It was such a small village it did not have any official name. Anyone who lived there merely called it ‘the village’, while on maps it was often named as ‘the village north of the river’. For a long time there was nothing particularly special about the village, nothing to distinguish it from its neighbours, and no one really gave it any thought. It just happened to be where they lived.
Only recently did this little village develop any distinguishing features. Namely, the church they all called Sainte Vierge, or more accurately, its newest priest. Père Voss was by far one of the youngest priests to join their little church in living memory, and he drew attention as soon as he arrived. He was not outspoken, or unkind, or brash, or— thank God— a drunkard, and by all accounts he was one of the best priests to stay in their village in years.
Père Voss was the most beautiful person in the entire village. Caroline, who washed laundry for the wealthier houses and who had traveled to Paris at least once in her life, insisted that Père Voss was the most beautiful person in all of France. Not everyone agreed with that, but not everyone had been outside of the village before, either.
He was very tall, even standing beside Phillipe the butcher’s son, who was known to knock his head on doorways if he wasn’t careful. Père Voss had to bend his head to step through doors in most of the village, although he never complained. Instead, he wore his astonishing size with a bit of an apology. His voice was soft and gentle; his eyes were calm; he knew every person by name within three days. He was never boisterous on any occasion; were it not for his beautiful face and his unusual size, he would go largely unnoticed at every gathering.
Although few of them would admit it, half the women in the village dreamed of Père Voss, of catching his lovely eye and of him leaving the clergy for her. Half the men dreamed much of the same, even more privately.
Most bewildering of all: Père Voss seemed unaware of his uncommon beauty. He always seemed pleasantly surprised by any cheerful greeting sent his way, as though he hadn’t dared imagine a neighbour would wish him a good morning. He spent a lot of time looking at the ground deep in thought, oblivious to the staring eyes.
The years passed. Families grew, shrank, grew again. Marriages took place, all officiated by the same Père Voss, who wore a serene smile to every blessed union and wished every one of them happiness in life. He performed baptisms for every child born since his arrival, some of whom were now old enough to be married and blessed by him once again. No one spoke of it aloud, but everyone could see that after nineteen years in their modest little village, middle age had yet to touch the priest the way one would expect.
Some believed this was a sign that their little village was favoured by God, and their priest was among His favourites. Some believed this a sign of Père Voss's pure faith, a visual manifestation of his kind soul and patient heart.
Still others, mainly strangers to the village, visiting again after several years, took this as an ill omen. Men of the cloth from larger towns, when stopping by to see the now well-known local priest, could not bear to look at his face and avoided his eyes, despite their outward courtesy and his soft words.
Parishioners from other villages and towns started to travel here for services, hoping to see Père Voss and to hear him speak. He never turned anyone away. He was always open for confession, given the number of people now wishing to hear those words of forgiveness from his lips.
Matilda’s mother once told her, in hushed tones, that the priest had looked every bit as radiant when he first arrived in the village, years before Matilda was born. She thought about that whispered admission whenever she dared catch a glimpse of his face during services. He did not look like an old man, and yet he must be by now, if he’d been here so long, already a well-established priest before they’d all met him.
She did not think his face was cause for alarm. Like her mother, and her grandmother, and most of the women in the village close to Matilda’s age, she believed Père Voss might secretly be an angel. Who else could be so beautiful, so kind, so eternally patient? She’d never met any priest like him. Perhaps one day she could ask him somehow whether he truly was an angel. Would he answer a question like that during confession?
She wished she could read or write. She might compose a secretive note if she could, asking him that question and begging him to hide his response somewhere only she would find it later on. She filled quiet afternoons with daydreams of Père Voss’s glorious smile and glittering eyes. When she could spare a moment from her work, she would sneak into the church to say her prayers, at the same time stealing glimpses of the priest. Like many in the village, she found herself much more devout with Père Voss around.
Matilda did not notice the discomfort between Père Voss and the other priests until there was an argument one bright afternoon. A disagreement. At first she did her best to shut her ears, it was none of her business, but the muffled voices continued until there was a harsh sound and the door of the library swung open abruptly. Père Jean hurried from the library, holding a hand to his face, and he looked so angry Matilda forgot to pretend she hadn’t noticed.
Inside the library, Père Voss was returning to his seat, looking weary. It occurred to Matilda very suddenly that Père Voss had struck Père Jean, although the beautiful priest didn’t seem angry the way the other had. He looked terribly sad, thought Matilda, head bowed and hands folded tight on his knee. She left the floor she’d been cleaning to approach the library.
“Forgive me…” she began softly. He looked up when he heard her voice, although it didn’t look as if he’d been startled. “Is… What happened?”
He blinked at her for a moment. He looked surprised she’d spoken to him, and she wondered whether she’d done something wrong. Perhaps she should leave. But he only said, “I’m sorry, Matilda, we must have upset you. Père Jean and I were only having a discussion.”
