26 SWEET RELEASE
NELLY PICKED UP A LONG WOODEN SPOON from the counter and stirred the concoction on the stove that she kept referring to as “soup.” Vlad grinned. Otis was looking rather exhausted, not from his encounter with Elysia, but from all of Nelly’s pampering. “Nelly, darling, I’m not ill. You can’t treat a vampire’s malnourishment with chicken soup. How many times must I tell you that?”
Nelly shook her head-desperate, Vlad wagered, to have some sort of control over the situation. She’d been trying to nurse Otis every day over the last four months. Otis had healed completely in a week, but Nelly insisted on mothering him. It was enormously funny to watch. “You had three broken ribs, a cracked tibia, countless abrasions, and a horrific amount of blood loss, Otis.”
“Yes, but through all of that, I didn’t catch the flu.” He caught Nelly’s hand and pleaded with her with his eyes. “Please. Stop making me eat soup. What I’d really like is a nice mulled glass of O positive.”
Nelly lost herself for a moment in his eyes, and Vlad began to feel uncomfortable, as if he were intruding. Finally she sighed, relenting. “Okay, but I’m mulling it myself. I have to do something to help.”
Vlad flexed his well-healed wrist and pulled the Slayer coin from his pocket, turning it over in his hand. It felt like a lucky charm to him now. After all, it had been there in the clearing when he was staked last year-and survived. It had been in his front pocket during his most recent struggle with D’Ablo, which he’d walked away from virtually unscathed. Sure, it had come from a boy who was intent on killing him, but that boy had failed. In a bizarre kind of way, maybe the coin was lucky to Vlad.
“Where did you get a Slayer coin, Vladimir?”
Vlad shrugged. “It belonged to Joss. I found it.”
Otis nodded, looking somewhat troubled by the coin’s presence.
Vlad slipped the coin back into his pocket, then looked at his uncle. “How long will you stay?”
“ Vladimir, you’ve asked me that every day I’ve been here. And every day I have told you that I await Vikas’s letter advising me on what to do next. As his letter hasn’t yet arrived-” His words broke off and his eyes flicked to Nelly suddenly, as if he’d heard something in her thoughts that disturbed him.
With a sigh, Nelly pulled a thick parchment envelope from her apron pocket. “I was going to wait until after dinner to give this to you. It arrived yesterday.”
Otis’s eyes moistened for a moment. “I wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye, Nelly. You mustn’t think such things about me.”
Nelly dried her eyes on her apron and gave Otis’s arm a squeeze as she handed him the letter. “I know. I just… hoped you’d change your mind and stay.”
Vlad remained quiet, both in speech and in thought. The very idea of Otis leaving again was breaking his heart.
Otis opened the envelope and read Vikas’s letter, his eyes not betraying even a hint of what was on the page. With a contented sigh, he folded the letter up and placed it back in the envelope. “ That’s that, then.”
Before his uncle could say anything else, Vlad stood and left the room. It was too much for him to bear, losing Otis over and over again like this. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair.
But the moment his foot hit the bottom step, Otis called with his thoughts. “A word, if you would, Vladimir.”
Vlad hesitated, but finally returned to the kitchen. Nelly had her arms around Otis and was squeezing him tightly, tears streaming down her cheeks. Vlad filled with venom, suddenly furious that Otis was breaking her heart like this again. Clearly, she loved Otis, and all he seemed to do was hurt her. Vlad balled his fists and glared at his uncle.
Otis slid the letter across the table and brushed Nelly’s tears away with gentle kisses. Vlad opened the letter and read.
I trust this letter finds you well. I apologize deeply for my delay, but your recent adventures with the president of the Stokerton council have caused quite a stir in all of Elysia-indeed a stir that will not be easily settled, I think-and I have been engaged in numerous council meetings all over the world, discussing your fate and pleading with our brethren for a moment of open-mindedness.
And so it is with enormous pleasure that I write to share with you this happy news. It has been decided by six of the nine councils that you should be entrusted to my care until your trial. The Stokerton council was less than pleased with this decision, of course, which isn’t surprising in the least, considering the torment that you and your nephew have bestowed upon D’Ablo, who I am sad to report is still alive and recovering, but for his severed hand. It troubles me greatly that the Stokerton council has agreed that even though he is scarred, D’Ablo should be allowed to continue his presidency until this matter is resolved. This, as you know, is a very strange move. D’Ablo’s deformity is a disgrace. If he were any other vampire, he would be banished from Elysia and shunned. Why should our laws, our traditions bend at the will of one vampire? I can assure you that there are many in the other councils who will be watching this situation with great interest. I, for one, would like to know what he hopes to accomplish.
