on his right and Armida on his left. Next to them sat humans, and the sight of the two young men, chained and eating obediently, made her stomach turn.
They were not the only ones. Next to each vampire sat a human, and it was not hard to guess why. Most of them looked young, which made Myra think of Frea. If the elderly woman had remained overlooked for so long, perhaps she had a chance to survive this.
Did the humans know what was awaiting them? Why were they eating silently, like obedient lambs? Did they not know this was to be their last supper?
The food served for the humans was better than what she normally had at the Resistance. Boar and hare meat was cooked with potatoes and various herbs, and small, wild apples were serves as a dessert. Dark red wine was poured into high crystal glasses. The vamps had to keep a sunlit garden somewhere, she supposed, to allow plants to grow. Myra forced herself to slowly take small bites, but she did not trust her stomach to hold anything more than that.
Some of the vampires would also try a bite or two. She had learned that human food provided them no sustenance at all, but they would occasionally eat it for the taste. The true food, however, would come after, and Myra had to once again swallow the bile rising in her throat.
The feast was coming to an end, and Myra looked down, unwilling to witness what was to follow. Still, she heard the screams and the pleas as each vampire reached out to the human next to them. She hated them, she hated them so much! She wanted to scream, to fight, to tell the vamps exactly what she thought of them, but, most of all, she wanted to kill them all. Yet, she knew there was nothing she could do - she had no chance to harm any vampire, and even if she tried, the Prince would likely decide to punish her by demonstratively killing another child.
Her eyes filled with tears at her helplessness. She was their prisoner in more ways than one. Myra closed her eyes and desolately fingered the embroidered cuffs of her velvet carmine dress. She hated the feel of the soft, beautiful fabric - it felt like iron shackles around her wrists and ankles, keeping her chained in place.
When she opened her eyes once again, she could not stop her gaze from wandering to the knife next to her plate. It was a somewhat blunt blade, meant for cutting food. Even if it was sharper, there was nothing she could have done with it. And yet, vivid fantasies of what exactly she wanted to do with the knife ran wildly through her mind. She wished to be the hero, to fight, to defeat evil with the heart-wrenching music of the violins playing in the background. But she was no hero.
She swallowed hard and looked up. The Prince was the only one not feeding. He was observing the scene with a soft smile on his face, lazily twirling his wine glass. He caught her gaze and nodded at her, raising his glass as if in toast. "Myra, my dear, is the feast to your liking?"
She felt her hands sweat as all gazes turned towards her. Myra knew that most vampires were not happy with her presence here. They had wished to torture her for information about the Resistance, and then drink her like any other human. "I... the food is very good, Your Highness. Thank you for inviting me."
"And yet, you have barely eaten," Vladimir observed.
"Leave the girl alone, my love," Armida said with a smile. "Surely you understand our ways must be foreign and frightening to a human."
"I am not frightened, my lady," Myra said softly. "We have very little food at the Resistance. I am unused to eating so much, that is all."
Tristan raised his head from the human he was drinking to give her a curious look. As he did so, he licked his bloody lips, and Myra looked down again, feeling queasy. It upset her to see him like that. Tristan was like no one she had seen before. Graceful and refined, he was like a classic marble statue, a Renaissance portrait come to life. The pale-blond hair shining like a halo around his chiseled face made him look like an angel. In the books she loved to read a character like him would be a hero, kind and brave. And yet, he was as different from an angel as anyone could be.
For a moment, Myra wished she would trapped be in an old-fashioned fairy-tale or a high fantasy world, where the beautiful were good, the evil were misshapen and hideous, and everything was straightforward. Her current world was too confusing.
"Your Highness!" a female vampire had spoken, and Myra breathed a sigh of relief as the attention turned away from her. Unfortunately, her peace was shattered once again when the vampire spoke her next words. "I ask for permission to turn my human."
The Prince looked at her sternly. "Natalia, you can see that there are many of us, and the humans are not reproducing and growing any faster. We have barely enough human blood for ourselves. We cannot afford to turn anyone, unless they are truly exceptional."
"I like her blood," Natalia said stubbornly. "Who is to say she will not make an exceptional vampire?"