She felt weak-kneed to know Père Voss remembered her name. It was so pleasant to hear her name spoken by his lovely voice that it bordered on repulsive. She slowly reached to hold the doorframe, tried not to look faint with delight. “It sounded like a very heated discussion, sir.”
He hummed, then offered her a brief smile. It was a wonder she didn’t crumple to the floor at this rate. “It’s nothing for you to worry over. Truly.”
Matilda knew when someone was trying to be polite but wanted to be alone. She lingered in the door just a moment longer, before saying, “Père Jean can be a little rude sometimes. You… I’m sure no one would fault you for it…”
Père Voss watched her go. She could feel his bright eyes on her back as she walked; she hurried past the spot she’d been cleaning to go collect herself elsewhere.
For a few months longer, Père Voss continued to be the most exciting of the village’s features. Père Jean continued to visit, Matilda noticed, and there continued to be ‘discussions’ held in the library behind a locked door. She didn’t think Père Jean noticed her cleaning the same floor every time he retreated to the library to raise his voice to Père Voss, who never seemed to shout in response. She still couldn’t understand what they were discussing, although it didn’t look like Père Voss had struck the other priest since that first day she’d noticed.
Père Voss said hello to her now, whenever these discussions had ended and once Père Jean had left in a huff. He was perfectly aware that Matilda waited outside the door.
“Are you waiting to defend my good name?” he asked her on one such occasion.
Matilda felt her cheeks flush hot. “Suppose I am. I can tell when… well. Not everyone is kind to you. I don’t think it’s called for.”
“People feel however they like. It is not my job to change that for them.” Père Voss lowered his eyes to the floor, the spot she’d been cleaning so fervently whenever Père Jean visited. It reflected light better than any mirror by now. “But it is kind of you to be concerned. How is your mother?”
“She’ll be glad to hear you’ve asked after her.” More than glad. She’d beam with pride and walk a bit taller for a few days. Père Voss probably knew that.
The day after Père Voss asked about her mother, Matilda awoke to the sound of the neighbours shouting. She leaned out the window to see people gathering outside, her mother among them. Everyone was agitated, although she couldn’t see why. She hurried to dress before going to join them. Something had happened.
Caroline, away from home for the past three days, had been found dead in the river. Two children had spotted her early that morning.
The church was very busy attending to her funeral, offering comfort to her grieving husband. Père Voss spent many hours sitting with the man after the last prayers had been said over her grave.
Père Jean returned for another discussion. This one was very short. Père Voss didn’t close the door to the library this time, because there was no need for privacy when he simply refused to let the man stay. Père Jean left very upset, and this time he even noticed Matilda standing near the library, anxiously watchful as ever.
“What are you doing, foolish girl?” he barked, advancing on her suddenly. “Stay away, if you have a care for yourself!”
Matilda, shaken, hurried back outside without stopping to ask Père Voss if he was well. He’d been quieter than usual. Outside of sermons he hardly spoke to anyone. Père Jean wasn’t doing much to lift his mood, either.
Matilda hesitated to admit that she disliked the angry, older priest, but he was gruff and rude. He shouted at the kind, patient Père Voss every time he visited. He must be one of the clergy that distrusted Père Voss, envied his beauty, took it for a terrible omen of bad luck. Matilda had heard some of the rumours and scoffed at all of them. How could Père Voss be any danger to anyone? What on Earth had he done that was so wrong? Was it wrong for him to be so beautiful? She wondered whether this would upset other clergy, her pointing out that God Himself had given Père Voss his pretty face, and to hate that was to criticize His work.
Pleased with this logistical counter, Matilda was prepared to deliver it to Père Jean the next time he darkened their doorstep. She did pay attention in church from time to time.
Not a month later, Caroline’s grieving husband was also found dead. Not in the river, but in the graveyard, slumped next to her tombstone. Matilda got to see him, briefly, and the sight of his cold body turned her stomach.
They said he’d cut himself open, with the knife they found still wrapped in his fingers, although it was odd how… clean he looked. There was blood drying in the ground beneath him, but his flesh was not as stained as it should have been.
“Beasts would have eaten him, if we hadn’t found him so soon,” was what the butcher said when the children asked about it. “Must have got to taste him, anyway.”
Soon the village became preoccupied with its own safety. Caroline had been attacked, her husband had taken his own life— a sin, to be sure, but still Père Voss in his kindness had insisted upon a proper burial for him— and shortly after they said their farewells to the deceased, another corpse was found.
Four more, over the next three months.
People would not come home from the market, would not come home after a day working the fields, and then would be found miles away by a passing traveler. They were all locals, people Matilda had known for years.
