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THE EVENING AFTER
In which the eccentricities of the Morbid-Hilt family become apparent.
It was dawn by the time Rupert reached the Morbid-Hilt family castle. The sun was just beginning to drag itself over the horizon, ready to begin its daily struggle with the province of Night, a dark vortex that repelled its rays, forcing them back to spill over the forested landscape of the Middling. On any normal night, Rupert would have been back behind the iron-studded doors of the castle long before, perhaps enjoying the spectacle of the sun’s defeat from a tower window. On this night, however, he barely managed to reach the edge of Night before the morning began to glow beyond the Middling’s hilltops. The reason was: he had to walk.
He had to walk.
He couldn’t fly.
The thought ran round and round inside his head – no, it stampeded – making him feel utterly wretched. Not only could he no longer drink blood, but whatever the madman Winkton had done to him had taken away his flight as well. He would even tolerate turning into a bat, no matter how silly that was, because at least then he’d know he still retained some vampiric talents – but it seemed that Winkton had stripped him of that power too. He’d tried it earlier, but he’d not felt even the vaguest sensation of furry ears or leathery wings. What good was a vampire who couldn’t drink blood, fly, or even turn into a bat? No good, no good at all. He could hardly even call himself a vampire any more.
And his head hurt.
Rupert trudged up the winding path to the castle, more exhausted than he’d ever been before. This went beyond mere weariness; he felt drained, as though someone had sucked all the energy out of him. Was this what humans felt like when a vampire had them in his fangs? The thought actually made him pity them. A bit.
Rupert tried to concentrate on his legs, which wasn’t something he was used to doing. Walking felt treacherous, like he was riding two unpredictable creatures that might suddenly start off in different directions and certainly wouldn’t hesitate to buck him off at any moment. It didn’t help that the path wove to and fro and up and down and over rocks and under arches and round a whole array of other annoying sidetracks. And all to make it atmospheric for any Middlers who dared to climb it. They’d have to be extremely foolish Middlers to want to, Rupert reflected bitterly. Or else mad ones. Why would a human walk straight up to a vampire’s castle? Well, not straight up – that was the whole point. Atmospheric, Rupert thought disdainfully as he clambered up a particularly steep slope, scree shifting under his boots. Tradition. Bah. It didn’t occur to him that what he had done – flying straight through the window of Winkton Manor – was all but identical to a human scaling the path to his castle.
Finally he reached the forbidding door of his home. Day was now truly breaking in the nearby Middling, weak sunlight trickling over the horizon.
Rupert yanked on the tasselled bell pull, and let out a groan as he heard the sonorous, drawn-out chords of ‘The Funeral March’ echo inside. Such a cliché.
Oh, how his head ached. He clutched at it and leant against the doorframe while he waited.
Honestly, even when it was dawn his family still held to tradition. When the bell rang, they’d all freeze in whatever they were doing, just to create the eerie silence they felt was becoming to a vampire’s abode. Then they’d signal furiously and mouth things to each other, trying to decide who looked the most ominous at that moment: ‘You go – you’ve got your cravat on!’ ‘No, you go – I haven’t had time to sharpen my fangs!’ ‘For Night’s sake, at least somebody go who has their hair done! Mine’s all over the place!’ and so on. The chosen one would then begin their slow, deliberate walk across the entrance hall and toward the door.
Yep, Rupert could hear them now. The tap… tap… tap… of footsteps echoing in the cold stone hallway. The whole thing was so stupid. Why couldn’t they just hurry up? It wasn’t as though they weren’t expecting him back. He gave another groan as his head throbbed viciously. It felt like a mischievous pixie had wormed its way into his ear and was now prodding happily at the squidgy insides with a stick. A pointed stick, at that.
He couldn’t stand to wait any longer. In fact, he couldn’t stand to stand any longer. His legs were the consistency of custard. Lifting his fists, Rupert attempted to hammer on the door. The result was more like a weak pawing.
“Let me in! It’s Rupert! It’s Rupert…” Exhausted, he leant against the door again, only to stumble and almost fall, arms pinwheeling, as it flew open.
