Thick glass panes in an ironwood framework shield this balcony from the elements. Midway up one of the thick towers of Castle Draco, it commands a view of the surrounding town and outlying fields. Wide gaps in the Sylvania cloud cover allow the sparkling ribbon of the Procession to shine down, while a few candles provide extra illumination within the balcony itself.
The grand bedroom here has been converted into a library with towering bookshelves and overstuffed chairs. Candelabras stand everywhere, and various throw rugs and a blazing hearth keep the room warm. On the balcony, a small table and two chairs have been set out. A Khatta servant escorts Alptraum to the table, and lets him know that the Countess will be joining him shortly. "Would you care for some wine, sir?" he then asks.
Alptraum has spent a rather long amount of time preparing for this meal; probably longer than any other event in his life, in fact. He settled on wearing his more formal clothing; the well tailored Sylvanian shirt, jacket, vest, and pants. Over that he has draped the old priestess of Sunala robe so that it lays and flows more like a cloak or a cape than a robe. It takes him a moment for his attention to return to his escort, as he's never quite been in such an elegant room before (well, one that wasn't owned by someone supremely evil, at least). So, to the Khatta, he says, "I would be most appreciative for a glass of wine. I admit I am no expert on whines, however, so, please, select something that you or the Countess would recommend."
The servant bows and heads back into the library. After selecting a particular book, one of the bookshelves slides away to reveal a small wine cellar hidden inside the wall. The Khatta chooses a somewhat dusty, black bottle and returns with it. "This is one of the Countess' favorite vintages," he tells Alptraum, then removes the cork and pours a dark purple splash of the contents into the Eeee's wineglass. In the dim light, it almost looks black.
"Thank you," The Eeee says to his escort. Alptraum carefully picks up the wine glass, letting the bowl of the glass rest in his curled fingers. He lifts it to his nose and sniffs gently, curious as to what the wine may be made from.
The sniff alone is enough to cause Alptraum's nose and head to tingle slightly. The aroma is almost smoky, and slight variations of density within the wine give it the appearance of swirling storm clouds.
"If I may ask, where is this from?" Alptraum asks and takes a small sip from the glass as an experiment. The Eeee hasn't sat down yet, of course. Instead he looks out over the balcony.
The wine goes down like liquid zolk, and manages to both warm and chill at the same time. "It is Shadow Grape Wine, from Stonebarrow. Vintage 5921. The Castle maintains the largest stock of pre-war Sylvanian wines in the world," the servant explains.
"Stonebarrow? I have been there and I find it hard to imagine they could produce this," Alptraum admits as he looks back into the glass critically. "Pardon my asking, but I assume you have served the Countess for a long time?"
"All of her life," the Khatta replies. He's easily in his fifties, but doesn't show any of the obvious signs of aging his fur is still a lustrous black, with white 'tuxedo' markings that blend into his uniform.
Alptraum's head dips. "If you do not wish to answer, I certainly understand … but have you found their family a good and honorable family? I admittedly do not know much about them save what has been told through rumors, some of which have not been kind," the Eeee says.
"My family has had the honor of serving the Dracos for generations," the servant explains. "They are fair and honorable rulers, and the Countess has held up well despite the tragic deaths of her parents and brother. They are as good as they can be, while still bowing to the necessities of rulership."
Alptraum nods at this. "What happened to her brother? What was he like?" he asks and then takes another small drink from his glass.
"He was a good man, and groomed from birth to be the next Count," the man says, sounding sad. "A scholar, like his father. He was assassinated while studying abroad. Unable to strike at the Count directly, his enemies chose to break his heart instead. He never recovered from the loss."
"Who assassinated him? Do you know?" Alptraum inquires next, "Someone from the Gallee?" And after a thought, asks, "And who are the Countess' enemies now?"
"The Gallee would gain nothing through such an act," the man notes. "But all nobility in Sylvania conspire against one another, for their own reasons. The Czar is not strong enough now to control them. It would be easier to list those the Countess feels are friends, such as the Countess Ophelia of Northern Shore, our neighbor. She has not met the Duke of Blackshire, but admires his success. All others she views with well deserved mistrust, for it was never discovered who hired the assassin."
