art by Richard Gagnon
by K.C. Shaw
Friedrich drew his knife over the block of chocolate. A thin strip formed behind the blade, curling like a dark rosebud. Perfect.
He set the curl in the middle of the parfait glass, on top of the custard. It was beautiful but too studied, even with the ruby juice pooling around the edges. Friedrich opened a drawer and found the nutmeg grater.
A sprinkle of fresh nutmeg and the parfait was a work of art. Friedrich leaned against the counter to admire it. It should be on a magazine cover, with him lounging in the background in front of the copper-bottomed pots hanging in the window. He'd smile--casual, relaxed, the chef at home--but not too widely. He wouldn't want his fangs to show.
The kitchen door opened and Friedrich glanced up. Naturally, it was Nikolita; she was never late. She stood in the doorway, her pale face haughty as usual, her hair like a black silk scarf. She wore tight black leather softened only by a necklace of green beads. Looking at her always made Friedrich's mouth water.
"Nikolita, my sweet," he breathed, and hurried over to kiss her hand. Her skin felt cool and smooth under his lips. "Taste this before we leave. I've just made it."
Nikolita flicked a glance at the parfait. "What is it?"
"Vanilla custard, with juice of the blood orange blended--"
"I don't know why you think I'd like that. You're too obsessed with food." Nikolita eased her sharp words by stroking Friedrich's cheek with her fingertips. He shuddered with the hunger her touch always kindled in him. "Where's the living essence in food? It's nothing but fuel for the body." Her fingers traced down his throat, long nails gouging hard enough to leave welts. He smiled and closed his eyes.
She removed her hand and Friedrich sighed. "You're such a tease, Nikolita," he said, opening his eyes. "You--oh, sweet, why did you bring your thrall?"
A human girl with limp reddish hair and pasty skin stood behind Nikolita. Her clothes were drab and she wore a leather strap around her neck like a dog-collar. Nikolita said, "I want to stop by Ivan's tonight and trade her in for a new one. You don't mind, do you?"
Friedrich did mind, but he could hardly say so. "I wish you'd wash her." He switched to English and said to the girl, "Shoo. Out of my clean kitchen."
The girl retreated, but her shadowed eyes were fixed on the parfait. The tip of her tongue stole out and touched her lips.
Friedrich gave Nikolita an injured look. "You're not going to bring her into the restaurant, are you?"
"Of course not. She can wait in the car."
Friedrich picked up the parfait and offered it to Nikolita one last time. "You won't try it?" he said.
"We're going to eat." Nikolita said the word as though it was dirty. "Why should I eat twice in one day?"
"Because I made it for you, sweet," Friedrich said, hating the longing that crept into his voice.
But Nikolita's expression softened a little. "Darling, it's lovely. You're a genius. Now put it away and let's go."
Friedrich put the parfait in the refrigerator. He heard Nikolita's thrall sigh almost inaudibly.
They dined at The Orangery. "I've heard marvelous things about the food," Friedrich said, sitting back in the velvet-cushioned chair. The dim lighting encouraged intimacy, but Nikolita seemed unmoved. She picked up a knife and tested the tip. From her pursed lips and quirked eyebrow, it wasn't sharp enough.
Friedrich ordered for them both and tried to make conversation. "I've been expanding my repertoire," he said, and Nikolita gave him a quick, interested glance. "Instead of only trying recipes that appeal to me, I've been working with one ingredient, learning all its uses and flavors, experimenting far beyond my usual…" He fell silent when he noticed Nikolita's expression.
"Darling, don't you think you're taking this a little too far? It's unnatural. I appreciate that everyone needs a hobby, but can't you take up fencing or, er, watercolors?"
Friedrich looked down at his still-empty plate. "I enjoy cooking."
"Oh, I'm sure you do. But perhaps you're spending just a little bit too much of your time on it."
"Perhaps." Friedrich looked up at her. Her dark eyes caught the candlelight, and her lips--ah, her lips made him ache with longing. "I do it for you, my sweet," he whispered. "If you'd only taste what I cook, I'm sure you would understand."
She smiled. "I understand," she said, and Friedrich thought she probably did. He felt inadequate in the face of her indifference, unmanned by her kindness. Possibly she even pitied him. What other reason would she have for agreeing to dine with him tonight?
But her beauty, her nearness made him try again, even though he felt wounded already. "I'm working with blood oranges now. Their flavor reminds me of you: sweet, tempered with an almost painful tartness. Rich and cool."
Nikolita laughed. Friedrich's spirits rose.
The meal was a marvel to Friedrich's palate, although he worried about Nikolita's obvious impatience. She kept talking of the things she needed to do later, as if the meal was an irritating necessity.
"I must get a new thrall. I've been putting it off far too long. The one I have is simply all used up."
"If you treated your thralls properly, they would last longer," Friedrich said. He thought of the girl waiting for them in the car; she had been curled up on the back seat, looking small and frail.
"It's easier to trade in for a new one."
They skipped dessert. Friedrich escorted Nikolita to the car, but before he could start the engine, she put her hand on his knee. His pulse immediately began to race.
"It's dark," she murmured. "We're alone."