“Rupert!” The furious exclamation could have come from none other than his Uncle Fang. Could his luck have been any worse? Rupert sincerely doubted it. His luck seemed to have deserted him. Deserted him – and then turned round so it could laugh at him from a safe distance. Why Uncle Fang? He was a tradition fanatic. Not only did he insist on sleeping in the vaults – in a coffin, for Night’s sake! – but he also did the whole turning-into-a-bat thing. And the Dance, of course. The Dance – what a waste of time! If you really got down to it, it didn’t matter one drop if you pranced about before you fed; it wasn’t as though it made any difference to the taste of the blood. It certainly didn’t make any difference to the human: dead was dead. But Rupert wouldn’t have cared less about his uncle’s habits if only Fang didn’t demand that everyone else in the castle follow his example. Wearing evening dress all the time was beginning to grate on Rupert’s nerves.
And a name like Fang… Sometimes people were beyond help.
All in all, Fang was the last person Rupert wanted to be confronted with when he’d just come staggering home from the most disastrous night of his afterlife, stripped of almost everything that made him a vampire (though not the evening dress, of course, as much as Harriet would have liked that).
“Rupert Bartholomew Claremont Veinspurt Morbid-Hilt the Ninth!” Fang gave vent to his outrage via the well-established method of announcing the perpetrator’s full name. Why did people always do that? Rupert wondered blearily. Even when your name was the most ridiculous mouthful…
“Er,” Rupert began, but then found himself plucked off his feet and dragged inside the castle. The heavy door slammed shut behind him with a pretentious boom!
“Uncle-” Rupert tried again, but he was too late. The tirade had begun.
“Where have you been?” was the way Fang chose to start his diatribe. “It’s dawn! Where are your values? More to the point, where is your sense? You can’t be seen outside when it’s…” –he struggled with the cursed word– “daytime!”
I wouldn’t have been if you hadn’t taken so bloody long answering the bell! Rupert thought. He didn’t say it out loud, of course; his throat felt like a shrivelled sandpit. The fact that Uncle Fang was tall and ferocious and terrifying when he was angry had nothing to do with it at all.
Fang grabbed Rupert by the chin and tilted it upward, the better to inspect his nephew’s dazed eyes. “How much have you been drinking?” he asked in disgust. “How many times have we told you – one maiden per night is more than enough!”
Rupert tried to raise a contradictory finger, but his body simply wouldn’t obey and the finger wilted before his eyes. He felt his whole body starting to follow suit, and sagged in his uncle’s grip.
“Dratted… ginger…” he managed, before he collapsed completely.
Fang regarded the vampire in his arms with unconcealed distaste. He had tried his best over the decades to instil the importance of the old ways on his sister’s wayward child – all those Dance lessons, the countless graveyard visits, the introductions to high-profile vampires; it had even been Fang who taught Rupert how to sharpen his teeth for the first time, when the boy had been a mere century old. Where had he gone wrong, Fang wondered, for Rupert to end up like this? A lost cause, that was what he was.
“Rupert!” Rupert’s mother swept up in a noisy rustle of black skirts. “Oh, my poor baby, my poor little bloodsucker!” she crooned, trying to prise him out of Fang’s grip.
“Your ‘poor little bloodsucker’ has been bingeing again, Elizabeth,” Fang told her, refusing to give up his prize.
“Oh, not Rupert,” Elizabeth assured him, smiling rapturously down at her son. “No, he’s just exhausted. He has a fragile metabolism, you know.” This last she confided in a whisper to Fang, who rolled his eyes.
“Elizabeth,” he snapped. “What will it take to convince you that your darling little vamp is not the perfect undead you seem to think?”
“Oh, but he is,” Elizabeth insisted through gritted teeth as she pulled at Rupert’s prone body. A brief tug-of-war ensued, with Rupert hanging limp between the two siblings. With a snort of vexation, Fang finally relinquished his hold and allowed his sister to deposit Rupert in a high-backed chair. She plucked a black lace handkerchief out of her corset and proceeded to flap it ineffectually at her son.
Fang fought with his temper. He smoothed a soothing hand over his oiled black hair and took a deep breath.
“He doesn’t even sleep in the vaults, for Night’s sake. And you allow his rebellion to continue! Look what’s become of him!” He gestured to Rupert’s prone form, whose unconscious face had retained an expression of puzzled surprise.
“Oh, but I’m sure that isn’t necessary, Fang dear,” Elizabeth said vaguely, now mopping at Rupert’s brow, though it was clear to Fang that it was bone dry. “The vaults are hardly good for one’s constitution. Oh look, my poor little Rupert – he’s so very pale!”
“He’s always that pale,” Fang said, exasperated. “He’s a vampire!”