"Mmm, that is fair. I have been to Blackshire in my travels. In fact, it was in Blackshire when my life changed. Before Blackshire I was a gypsy with no concerns and lived life through performance. That all ended the day I began hunting for the Necromancer Dack. He stole a crystalline pendant from Eve of Blackshire and I offered to help recover it. Partially to prove I was not the villain the sheriff there thought me to be," Alptraum explains. "It was then I encountered the traveler from Babel, Nekara, and went 'home'. The things I learned there about my heritage, well … since then I've been trying to make up for the events my birth caused. I know that I didn't do the acts those have done in my name or whatnot, but I still feel some responsibility for it. I hope I can help the Countess now and make a difference. To make the costs others paid for me worth it. Anyway, please excuse my rambling. IS there anything you would like to know about me? Surely you have questions."
The man seems momentarily confused by the question. "You are the guest of the Countess. That is all I need to know to judge your character," he finally replies.
Alptraum looks over his shoulder back to the Khatta. "Then I take it the Countess does not often have guests?" he asks.
"She does not," the servant answers. "I hope it is the beginning of a trend, if I may be so bold to comment. She is too lonely."
"I was going to ask, what can I do to help make her happier? But perhaps that answers that," Alptraum says and nods. "At some level, I think know how she feels. When you are different like she is and like I am … you do feel isolated. Even with others, you never quite fit in. I can't presume to understand her of course. I may be wrong in my judgment."
The candles seem to dim slightly, and the servant fills the other wineglass before pulling out the chair on that side of the table as well.
"She's coming, isn't she?" Alptraum asks when the candles dim and oddly not feeling freaked out by that. He sets his glass down onto the table and folds his hands in front of himself where he stands. "Well, here goes nothing. Just don't do something really stupid, Alptraum," the Eeee thinks.
"She is already here," the Khatta replies, and flicks his eyes to glance over Alptraum's shoulder.
Okay, that causes Alptraum to twitch a little. He turns around slowly to face the Countess.
All that lies behind Alptraum is his own faint reflection in the glass. Although, also reflected are two red circles of light sitting across the table from his own reflection.
"Okay, maybe she's trying to scare you. She's doing pretty good at it, too," Alptraum thinks nervously when he spots the red circles. So … Alptraum turns to look cross the table where the eyes should be.
As the candlelight returns to its former brightness, the Countess Draco is easier to see. Her glowing red irises set within the black fur of her face seem to float in the air, until she smiles. The black zolk gown she wears is betrayed only by the red sheen of its contours. "Thank you, Barnabas," she says to the servant after he pushes her chair back in for her. The man bows, and fades back into the now barely-visible library.
Alptraum bows deeply to the Countess Draco. "Good evening, Countess. If I may be so bold, you look beautiful this evening," he says. After he rises, Alptraum finally takes his own seat across from the Eeee, silvery irises reflecting the candlelight. "Thank you for spending your dinner with me."
"I hope I did not keep you waiting too long?" the woman asks politely. But then, all women say that, and always keep the man waiting deliberately anyway.
"Of course not," Alptraum says with a smile. "Some people are worth any wait. Your servant and I talked a bit; he seems a good fellow."
"The Drakes have been our retainers for… well, forever," the Countess remarks, picking up her wineglass and swirling the cloudy liquid inside. "I can't imagine what things would be like without them."
"Possibly a bit lonelier," Alptraum observes as he currently keeps his hands in his lap … mainly because his fingers are twitching nervously. "In any event, I wanted to dine with you because … to be honest, I wished to get to know you better. I have many questions about you and something I wished to offer you."
"Questions and a gift?" the Countess asks with a smirk. She has a sip of her wine, savoring it for a moment before saying, "Our food will be delivered shortly, but you have me curious now. What is your first question?"
"Well, the first has to do with some Gallee I encountered not so long ago. They were turned into undead vampires and their leader … just a shell of armor," Alptraum asks, "They said that it was you who had cursed them. I was curious about the truth and story behind that." Inwardly, he's thinking, "Geh, you spend time with plenty of evil women. Why is this terrifying you?"
"The Curse of the True Face," the Countess notes. "They were a particularly arrogant and self-righteous group. I assumed they had committed suicide rather than face their own inner natures. Perhaps I overestimated their conviction."
"Well, in truth they did not at first. They moved into a swamp and began terrorizing a small farming family there. Arkold and I were hired to help them, because one of the cursed bit the families' youngest daughter, Gunnerl. She nearly died and became like them," Alptraum notes quietly. "In the end, Arkold and I had to hunt them down and try to destroy them. Somehow we were able to convince them to end it without further risk to ourselves but … it could have ended much worse."