The men went on hunts for rabid animals, wolves or bears or loose dogs, because these corpses had not come from self-inflicted violence. Throats open, torn by teeth and claws, not by blades. Children were practically locked indoors whenever possible, and no one went outside alone. Matilda managed to walk with Père Voss for company once or twice, a fact that caused her sisters a measure of envy, but that was the only glimmer of pleasant excitement to be had in all this.
Père Voss looked exhausted and distressed, although he avoided the subject whenever Matilda expressed concern. He was kept busy with the grieving, the worried villagers, the funerals, the grave diggers (who seemed to adore and hate him in equal measure). While he didn’t exactly look as haggard as a man would be in such conditions, he was clearly worn down.
Père Jean still visited. Père Voss merely let him, spoke not a word, and showed him the way out. Matilda stood by the door now, brazenly defending the exhausted Père Voss from the intruder in the only way she knew how. She’d given Père Jean her theological speech some time ago, and while her questioning had upset him, it hadn’t stopped him.
And then, most perplexing, for several weeks the hunting parties found animals— already dead, torn up much like the missing villagers had been. These they found in droves, abandoned carelessly and untouched by scavengers.
After a month of finding a troubling number of dead bears, wolves, cows, even birds, the death seemed to finally stop. They were all wary for some time, and no one wanted to go anyplace alone just yet, but they stopped stumbling across abandoned corpses, human or animal. Everyone slowly began to relax again.
When it all ended, Père Voss suddenly fell ill. Matilda could tell he was working too hard; he stammered during a sermon, which he’d never done before, and he looked paler than usual. When Matilda suggested quietly that he retire early to bed one evening, he agreed without argument when normally he would insist nothing was wrong.
Emboldened by his agreeing to her suggestion, Matilda accompanied him down the corridor to his room. She was a little worried he might collapse. “Shall I call for the doctor, do you think?” she asked, peering up at him in the dim light from the window. She’d never known anyone so enormous, and yet he still looked so delicate. He seemed likely to drift away in a breeze at the moment.
Père Voss was walking slowly, one hand touching the wall as he moved. “I… only need to sleep, Matilda. I promise, I will manage.” He glanced down to smile at her, although it seemed difficult for his face to contort properly into the right expression. “I regret making you worry.”
“You never sleep enough. You should—”
They paused when they noticed Père Jean at the opposite end of the corridor, waiting by the door to Père Voss’s room. Matilda had only a moment to wonder why he’d come at this hour when Père Voss was so clearly ill, before she noticed the rifle.
A hand on her shoulder. She hit the floor hard, her head bouncing off the tile. Dazed, she barely understood that Père Voss had pushed her away. The sound of the rifle echoed so loud in the little corridor that she was deafened.
In the confusion that followed, Matilda realized she’d been screaming herself hoarse. Père Voss was on his knees, bleeding from a deep hole in his chest. Père Jean was being pulled away, shouting louder than Matilda, the rifle wrestled from his grasp by the grave diggers, who must have heard the noise.
Matilda wasn’t the one who called for the doctor.
Miraculously, the wound did not kill Père Voss. He was cleaned, bandaged, confined to his bed. Once Matilda was able to stand she tried to help the doctor however she could— along with the butcher and the grave diggers who’d gone to fetch him. She held the bowl for the water while the doctor cleaned the wound, dug out the shot.
Père Voss did not shout once. Not when he was injured, not when the doctor cleaned the wound, although he was fully awake and struggled stubbornly enough that it took the butcher and all three grave diggers to hold him still. He stared at the ceiling with horror in his eyes.
Matilda didn’t sleep at all that night. Père Voss didn’t, either, which she found especially cruel.
Word traveled quickly. The entire village gathered outside the church to ask what had happened, and Matilda stood with the doctor when he finally delivered the news to everyone outside. Père Jean was to be taken to the prison in the morning; a boy had been sent as a messenger, and the magistrate would handle the rest.
“Of course I don’t wish him ill,” Père Voss said hours later, when the news was given to him. He still hadn’t fallen asleep. He continued, in a voice thinner than paper, “The man was unwell. He felt he was acting nobly.”
Matilda was there to make sure he hadn’t bled through all the bandages again, on the doctor’s suggestion. She was still trembling and her head hurt where she’d hit it on the tiles. “How was that acting nobly? He shot a rifle at a fellow priest!”
Père Voss reached to hold her hand, having noticed her voice shake. “And at you. I’m sorry for pushing you like that. Are you hurt?”
The question, coming from a man with a hole in his chest, blood blooming through his bandages like a great red lily, made Matilda laugh. “I’ve fallen before. I’ll live.”
“In answer to your question,” he said, sounding even more feeble the longer he spoke, “Père Jean believed I had something to do with the deaths in our village. I refused to entertain such a horrible thought, but I suppose I should have given him more attention sooner…”
Was that why Père Jean had been visiting? Was that the topic of their discussions? Had Père Voss been quietly suffering accusations like that the entire time? “Have you told the doctor? The magistrate should know…”
He blinked once, although his eyes were nearly shut already. Every part of him seemed too heavy to move, even his eyelids. “I imagine Père Jean has already told them as much.” He lapsed into silence for a while, and although he was lying still he was not sleeping.