“Eh? What?” The newest addition to the scene poked his head out of an adjoining room. He was fleshy for a vampire (which was some achievement), with sagging jowls and a bulbous nose. “Did someone say vampire?” Rupert’s father continued. “I’m a vampire! Listen, rooaaaaar!”
Fang let out a growl of annoyance, but Elizabeth just said, “Yes, we know you are, Edmund darling. Well done.”
“Well done, you say? Well done?” Edmund tottered out of the banquet hall. He peered at Rupert, scrunching his eyes into slits as though that would make it easier to see. “Rupert? Is that Rupert, eh? Gone to sleep, has he?”
Fang put a hand to his face. “Of course, the son always bites in the father’s fangmarks.”
Fang did not deign to answer. “Shades of Night, Elizabeth, put the boy to bed. Don’t flutter around like a useless fairy.” He paused. “Though maybe a brief spell in the vaults might teach him a lesson.”
“Oh, Fang. You know he hates the vaults. I couldn’t possibly put him in there!”
“I do know that, and that’s exactly why you should.”
“Happy nights!” sang Edmund cheerfully, and was ignored.
“He’ll go to his room,” Elizabeth declared, her tone lowering in determination. “Not to those draughty tunnels.”
This was the Elizabeth Fang remembered, before she’d been softened up by that fool she’d married and the one she’d given birth to. “Oh, very well,” he agreed, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “And I suppose I’m the one who has to carry him.”
“If you would, Fang dear,” Elizabeth said, reverting back to sugary motherliness.
With a quiet snarl, Fang hoisted Rupert into his arms and swept upstairs. Rupert was borne to his tower room (in a strange contradiction, Fang had declared that if Rupert wasn’t going to sleep in the vaults then he’d at least have the highest room in the tallest tower) and unceremoniously dumped in a heap on his four-poster bed.
The last thing Rupert needed in his fragile state was to be woken by his bedroom door flying open and the entrance of two noisy relatives, accompanied by an even noisier pet. Unfortunately, this was exactly what happened. Rupert almost jumped out of his skin when the heavy door crashed against the wall, and the malicious pixie inside his head gave a particularly vicious stab with its pointed stick. Rupert wondered what his brains had ever done to make it hate them so.
“I told you, he doesn’t deserve-” came the sharp tones of Uncle Fang, but he was cut off by a female voice, almost matching his in ferocity.
“Don’t be such a tightfang, Uncle!” the voice snapped. “I’ve come all this way from the vaults just to bring him this, and now you’re saying I can’t-”
“I told you the same at the bottom of the stairs, but still you insisted!”
Rupert groaned, and pulled a large velvet pillow over his head. Of all the people he least wanted to see, his cousin Philomena – Pim for short – was very close to the top of the list. “Get out of the way, Uncle!” Pim was currently demanding. “You can’t stop me!”
A loud growl filled the room. Rupert closed his eyes in utter exhaustion. Why him? Why this? Why now? And why, in the name of all things unholy, did she have to bring that stupid creature with her everywhere? What was its name again? Something ridiculous… Rupert wracked his brain, which tried to resist the torture. Yes, that was it…
“Juggalug!” Pim exclaimed. “You clever boy, show Uncle Fang that he can’t stop us getting to cousin Rupert!”
“Get that thing out of here!” Fang demanded.
Pim gasped. “Thing? Thing?! Juggalug is not a thing! He has feelings, you know!”
Juggalug growled again, but this time the growl went on and on, and began to rise in pitch.
Oh no, thought Rupert desperately, oh no, oh no, oh please no… Grabbing the edges of his pillow, he crammed it as tightly as he could over his ears. Then he closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and braced himself.
Even through the pillow, the screech was so loud that it made Rupert’s teeth hum in his mouth. His head felt as though it was about to burst. In fact, it felt as though it had already burst and was now lying in pieces on the mattress. He squirmed, wishing it would stop, wishing that someone would kill the damned thing and be done with it…
Abruptly, the scream broke off and became a high-pitched squeal, followed by a loud thump and an outraged shriek from Pim.
“Uncle Fang! How could you? You… You hit him!”
Rupert had to bite his lip to stop himself cheering. He ventured to lift one edge of his pillow and peer out from his insulated sanctuary. Pim was crouched by the wall with Juggalug in her arms, crooning and nursing the vile creature. Rupert had never understood why she liked the thing so much. It was some kind of half-breed banshee, though what the other half was Rupert couldn’t guess. Small and stunted, it had miniature gangling limbs and violet wings so tiny that it had to flap furiously to keep itself aloft. Its eyes, on the other hand, seemed too big for its head, and at that particular moment they were welling with tears.