The dark-haired young woman in the vampire's arms was barely conscious, and Myra doubted she could follow any of the conversation that was to decide her fate. She herself was not certain which of the two possible outcomes was worse.
"You have not even talked to her," Tristan snapped. "Have you heard nothing of what His Highness said? We cannot go around turning every single human who looks and tastes nice enough."
"And yet, we should not close the door to everyone," Armida countered. "There may be gems hidden amidst the filth. We should not discard them."
"You expect to find gems among the domesticated humans?" Tristan said incredulously and Myra felt the urge to punch him. "They have no education system, no books, no musical instruments. How could any of them grow up to be passable, let alone exceptional?"
Armida smiled. "Tristan, cupcake, I was not aware you ever went to school."
The fair-haired vampire started to protest, but the Prince silenced him with a raise of his hand. "Do you have a proposition to make, my heart?" Vladimir asked.
Armida nodded. "Revive the girl and bring her to my chambers. I will talk to her and decide if she is worthy to be one of us."
"Very well. Natalia, feed and bandage the human and bring her to Lady Armida once she is well," he said as he stood up. "Myra, please walk with me."
As soon as the Prince's back was turned, Tristan glared at Armida, and she shot him a victorious grin. Myra silently noted the exchange before she looked away and followed Vlad on his way out of the Grand Hall.
"I thought only looks mattered when you decided whom to turn," she admitted once they were alone. "I did not know you considered anything else."
"We do," he said. "Or at least we used to. In the past, we were very picky when choosing who could become one of us. Many vampires never turned a single human, and most turned just one or two special ones. When we had chosen a human, we would spend time observing them, until we were certain they were suitable. We used to be an elite society, you see, a society of beautiful, intelligent and educated individuals."
"But the Nightfall changed this?" Myra guessed.
"Unfortunately, yes. I needed armies, so numbers were of the essence. We turned humans by the dozens, and anyone who satisfied a set of some very loose criteria could become one of us. To be honest, nowadays I have half a mind to put most of them under the stake." He laughed when he noticed her shocked expression. "Do not worry, my dear. I was only jesting. These are my people now, and they live in the world I have created. It is my responsibility to give them safe and happy lives."
"And you have done an excellent work in this regard, Your Highness," Myra said, forcing herself to smile. He threw her a grin that seemed to say 'I do not buy a single word you are saying, but keep trying', and she fought to keep up her facade. "You have given your people a world where sunlight is no threat and they can wander the earth at any time of day, a world where they have no need to hide and fear persecution, a world with endless food supplies. They have every reason to be grateful."
"And they are," the Prince said. "The problem is, it is also my responsibility to teach my people what it means to be a vampire, and many of those turned during the Nightfall lack those skills. They have never experienced living as undead in the Old World, and to them our old lives seem mythical and terrifying. They have never known what it means to fear the Sun, or to have to hunt for food and fight for survival on the brink of starvation."
I have an easy solution, Myra thought. Blow up the WeatherWizard and they will get a taste of fearing sunlight and not being rulers of the world soon enough. Unfortunately, the time when she would have spoken her thoughts freely was past. "You are worrying needlessly, Your Highness," she said instead. "Many humans in the Old World also experienced hardships that taught them useful skills, but they fought to prevent their children from facing the same trials. Whole generations struggled with starvation, wars, diseases, but they did everything possible to give the future generations safe and comfortable lives. Was that a mistake? Is hardship an integral part of being a human? Of being a vampire? Removing unnecessary struggles gives us time to focus on what really matters."
"What you say makes sense for humans," he agreed. "We, on the other hand, have all the time in the world. We should fill our immortal lives with as many different experiences as possible, and I feel that some of my people are missing that. Do not get me wrong - I am not complaining. And to be fair some of those we turned during the Nightfall have become decent vampires." They reached the doors to his study and walked in. "You seem very interested in our world today. You are trying to get to know your enemy I suppose."
"Your world and culture are fascinating," she said as she took the seat he offered.
"Yes, you looked positively fascinated at the dinner table." He removed the golden circlet that marked him as royalty and placed it on the table, before sitting in one of the armchairs. A thoughtful grin suddenly spread across his face and she did not like it one bit. "I caught you stealing glances at Tristan. I cannot blame you of course."