Your trial is set to take place in ten months’ time. A trial date for young Vladimir has not yet been discussed, but I do not think it will be long before the subject is breached. In the meantime, I will be relocating on a temporary basis to Bathory, so that you may enjoy your nephew’s company for a while longer. As none of us know what your fate will be post-trial, I think it would be best for you two to be close.
I look forward to tutoring Vladimir once again, and to seeing you when I arrive in the fall. Please secure lodgings for myself and my faithful drudge, Tristian.
Until we meet again… be well, my old friend.
Vlad read the letter again and again. The second and even the third time were barely enough to make it sink in. Otis was staying. And what’s more, they would be joined by Vikas in the fall. Vlad wouldn’t be the only vampire living in Bathory anymore. He’d have a family beyond anything that Nelly had ever been able to give him. He’d have people who really understood what it was to thirst for blood and hide your fangs in public. People who could relate to him in a way that no one else in town, not even Henry, could.
So what was with the hot ball of tension forming in Vlad’s stomach?
Vlad looked at Otis, who seemed to be waiting for his glance. “You’re staying?”
Otis nodded once, a look of uncertainty crossing his eyes. “If you want me to.”
As the initial shock wore off, Vlad couldn’t think of anything he’d want more. His vision blurred with tears, but he brushed them away with the back of his hand and cleared his throat. “It’s more than that, Otis. I don’t just want you to stay. I need you to stay.”
He glanced at Nelly as she left the room in search of tissues. “We need you to stay.”
Otis stepped closer to Vlad, putting a strong hand on his shoulder. His eyes brimmed with warmth and sincerity. “All that I have done to wrong you-not accepting you initially because of your mother’s human blood, leaving you to face D’Ablo alone, abandoning you when you needed my council most-I will make amends. That I promise you, Vladimir.”
Vlad nodded, overcome by emotion. He knew Otis would make it right, and he would finally have the comfort of his only living relative being close by. He released a shuddering breath and said, “ Thank you, Otis. For everything, but especially this.”
Otis embraced him tightly, then patted his back and let him go. Vlad had never felt so loved.
Otis smiled. “Don’t thank me yet. There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
As Vlad raised his eyebrows, Otis set the Encyclopedia Vampyrica on the table and flipped it over. Then, with a small, moist cloth, Otis wiped the back cover, removing a glyph Vlad had not realized was there. Vlad flashed him a questioning glance, and Otis grimaced. “You have not been able to read any passages that contain the word Pravus. I confess, this is my doing. I hadn’t thought you were ready. I didn’t want your thoughts clouded by this fairy tale. But, after all you’ve been through and all you’ve learned, I feel you are in a position to decide for yourself what to believe in.”
Otis swallowed hard and held Vlad’s gaze. “Please… accept an old fool’s apology.”
Vlad shook his head. “ There’s no reason to apologize, Otis. You were protecting me. I get it.”
Otis relaxed visibly. “Why don’t we celebrate my new residency over a glass of O positive? Nelly can mull some later. For now, we drink.”
Vlad offered a one-shoulder shrug. “Actually… I’m not all that hungry.”
It hadn’t seemed like a remark worth Otis’s reaction, but nevertheless, his uncle furrowed his brow and leaned closer, as if they were about to share a dire secret. “Is there something you wish to share with me, Vladimir?”
“What do you mean?”
Otis wet his lips, as if searching for the right words. “Before I left you those months ago, you were famished at every turn. But now… you seem satiated somehow. Would you care to tell me why that is?”
Images flitted through Vlad’s mind, but he clamped down on them so that Otis wouldn’t see. They were pictures of darkness, blood, alleyways, and a beautiful goth girl named Snow.
And even though he knew that the best thing he could do was to confess his mistake to the one man who would truly understand, he kept his mouth and mind shut, pressing his lips firmly together before saying, “Nope. Nothing. I guess I just got a handle on it.”
Otis nodded slowly. And what Vlad saw in his uncle’s eyes tore at his insides.
Otis knew he was lying.
