"Fortunately for me, the fine print's irrelevant." His smug words were still floating there, lighter than air, as he crossed the room toward the already-injured maid.
Evie's head swam with the absurdity that had been inundating her since that dinner, since his announcement. Brides, Dracula...He was drinking the maid's blood. From her ankle. His mouth was clamped hard around her ankle, and blood, her blood...Squeamishness turned Evie's stomach, and her head was already pounding from the hit she'd taken. She was in a daze as she found herself dryly saying, "A rich guy who feeds parasitically on the expendable working class. Classic."
He bit down harder on the maid, and the woman let out a yelp. As a punishment? Evie processed it, belatedly; the maid wasn't here for no reason. He had noticed Evie's sympathy toward the help, and he had brought this maid to chew on as a punishment to her for running away.
Because she was not expendable; they were.
"Stop that," she said sharply. How much blood could he drink from this poor woman before she died or... "Do you have to hurt people, or do you just enjoy it?"
His chest shook once, in a manner that resembled a grim laugh. His jaws released the maid's ankle; his hands dropped her leg. With a lax, leisurely slowness, he wiped the blood from his lips with the back of his hand.
"Emmaline left because you were killing maids, right? And you didn't have it in you to change that. Lucy wants to travel, but I guess she's not allowed? You're not much of a groom to your brides."
"My, but we have a modern woman on our hands, don't we?" he said. His handsome face was again arranged in that grin, that thin veneer of friendliness painted over the cold entitlement of a deeply manipulative and controlling monster.
"I thought you said you didn't like sycophants. If you really prefer real conversation, this is it. In real conversations, people are allowed to judge you for the things you do and say."
"You're not trying to have a real conversation; you're trying to throw a tantrum." You're being obstinate. That was what he'd said when she'd accused him of cyberstalking her. His expression now was similar to how it had looked then: a hapless incredulity, gradually hardening into indignation.
"You're kidnapping me! If someone locked you in their mansion and forced you to marry them, would you be calm and collected about it?"
He chuckled dismissively. Of course. Had he ever been made to feel vulnerable in his life? To feel like prey? If he ever had, it would have been centuries ago. "I am offering to share immortality, to share riches-"
"Offer me compassion, instead," she snapped. "How about that? What are your riches worth to me, or Lucy, or even Viktoria, if we aren't allowed to go anywhere or..."
"Oh, do tell me where in the world you'll be more comfortable than you are here."
"More...comfortable?" If there were room for an incredulous laugh in her, it would have come out then. "More comfortable, did you say? Than Murder Mansion? I don't know, Walt, let me think."
"You wanted to live in this mansion. You said so." He was hovering ever-closer to her face. Cornering her against the luxurious chaise. His fingers, now long and clawlike and charred-looking, skimmed her damp cheeks. He went back and forth between taking her rebellion as a matter of amusement and a matter of the highest offense, but he seemed to be gravitating more toward the former, now.
"Did you honestly think that killing people wouldn't be a factor for me?" she gritted out. "Or did you just not care that I would be unhappy and afraid?"
"Afraid, afraid. Afraid of what? No one here has harmed you. No one here will...unless you try to run again. You promised," he said, calmly but with a new firmness, "not to leave me." His ice blue eyes bore into hers. "You'll only be unhappy here as long as you choose to be. If you just relax, I can give you a beautiful life." He pressed a kiss to her face before she could think to stop him. "As beautiful as you." His lips met hers, and this time she had the presence of mind to push him away.
"You don't have to kill the maids," she said. "You choose to."
"Evie," he said, drawing out her name like she was a beloved but misbehaving child. He spoke his next sentence just as slowly, with just as much indulgent condescension: "Blood is my food. I have to get it from somewhere. And despite what the new folklore might have you believe, it has to come from humans, to give me any nourishment at all."
"Ask. Them. To. Donate." (Walt sat back as she spoke, sighing dramatically as if she were spinning fairy tales.) "You could draw a pint of blood from every maid once a week and build up a nice fridge of blood bags for yourself."
There was a gagging sound, outside the room.
Walt tutted chidingly. "Viktoria. Are you listening in?"
In answer, the lean woman opened the door and drifted into the room. "She wants us to drink it cold? Can you think of anything worse?"
"Murder, Viktoria," Evie said, feeling exhausted. "Murder is worse." Their inability to see the value of lives that weren't their own was almost too disgusting to bear. But she had to bear it, didn't she? Because she was a prisoner here.
"Lucy, are you out there as well?" Walt inquired.
Sure enough, Lucy advanced meekly into the room. "Sorry. I didn't mean to eavesdrop."
"You really are Emmaline's great-granddaughter, aren't you?" Viktoria said, smirking at Evie. "You Alexanders and your bleeding hearts."
"Oh, I can't imagine that's our brand," Evie grumbled, thinking of Oliver. Good old cousin Oliver, smiling in her face and plotting to marry her off to Dracula himself. "Is the idea of refrigerating the blood your only gripe with not killing your waitstaff? Because it's a pretty flimsy one."
"Speaking of, are you done with this one, love?" Viktoria asked Walt, tapping the lightheaded maid like she was a half-full bottle of wine.
"Viktoria," he chided again. "Play nice."