Myra felt annoyed at the suggestion. If she had stared, it was for a very different reason from whatever Vlad assumed. However, she had no desire to explain to him her thoughts on beauty and evil. "His looks are unusual, that is all," she said nonchalantly. "I mean, the only blond person at the Resistance is my cousin, and her shade is much darker. I have never seen hair like his. It is natural I suppose?"
He chuckled, probably thinking she was trying to deflect his suspicions. "Completely natural. Remarkable, isn't it? To be fair, that shade was not unusual in his village. He, however, was rather extraordinary among his fellow men." The Prince leaned back in his armchair. "I admit I am glad you found one thing to fascinate you at dinner tonight," he said softly. "Asking you to join was thoughtless of me. From now on, you will not be required to attend any feasts of this kind."
The admission surprised and relieved her, but she tried not to show her enthusiasm. "Thank you, my lord. This is very considerate of you."
He smiled. "Yes, I know it is. Now, I am sure you cannot wait to get away from me. There are guards outside who will take you back to your chamber if you wish to leave."
She did wish to leave. Truth be told, Myra could hardly wait to return to her room, order a servant to prepare a bath, and wash away all the memories of that evening. And yet, there was one thing she desired even more. She tried to suppress the fearful eagerness in her voice as she spoke her next words. "My lord, there is one more thing before I go. Please, tell me, did you have a chance to look at my new chapter?"
The Prince seemed pleased by the question. "Indeed, I did." He opened a drawer and handed her a notebook.
The girl opened it and cautiously peeked inside. She felt her throat constrict. What was the meaning of this? She thought she had been improving. She had improved - she knew it. The Prince had given her tips, and she had applied them all. Now she was a much better writer than she had ever been. And yet, there was so much red. The blood-red ink was all over her writing - words were crossed over and replaced by others, the order was changed and more words were added, whole sentences were restructured, and the wide margins were filled with comments, written in a small, neat script. "Did you use to be a teacher, Your Highness?"
Vladimir smiled. "I do tend to be overly critical, I admit, but it must not dishearten you. The only reason I spend so much time carefully reading and editing your stories is that I believe you have potential. I cannot yet tell you why, but it is important to me that you learn to write well."
Myra's curiosity was sparked by the comment, but she knew that tone of voice and was certain any questions she asked would remain unanswered. Instead, she looked through the pages, carefully reading the notes the vampire had inserted.
"I disagree with your comment that the speaker's identity should be revealed earlier," she said. "That way the reader goes through a few pages not knowing from whose point of view this is written and it comes as a surprising twist."
"Surprise or boredom," the vampire argued. "Your readers spend pages having no idea what you are talking about and not understanding it fully. When Gregory's identity is finally revealed, they need to go back and reread the chapter, and most will not even bother. But forgive me, Myra, I have other appointments tonight and we must postpone our discussion until tomorrow."
Myra knew she had to be happy - she could return to her room early, and if the Prince had other plans for the night, it meant he would not visit her. She could spend time by herself and forget that she was a prisoner, required to speak and smile on demand. And yet, she had been looking forward to hearing his feedback. The disappointment she felt surprised her. "Of course, my lord. Thank you for your time."
He smiled. "Do not look so sad. I also have good news. Since you have been so good and exemplary, I have decided to give you another carrot."
Anger flared in her heart then, but she did her best not to show it on her face. Did Vlad think he could train her like a dog, giving her rewards and punishments in varying order? She was not too happy about how pleased he was with her obedience, but tried to remind herself that her time would come, only if she stayed low.
"Another carrot? Besides the library, and the paintings, and the tabletop games, and the wonderful food and beautiful clothes? Truly, you are spoiling me, Your Highness. I am not certain I deserve this."
He grinned. "My dear girl, you are misunderstanding how this game works. It is not about you saying pretty words. It is about making me believe you. First of all, you sound too humble and eager. Tone it down a little; it is unrealistic. And in any case, your eyes betray you. You should try practicing in front of the mirror. Now, try again."
She looked up, stunned. "Are you teaching me how to better lie to you?"