His eyes were still half-open. Matilda jolted with alarm suddenly, stupidly realizing he might have— “Père? Père!”
He exhaled so suddenly it shocked her more than his stillness had. “…forgive me,” he murmured.
She let out her breath, as well.
Over the next three days Matilda assisted in watching Père Voss, hoping for some sign of recovery. He didn’t seem to sleep at all during her watch, nor did he accept any of the soup she attempted to feed him. After asking the other men and women who’d joined in to offer their help, she found this was the same with all of them. She couldn’t stop worrying.
“Please, you mustn’t give up like this,” she begged him when it was her turn to check on him again. “The others say you haven’t eaten anything yet, and you don’t sleep— you should do at least one of those! Then your wound will start to heal!”
He had always been very pale, but now he looked more washed out than the linens he rested in. His eyes were an alarming touch of blue in all that pale, sick colourlessness. Matilda could finally see red creeping around the edges of that blue, more lilies to match the garden sprouted on his chest. Even so, pale and sick, Père Voss was beautiful. She couldn’t stand it just now. It was starting to frighten her, only a little— although she knew she hadn’t been sleeping well lately, either.
He ignored the spoon she lifted to help him taste the soup. The wound in his chest prevented him lifting his arms reliably, and the doctor insisted no solid foods until he could regain some of his strength.
“Please, Père, don’t do this.”
“I cannot, Matilda. Forgive me.”
She set the soup aside and, after hesitating a moment, took a seat on the edge of his bed. She held one of his hands in both of hers, careful not to pull or lift in case that upset his wound. His hand was so much longer than hers, and still so fine… “I’m begging you, please. There must be some way I can help. I don’t want to see you waste away to nothing.”
He did not speak, although he did her the courtesy of watching her face. At least he wasn’t ignoring her the way he ignored the soup.
“You don’t need to go on suffering,” she told him. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”
It surprised her to see his face twinge then. Only slightly. She worried that she’d hurt his arm so she released his hand as gently as possible so it would not drop abruptly onto the bed.
“Have you had word of Père Jean?” he asked quietly.
“No. I could ask for you?”
Matilda sat with him quietly, waiting for him to tell her what he needed from her, but nothing came. Eventually, seeing she would run out of time with him before it was someone else’s turn to sit watch, she had to dig up her courage. She wanted to tell him…
“I would do anything you asked of me, Père. Anything you wanted.”
She couldn’t decipher the expression on his face. She supposed he was confused. “Anything at all, Père. I can’t bear to see you suffering like this. You’ve… You’re always so kind to me, to others, and you’re always alone. I hope you know that I care for you. A great deal.”
His eyes were stuck on her face now. Instead of fighting to keep his attention on her, now she was all he could look at. She flushed to notice this, but continued carefully, “I would gladly join the church to stay close to you, if you would not object.”
“That’s… you needn’t…”
She took his hand again, watching for any sign this hurt him. “I want to help you, Père. I love you. I want you to live. Please, let me help you.”
He suddenly moved, drawing his elbows back to lift himself off the pillow. The movement was clearly difficult, and she nearly told him to lie still, but he was stubborn. Once he found a way to sit up that wasn’t causing him pain, he gestured for her to come closer.
Feeling tears well in her eyes, Matilda let Père Voss hold her to his chest. She didn’t think it wise to rest her weight on his bandages, but his arms folded over her and she curled up beneath his chin. He was cold. She was going to add to the fireplace, just as soon as he let her. For the moment, she was content just to be held.
“I’ve done nothing to earn such kindness,” he said. His fingers stroked carefully over her hair.
“I think you deserve kindness,” she murmured, cautious not to make him uncomfortable. She could feel the bandages packed tight around his chest, the solid centre where the blood had accumulated and thickened them. “I’ll do anything for you, Père.”
“Anything,” he repeated softly.
“Yes, anything at all. Please let me help you.”
Père Voss was silent again. Matilda was about to try sitting up, to add wood to the fire, since he was still so cold she could feel his fingers over her hair, chilling through to her scalp, when he moved those fingers to her neck.
Everything turned, fast, and the world
The village never knew what became of their beautiful priest. They found Matilda in the morning, lying with her neck broken in Père Voss’s bed, blood drying on her body, her clothing, the linens. The window was open, and none of the priest’s belongings had been taken.
They buried her behind the church. While Père Voss had baptized her at the start of her life, he was not present at the end to see her off.
