Chill morning air pricked at Ellie’s face and stirred her from her slumber. Through half-lidded eyes, she gazed at the unfamiliar setting around her. It took several moments for Ellie’s mind to recall the events of the prior evening and how she ended up where she was. The recollection began at the library and followed her until the moment Janus began drinking her blood. Her eyes widened when it dawned on her that she was—in fact—still in Janus’s bedchamber and carefully tucked into his bed.
Snapping her attention to the other side of the bed, Ellie found nothing more than smoothed blankets and fluffed pillows. Relief swept over her as she realized that nothing had progressed beyond where her memory ended. She attempted to sit upright, but her arms met resistance; constricting her limbs was the most firmly tucked blanket she had ever been subjected to, stuffed neatly under either side. It came undone easily enough with a shuffle or two, but Ellie couldn’t help but let out an amused tut at how securely Janus had bundled her.
A long, thoughtful sigh parted Ellie’s lips as she leaned her head further into the luxurious pillows. The corners of her mouth lifted into a faint smile as she revisited the memories of the previous night; Janus holding her close, his breath caressing her neck, the gentle sting—it all felt like a dream. She found it strange that she only wanted to help him with his recovery, but the entire experience ended up affecting her in ways she didn’t possibly anticipate. Carefully, Ellie ran her fingers along where Janus had drank from her, but retracted her fingers slightly when she felt a small cloth affixed to the bite.
The bell of the longcase clock beside the door broke Ellie’s concentration. She listened to each one as it resounded throughout the room, stopping at eight o’clock. It seemed odd to her that someone would want to keep such a noisy clock inside the room they slept in, but it certainly proved successful in rousing her. Ellie sat up and threw off the blanket before swinging her legs off the bed, then clasped her hands on the edge and dangled her toes above the floor in contemplation.
The slightest creak reverberated through the room as the bedchamber door opened. Passing through its opening with a wooden cup in hand was Janus, still dressed in his nightwear. He blinked when his eyes met Ellie, seeing that she was up and quite close to being about. A small laugh emerged from Ellie when she saw him, only then aware to the fact that he had not been in the room with her.
“Oh, don’t get up,” Janus chimed as he bustled to her. “I had a feeling you would be waking up soon, so I fetched you some water. Please, drink.”
Ellie firmly grasped the cup with both hands and pulled it toward her lips. Janus kept his hold after she had taken it, waiting for assurance that it was steady in her hands before letting go.
“I must apologize.” He brought his hand to his forehead. “It’s been so long since I’ve taken mortal blood, I’m afraid that I grew overeager last night and took a little more than what I required. So please, don’t stand too quickly and don’t strain yourself. You need to replenish your blood.”
“Thank you,” Ellie said after a sip. She presented the cup to imply her gratitude.
“No, thank you, Ellie. I—I cannot even begin to describe how incredible I feel. Gods, I haven’t felt like this in an age or two.”
“Does mortal blood really have that much of an effect on you?”
Janus nodded as he stared toward the ceiling, his arms partially outstretched in elation. Ellie glanced at his waist and thoughtlessly lifted the hem of his shirt to reveal the wound. Rather, it was where the wound had once been. The cool air drafting against his skin and the realization as to why that was so caused Janus to stammer in embarrassment. Ellie placed her fingers on his pallid skin, mesmerized by the spot now free of tarnish.
“Amazing,” she gasped. “It’s like it was never there.”
“Ah, yes.” Janus cleared his throat. “Truly.”
Ellie’s little finger strayed just far enough to his side to brush against a spot that caused Janus to squirm away with a minuscule yelp. Startled by his reaction, it occurred to Ellie just how intrusive she was being.
“Oh gosh, I’m sorry.” She let the fabric of his night shirt fall back to his hips. “Wait a second, are you ticklish?”
“I’m skeptical of any evidence you have to that conclusion.”
They stared at one another, Ellie unconvinced by Janus’s pathetic attempt to steer her away from her discovery. She reached her hand out for his waist again, the motion prompting an immediate reaction as he shifted further away. With a satisfied chuckle, Ellie raised the cup to her mouth and took another sip.