"Of course I am," the Prince said calmly. "If you get better at this, it will be more fun for me to try to figure out when you are telling the truth. Right now, it is no real challenge."
He was insane, Myra decided. He wanted a worthy opponent, and since she was not good enough in his eyes, he was willing to train her until she became the cunning enemy he desired. Honestly, she did not mind. If Vlad wanted to hand her the weapons she needed to defeat him, she would not complain. She would learn, and she would lie to him until he believed her, and then she would strike. "I was only curious what else you wish to offer me, Your Highness," she said. "I admit I liked the library and some of the other presents you gave me, so I think I will probably like this one too."
"Good. This was slightly more convincing. And yes, I believe you will like what I have to offer." He leaned back in his chair, interlacing his fingers in his lap and looking very smug. "I could not help but notice your fascination with the Old World. Well, I happen to have lived in it for around seventeen centuries and have traveled many places and known various cultures. If you are interested, I can tell you more about the world as it once was. I can tell you things you will not find in any book."
Myra looked up, feeling strangely excited despite herself. "I would like that very much," she admitted.
He smiled. "And I believe this is the first truthful thing I have heard from you since our chat in the throne room. Very well, we can start from tomorrow. Someone else is awaiting me now, but if you have a quick question, perhaps I could take it."
"I would very much like to know where you are from."
He casually reached out to pick a peach from a bowl of fruit on the table. She had never seen fruits in his study before and with a jolt of surprise realized they were placed there for her. "I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world."
Myra had to admit the answer was expected, even if disappointing. If the Prince did not wish to discuss his past, it was understandable. He had after all hinted that his family had been massacred, and she could imagine he would not wish to relive the memories just to satisfy her curiosity.
His vague answer had only piqued her interest. Where had he lived? What lands had he traveled? How long had he known Armida and Tristan? How had he met them? Did he have any other close associates? Was Armida his first lover, and if not, who had come before? She had to admit the answers to those questions were unlikely to help her defeat him, but she was curious.
She hoped she would eventually put together the pieces of the Prince's life story from the hits he had dropped. For now, he had said he was seventeen centuries old, which meant he must have been born around the ninth century. That was a start.
"There is no doubt about that, my lord," she said. "You are not only a citizen, but a ruler of the world. Forgive me. I did not mean to be intrusive."
Vlad turned the peach over in his fingers and stared at it critically as if wondering if to take a bite. Finally, he placed it back into the bowl. "Apology accepted. Now, if you have no other questions, I bid you goodnight."
Myra stood up and took a step towards him. She had been planning something for a few days, and now was as good a time as any. "Please, my lord, stay for a minute at least. I have something else to discuss with you."
He eyed her carefully, seemingly surprised by her boldness. "Can it not wait?"
"I will be quick," she promised and he nodded at her to speak. "I wanted to ask you for another carrot."
His expression was unreadable and his tone calm and measured. "My dear girl. I gave you unlimited access to my vast libraries. I offered you to learn world history from me, one of the most knowledgeable, well-travelled and educated vampires alive. As you said it yourself, I am spoiling you. What else could you possibly ask for?"
She took a deep breath. "Your Highness, I am well aware that you believe all I tell you is a lie. And I respect your intelligence too much to try to convince you otherwise. But please believe me when I tell you this – I do enjoy your company. I dearly love all my friends in the Resistance, but I could not talk to any of them the way I can talk to you. If I shared my stories with them, all I would get would be applause and admiration, and never the tiniest bit of constructive criticism. You give me criticism, my lord, and how! You practically take my stories apart! And yes, I pretend to be annoyed, and I argue, but the truth is, I am immeasurably grateful. The truth is, I am aware my talent is not exceptional. I was born with a tremendous need and desire to write, but this does not necessarily come with abilities. But I want to learn, I truly do, and now I am learning. I feel that in only two weeks with you, my writing has improved visibly, and you are the one I should thank."
Vladimir crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Oddly enough, I believe you. Now stop beating around the bush and tell me where you are going with this."
"I told you all this, my lord, because I do not want you to think I find you company lacking in any way. Yet, since I was locked here, I have been talking only to vampires. I need a human companion. Someone to talk to."