Robert’s rib was fractured. It wasn’t enough to warrant panic, but the swelling in his side was cause for him to ice his entire torso once he got home that night, the culprit resting heavily in his pocket with the words TRY THAT AGAIN so easy to feel if he brushed his fingers over them. In the morning, having been awake for twenty-one hours straight, he drove to the hospital where he got advised not to do anything ‘strenuous’ for a few weeks. The fracture was very, very minor, but it showed up in the x-ray and the bruise was a real winner.
It only really started to hurt once he saw the x-ray, for some reason. Like the terror of Sigi himself had to make room, finally, for proof of an immediate injury. They gave him a metric tonne of painkiller prescriptions and strict orders not to go running or jumping or anything for a long while.
It wasn’t the first time he’d broken something. He was lucky, he supposed, for the window slowing the rock’s trajectory even briefly; otherwise he couldn’t have gotten back to the venue and fake being calm for another hour.
Robert took a cab home from the hospital, already sailing high on painkillers, and fell as slowly as he could into his bed for some drug-induced sleep aided by the exhaustion of too much adrenaline finally letting go. He woke up thirteen hours later, dry-mouthed, hungry, dizzy, bruised, and with one voicemail.
He nearly dropped his phone when Sigi’s voice poured from the speaker.
“Miriam was kind enough to send me your contacts. I was disappointed not to see you off last night; do hope you got home safely after your fourth cocktail. My schedule is clear next Thursday evening. I’ve made a reservation for eight o’clock at Erté. Be well, darling.”
Robert wasn’t sure he’d done anything to deserve the pet name. His stomach lurched and his rib ached; he forced down more painkillers and waited for them to kick in with his face hovering over the toilet before he dared wobble into the kitchen for a simple meal.
He’d been in plenty of tricky situations before, none of which had to do with a dinner date with a vampire. Or a very potential one. Or anyone half as sharp as Sigi, which was terrifying in its own particular way.
He had less than a week to get himself put together. For that amount of time, at least, he did his best to stick to the suggested no-strenuous-activity rule, although he spent most of that time swimming up to his ears in prescription drugs and half-conscious. Once the pain started to become bearable sober, Robert suffered through it so he could stay awake long enough to prepare.
These were the facts:
Sigi knew someone shot at him. Either dumb luck or scary-quick reflexes helped him avoid getting shot.
Someone had thrown a polished stone from inside the party through at least one window, if not two, across maybe a hundred yards, with enough momentum left over to crack a rib. If not Sigi… did he have a friend?
Robert snorted. Of course Sigi had a friend, he had hundreds of those. Just a glance at the room with Sigi present and you saw nothing but adoration.
It didn’t seem to fit that Stefan was the potential vampire, but maybe someone close to Sigi, if not Sigi himself…
The thing that threw off Robert’s certainty was the fact that he’d witnessed Sigi drink something that was definitely not blood on at least two occasions. Pink champagne and vodka; the second one Robert saw poured out by the bartender after being served to another guest. It mucked up his entire theory and left him wondering what exactly about Sigi made him fear for his life.
…Besides the fact that he’d always been anxious before a date.
God, this was going to be the worst date he’d ever been on. Definitely the scariest.
To be safe, he had to continue with the assumption that Sigi might be the only threat; he had less proof that the one he should be hunting was simply ‘a friend of Sigi’s’ and Robert couldn’t let his guard down. Sigi was a threat, nebulous, indefinable or not. Somehow.
Robert couldn’t prove it unless he caught Sigi chewing on somebody’s arteries.
There were some small things he’d kept on hand, to smoke them out while he hunted, but he hadn’t really had to use them in a while. The last few he’d hunted had been… a lot more forward. Already snapping their jaws at him. He hadn’t needed to be sneaky with those last few. But this time he could put these small traps to good use.
One of them, and possibly the most discreet at his disposal, was an alarm bell. It was very difficult for a human ear to catch; dogs and cats got nervous at the sound, and at most, a person with keen hearing would catch a faint squeal, almost like tinnitus. The woman who had given the alarm to Robert had very keen ears— she described it as ‘the sound of a television left on mute in the next room’. To a vampire, though, the tinnitus would become akin to nails on a chalkboard. Robert himself couldn’t hear it, but he’d seen dogs react to it.
He made sure to load the file properly onto his phone and set it as an alarm, then tested it out at the edge of the nearest dog park. He watched a pair of shelties abruptly find their way over to him, stare at him as though offended, then run in a loose circle around him before running much further away. Any other dogs to come near reacted instantly to the alarm, so Robert could go back home.
He rested for another day before he began cleaning his gear, preparing for a very discreet night of potential hunting. It would be smart to keep something on his person, in his coat, in case things went south. The alarm agitated some vampires; older ones kept their cool, but if Sigi was a young vampire he could lash out at the sound.
And if Sigi didn’t seem to hear it at all, then… Robert could stop hunting him. Pack up, go home, get some rest. Finish healing his busted rib.
If the alarm got a reaction, Robert had to start worrying. Really and truly. Defcon one.
