Once, when they dined together, she fed on a pomegranate. It was his offering to her, her first taste of such a mythic fruit, and with steady hands she accepted. The smile she offered him in return was warm and sweet with eagerness, and Vlad rejoiced to see it.
It was enough that they were alone together, enough for now to be lost in each other as he gently and patiently initiated her into his world. As she allowed him to, again and again.
As Mina carefully scored the fruit with a knife, broke it open, and looked into its raw red heart, he whispered to her that pomegranates were said to grow in the garden of paradise; the true forbidden fruit which held all knowledge. In its sweetness, he promised her, she would find a taste of that lost paradise.
She wavered for a moment upon hearing that – because of his words or perhaps the dark vow in his voice, he did not know. But her arm froze in mid-movement and her eyes flickered to his own as if searching for his intentions.
All at once, she seemed to sense how far she had strayed over the weeks since they first met, and how profoundly she had already changed. She was storming her own limits, forgetting her maiden promises, abandoning convention and guilty conscience, and welcoming her fall – perhaps knowing he was what waited for her in the pit below. Suddenly alert to the foreign fruit on her plate, the sin in its seeds, and the crimson of her gown, his beloved knew she was growing into something darker and wilder before his eyes.
And nothing could change that however quiet and still he was, leaning back in his chair and content only to look at her, there was power in him – and violence. He had dined in a field of carnage once, surrounded by the cries of the dying and the stench of those already dead. He had bitten into living hearts and drunk from goblets of cursed blood. His mouth spoke in the tongue of the low creatures, rivers of stolen blood ran through his body, and his true face was always hidden from her sight. No matter how safe and cherished she was, she felt it. No matter how well he knew she must never see the cruelty he was capable of, its shadow passed over her.
Uncertainty now had her in its grip and he could not break her free. Her delicate features clouded, and as she looked down at the fruit in her hands as though it might be a poisoned chalice, perhaps she was thinking of ancient myths and age-old warnings – of Eve and the Serpent, of Persephone and the Lord of the Dead, of eternal bonds and fatal temptations.
His gaze urged her to partake, to surrender. To trust him to guide her. The fruit's taste was already on the air between them; its fragrance scenting her palate and tempting her breath.
You will not fall, he vowed. Not with me by your side. You will fly.
Mina did not disappoint. He watched intently as she battled with herself, and caught the very instant when doubt and fear, and perhaps reason too, all absconded and abandoned her to him. Bravely, defiantly, she broke away from hesitation and returned to him of her own will. When her hand moved again, it did not tremble. As she brought the first seed to her lips, her eyes never left his.
It pleased him to watch her bite into the fruit and sip at its juices, and he smiled for her. It always pleased him to see her eat, to watch the soft movements of her mouth and the pulsing of her throat.
She paused again before yielding to her next bite – but this time, Vlad could recognise that she was anticipating, perhaps aware of his intoxication. One brazen taste followed another as Mina softly skinned each slice with her teeth, eyes sliding shut for a bare and delirious moment; her response only intensified by her earlier fear. His chuckle was warm and gentle as the candles' light, wishing only to wrap her in reassurance and acceptance as she ripened for him. Her indulgence was beauty – her pleasure, entrancing.
The pomegranate's nectar ran and coloured her lips, then escaped as a line trailed from the corner of her mouth to her chin before she could catch it. The stain was slim and red, and brought to mind the path his fingertip might follow, grazing down on a journey across her skin; a crimson phantom of the caress he longed to bestow on her. It flowed like blood, like a falling tear, inviting him to kiss it from her.
Unbidden and unwanted, the image of Elisabeta's broken body returned to him. Her mouth – innocent, stained. Blood seeping from her and water clinging to her, shining in the candlelight, and her mouth always bleeding. Her soft face was before him again, pale with death but for that streak of red streaming from her cold lips. A mark of sin, of suicide and damnation, and a hurt a thousand futile caresses could never take away or bring comfort to. How like it this stain was. How perfectly Mina reflected her in this moment – there was blood dripping from her lips, blood he had brought upon her, blood he could not kiss away – and for once, Vlad wished to close his eyes to it, for it not to be. For only a fleeting moment, to not have the knowledge of what he truly was, and the danger in her destiny and his desires, of how she would starve for centuries and plague generations alongside him. To not have to consider, to imagine –
How easily his princess could be taken away from him again.
Then the moment passed and Mina, like one emerging from a dream, embarrassedly wiped at the stain on her face. She caught his look and mistook his stare, smiling at him with humour.
And just like that, time righted itself once more and Mina was alive and radiant and so near him, where no harm would ever come to her, and yet the fear remained.
Her smile faded as she perceived his change in mood, and there was nothing he would not have given to revive it and restore her happiness. Seeing Mina as she was now – blossoming for him like a night-flower, her face etched with care and warmth – annihilated memories of Elisabeta's lifeless body in ways wearied centuries never could. They were not in a tomb, but a room of music, luxury and secrecy, and he was a living man again; gazing at his bride enraptured.
But to be in his arms was to be wooed by a phial of poison, and to reclaim her was to ask her to understand and drink deep, and to ignore the flowers which withered beneath the shadow of his presence. And still, he wanted to hold her, to have her, to take her. If she would reach out to him once again, then he would hold her with arms that held the rippling winds and wild storms, and shelter her from the wrath of heaven and hell alike. And if she would only take all he laid before her, then she need never be afraid again. He would capture her soul, offer her eternity for it, and keep it forever – somewhere soft, unfound and deep. Always, he would keep her safe with him, beyond the reach of death and separation.
The shadows of dancing couples, addled and laughing behind the frosted glass, moved across her troubled face as Vlad rose from his seat to approach her. Before she could speak her question, he smiled and lifted a single long finger to touch her as he had desired; first resting at her chin and tenderly sweeping up to her curved mouth and parted lips, brushing away every trace of cruel red. Mina's eyes remained open, soft and steady, and she touched her fingers to his – holding him, inviting him to stay, as she mouthed a craving, trembling kiss to them.
Vlad stood on the brink of eternity and vowed to never give up this paradise again.