"I see," the Prince said. "Well, I am not offended, but I wonder how you propose to accomplish this? I cannot imagine you are planning to tell me where the Resistance is hiding, so I can go and snatch one of your friends? I could of course give you my word I would not harm anyone, but I doubt you would believe me."
"I trust your word, my lord, but this is not what I meant. The Resistance are not the only humans alive."
Now he looked positively interested. "You mean there are more?"
Myra suppressed her frustration. "I mean the humans in your dungeons, Your Highness."
He looked taken aback. "The domesticated humans? What could you possibly discuss with them?"
"Please, I beg you, do not call them that," she said softly. "And there is plenty to talk about with each of them, of that I am sure. But I wanted to ask for a specific human. When I first came here, I talked to an old woman, Frea. I ask you to free her from the Farm and bring her to my chambers to live with me, so that I have someone human to talk to."
She waited with bated breath as the Prince silently considered her plea. "I understand your need to talk to someone of your kind," he said at length. "I will send Tristan to look for this Frea. If she has not been eaten, we will bring her to you. If she has, we will pick someone else. Is that good enough for you?"
Myra was furious at the callous way Vlad was talking about the elderly woman and the way he seemed to think humans were replaceable. Yet, she took a deep breath and smiled at him. "This is more than I expected, Your Highness. Your generosity knows no bounds."
He sighed, "Myra, my dear girl, what did I tell you about practicing in front of the mirror? I will leave you to it now, you will need a lot of training. The guards outside can bring you back to your chambers, but you are welcome to stay and practice here if you wish."
She stared angrily at the door from which the Prince had exited and briefly wondered how her eyes were not burning holes into the wood. If this presumptuous, arrogant, despicable, pathetic excuse of a monster thought he could train her like some animal to jump and smile at his command, he was gravely mistaken.
"I can hardly believe this," Frea whispered in awe as Myra finished her story. "I admit I never hoped to see you alive, and that you have survived for so long is incredible."
"And I intend to stay alive for much longer if I can help it," Myra said resolutely. "Long enough to put a stake through that maggot's heart."
The older woman nodded. "Sounds like a good plan, but you must be cautious. The Prince is no fool and he knows what he is doing in keeping you here. You must be careful not to fall for his tricks."
"I will not, I can assure you," Myra said confidently, but Frea shook her head with a sad smile.
"Prince Vladimir is a masterful manipulator. I want to know that your story will not turn into a 'Beauty and the Beast' of sorts, that is all."
Myra laughed. "Ah, yes, I have read the tale. Honesty, I doubt this could be my story! For one thing, in my case "the beast" is better looking than me!"
"That he is," the older woman agreed. "No offence, my dear."
"None taken," Myra assured her. "I guess in the tale the beast looks hideous but is beautiful on the inside, while our dear Prince is exactly the opposite. Have no fear, Frea. I know what he is doing. He tries to control me, to shape me into what he wants me to be. I can pretend to play his game until he is ready to believe me."
"This is all well," the old woman said. "But if you play it for too long, you can easily start believing it yourself."
Myra lifted her legs on the chair and wrapped her arms around her knees. She wanted to reassure the older woman, to tell her that when the time came and she had her chance, she would kill the Prince with no hesitation and no regrets. But truth be told, she was not so certain. Vlad was a horrible being, cruel and heartless. And yet, he was incredibly intriguing and she desired to learn more about him. Myra had not lied when she had said she enjoyed her conversations with him, and she would miss them if the Prince were gone. Still, she wished to believe that given the opportunity, she would not choose interesting company over her chance to save humankind.
"I saw him kill a little boy just to teach me a lesson," she said softly. "I saw his minions feed on the captive humans. No matter what happens now, no matter what he says and does, and no matter what I choose to believe, this is something I will never forget."
"Forgive me if my words sounded like I doubted you, Myra," Frea said. "I have never seen the Prince so friendly with a human before, and I was not sure what to expect. That is all."
"I understand. But remember this – I know which side I am fighting on," Myra assured her resolutely. And she did. No matter what happened, she wanted the WeatherWizard destroyed, the world returned to humanity, and the Prince defeated. And this would never change.
Thanks for reading this far! Comments are greatly appreciated!