“Did you sleep at all, Janus? Judging by the lack of bags under your eyes, I assume you did. Unless my blood also cured that.”
“No, I most certainly slept.” He gestured to the sofas in the seating area, a crumpled heap of blanket thrown carelessly on the middle of one.
“What? You could have slept in your own bed, you know. I would have been fine sleeping over there.”
Janus leaned down to her eye level. “Ellie, you quite literally fainted as you helped me to recover. Allowing you somewhere comfortable to rest was the least I could do to show my thanks.”
“Alright, but you’re getting a solid sleep in your own bed tonight. No objections.”
“As you wish,” he smirked. Janus then motioned casually toward the objects on the bedside table. “There’s also no need to fret over infection. I made sure to apply the salve immediately.”
“I noticed you bandaged it for me, too.” She pointed at the cloth on her neck.
“That I did. Although that came later when I awoke feeling cold and had to fetch a blanket.”
A few paces behind where Janus stood was a tall standing mirror beside the courtyard window. Ellie set down her cup and rose from the bed, gently pushing past Janus as she went to get a better look at the bandage.
“Is it alright to remove it?”
“Yes. In fact, it would be best to let it breathe. The salve has had more than enough time to saturate the wound.”
Ellie peeled back the cloth held in place by the sticky salve. A small gasp parted her lips when she saw the two marks on her neck, though not because it revolted her, but because it was proof; proof that the bite wasn’t simply a dream.
“Ah, it appears there is no redness around the openings. An excellent sign. That means there is no infection whatsoever.” Janus clasped his hands behind him and smiled. “And worry not for the unsightliness of the mark on your neck. The mending properties of the salve should have it completely healed by tomorrow night.”
“Would the infection have turned me into a vampire?”
Janus’s brow quirked as he momentarily pondered the meaning behind her inquiry.
“To a degree. Transformation begins after several days, if the bite is left untreated. The longer until the bite is treated, the more intense the treatment would have to be. At a certain point, there would be no reversing it, and you would become what is known as a ‘vampire thrall’. Thralls have all the disadvantages of being a vampire and hardly any of the benefits. They are, unfortunately, a slave to the vampire that bit them. However, their master can choose to release them.”
“So,” Ellie said, elongating the word. “How does someone become a vampire more like yourself?”
“That process is a little different.” Janus hesitated, unable to scry Ellie’s thoughts. “A vampire must drink of a mortal’s blood, and the mortal then drinks of the blood of the vampire once the two have melded together in the vampire’s veins. Both people must be willing, or it will be unsuccessful. The only other way to become a vampire is to simply be born as one, as I was. You may recall that my father was turned, through the method I just explained.”
“Does a person age as a vampire?”
Janus stepped closer, watching Ellie as she pressed her fingers lightly against the bite mark.
“Most people—whether born as a vampire or turned—will cease visible aging around thirty years, give or take. Any vampires that appear younger are typically still aging, or perhaps just have more youthful features. Vampires that appear older were most certainly turned at later years in their life, but still have the benefits of youth and bear hardly a wrinkle or blemish on their skin.”
Ellie continued to subtly caress the mark of Janus’s bite.
“Why do you ask these questions?”
Ellie blinked at Janus before wandering her gaze to nowhere in particular.
“No real reason. Well, maybe I was curious about immortality. It seems like it would be terribly lonely if everyone else you knew were mortal.”
Janus swallowed as a lump formed in his throat.
“I’ve certainly said my share of farewells to mortal friends over the years. Elise and Rehor are the only other immortals that reside in the castle, and only the former has been here longer than I have.”
“I think I remember Elise mentioning something about that. Who is she, anyway? Or maybe ‘was’ is the correct term?”
“Honestly? I haven’t the faintest idea. I know little more than you do about the history of our dear caretaker, though a conversation I once had with her implied she might have been a necromancer’s thrall. Perhaps she’d be willing to discuss more sometime, assuming that she remembers anything else of her past life.”
“Right, because Blackest Pitch induces amnesia.”
“That’s correct. Most people that are brought here from the Prime Realm don’t remember anything beyond their first name. I am fortunate to have arrived directly into the Sanctified Lands, and as such I retain all of my old memories.”