No reaction, and Robert had enough proof that Sigi was just an eccentric. A very unsettling one, but human. Or at least not a vampire. Robert didn’t want to branch out beyond that.
Now with his dinner date set for the following night, Robert felt more mundane worries settle in and take precedence. He wished Sigi had told him whether there was a dress code or something. Robert suddenly realized that the place he was headed was goddamn expensive; if they didn’t just turn him away at the door for being underdressed, he’d have to pay an arm and a leg for anything off the menu.
Worry about that later, he told himself. He had emergency cash set aside. He supposed this counted as an emergency.
He made a point of taking it slow the day before the dinner. His ribs still hurt and he couldn’t inhale too deeply without feeling it, but at least there he knew what he was dealing with. He took a nap, ate well, washed up, scrubbed places that normally didn’t get scrubbed, distantly terrified of Sigi thinking him unkempt. He thought about shaving, but Sigi had said he liked the beard. He’d probably be pushing his luck if he shaved it off for the date.
And he didn’t want to go in already offending a potential threat.
…or maybe he sort of hoped Sigi meant it.
Robert really, really hated his job. He missed hunting deer. Regular old boring deer, when you didn’t worry about impressing it with your handsome beard before you shot at it.
D-Day sailed past before Robert even knew what was happening. He got ready on autopilot and found himself inside his car, parked outside Erté with ten minutes to spare.
He did one last quick check of his gear, all hidden in his jacket and pockets, then couldn’t find any reason to further delay. He set the alarm to go off in the next forty-one minutes.
At the door he felt that bowel-loosening terror he normally felt when faced with daunting social situations: he was underdressed. The foyer of the restaurant looked more expensive than everything Robert had ever owned, put together. Fuck the plan, he had to leave.
“I’m here under a friend’s reservation—” he heard himself saying, to his utter horror.
The woman by the door smiled and motioned him further in. “Ah, you must be Robert?”
Holy shit. For several reasons. Stunned by the clear implication that Sigi had described him to the staff and they were expecting him, Robert could only nod. She led him inside and he tried not to fuss with his clothes, which he’d thought earlier looked decent but now he believed too shabby to be seen in this lighting. The acoustics were the sort of discreetly muffled that made him think of banks and hotel lobbies.
She didn’t need to lead him to the table, since Sigi was immediately visible from the opposite end of the room. Robert followed her like a man being led to his execution.
Sigi stood when they approached. He wasn’t wearing the heels tonight, Robert noticed, not like that made much difference. He was dressed in a black suit, white shirt, grey silk tie fastened with a blue sapphire pin. A gold ring flashed on his hand as he offered it in greeting.
“Robert,” he purred, clasping his hand in strong fingers. “You look well.”
Robert tried not to think too much about the fact that this was indeed a date because there were absolutely no other guests sitting at this table, no extra chairs, and the surrounding tables were conspicuously empty. This entire half of the room was devoid of people.
It also struck Robert, from out of nowhere, that Sigi was exactly the sort of man to purposely reserve multiple tables in a very expensive restaurant in order to buy himself some small measure of privacy. He could tell the people at the nearest table, still far away, kept glancing sideways in Sigi’s direction.
Sitting now, Robert felt his fingers shake just for a moment as he glanced at the table setting. He was in a fancy restaurant. He wondered how good their cooks were. He wondered whether he’d be able to recreate anything off the menu at home later. If he lived through this.
“Anything to drink, sir?” the hostess asked, still hovering by their table.
Robert’s mind went blank. He knew almost nothing of drinks. “Oh, uh,” he said, glancing at Sigi for help and ready to just ask for water, to go with the glass of water already by his hand.
Sigi understood. “Two of the same, then,” he simply said, to which she nodded and left.
Robert could feel his pulse in his face now that he was technically alone with Sigi. “…so.”
Sigi smiled. “I’m glad you could make it.”
“I’m. You’re welcome. I mean.” Robert sipped his water and was impressed he didn’t dribble all over his beard. “I’m a bit shocked you invited me. In case you couldn’t tell.” Fuck it, go with what you know, he figured. He was anxious, Sigi knew he was crap at this already, he could win the guy over with his adorable terror.
It seemed to be the right idea. Sigi was still smiling. “I had an inkling. It’s not often I get to watch a ruggedly handsome individual quake in his boots over the wine menu.”
Robert had to bite his tongue to avoid shouting the words ruggedly handsome in disbelief. “Come on.”
“No, no, it’s quite entertaining. Don’t be embarrassed. Well… do be, since it’s precious, but don’t feel bad.”
“Did you ask me here tonight to watch me… do whatever this is?” Robert almost jumped when he realized their drinks had just arrived. It was either wine or champagne, he guessed, peering at the glass in front of him.
