Joska manages a bow and he and Zaira exchange a brief greeting in the ancient tongue.
“Come in at once, cousin!” she tells him, switching back to English, her adopted language of the past century and a half.
Joska staggers through the door, smelling of smoke and earth and leaves, and salty air. Zaira takes him firmly by the arm and leads him from the vaulted foyer, past the grand staircase, through the billiards room and into the butler’s pantry. It’s a large room with high ceilings and great banks of wooden-framed, glass-enclosed cupboards, an important room, not an alcove. This room was built in the 19th century and its architecture expresses a social order of a time when houses of this stature employed professional butlers who oversaw entire staffs of servants.
Zaira seats her cousin at the large oak table that now occupies the center of the room. She opens one of the cupboards and retrieves a tall bottle which she sets on the table in front of her cousin. She fetches a shot glass, unstops the bottle and pours an ample amount from the bottle into the small glass. Joska picks up the shot glass and downs its contents in one gulp. Zaira pours a second, and Joska drinks that just as fast. Then a third.
“I’m sorry to serve you such plonk, but I haven’t got a single drop of fresh sangre in the house. Too busy these days.” She watches her cousin down his fourth glass and smiles. “It seems to be doing the job well enough.”
Joska pours the fifth shot himself, his cheeks have acquired a flush of color and his eyes have brightened. He pushes his cape back from his shoulders and nods his gratitude to Zaira. His breathing is still too fast, too wheezy, but that, too, will subside.
“You certainly know how to make an entrance, Joska. Why didn’t you just take a plane? And call me? I do own a cell phone.” Zaira watches her cousin push damp ringlets of black hair back from his brow.
Joska lets out a long, controlled sigh and pours a sixth shot. But he’s taking his time at this point, regaining his physical composure. “I need a favor of you. Manners required this. I’m European, after all.”
Zaira is impressed. Joska felt that manners required him to make a long stride all the way from Transylvania to the north shore of Boston; burning through his metabolic resources like a Titan rocket booster, sustaining the incredible mental focus and physical endurance to hurl himself over land and sea without rest for nearly forty-eight hours. He could have damaged himself irreparably through such effort. And, the prognosis for a permanently weakened vampire is not sanguine.
“I’m all ears,” Zaira tells him, settling herself into a chair next to her cousin and curling her bare feet under her.
Joska inhales, his breathing is even, easy at last. He looks into Zaira’s now-curious eyes. “We have a cousin,” he begins, searching for his words.
“We have lots of cousins.” Zaira scolds herself privately; this is difficult for Joska, she shouldn’t be teasing him.
“It’s Sandor. You may not remember him, he’s young. I mean he really is young.”
“Are you telling me he was birthed?”
“Only eighteen years ago. He’s a nice kid, but he’s rough around the edges, so to speak.”
“I can well imagine. It cannot be easy for him to be surrounded by relatives who have been shaping their own strong attitudes, opinions and tastes through centuries of experience.” Zaira looks frankly at her cousin. “I expect he’s pretty rebellious, right?”
“You could say that. But not in simple, obvious ways.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he doesn’t like to drink blood.”
“How has he developed, flourished up to age eighteen?”
“Of course he drinks it, but he complains and he’s ridden with angst, guilt about it all. He has never hunted prey himself and refuses to do so. You can imagine how that sits with Great-uncle Istvan.”
“Then what does he drink. There, in Translyvania?”
“He toyed with vegetable juices until he almost expired from anemia. Only transfusions under sedation restored him. We’ve got Ambrus sending bottled stuff, but Sandor drinks only small doses and only from opaque containers. He remains a gaunt youth.”
“How can I help you with this?” Zaira can smell Joska’s tension and it’s making her uneasy.
“Great-uncle Istvan thinks Sandor should come here to live with you. At least for the time being.”
“Because I have no time these days to hunt prey?”
“But I drink blood and sometimes I leave open containers about, when I’m in a rush.”
“You’re a modernist though, and he might appreciate that. All the distractions here. I must tell you, I wasn’t prepared for the grandeur of this ocean-front mansion. You’ve done well, Zaira.”
She laughs, pleased. “I’m glad you like it. I really should throw more parties, though, invite the family. The place has eight bedrooms and a wonderful old cellar for those who prefer that sort of thing.” Her smile conveys ironic resignation. “I bought it at the top of the current real estate bubble. It’s lost some value, could take a while to come back. But, I am an investor.”
Joska nods solemnly. “I haven’t been in the stock market since Dutch tulips.”
Zaira looks at her cousin more seriously. “I’m in the middle of a deal right now, I’m in guise a good part of the time. I only escape here every few weeks for a little R&R. Taking care of a teenaged vegetarian vampire sounds like more than I could carry off with any probability of success.”
“You know what a small community we are back home.” Joska looks at her. “Well, Sandor has been speaking of outing us to the local villages and towns.”
“Who’d believe him in this day and age?”
“You’d be surprised. And coming from our own, you know he could do it. If he really has a mind to. Need I remind you of that spell of unpleasantness a century or so back? Those vigilantes weren’t just carrying garlic and mirrors, they were brandishing carved wooden stakes.”
The cousins sit in silence at Zaira’s table in her lavish butler’s pantry. Zaira frowns to recall the clash that Joska is speaking of. Indiscretions and excesses of one of her ancestors, that no-count Count as Istvan referred to him, had cost the lives of three of their family and led to open hostilities for decades in the rural mountainous community they had shared for so long with humans. The wooden stakes were barbaric, but they were the one way, the only way, to fell a vampire. The rest was bunk, ruses invented by her people to throw decoys over their trail, when the hunter occasionally became the hunted through miscalculation or bad luck.
“What will I do with him?” Zaira asks, her skepticism building at the growing list of disastrous scenarios in her mind.
“Could you take him with you where you work? In a guise?”
Joska’s naivete about the business world is touching.
“I’m a gofer, a minion, at present, that’s the guise. I have no authority to hire anyone.”
“Oh.” It’s clear that Joska had considered his duty to present the asking, and to do it gallantly. He was counting on her to accept the request and to brainstorm a workable way of succeeding at it. She cannot send him home with the shame of failure. She’ll just have to make it up as she goes.
“I’ll do this, ” she tells him, noting the sheer relief in his face now. “But, Joska, please send him by plane, okay? If he’s as gaunt and picky an eater as you describe, he’ll never make it by long stride.”
— to be continued —