“Look at his little face! You’ve hurt his feelings, Uncle. How could you? My poor little Juggalug…”
Here was another wonder, Rupert thought: Pim could be obnoxious, selfish, demanding, and all manner of other unpleasant things, but for some reason the mere sight of this runt of a banshee made her go all girly.
“I couldn’t care less about your ‘poor little Juggalug’,” Fang told Pim. “Frankly, I think you ought to let it go and stop trailing it around on that leash.”
“But he’d never survive in the wild,” Pim protested, cradling Juggalug like a child and stroking his bat-like ears. Juggalug made a small peeping sound, though whether in agreement or no it was impossible to say.
Fang snorted. “You’ve been spending far too much time with my sister. You’re as hopeless about that thing as she is about Rupert here. Oh, you’re awake, are you?” It was the first time either of them had taken any notice of him.
“And you’re surprised about that?” Rupert croaked.
Pim rushed forward to Rupert’s bedside. “Rupert, cousin, how are you feeling?” she asked, her exaggerated kindness only irritating Rupert more.
“Like my brains are being prodded with a pointed stick. Or pounded with a hammer. Or both,” he informed her honestly, if sullenly. “Oh, and like a banshee just screamed in my ear, or was I imagining that?”
Pim let out a forced laugh. “Rupert, you are so funny.”
“Am I? I wasn’t trying to be.”
“Rupert, be nice to your cousin.” Rupert looked up, and found Uncle Fang towering above the bed.
“Why? You weren’t.”
A scowl immediately appeared on Fang’s face. “It is not the same,” he said imperiously. “I am her elder, and as such she should obey my w-”
“Only by six hundred years!” Pim interjected. “It’s not as though it’s millenia. And I am two hundred and thirty-seven, you know. I think I’m old enough to make my own decisions by now.”
She made a petulant face at Fang, and Rupert found himself amused despite himself when he saw Juggalug trying to imitate Pim’s expression, pumping his wings to keep on a level with her.
“Well, since you’re here,” Fang said, “and only because of that, I will allow you to give Rupert that breakfast you brought up. But on one condition.”
“And what’s that?” Pim asked insolently.
“That from now on you keep that thing” –he pointed at Juggalug, who cowered back on his leash– “out of my sight, or Night help me I will break its puny neck!”
With a flourish of his cape, Fang swept out of the room, banging the door shut behind him. Rupert’s personal opinion was that the flourish had been completely unnecessary.
“Who does Uncle think he is, insulting Juggalug like that?” Pim burst out. “He’s never done anyone any harm. Besides, he can understand everything that’s going on, so I know it hurts his feelings.” She crossed to a dresser by the door as she spoke and picked up a tray upon which something was steaming.
“Well, he is a bit… loud,” Rupert ventured.
“Oh, that,” Pim dismissed it. “He hardly ever does that any more. Only when someone isn’t giving me my own way. He’s so protective, you see.” She gazed lovingly at her pet, before transferring her attention back to Rupert. “Look, I’ve brought you up a fabulous breakfast. Aunt Lizzie told me you were feeling a bit rough this evening. She wanted to come up herself, but you know how busy she is with Uncle Edmund in the evenings, so I said that I’d bring this up instead, and-”
Rupert glanced at the clock that stood on his dresser, a handsome mahogany specimen with a polished human skull perched atop it. Its hands informed him that it was just past six o’ clock in the Middling.
“Er, Pim, listen. It’s barely evening, you know, and I don’t think I’m up to eating this early. Thanks all the same, but I’d just like to be left alone right now-”
“Nonsense!” Pim’s cheerful tone became forced, and her lips tightened. “You will eat my breakfast, since I’ve come all the way up here – and fought off Uncle Fang – especially to give it to you!”
Rupert knew that voice. “Right, fine, yes, I will,” he said hurriedly. “Yes. Um, yes. If you could just leave it on the side there, I’ll eat it when I’m feeling up to it.”
“But you have to eat it now,” Pim insisted. “It’s black pudding, made only with the finest virgin’s blood. Your favourite.”