Sigi was already sipping his. Robert watched, noticed he’d swallowed. He wasn’t faking, and this— this was… “What… is this, again?”
Sigi managed not to make Robert feel like a complete idiot. “Château d’Yquem. Wine. I take it you’re not a connoisseur?”
“Not with drinks, no…” He sipped it, then figured he didn’t know what made a good wine or a bad one. It all tasted weird to him.
“What would you consider your area of expertise, then?”
“I cook a little.” That sounded pathetic. He had to elaborate. “I went to culinary school.”
“Oh? That’s a long way from freelance journalism. What happened?”
“Life sort of happened, I guess. I still cook for myself, at home… well, of course I do, everyone has to eat, but… you know. I cook.”
Sigi’s lip twitched into a hint of a smile. “I can’t cook. I think I could burn water.”
“It is technically possible to burn water, too. Salt water, anyway. Probably not in your garden variety kitchen, though…”
Sigi’s smile widened. “That sounds more my style. I was a chemist for a while.”
Robert paused. “Actually, I’ve been wondering…”
“Go on.” Sigi sipped his wine again, further mystifying Robert. Could vampires drink alcohol? Why would they want to?
“What is it that you do?” Robert felt Sigi’s eyes on him. He pressed on. “I mean, obviously, but, how do you have time for all of that? Do you really do all of that stuff?”
“All of ‘that stuff’?” Sigi repeated politely, wine glass poised near his mouth.
“Yes. All of that stuff.”
“Would you care to guess?” Sigi asked, red lips almost-smiling yet again.
Robert inhaled. “Well, I had to check Wikipedia, so you’ll forgive me if I’m missing anything? I know you hold lectures sometimes, you curate art galleries, you have a lipstick collection with your name literally on it, you narrate practically everything, and apparently now you were also a chemist once. How do you do all of that?”
“You’d like to know my secret?” Sigi asked, leaning forward. He lowered his voice. “I’m an insomniac.”
“Never a wink of sleep. Maybe a nap every twelve weeks, if I’m feeling lucky. You need a few hobbies or else you go mad.”
Robert tried to study Sigi’s flawless face and clear, steady eyes without going weak in every joint. “You do not look like a person suffering from lack of anything.”
Sigi sat back, looking playfully smug. “Flatterer.”
“It isn’t insomnia, though. I’m not that gullible.”
“Good thing you aren’t. I’m afraid I’ve no Earth-shaking secret, merely that I have too many interests and am too stubborn to give up on a project.”
“Do you really have that many doctorates?”
“Should I call you Doctor?”
“Is that what you like?” Sigi waited for the flush to spread over Robert’s face before he allowed himself another sip of wine. “‘Doctor’ feels petty. I don’t use it unless I need to impress someone. Usually men who don’t think I’m at all educated.”
That perplexed Robert. He frowned. “Who thinks you’re uneducated?”
Sigi laughed briefly. The sound made Robert’s insides twist in a not-entirely-unpleasant way. “You’d be shocked at what people will refuse to believe when presented with a pretty professional. I don’t often show up to play Who’s The Greater Expert In Their Field but, well, sometimes that’s the ice-breaker.”
“And I’m asking this as a guy who doesn’t follow celebrity news or… anything like that, really, but… what are you famous for?”
“I’m famous for looking the way I do. Plain and simple,” Sigi said as the server approached the table. He seemed genuinely amused by the question; Robert gathered few people bothered to ask him that. “When it’s difficult to go unnoticed, why not embrace infamy?”
Robert glanced at the menu for the first time and was shocked by how simple, and yet how interesting it looked. There weren’t very many items to choose from, but everything was a very carefully made dish. Robert was lost and confused, unable to pick one because he was curious about all of them.
He just noticed Sigi hadn’t looked at his menu at all, and handed it calmly to the server as he said, “Blue steak, thank you.” Robert looked and didn’t see that on the menu, but the server didn’t argue.
Robert picked something at random and made that his choice, blindly hoping it wouldn’t bankrupt him, and gave up his menu.
“So, Robert,” Sigi said as the server left. “What happened to make you leave culinary school so abruptly?”
Robert felt his stomach drop a little just thinking about it. “What makes you say that? Maybe it was a gradual, slow leaving.”
Sigi’s expression was potentially that of someone trying not to smile. It was hard to tell on his face. “You did your research. I did some of my own. I know who you’re working with at the moment, and it wasn’t difficult to ask Miriam about you. I was curious about your journalistic endeavours, you understand; I’ve made a point to avoid social outings with a certain type of writer, and given the places we ran into one another I wondered about your publications. Of course, I’ve also had more than my share of stalkers, so naturally I did a little… sifting.”
At the word ‘stalkers’, Robert tried not to react. Sigi had suspected, briefly, quite correctly, that Robert was specifically keeping an eye on him.