Ellie dropped her hand to her side and released a deep breath.
“Do you ever… wish you remained with the northern clan?”
The quickness of Janus’s reply gave Ellie a small start. She turned to see that—in that brief moment—his usual calm was replaced with a grim expression.
“You know my stance on the regular consumption of mortal blood, especially from those who are unwilling. And I believe I mentioned before that my beliefs caused a rift between me and the other vampires. However, I feel no regret for my decision to confront Marcin Reid, nor will I ever.”
“I’m happy to hear that. The thought of being treated that way terrifies me.” Her delicate smile stirred him to do the same. “You’re a good person, Janus. I’m happy that I had the opportunity to meet you.”
“I feel likewise, Ellie. No matter what, I am truly glad that you stumbled into this realm.”
The pair shared a long and contented look at one another. Though Ellie had planned to ask Janus more questions, she was cut short by a pain in her stomach. She then rested her hand atop it with a small groan and a wince.
“Are you alright, Ellie?” Janus asked as he reached for her.
“Oh, I’m fine,” she chuckled. “I just haven’t eaten anything since yesterday afternoon.”
“That’s right!” He pounded a closed fist in his open palm. “I asked the goblins to prepare an important meal for you this morning, specially crafted to help with blood replenishment. Come, let me escort you to the dining hall.”
Now that his debonair spirits had returned, Janus swiftly wrapped an arm around Ellie’s shoulder and guided her toward the door. She giggled to herself when he swung the door open and motioned politely for her to step out first. The enthusiasm in his movements was unlike anything Ellie had seen before, but it was a side of Janus that she certainly wanted displayed more often.
Though apparent from his hurried steps that Janus’s vigor was ready to carry him across the castle in mere seconds, he instead slowed his pace to keep beside Ellie as they walked toward the Great Hall. Janus clasped his hands behind him as his lips trembled with a hundred words queuing to be spoken.
“Are you certain that you’re well enough to walk all the way to the dining hall?”
“I’m certain,” she laughed. “No need to fret so much.”
“If you change your mind, simply say so. It would be no trouble to carry you there.”
“Gods, Janus. Just how much blood did you take from me to be this overly concerned?”
Janus lowered his head. “I apologize. I did mention before that I grew overeager and drank more blood than necessary. I believe that is why you fainted.”
There was a drawn out pause accompanied by the clacking of their heels on the marble floor.
“Mortal blood can be addictive for a vampire, no matter how they try to resist it. Even I—through all the decades that I trained myself to survive on animal blood—could not help myself once the taste hit my tongue. And after you placed so much trust in me.”
“Oh goodness, Janus.” Ellie rolled her eyes. “I may have fainted, but I’m fine now, right? You also treated the bite immediately. So, as far as I see it, you’re still very well within my threshold of trust.”
Ellie took one step down the grand staircase and smiled gently back at him.
“Besides, remember what I said last night? About not neglecting what your body needs if the mortal is willing?”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
“Good. Because this particular mortal is willing. Whenever it’s necessary.”
Only Ellie’s steps echoed through the Great Hall as she descended the grand staircase. Upon reaching the floor, she looked back to the balcony to see Janus’s attention drawn idly to the opposite railing as though in a trance. Whatever thoughts were racing through his mind after what she said were likely to remain his own.
“Janus,” Ellie called sweetly.
Her voice reached out to him, a look of realization turning on his face as he started after her. The pair then continued on their way down the east corridor.
Upon entering the dining hall, Ellie reached her arms upward and let out a loud yawn. She made her way to her usual seat, but was clipped by Janus as he paced ahead and pulled out her chair. Ellie threw her head back in a laugh consisting of equal parts amusement and exasperation.
“Janus, honestly, you don’t have to bend over backwards like this. You’re making this out to be much bigger than it is.”
“Maybe it seems that way to you, Ellie.” He helped her push the chair back in after she was seated. “But from my perspective, you have given me something wonderful.”
“Alright alright, but you still don’t need to go to this length. I feel fine. Just, hungry.”
“Well in that case, allow me to notify the goblins of your arrival and that you are ready for breakfast. I will return momentarily.”