"How disappointing," the Countess says, frowning. "They had the power to break the curse they only needed to humble themselves and beg forgiveness from one of those whom they saw as a monster. Did the girl recover?"
"She did. They had hoped to force her to forgive them, but," Alptraum says with a small shrug.
"Do you think me a fool, or worse, for having let those men go?" the Countess asks, looking into Alptraum's eyes.
"In truth, Countess … Rosalind, one time I did. But after some experiences of my own, I do not. I had the chance to destroy a group of Yodhblakat, but instead I tried to get them to try and find a different and better path. It is easy to judge someone when you haven't been forced to make similar decisions before," Alptraum says and actually keeps his eyes on hers. "But now, no, I do not think you a fool or worse. You made a choice hoping for an outcome."
"I always felt it was some personal weakness of mine that I could not kill my enemies when they were brought to me in defeat," the woman admits. "That if I made an example of them, or managed to teach them the folly of their quest, that they would stop coming. But they haven't stopped."
"And I've tried to find hope or redemption in the Priestess' of Babel. Many of them have never know different, so I have always hoped that if I showed them a different path, a different way to be … that it would change them. That I wouldn't have to destroy them," Alptraum admits. "I don't think it makes you weak; I think it makes you stronger than them, in that you do not drop to their level to try and solve it. So, I applaud you for trying to find a better solution to the problems than the simpler method of merely killing. But, I guess we both have to accept that it doesn't always work, no matter what we want."
"Morals are such a burden at times," Draco comments. "But one must lead by example, or else become a mere tyrant."
"Well, I cannot speak on rulers as I am not one; but I have tried to live by example, even if others have called it foolish. I threw aside my cover on a boat during my journey to Babel to save someone who fell from an airship. The rest on my boat sat there and laughed as he fell. Nekara called me stupid and foolish for saving the man … and that it didn't matter. I told her that it does, because it showed the children on the ship that there are other paths to walk. That maybe someday my actions would affect theirs by seeing that it is worth it to not always take the easy path and turn away," Alptraum comments with a small shrug. "But then, I'm probably a romantic fool in many ways."
"The best kind of fool, then," Draco comments. The odd barrier that dims the sight of the library also muffles sound, for it isn't until they are practically next to the table that Alptraum notices the serving women. The Khattas lay two wide, shallow bowls of warm, spiced blood before the vampires, along with dishes of meat, breads and vegetables cut for easy dipping. A carafe of cool water and extra glasses are also brought to the table, and then the servers vanish once more.
Alptraum looks rather surprised by the spread of food brought before them. "Ah, forgive me … but how is it possible to consume this without … unpleasant consequences?" he has to ask.
The Countess smiles, and gestures to the empty bowls that are also set out on stands next to the table, looking a bit like fancy wine buckets. "You were not raised by vampires, I recall," she says, and then skewers a chunk of meat with a long, thin fork. She bastes it in the blood, and then pops it into her mouth to chew.
"No, I was not," Alptraum admits while inwardly cursing himself for looking like a fool. He follows the Countess in skewering a bit of food (for him, bread), and then chews on it slowly. He vaguely remembers a comment about chewing it for taste then spitting out the solid bits.
That memory from his time with the Smiths proves accurate, as the Countess spits out the chewed meat into the spittoon with a surprising degree of delicacy. She washes her mouth with water next, and selects a vegetable as her next dipping choice. "Eating should not merely be about sustenance, but an event to enjoy," she comments.
"On the road, it is often only about surviving," Alptraum admits after he mimics the Countess in spitting into a bucket, though not as delicately, alas. "Another question I had for you is … what is it like to be bound to the dragon? You once asked me if the Barsunala speaks to me … does the dragon speak to you? Does it affect how you feel?" he asks, this time selecting some meat for himself.
"It speaks to me in my dreams, mostly," Draco says between bites. "It chides me like a child in them. Beyond that, it doesn't affect my heart. I am not even certain it has recognizable emotions of its own. There are few extra benefits of the bond, however, such as the ability to perform feats of Shadow magic."
"Dragons do tend to have particular opinions about things; I know Kaira lectures me regularly," Alptraum admits with a small smirk. "What sorts of shadow magic can you perform, if you don't mind me asking."