“I did notice you have a wide range of published works, but everything started within the same year. The same month. Nothing older than eleven years, and you’re not the typical sort to attend school for journalism and hit the ground running right after graduation, unless you attended school later than your peers, so I assumed a name change— in which case, well done— or a dramatic change in careers for reasons unknown.”
In the brief stunned silence that followed, Sigi added lightly, “I like learning and I’m thorough. Do indulge me.”
“Was that why you asked me to dinner?”
“No. I did this research after extending the invitation.”
“Well… thanks for the vote of confidence.” When Sigi watched him expectantly, Robert gave in. He felt queasy. “Dramatic change in careers. Big injury, had to leave school, start over after too long out of practice. Editing I can do from home, and writing articles was easy to fit in there.”
“I see. My condolences, for the injury.” Sigi finished his wine. The server was at the table again, unbidden, replacing that glass with a fresh one and filling it up. “Would you go back to culinary school if you had the chance?”
“I… wish I could. It was hard to leave; now I don’t know if I could handle getting back in. There was a lot of therapy. …Physical therapy, I mean.”
Sigi nodded. “A shame. I’d have loved to patronize your kitchen.”
For all the terror he inspired in Robert, Sigi was indeed a skilled conversationalist. He managed to get Robert talking about what he’d enjoyed most in school, which led to him explaining his favourite, more complicated recipes, and when Sigi asked— clearly very curious— what ‘braised’ technically meant, Robert had a chance to actually teach Sigi something new. It was a dizzying experience.
He didn’t realize how much time had passed when their meals arrived. Robert was enchanted by his plate, mentally cataloguing everything he could identify so he could attempt recreating it in his own kitchen sometime, and Sigi smiled serenely at the server as he cut into his steak.
Robert remembered his mission very suddenly when he watched Sigi lift a delicate piece of still-bloody meat to his lips, chew, and swallow. Without flinching. Robert was starting to despair. Sigi drank alcohol and ate steak— he must not be what Robert thought.
One in twelve, he mused glumly.
“Well,” Robert said, once he’d tasted everything on his plate, feeling slightly less jumpy now that he had sipped down half of his drink. It was going to be hard to act normal after his final realization regarding Sigi. Not a vampire. Not his problem. Definitely someone’s problem, but Robert had to accept defeat. “We’ve talked about my jobs, now I’m wondering. What was your first job?”
Sigi blinked, glanced down at his steak. “Goodness, it’s been a while.”
“A while? You look, what, thirty?”
“You really do need to stop flattering me, Robert. No, I’ve had so very, very many jobs.” With a quirk of his lips, lifting his glass again, Sigi added, “Catholic priest.”
Robert coughed on his mouthful of vegetables. That had not been a careful reaction. Now he didn’t have to think about forcing it. “What— really?”
“You don’t believe me,” Sigi observed, now definitely grinning, before he sipped what had to be his third glass of wine. “That was my first job. Technically I still am, depending on who you ask.”
“You aren’t exactly what I’d picture when I think of a priest.” Robert cleared his throat and wondered whether this was news to any of Sigi’s fans. “So why did you… leave it? Or focus on other things, anyway?”
“Life. Sort of happened.” Sigi’s grin was downright upsetting now. “Too many hobbies I couldn’t leave alone. I adored the arts too much, even for a devout Catholic.”
“Alright, then… what was your second job? Curator?”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to leave some mysteries for a later meeting.”
“Oh, so you’re blackmailing me into another date? Sneaky.”
“Gracious, he’s found me out,” Sigi muttered into his glass. “I’m doomed.”
Robert was reeling from this new bit of information. Of course he’d already known that religion didn’t actually stop any vampires in their tracks, but Sigi wasn’t one, so he shouldn’t even be so stunned. It was certainly difficult to think Catholic priest while looking across the table at Sigi. At perfect, beautiful Sigi, lips painted a glimmering red, locks of shining blonde hair tumbling over his shoulder in thick curls… He tried to imagine Sigi with shorter hair, wearing robes, but he couldn’t.
He was definitely tipsy, he reflected, glancing at his glass of wine. He never really drank anything— he was a lightweight for someone his size. Meanwhile, by contrast, Sigi was serenely tasting his— what, sixth glass?— with no noticeable change in demeanour. How much of a weakling was Robert?
He was too busy puzzling over the thought of Sigi being a man of the cloth to think of much else for a minute. When Sigi spoke again, he had to apologize, ask Sigi to repeat the question.
“I was asking whether you can hear that,” Sigi said, a slight frown on his lovely face. “I didn’t want to say, after all perhaps you’re hard of hearing. I don’t want to be rude. Except…” Sigi pointed one long, beautifully immaculate nail directly at Robert’s left pocket. “Your cell phone has been… shrieking for the past eight minutes and twelve seconds.”
Robert could feel the colour drain from his face.
Oh, fuck almighty, the alarm.
Sigi could hear it.