Janus hadn’t even waited for Ellie’s response before he swept across the dining hall and pushed through the serving room door, where he then nearly trotted as he entered into the kitchen. Working away at the nearby counter was Meen, who caught a glimpse of Janus from the corner of her eye.
“Back already, Lord Janus? Your timing is perfect; we just put the finishing touches on Ellie’s meal.”
“Excellent. Thank you, Meen.”
“Of course, my lord.” She tapped the ladle handle on the counter and looked him over. “You’re certainly looking a lot better than usual, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“Truly? Well, I certainly feel better.” Janus arched his back and protruded his chest proudly.
“Happy to hear it.” Meen hopped off her stool and grabbed a nearby plate full of red meats, leafy vegetables, sliced beets, and fried peppers. “Well, I best be takin’ this out to Ellie. Don’t wanna leave the poor girl famished.”
After snatching up an accompanying cup of water, Meen backed into the serving room door and vanished into the room beyond.
Working at the stoves in the kitchen’s center was Smaul and a couple of other goblins, the former of which was busy stirring away at a large pot of stew. So focused was he on his art that he was unaware of Janus’s approach.
“Good morning, Smaul.”
“Oh, good morning, Lord Janus! Don’t you seem chipper today?”
“Is it that obvious?”
Janus rubbed his neck and attempted to tame the grin that had taken over his face. With a certain nod, Smaul lifted one of the tasting spoons and sampled his creation. His face scrunched in dissatisfaction and his fingers began dancing along the row of spice jars before finding one to sprinkle liberally into the pot.
“Has Rehor had an opportunity to speak to you?” Janus asked.
“Hm?” Smaul blinked as though he had already forgotten that he was speaking with someone. “Oh, about the meals for the afflicted when they’re removed from the asylum?”
“I see that he has, then.”
“Yes, we’ve already started preparing hearty meals that will last for a week or so, once the evacuations begin. Have no fears, my lord; the afflicted will be well taken care of.”
“That’s wonderful, Smaul. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome, Lord Janus.”
Turning on his heel, Janus returned to the serving room where he encountered Meen in the narrow pass between the counters. The two of them shifted to the sides and shuffled in either direction while sharing in a chuckle as they continued toward their destinations.
The dining hall door swung open with Janus’s firm push, revealing to him the graceless display of Ellie gnawing into a slice of meat that she had only the patience to skewer, not cut. Their eyes locked, Ellie’s stare baring into Janus as she ripped off a piece and chewed it thoroughly before reaching for her cup.
“Well.” She touched the rim to her lips. “I suppose now that we’ve seen each other so unseemly starved, we’ll have to get married.”
This statement only widened Janus’s eyes further. “… We’ll have to do what?”
Ellie waved her hand dismissively and picked up her knife.
“It’s an old joke my grandparents would share from time to time. When they were courting one another, they supposedly saw each other eating dinner with no regard for manners, on two separate occasions in the same week. They were both terribly embarrassed, and my grandmother said, ‘I suppose we’ll have to get married, now.’ She was joking, but they did anyway.”
Her lips curled inward as she tilted her head up in thought.
“You know, I made that same joke with Aliwyn,” Ellie mumbled. “Is that why we were together for awhile? She wasn’t always the quickest to catch on to my humor.”
“Ellie.” Janus smirked and leaned one arm against the high back of his chair. “Are you suggesting that I court you?”
She shrugged. “Well, I’ve already given you my blood, so what else is really left?”
The distant whinny of a horse outside followed by a string of grumbled obscenities interrupted the pair’s unexpected dalliances. The castle gate groaned painfully as it was forced open and thrown shut, announcing the return of everyone’s beloved caretaker.
“We’re in the dining hall, Elise,” Janus called out.
“I know where you are,” she said before even stepping into the room, her tone weighted in sass. “I could smell the food the moment I entered the castle.”
“How do you smell without a nose?” Ellie asked. Elise gave only a limp shrug in response.
“Someone seems a bit grouchy,” Janus said.
“And someone didn’t get dressed this morning.” Elise snapped her finger forward and pointed to his attire.
“Ah, well, it’s been an interesting half a day since your departure.”