But there was no way Vlad could tell him the truth, that he’d fed from the source and liked what he tasted and how the blood had made him feel. After all of Vlad’s lecturing on why it was better to drink bagged blood, after his refusal to learn how to hunt, he just couldn’t tell Otis that not only had he fed from a person, but he’d been wrong in his stubbornness. Because Vlad didn’t feel like he’d been wrong. He still thought it was a bad idea to bite people. He still didn’t plan on feeding from the source. What he intended to do was apologize to Snow, and never, ever let it happen again.
Everything would go back to the way it was. It had to.
Otis nodded, seeming to silently agree with something he was thinking. Vlad seized the moment to change the subject, and fast. “I wanted to ask you something. About Henry.”
Otis folded his arms in front of him and leaned back against the counter. “Now that I’ve bitten him, you’re wondering if Henry is my drudge.”
Vlad furrowed his brow. “How’d you know?”
“Call it a guess.” Otis smiled, then shrugged. “It’s a fairly common concern amongst newer vampires. The answer is no. Only the first vampire to administer a bite can share that bond. To me, Henry is no different now than he was before.”
Vlad sighed in relief. He’d been fretting over just how to convince his uncle that Henry deserved his freedom. Not that the thought of releasing his drudge wasn’t a painful one. But he respected Henry, and if Henry wanted freedom, he certainly deserved it. Still, Vlad would miss their connection. “He wants me to release him, Otis. And I’m going to.”
Otis looked briefly troubled, but spoke in a reassuring tone. “It’s not the end of the world to lose a friend, Vladimir. Even a friend who is bound to you by blood.”
Vlad’s voice caught in his throat. His eyes brimmed with tears at the thought of losing Henry. “ Then why does it hurt so much?”
Otis went quiet, and Vlad was almost certain he was thinking of Tomas. Just as Vlad was about to ask if his intuition was right, Otis spoke. “Because all endings have a certain amount of pain, just as all beginnings contain a certain amount of joy. It’s just the way of things. I’m sure you and Henry will manage just fine.”
As though the mention of his name had called him forth, there was a knock on the door. Vlad was not at all surprised when he opened it to find Henry there, looking happier than he’d seen him in months. It was bad enough that Vlad had to release him today. The least Henry could do was appear a bit more somber about it.
Vlad swallowed hard and averted his eyes. “Let’s go up to my room so we can talk before… well, you know.”
Henry nodded and followed him up the stairs. Once they were inside Vlad’s room, he said, “So you’re really going to do it? You’re really going to release me as your drudge?”
Vlad nodded, and Henry said, “Why?”
“Because I can’t stand seeing you bound to something you didn’t agree to. Because you deserve to be free of any kind of control. Because… because you’re my best friend. And you want me to.” The tears threatened to fall once again, but Vlad somehow managed to keep them at bay. He cleared his throat, but his voice cracked anyway. “Anyway, I just wanted to go over the procedure with you before-”
“I don’t want you to do it.”
Vlad blinked. “What?”
“I don’t want you to do it. Don’t release me.”
Vlad cocked his head. He looked at Henry with a mixture of intense relief and immense anger. “If this is a joke-”
“It’s not. I just had to make sure that you really would release me. I mean, for a long time, I really thought I wanted that. But not anymore.” Henry had grown serious, and in his eyes lurked the truth.
Vlad held his breath, too fearful that in the next second, Henry would change his mind again. “What happened to change that?”
Henry’s voice grew gruff. “You did. You saved my life in Stokerton, Vlad. And it’s not just that. The truth is I like having this connection with you. I like that you can call on me for help without either of us even realizing it. I like that we have each other’s backs-whether it’s reading the minds of random girls or fighting off ruthless vampires. I like that we’re a team. And I’d be an idiot to give that up.”
Vlad swore he saw the threat of tears in Henry’s eyes. He sighed and allowed a small smile to dance on his lips. He wasn’t losing Henry. Everything really was going to be all right. “I don’t know whether to punch you or hug you.”
“ There’s more.” Henry fumbled with his words for a minute. “I’m not going to ever ask you to mess with Melissa’s mind for me again. That was a really crappy thing of me to do, and I’m sorry.”
Vlad nodded in reply, and Henry ran his hand through his hair. “Anyway, I better get home and change before Freedom Fest. You walking over with Meredith?”
Vlad nodded again. His soul felt so much lighter. “Meeting her there, actually.”
“Cool. I’ll see you in a bit.” Henry left his room, closing the door behind him.
Vlad sat on his bed and took a deep breath. As he blew it out, he lay back and felt the stress of losing Henry leave him. It was strange, like waking from a really bad dream. And Vlad was tempted never to sleep again.