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art by Richard Gagnon

Blood Oranges

K.C. Shaw lives in East Tennessee with her ankle-biting cat and a ridiculous number of books. Visit her website at kcshaw.net.

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."
The thrall was half-asleep in the back seat, but Friedrich knew the girl wouldn't bother them. He slid closer to Nikolita and chanced a kiss. She didn't pull away. Her mouth tasted of the wine they'd drunk with dinner.
Nikolita nibbled at his throat, her fangs always just on the verge of drawing blood. Friedrich's breathing sounded ragged in the close silence of the car's interior. When he thought he couldn't bear the intensity of his desire anymore, she bit down.
Waves of pleasure broke through him. He groaned as she swallowed and swallowed, her mouth hot on his skin and her body pressed close to his. When at last the wound closed and the waves became ripples that died away, leaving Friedrich shaky with blood loss, Nikolita whispered, "Next time, darling, you can bite me."
She sat back, smiling. Friedrich couldn't start the car immediately. He waited until his breathing and pulse slowed to normal, and even then it took two tries before his hand found the strength to turn the key.
"Take me to Ivan's, darling, I've got to trade in this thrall."
Friedrich, flushed with pleasure--and the promise of more, next time Nikolita favored him with her company--said, "Why don't you give her to me?"
"I thought you didn't like thralls."
"Perhaps I'm coming around to your way of thinking."
Friedrich kissed Nikolita one last time before they parted, and pressed his fangs against her lip so she wouldn't forget. "Tell me, sweet," he breathed, standing on the doorstep with her, "what dish could I cook that would interest you?"
She looked amused and a little exasperated. "Surprise me. I must go to Ivan's now, with or without my old thrall. Call me, darling."
Friedrich watched her walk away and discovered he was smiling. The bite on his throat ached, a reminder of the night's success.
The thrall remained too, a less welcome reminder. He shouldn't have been so impulsive. "Come on," he said to the girl in English, and she followed him inside with her head bowed.
The parfait's perfection would have faded a little in the refrigerator, but it would still taste good. He said to the thrall, "Are you hungry?"
She nodded, hope in her eyes. Friedrich paused in the doorway to the kitchen, noticing the grime in the creases of her skin, the greasy sheen to her hair. "Wash first, then you can eat. This way."
He took her to the guest bathroom. "Take a good long shower. Use soap. When you're clean, put on this robe. Don't put your dirty clothes on again." He spoke as clearly as he could, not sure how much she could understand. "Come to the kitchen when you're clean."
He heard the shower start up almost before he'd shut the door behind him. Pleased with himself for being so kind to the girl, Friedrich returned to the kitchen and took the parfait out of the fridge. He set it on the wooden table in the corner, along with a spoon and napkin. At least someone would enjoy the parfait.
Humming to himself, he began to pick blood oranges out of the crate in the pantry. He was so intent on plans for his next recipe, he forgot all about the thrall.
She shuffled into the kitchen half an hour later, while Friedrich was juicing blood oranges. The fruits reminded him of tiny suns, gold and red on the outside, ruby on the inside.
He glanced up at the thrall, who was wrapped in the peach-colored bathrobe. She looked much better now that she was clean. Her red-blonde hair shone, but her throat was ugly with bite marks that had been hidden by her collar.
"Sit down," Friedrich said, holding the chair for her. Nikolita would laugh at his courtesy to a thrall. "Eat, and tell me what you think."
He hovered, watching closely as she picked up the spoon and dipped it into the custard. She put the spoon into her mouth. Friedrich held his breath.
She smiled and he relaxed. "It's good," she said. Her voice sounded rusty.
He watched her eat and wished Nikolita had tried the parfait. He should have insisted. He would have to make his next recipe irresistible.
"Does it need anything?" he asked the thrall. "It's not too sweet?"
"It's perfect."
Of course a thrall's opinion didn't matter very much, Friedrich reminded himself, but he was pleased anyway. He beamed at the girl, feeling benevolent.
His attention strayed to her throat with a pang of worry. She'd been so dirty, and the wounds looked so angry. It was possible they were infected. He walked around her and bent down to sniff at the wounds.
She stiffened and her spoon stilled. Friedrich didn't smell infection, but to be certain, he touched the wounds with his tongue.
Nikolita's scent lingered on the bite marks, as aromatic as the blood orange juice on his hands. He drew his tongue over the wounds, remembering the bite Nikolita had given him earlier. His own wound throbbed gently in time with his pulse. A long, warm drink would be just the thing to help him focus on his next recipe.
No, he would not be greedy. He straightened up and stepped away from the girl. "Go on and finish. Would you like a sandwich?"
She blinked at him as though she didn't understand. He fixed her a ham sandwich anyway, his mind straying back to his recipe. While she ate it, and drank the glass of sherry he poured her, he juiced the rest of the blood oranges.
His biggest mixing bowl was full of crimson juice now. Beautiful.
"Done?" he said, noticing the thrall watching him.
She nodded. "She likes you, you know."
"Who?" Friedrich said, disconcerted. Thralls never spoke without prompting.
"Nikolita. She talks about you a lot."
Friedrich wavered between wanting to believe the thrall and distrusting her. She probably only wanted more food. Then again… thralls overheard many things, and this one had repaid his kindness with information.
So Nikolita talked about him. He poured the blood orange juice into a roasting pan to help hide his smile. Perhaps Nikolita was talking about him right now, or at least thinking about him. He hoped she was looking forward to lying back while he stroked her throat with his tongue and lips, nipping gently with his fangs while her ardor increased.
He carried the pan over to the table, carefully so he wouldn't spill any of the juice. "Will you help me with my next recipe?" he asked the thrall. He set the pan in front of her. "It's only blood orange juice," he added when he saw her expression. "Taste."
He dipped a finger in the juice and touched it to her lips. She licked it and made a face. "It's sour."
"Tart," he corrected her. "It's for a marinade."
He held her hair back and pushed her forward gently so that when he slit her throat, the blood gushed into the pan.
Friedrich kept an eye on the oven timer. Slow roasting was the trick to tender meat, but he didn't want to overcook it. The roast had been in the oven all day, filling the house with mouth-watering smells.
He took his phone from his pocket and dialed Nikolita's number. As he listened to the tinny ringing, he touched the bite mark on his throat. The faint pressure of his fingers made it hurt, which sent a thrill of pleasure through his body.
"Hello, Friedrich," Nikolita said, her voice low and warm. Perhaps she'd been thinking of him.
"Nikolita, my sweet, may I intrude on your time again tonight?" He glanced at the oven, where the roast was almost done. "If you'd care to dine with me about eleven, I think I've found a recipe you'll like very much."
He smiled and touched the bite wounds again.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Author Comments

I love finding out people's hobbies. You can tell so much about people by the way they spend their free time: the secretary who takes up archery, the CEO who reads romances, the plumber who hunts ghosts. Why shouldn't vampires have hobbies, too? As soon as I had that thought, "Blood Oranges" fell into place more quickly than any other story I've ever written. Of course, if Friedrich collected stamps, the story would have been a lot different.

- K.C. Shaw
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