"This little shell of privacy for one," the woman notes, gesturing to the barrier that isolates them from the library. "And my entrance trick. It is easy to move unseen and silent, or to wrap the shadows around oneself. For one as dark colored as me, I can even use them to project a proxy image to a known location."
"Hmm. So, I do have to ask now … how long were you here while I was talking to your servant?" Alptraum asks and then takes a drink from his wine glass.
"I do not spy on my guests," Draco claims, again with her wry smirk. "Barnabas is merely well attuned to my presence. I think he enjoys the trick, personally. He misled you with his eyes, did he not?"
"That he did," Alptraum says with a nod. "In truth, I have wondered what you made of me. I am unusual and many that people would consider a threat. I would not have been offended if you had spied on me. You barely know me."
"How much can one person know about another?" Draco says. "Your dragon shows you some respect, and you blushed when I came upon you in the ritual chamber. You don't appear to be particularly frightening to me, Alptraum."
"And not even how I appear as a wraith isn't unnerving to you?" Alptraum has to ask, honestly a bit surprised.
"It is only an illusion, not your true form," Draco notes. "Impressive, certainly, but not offensive."
"That's … good to know," Alptraum admits, "What you think of me matters to me. I can't exactly explain why, but it does. I was mortified that you walked in after Mave's lessons."
"You've nothing to be ashamed about, I assure you," the Countess says. "If it will make you feel better, I'll take off my gown for you to even the score," she adds, with her eyebrows raised and her grin in full tease mode.
Alptraum almost spits wine through his nose at that. But, he manages to just cough a lot instead. "Ah, uh," he says, completely losing any sort of calm demeanor he had. "While that is a very tempting offer," he eventually manages to say, "I don't, I … I don't want you to think that's all I'm after."
"Not all you're after?" the woman asks in amusement. "So you are after at least that then?"
"No, no, no," Alptraum says and covers his eyes, through he peeks out between his fingers. "Rosalind. Rose. You're beautiful. You're one of the most beautiful women I've met. I'll admit I've often had moments of being flirty and such but … with you it's different. I think you deserve better than some guy just looking at you as a body. With you, I guess, I want you to feel that all of you is something special; your personality, your mind, in addition to with how you look. I want you to know that I respect you. And I admit I'm not very good at expressing that. I've spent hours just trying to figure out how I should talk to you to not give the wrong impression."
"You are a very flattering fellow," Draco notes, letting Alptraum off the hook. "I do hope that in time I will be able to justify your infatuation. After all, you've been trained by a Yodhinala… "
That gets Alptraum to laugh. "Well, I am fairly certain with her, well, she is seeking something from me," he admits and looks at least a little relieved. "Now, I mentioned I had something to offer you. Well, I wanted to offer my services to Draco county, such as they are. I want to help protect it."
"I sense you mean in a role a bit more proactive than a Reaper?" Draco asks.
"Correct. I'm used to dealing with magical threats and such. So I was wondering if you would have any desire for assistance there," Alptraum answers, "And if the answer is no, I won't be offended."
"The only threat of a magical nature that I am currently aware of is the one you brought to my attention," the Countess notes. "That of the necromancer on my southern border. However, if you succeed in defeating him … well, let us just say that it would be nice to have a means of acting beyond my borders."
"Well, if you wish me to act outside your borders, then do please ask what you will of me. I want to help," Alptraum says with a smile. "And that reminds me … I did have a talk with Kaira about the Shadow Dragon bound as the Shadow of Amena. Would you like to know the outcome?"
"Certainly," the Countess says. "I presume you have a plan to deal with it now?"
"Yes. I can contain it within the knife. There are some within the knife that can also impart to me what its True Name is and grant me some power over it," Alptraum explains, "And from there it could be bound to someone. So, the question then becomes is who to bind it to."
"I assumed you would try to bind it to yourself, since you already have a spirit bound to you," the Countess notes, looking a bit surprised.
"Well, as much as I would like to do that to be your consort … I do not want to choose for you who would be that," Alptraum admits and takes a drink from his wineglass. "So, if you choose me, then I would willingly bind it to myself and accept whatever changes that may do to me. But I want it to be your choice, not forced on you by circumstance. You already had one situation forced on you."