Rupert began to panic silently. Apart from the fact that black pudding had never been his favourite, he knew that he couldn’t give away his secret. If his family found out that he couldn’t drink blood any more, that he couldn’t fly any more, that he was now essentially a vampire only by name, he didn’t know what would happen. Pandemonium. Chaos. Fang would probably throw him out of the castle, unable to bear the disgrace of having an impotent nephew. No, Rupert couldn’t tell them.
But when Pim shoved the tray under his nose, and the smell of blood wafted into his nostrils, he couldn’t help it. He made a strangled, retching sound.
“Rupert! You’re more sick than I thought!” Pim snatched the tray away, and Rupert fell back gratefully on his pillow.
“I’ll never have blood again,” he murmured to himself, but Pim heard him. Luckily, she couldn’t even begin to guess the real reason behind his words.
“Don’t be so dramatic. You’ll feel better in a night. You’ve just been drinking too much. I didn’t realise quite how much.” She sniffed disapprovingly. Juggalug followed suit, even setting his forepaws on his hips to get the full effect. Rupert thought that something must have gone very wrong in his afterlife if a mongrel banshee had started looking at him like that. Mind you, something had gone very wrong, but that didn’t mean Rupert had to put up with such cheek.
“Don’t you start,” Rupert told Juggalug, who looked startled that someone besides his mistress had addressed him directly.
“Well,” said Pim stiffly, “since you’re obviously not going to eat the breakfast I made you, I suppose I had better go back downstairs. I’m going to fetch Auntie Lizzie and-”
“No!” Rupert struggled to sit up. “No, I’ll be all right, honestly! You don’t need to send her up here!” The last thing he wanted was his mother poking around, asking more awkward questions. He needed time alone until his pounding headache passed, and he stopped feeling shaky. But most of all, he needed time to think without his family bursting in, so that he could decide what he was going to do about this whole sorry episode.
“I think she ought to come up…” A hint of mischief had entered Pim’s expression. She was enjoying his discomfort. Juggalug tittered. Rupert flashed him a menacing look, and he stopped.
Rupert changed tact. “No, please,” he implored, “don’t fetch her. She’s probably busy with Father anyway. And you’re right, I’ll probably be fine in a few hours. I just need to rest. Alone. All right?”
She regarded him silently for a few moments. Then, “All right,” she conceded. “If you’re sure.”
Rupert nodded vigorously.
“But if I agree not to fetch Aunt Lizzie, you’ve got to promise to do something for me.” She gave him a small, wicked smile.
Rupert swallowed. This didn’t seem very fair, but in her characteristically devious way Pim had scented an advantage, and now she had him in a corner. “Um, all right. What would that be?”
“I haven’t thought of it yet,” Pim said. “But don’t worry, I’ll think of something.” She smiled that disarming smile again. Rupert tried to smile back, but it felt like more of a grimace. “Well, goodbye then, Rupert.”
She glided out of the door, trailing Juggalug. Rupert could have sworn that the strange creature winked at him on their way out.
The door shut.
Rupert breathed a long sigh of relief, sinking back into his pillows. Pim always exhausted him. In a fit of irritation, his mother had once said that Pim was ‘manipulative as a Siren and tactless as a Harpy’, and although Rupert disagreed with his mother about a lot of things, he thought she had that about right.
Rupert shook his head. Pim wasn’t the issue here. The issue was what to do about Lord Winkton’s barbaric procedure. He couldn’t very well just hide in his room, much as he would like to. Sooner or later, he was going to need drink, or food, or something. Red wine! Rupert buried his face in his hands. How was he to keep this from his family?
He wondered what the other sterilized vampires had done. There were at least fifty others, Winkton had said, but Rupert had never heard anything about them. It was puzzling. Something like this would be bound to spread through Night like dragon-fire; vampires loved a good denunciation. Were they perhaps still living in Night, pretending to go out feeding when in fact they pilfered wine and steak from Middlers’ larders? Had they dared to tell their families, and been hidden away out of shame – a dirty secret, a blot in the ancestral history? Had they decided to end it alone, and fallen upon their own stakes? Or, perhaps, just perhaps, had they managed to discover a cure?
Rupert hoped beyond all hope that his last guess was the correct one. One had to keep a positive outlook, after all; it wouldn’t do to surrender himself to the sunshine just yet. So, he would seek for some way to reverse the process, and it wasn’t difficult to decide where to start. The thought made his insides clench with loathing, but it was the obvious place to begin.
He had to go back to Winkton Manor.
|Sol - 1/4||
|Honour of the Flame 2/2|