"Maybe she wouldn't feel the need to be catty if she weren't bored out of her mind staying in the same place for centuries on end," Evie suggested.
"Oh dear," Viktoria said, sounding simultaneously amused and incensed. "Are you trying to pity me?"
"I'm trying to get you a plane ride to Las Vegas with Walt's credit card. Maybe if you weren't playing crabs-in-a-bucket 24/7, you could help me unionize this household."
Suddenly, Viktoria was in her face, waggling her pointed fingers tauntingly. "Careful there, little halfling. Don't forget who-"
"What even is that?" Evie asked, fixating on the substance coating the vampires' claws. "Soot?"
"I've always thought it was like frostbite," Lucy mused, "or some sort of rot? But I suppose I don't know."
"So nice to see you three getting along," Walt said. "Get her ready for the wedding, Lucy. Viktoria, stay back with me."
Lucy nodded, helping Evie to her feet.
"I will not marry into this," Evie insisted, awash with vertigo and nausea.
"But you will," Walt said calmly. "And Evelyn, my love...if there is any more bad behavior, the remaining maids will suffer the consequences. Of that you can be certain. Choose wisely."
"Do you, Walter, take Evelyn Alexander as your wife?"
"Do you, Evelyn, take Walter De Ville as your husband, to love, honor, serve, and obey for all of your eternal life?"
She hesitated. The enticements and threats that had gotten her to this point had all been so straightforward; she hadn't expected this, of all things, to be the mentally demanding part. To love, honor, serve, and obey? Why did she get rules? He hadn't gotten any rules! And what did agreeing to them mean? If jokingly accepting a marriage proposal was taken as binding, then what could she ever verbally commit to without second thought?
Walt was giving her that cold look that was no doubt expected to get her back in line...like someone who didn't like sycophants would do.
Evie's heart pounded. She could not get any more of these maids killed. She took a deep breath. This dress...Realistically, she knew that it fit her well, but it felt like it was constricting her. "I will take him as my husband," she said nervously.
Her stilted tone and the slight tremor in her voice seemed to thaw Walt; he smiled quizzically at her. She was off-script for the wedding, but back on script for the larger performance; the clumsy, out-of-her-element young lady, stumbling through the dance. 'Get out of your head.'
"Just say 'I do'," he whispered.
"He said different things for me than he said for you," she whispered back, watching the doting in his eyes transform into mild incredulity. "Is all that stuff contractually binding?"
"Love, honor, serve, and obey are where you draw the line?"
"He didn't say it to you."
This caused him to roll his eyes but not revert to his cold disposition. "Ask her again," he quietly instructed the officiant, his usual imperiousness edged with lofty annoyance. "Just the part about taking me for a husband, loving, and honoring."
The officiant complied, restating the question without the obeying and serving stuff. Evie was surprised by the compromise. Of course, it was a compromise between equality and inequality, which was still inequality. But he had compromised at all, cutting the number of verbs in half. And his choice of verbs. From what she'd seen of him, she would have expected him to keep "obey" in the mix. Maybe her point about his supposed dislike for sycophants had gotten through to him. Or maybe he would rather keep the ceremony moving with minimal embarrassment and believed that relenting in a small way would disarm her into agreeing. Which was certainly what happened.
"I do," she said, glancing at the maid who was bound up nearby. Not on my watch, she thought. The murder would have to stop, one way or another.
When Walt drew his inky blood for her to drink, she closed her eyes and held her breath and pretended it was some kind of bad-tasting medicine. She drank as little as she felt she could get away with, and...
She felt it travel through her. It crept, it spread, it itched and tickled and she felt herself changing. The fangs that sprouted within her mouth occupied most of her attention; her lips didn't know how to handle the sharp new arrivals. How to sit comfortably around them. Almost like when she'd gotten braces, in her youth.
The officiant prompted her to share her blood with Walt, now. To complete the ritual. Seeing that she was dazed, Walt took her hands and gently guided through the motions of opening a path for her blood to escape, using her newly-clawlike finger. Her blood...it was almost like his. It was black in some places, red in others, like an ice cream swirl with both chocolate and vanilla.
This time, she did laugh. Deliriously. Walt drank from her, his lips framing her small injury, his tongue caressing it, his fangs pressed to her skin but not puncturing it. He could have just bitten her, but this ritual was a performance of consent, just like asking her to marry him. Symbolically, he had offered his blood and she had offered hers; neither had taken what was not given.
Another change came over them. All of them: brides and groom. She heard a delighted sound from Lucy. A contended sigh from Walt. Heavy breathing from herself. Her heart was racing wildly.
"She'll be a fainter," said a soft, velvetty voice, right by her ear. When had Viktoria walked over? "Just like Emmaline."
Walt nodded, smirking at his first bride before looking again at Evie, his expression softening. "My love..."
Evie collapsed into his arms, before he could finish. Her muscles felt like they were being decommissioned and rebuilt in real time. Everything in her was being sapped of strength and supplied with strength all at once. She twitched minutely, in Walt's grasp, and his hand moved to stroke her hair. So caring, when he had his way. Would her chances to defy him increase, or decrease, now that this was done?
(Had she really saved any of the maids, or were they to be entrees at the reception regardless? She couldn't allow that. If she fainted, she might not have a choice...)
"It will be over soon," he promised her softly.
It's over now, she thought.