by Aislinn Kerry
The last thing Arjen wants is a vampire in his bed, despite the rest of the world’s obsession with the creatures. Unfortunately, his reticence is precisely what attracts Maikel van Triet to him. After hundreds of years of being adored because of what he is, Maikel is enthralled by Arjen’s apathy.
What starts as a simple arrangement soon becomes something more than either of them expected. But vampires are shallow, fickle creatures, and Maikel could never truly love another. Could he?
I was not the only man in the parlor that night, but I was one of the few not looking for a whore.
The girls sat about, mostly, combing their hair or bent in gossip with one another. There was little else to do; it had been a slow night, and patrons came in a discouraging trickle. Occasionally a girl would spy someone she fancied, rise, stretch, and amble over so as not to betray her interest too readily. I sat by a window where the breeze might reach me and played draughts with Elise. There were too many of us in the parlor, crowded and overheated, not enough patrons culling our ranks to keep the numbers at a reasonable level. The chair put my back to the door, and Elise was to spy over my shoulder and give a signal if any patrons seemed to be the sort who might find me a more suitable companion than one of the girls.
I was bent over the board studying my next move when a collective shiver seemed to overtake us all as one. I straightened and saw Elise staring over my shoulder, leaning to get a better view. The other girls, those who I could see, were already scrambling to their feet, idle pursuits cast aside, tripping over their skirts as they rushed to greet this newcomer.
I rose from our table, one of only a handful not already flinging myself at this newest patron, and cast a brief glance behind me, wondering who it was this time the women were making fools of themselves over.
I did not have to wonder what it was. Only one thing turned these working women to sycophants at a mere glance.
Vampire. The king himself might have walked through our doors and not received such a welcome.
I saw a shock of hair as dark as sin in that brief glance, and a flashing glimpse of narrowed eyes, just as black. But mostly what I saw were the women, thronged about him, simpering and sighing and tugging their bodices down in the futile hope that a flash of breast might set them above the others and earn them his company in their bed. Already his name was being whispered in hushed tones better reserved for gods or saints.
“Maikel van Triet,” they murmured, reaching, as though his very name might summon him to them.
I swept the pieces from the board in disgust and slipped about the edges of the parlor to the stairs. The night was a loss already, and dawn near enough that I had little hope of salvaging it. There was no reason to stay and watch these women I worked with and mostly liked turn to mindless fools.
Behind me, he began to speak, and though I could not make out the words, I could feel the way they fell upon the crowd like stones dropped into a puddle, reaction rippling out in waves.
I had one foot on the stairs and thought I might have managed a clean escape when he spoke again, and this time I did hear it: “Wait,” he said.
He might have been talking to anyone, any one of the women pressed in close about him. Surely he hadn’t noticed me, with so many others vying for his attention. And yet, I could not help it. I stopped and turned back, hoping I would see him addressing another.
He was looking straight at me, over the heads of the women as though they did not exist, or as though he was so accustomed to such displays that they didn’t even merit attention. His eyes were not narrowed now, but open and dark, watching me with puzzlement.
“Come back,” he told me. “Come here.”
“Will you buy a place in my bed, sir?” I asked him, unmoving. I would not return for less. I was not even sure I would do it for that.
“Will you have me?” he countered, and gave a grin that made the women sigh like besotted girls.
I crossed my arms and regarded him across the distance. He was pleasant enough to look on, a contrast of dark hair, dark eyes and pale, ivory skin. He dressed to emphasize the drama of it. Were he any other patron, I would lead him to my bed and consider myself lucky to have anyone there at all.
But he was vampire, and his kind never failed to turn the very sensible members of my acquaintance into the greatest of idiots, all slavering to get close and earn a taste of eternity. Who could resist such a temptation?
Not even I, though it was not the lure of his immortality that decided me. It had been a slow night, and business had been poor all week. I was not so well-off that I could afford to turn away a paying customer.
I jerked my head at the stairs. His grin spread, and he wended his way through the crowd to my side. He reached for me, took my hand before I realized what he was about and could snatch it back.
The women gossiped about their patrons, of course, and the lucky few who had taken vampires to their beds gossiped about that most of all. Perhaps they spoke of what a vampire’s touch was like. I did not know, for I had not cared to listen. If I had taken the effort to wonder, I would have supposed that, without the fire of life burning within them, their touch would have been cold as ice and chilled to the bone.
Maikel’s palm burned against mine like an ember. His fingers wrapped about my hand and scorched like tongues of flame.
I jerked from his grasp, turning up the stairs. He followed. Neither of us spoke, but the whispers of the others carried after us. If he heard, he gave them no mind. I supposed he was probably used to it.
I stopped before my door, fingertips resting on the handle, and turned back to him. I held my other hand out, open, palm up. “Is it a tryst you want? Or to stay the night?” We both of us ignored the fact that it was nearly dawn, and night to him meant the full bright of day.