“I’m sure.” Elise clapped her hands together, the horrid sound of bones smacking against each other echoing across the room. “In any case; after being made to wait for hours—for what I can only assume was a form of torture that was completely ineffective on me, since I have no qualms waiting for long periods of time—Marcin Reid responded to your letter.”
Janus and Ellie took a moment for their minds to catch up with Elise’s tangent.
“And?” Janus asked.
“And, you have a meeting with him at nine o’clock this evening in the Creeping Woods and no further. Marcin has also requested that you bring—and I quote—your thrall.”
The word was sour enough when Elise spoke it, but even more so as it was laid upon their ears. Janus’s brow furrowed as he took several glances between the two of them.
“Does he mean Ellie? Why would Marcin want me to bring her?”
“I don’t know why, but be on your guard. I already didn’t trust him, but I especially don’t now that he intentionally made a lady such as myself wait that long for no good reason.”
“It’s starting to sound like you do have qualms waiting for long periods of time, Elise,” Ellie said.
Elise motioned to her to keep quiet by clamping her thumb against the underside of her fingers, which only caused Ellie to snicker.
“I suppose I have no choice,” Janus sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “But if he wishes to meet this evening, then I’ll need to finish my tasks with plenty of time to spare.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Ellie asked.
Ellie rolled her eyes and sulked over her meal, pushing away the sliced beets and pulling forward another cut of meat.
“Well, I feel rather disgusting after being in the presence of those ungrateful whelps, so I will now retire for a couple of hours to go soak my bones.”
Elise walked the length of the table toward the serving room, then raised a single finger and stopped just beside Janus.
“I did see Joshua, though. He was quite pleasant—as always—and kept me company for a time. Poor thing looks positively ragged, though.”
The push door opened with a dull clack from the impact against Elise’s rigid frame. When she was gone, Ellie skewered the cut of meat and looked to Janus.
“What is this Marcin Reid like, anyway? Seems like no one around here likes him.”
“He’s the father of Narcyz and Jantine, the two vampires of the northern clan that you… met. He’s also the lord of the northern clan and has been since this land was settled. I think that tells you just about everything you need to know.”
“Yeah, I’d say that paints a decent picture.” Ellie grimaced and took a bite.
“Ellie.” Janus’s voice grew serious as he stepped closer. “Are you going to be alright? Going back to the border, that is, considering what happened last time.”
She gripped the edge of the table and struggled to cut the meat with only her fork.
“I’m sorry, this is a complex situation. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t ever take you back to that place, but I can’t risk upsetting Marcin at this time.”
Janus rested his hand on hers, melting away the tension that had been accumulating throughout her body since Elise left.
“If it is any consolation, I’ll be with you this time, and I won’t let anything happen. I would rather die than let them harm you again.”
Ellie’s chest heaved as a pained breath escaped her.
“And if it were up to me, I would also never set foot up there again. But, what choice do we really have?” She tilted her head up to him with a forced smile. “I’ll be fine.”
“If you’re certain.”
His fingers passed delicately over the top of her hand as he returned his arm to his side.
“I should begin tending to a few tasks. I know you want to help, so I would appreciate if you could see how the rats are faring with the preparations for evacuation.”
“That I can do.”
“And what about not overexerting yourself and making sure you don’t miss any of your specially prepared meals today? Can you do that, too?”
“Yes,” she scoffed playfully.
“Thank you, Ellie. I’ll hold you to it.”
A delighted demeanor returning to his steps, Janus started toward the corridor but halted when Ellie called out to him.
“What’s making you so jubilant this morning, anyway?”
“Your generous gift, of course,” he smiled genuinely.
Ellie placed her hand over her mouth and watched Janus leave in the direction of the asylum. Despite her efforts, she couldn’t help but grin at the effect that her blood had on him. If it put Janus in this sort of mood every time, Ellie was willing to offer it for more than just recovery, if it was necessary. Not simply just for his benefit—though of course that was also important to her—but because Ellie selfishly wished to once more experience those same feelings from the night prior.
Pushing aside the lingering anxiety of the night to come, Ellie continued working through her meal and ate most of the contents before starting on the task that Janus entrusted her with.