Draco goes quiet for several moments to let this sink in. "Then, I choose you, Alptraum bar Reisender," she says quietly. "I can thank of no better choice."
Alptraum bows his head. "Then I will pursue such," the Eeee answers. "It was important to me that you made the choice. You deserved at least that. If all goes well and a child does come out of such, will I also be part of its life as the father? I am unsure of how your family tradition has operated with regards to your father, your mother, and so on."
"Family is family," Draco says. "No child of mine will be left with only a single parent, as I was. And it will never be left to feel alone or lost."
"Then you should know one more thing. If I have a child, it may draw some interest from Babel … from my father," Alptraum says next. "Hopefully not, but it is a possibility. My father is a dangerous man."
"Does he follow you even now?" the Countess asks in seriousness. "Has he a means of tracking you?"
"Not to my knowledge, but he sits in a very powerful position," Alptraum answers in equal seriousness. "If I told you who it was, can you swear to me you will never tell another soul?"
"I don't speak to many, so keeping a political secret should not be difficult," Draco says. "Besides, I know of only one vampire Eeee in a position of power in Babel."
"Thath," Alptraum then says, "Possibly one of the most evil men in Babel. As much as I hate what he has done in the world and the pain he has caused … he has protected me. I have never understood why, but he has."
"He is your father, that is answer enough," Draco says, but in a serious tone, notes: "And you will honor him at least that much, Alptraum. If we bear children, you will confront him and make it clear that he is not to be involved with their lives. No hiding, and no lying to our children about their grandfather."
"What if he wants to see them?" Alptraum asks in all seriousness. "Even if he agrees to not interfere with their lives, he may wish to see them at least once?"
"If you think he will behave, then you can invite him to visit," Draco says. "If he is willing to step away from his seat of power for the time that would take, then perhaps he deserves to see them. But he will see them on our terms."
"All right. I just thought you should know beforehand," Alptraum answers. "Even though I was a little concerned you might … well, not want me around after learning it."
"In time… well, with experience, maybe you will come to understand your father better," Draco says, looking a bit melancholy now.
"He started the great war because the Sabaoth wanted to take me for his new body in hopes of having an immortal form. Thousands died because he was try to protect me. He had already lost his wife to the Sabaoth because she committed suicide rather than give into the Sabaoth's request that she bed with him. He lost her, he did not want to lose his son too," Alptraum explains and looks down at his glass before him. "What he didn't know is that the Yodhsunala had already taken me to safety and put a double in my place."
"And if he had done nothing, and submitted to the will of the Sabaoth, would Babel be a brighter place today?" Draco asks.
"No," Alptraum admits, "I just … if he could have found another way. Is my life worth all those that were lost?"
"To a father? Yes," Draco says. "Do not put him out of your heart, Alptraum, or you will find yourself regretting it when he is gone. I know whereof I speak on this."
"I can't hate him and yet I cannot forgive the actions he took," Alptraum says with a small sigh. "I just, I wish. I don't know what I wish. I want to reach some understanding with him, some peace. I don't even know if he would want the same. I don't even know how to approach him."
"Don't worry about it now," Draco says, and reaches across the table to put her hand on the back of Alptraum's. "You have enough obstacles as it is, do not dwell on what may lie beyond them."
Alptraum looks up and smiles. His hand rolls over so that he can take Draco's in his. "And really, I shouldn't be burdening you with this. Here I am, having a meal with a beautiful and wonderful woman and I'm brooding. I wanted this night to be fun for you; a chance to have a meal and talk with someone. Your servant said you don't get many guests," he says.
"Barnabas has always looked out for my interests, even when I occasionally ignore them for other things," the Countess admits. "And it has a been a long time since anyone felt so open with me. What would you like to do next, to make this fun again?"
"Well, I'm a musician, if that interests you. I could play something," Alptraum offers, "I would offer a dance, but well, no music to dance to. Or we could just go for a walk or flight together and continue talking; I never did ask you what you studied in University."
"History and Alchemy," Draco says, then stands up and holds her hand out again. "And I'd be honored by a private performance from a musician."
"You studied Alchemy like Doctor Pike was?" Alptraum has to ask with a grin as he stands and takes her hand. He lifts said hand to his lips and lightly kisses the back of it. "And I would be honored to play for the crimson-eyed beauty of the night," he tells her. Perhaps he can manage to flirt now and then in spite of himself.