He laughed a little. “A tryst, no. That’s not what I came for.” He counted guilders into my palm, more than I normally charged for a full night, more even than I’d have asked of him, so many that it was all I could do not to gape in astonishment. When he had finished, he curled my fingers around the coins and held my hand in his, giving me a crooked smile. “I’m Maikel,” he said quietly.
I looked down at the silver glinting between my fingers, enough to turn this whole miserable night into a remarkably profitable one. “I know who you are.” I pushed my door open and led him inside.
“Do you, then?” That odd, bemused half-smile still hovered about his face. He lingered in my doorway, watching as I crossed to my bureau and put his fee in my coffer. “I had wondered.”
“You are Maikel van Triet, and a vampire, and your reputation precedes you.” He knew it, of course. It was not only the brothel whores who fawned over his kind. Some days, it seemed all anybody in Amsterdam cared to talk about.
He closed my door with a muted click of the latch and crossed to the window as I tucked my coffer into the back of a drawer. My view looked out over the canal, and the sounds of conversation and gurgling water drifted up to us on the night’s breeze.
“What will you?” I asked when it seemed he might stand there looking out until the sun rose. “Your reputation has preceded you, but not so much that I know your desires.”
He did not answer me at first, but closed and latched my shutters with deliberate care. When they were shut fast against the approaching dawn, he turned to face me, hands braced behind him on the sill. “I desire a bed until dark,” he said. “And surety that the shutters will remain closed until then.”
My brows climbed my forehead. I stared at him, nonplussed. “That’s all?”
His head fell forward, sending a lock of dark hair curling against his cheek. It didn’t quite hide the slight smile that curved his lips. “And the decency not to send me to bed hungry.”
I had expected he might request something of the sort. Still, I turned aside, crouching to tug at a boot as pretense, for fear my expression might betray me. I was not like the others, who took vampires to bed and proudly displayed their bites the next morning, whispering in rapturous tones of an experience so transcendental it brought them closer to God, or who hoped silently that a patron might one night take too much and make her one of his own. I did not care to be bitten. But he was a patron, and I had taken his coin.
Barefoot, I straightened and rolled up my cuff to uncover my left arm, the arteries of which were said to carry the sweetest, purest blood, pumped direct from the heart. I crossed to the bed and sat on it, stretched my arm out toward him, wrist turned up.
He sat facing me and took my hand in both of his. His thumbs brushed across my wrist and lingered over my pulse. “You don’t like me, do you?” he asked without a bit of resentment.
He didn’t look away from me and there was no challenge in his gaze, nothing in it daring me to confess. It was simple and direct, an honest request for nothing more or less than the truth.
I shrugged and broke my gaze away. “Not very much, no.”
I had to look back when he laughed, soft and amused. “And yet you would offer me this?”
“You paid for it.”
He kept my hand cradled in both of his, holding it in his lap like something cherished, fingers stroking tenderly. “I believe I am at a disadvantage. You seem to know a great deal about me, but I do not even know your name.” He didn’t look away from my wrist, where fine blue veins drew wandering tracks beneath the skin.
“It’s Arjen,” I said in a voice gone rough and dry.
“Arjen,” he echoed and bent over my wrist.
His hair fell about his face, so I could not see. His lips were warm on my skin, his kiss as sweet as a lover’s. My hand curled into a fist, then spasmed when his thumb dug into the flesh, finding a vein and pinning it in place. I braced my other hand behind me, clenched on the blankets.
His lips parted, breath gusting across my skin like a summer breeze off the water, hot and damp. His mouth formed a seal on my skin, sucking hard enough that I gasped and had to wrestle down the urge to jerk back. His fingers, gentle before, now held my hand with an iron grip. I could try to pull away, but I doubted he’d let me. Fangs pricked my skin like needles, probing. And without warning he bit deep, sinking into me.
I thrashed, unthinking, as agony coursed through me, and realized it hadn’t been greed that made him hold me so tight. I’d have torn my wrist open on his teeth if he’d let me.
He drank, sucking hard at the wound with a rhythm that echoed the thundering beat of my heart. I twisted and tore at the blankets, struggling against the overwhelming instinct to fight.
He bore me down onto my back, his body stretched along mine, and pinned me in place with a surprising strength for someone as lean as he was, so that I could not fight even if I tried. For my benefit, I wondered, or for his? His fangs never withdrew, and his throat never ceased its steady, rhythmic sucking.
I had suffered any number of indignities at the hands of my patrons, and most of them I had done in willing trade for the coin they put in my coffer. But I had never felt as completely helpless as I did then, fully clothed beneath Maikel’s slight weight with his fangs buried in my wrist.
Mentally, I cursed the gossips a hundred different ways. There was no rapture in this, no transcendence, only the throb of the wound and the heat of Maikel’s mouth as he drank my blood from me.
Somehow, my hand had found its way into his hair, fingers twisting knots into the strands, though I did not remember putting it there. I didn’t think I meant to do something so foolish and useless as try to push him back, but my fingers needed something to cling to, something to grip, and it seemed as likely a place as any to bury them.
When at last he released his grip on my arm and let his fangs slip free, I felt as exhausted as if I’d wrestled a badger. I slumped back into the mattress, and Maikel leaned his brow against my shoulder. His back rose and fell like he’d exerted himself just as hard. After a moment, he rolled off me. I pushed myself up on my uninjured arm and looked down at him. “That is truly all you want of me?”
He nodded slowly, keeping his eyes closed. “Let me sleep in peace and I’ll count myself quite satisfied.”
“As you like,” I muttered and crossed the room to my bureau. We all kept bandages tucked away in our rooms in case of something like this, though in truth, when I’d shoved mine into the back of a drawer I had not expected to ever have the need to dig it out again. Still, I was glad now to have it, and I sat gingerly at the end of the bed to dress my wound. By the time I’d finished, Maikel was fast asleep, sprawled quite comfortably upon my blankets. I crept out and ventured downstairs in search of breakfast.
Elise agreed to let me sleep in her bed, then kept me up all morning with endless, breathless questions about Maikel. She sighed like a romantic when I told her he’d refused my services after they’d been rightfully purchased, and shivered as though party to a lascivious secret when I showed her my bandaged wound. She asked me to describe it over and over again, until I realized that what she really wanted was for me to tell her a story like all the others she’d heard, of sweeping romance and unimaginable pleasure and enough cloying sentiment to make a person sick. I shooed her off, pleading exhaustion, and managed a few hours of sleep before the afternoon sun slanting through her window woke me.
I could have risen and closed her shutters and had a few more hours sleep. Instead I lay there for a few moments, my arm shading my eyes, thinking of my own shuttered room and the man in my bed.
My wrist throbbed with a dull ache. I stretched my arm out to inspect the bandage and sighed to see that blood was showing through in places. It’d dry and stick to the wound if I let it. I rose and poured water from Elise’s ewer into a basin. I soaked my forearm in it as I began to carefully unwrap the bandage.
I went slowly, giving the water time to work its way in and soften it. Even so, when the last strip came off, the wound had cracked open and a few drops of blood seeped out. I rinsed them away and returned to my room to rebandage it.
Wary of Maikel’s admonishment that he wished for undisturbed sleep, I pushed the door open gently so the hinges would not squeak. Even so, I had not taken two steps into the room when he stirred and pushed himself up onto an elbow.
I hesitated. “I did not think you’d be up so soon.”
He shoved his hair out of his face. His gaze sought out my wrist. “I smelled blood.”
I grimaced and showed him my newly opened wound as explanation. “Sorry.”
He shook his head and waved as though to dismiss my concern. Instead of lying down again, he propped his back against my headboard and watched me as I went about dressing my wound again.
I turned my back to him, scowling at the weight of his gaze upon me, and the sensation of crawling insects that it sent prickling across my skin.
“You really don’t like me, do you?” he asked unexpectedly. He sounded surprised and—surprisingly—somewhat pleased.
“Not very much, no,” I told him again. I did not turn to look at him.
The bed creaked, and I could imagine him leaning back in it, contemplating me with that strange half-smile. “You could have said no.”
I did turn, then, my brows drawn together with irritation. “And you could have slept in any bed in Amsterdam, fed from anyone you cared to have, for free. If you’re not interested in our trade, why come here for a bed and pay such an exorbitant fee?”
He looked up at my ceiling and lazily brushed away a strand of hair that had caught on his lips. “Those others, the ones who throw themselves at me. They’re all the same. They don’t really care about me, and they don’t care that I don’t care about them.”
“But you care that I don’t?” I shook my head and tied the bandage off with a knot.
“Well, it’s a change,” he said, and the smile was back, lurking at the edges of his expression as though too shy to venture out in the open.
I scooped my boots from where I’d left them. “There’s a few hours left to dusk. You should make use of what you’ve paid for. Soon as night falls, I’ll need my bed again.”
He nodded amiably enough, but made no move to lie back down.
I strode out with an impatient gesture. If he expected me to stay and press the matter with him, he was wrong. He had bought my bed from dawn to dusk, and it was his to do with as he pleased, even if that meant refusing my services and casting me out and sitting awake, imprisoned by the sun and all alone in my drab little room with nothing better to do than study the grain of the wood in the planks that formed my walls.
Downstairs, most of the girls were awake and beginning to prepare for the evening to come, dressing their hair and debating perfume. A few wielded needles, repairing garments that had been rent by overzealous patrons. A whore’s pride was in her appearance, her baubles and scents, in the lengthy measures it took to stand out from the dozens of others in the crowded brothel, and in the whole of De Wallen itself. And every one of them ceased their ministrations when I came down the stairs, crowded around me as though I were a vampire myself, and demanded I spare no detail.
I sat on the second-lowest step, unable to progress farther into the parlor without pushing people out of the way, and wondered if Maikel van Triet might not have been the better choice in company.