Max had done his homework well. He had a full list in his head of things he wanted to see, and I indulged him. We got into the car, and I told the driver to take us wherever Max wanted to go. A ride through the city was not going to hurt anyone. Trotuş and Spânu were sitting in the front, leaving the entire backseat just for us. Max’s guards were following in another car, but even so, I refused to let him get out when we made a stop.
“I can’t guarantee your safety out there in the open,” I told him, cutting his chance of arguing. “Who knows who’s been to the Academy out of all the people in the street? Not all of them stay in active service, and I can’t tell them apart. Do you know a third of our population takes at least a short term at the Academy? It’s like military service, only better. People are actually asking for it.”
“That’s because you’ve indoctrinated them since infancy that this is the way to go,” was Max’s honest reply.
I shrugged. It worked for us. No death by a vampire in over five centuries, and each year brought a new record. “My tour, my rules,” I said to put an end to the discussion.
I did, however, take my tour guide role seriously and told him the history of the things he was seeing. He listened, nodding quietly, and asked pertinent questions. Nothing he couldn’t have found printed in a tourist guide but also nothing strange enough to raise my suspicions. This wasn’t a scheme to get somewhere. He was genuinely interested in the history of our city. And he didn’t insist on getting out of the car. That was a point in his favor, though I had a feeling he was only humoring me.
At the end of our tour, the car stopped across the street from the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. Victory Square was just around the corner.
“Oh, some folk art, how nice,” Max said, and I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or he really meant it.
“No, we’re going over there.” I pointed forward with my chin.
“The Natural History Museum? I can’t imagine seeing anything new in there. Aside from the dinosaurs, most species went extinct during my lifetime. Are you trying to make me feel old?”
“Not there. There.”
Right in front of us, a blackened building with a red V on top rose from the sidewalk, looming over the people passing by—a more sinister kind of museum. The building had caught fire back in the nineteenth century and had been restored several times since, but the damage suffered by the façade had been preserved as a statement saying that no matter what happened to us, we were still left standing.
I didn’t think I’d seen Max with a lack of words before. The look on his face told me he knew what that V stood for. He lowered his head to take a better look at the building through the windshield. “Isn’t it closed at this hour?”
Bathed in the twilight, the building sucked in the light something fierce. Nothing ever managed to liven up those dark walls.
“Don’t worry about it. They’ll open for us.”
“You mean for you.”
“Oh, they’d open for you too. They’d love to experiment on you. They haven’t had a living specimen in—” I pretended to think about it “—way too long.”
“I think you’re serious.” Max gave me a blank stare, and then a twinkle lit up his eyes. “Let’s go then!” He was out of the car before I could blink.
“No, damn… wait!” I rushed after him, jumping out of the same door he used.
The pandurs formed a wide circle around us. Only a dozen steps separated us from the main entrance, but I couldn’t help glancing warily up and down the street, anxious to get inside. If we lost Max in front of the V Museum, and the word got out, that would be a terrible blow for our reputation. President Stănescu would not be pleased.
“So this is how it feels,” Max spoke quietly to himself, stopping briefly on top of the front steps.
He took one long, curious look at the building, and we walked in. Two pandurs remained outside, while the heavy oak doors with iron frames closed behind us with a sound of rattled chains. “Uhh… creepy,” said Max.
I squeezed his arm in warning to keep quiet, or at least act normal. The custodian was coming out of the small office at the end of the hall.
“Miss Cantacuzino, long time no see,” the old man said, bringing his brittle hands together, the corners of his lips curling up to form the beginning of a smile.
“It’s been a long time indeed,” I said, returning the smile. Several years even, but the custodian and I were old friends.
“Would you like a guided tour?”
“No need, Mr. Kloetzer. We’ll be fine.”
“I thought so.” He nodded. “Well, you know the way.” He gestured farther down the hallway. “I’ll be in the office when you’re ready to leave,” he said, not giving Max the slightest look.
“Thank you. Come.” I pulled Max deeper into the museum.
“And no playing with the exhibits!” We heard Mr. Kloetzer calling after us.
“What was that about?” Max asked.
“Just me being naughty as a kid.” I chuckled and headed around the corner, where the real museum began. The blood red walls and dim lightning made the room look smaller than it really was.
“How naughty?” Max wanted to know.
“I used to come here often. I was fascinated by this place.” I looked around and noticed that not much had changed since then. “I also liked to play with the exhibited items.” I smirked a little at the memories.
“Most girls like to play with dolls at that age.”
“Not when your parents are members of the Little Council. No…” I shook my head. “Coming here gave me a sense of purpose. We were fighting the bad guys. I used to know how to use every torture device displayed in here.”
“I bet you still do,” Max said, taunting.
I glanced at him from the corner of my eye and smiled briefly. I did, though I had never used them for real. I was not a torturer.
The big painting in the middle of the room was impossible to ignore, and we stopped in front to look at it.
“This is how it all started,” I said. “Vlad Ţepeş.”
“Yes. Well, the name came later… In the beginning, Ţepeş was a king too busy fighting the Ottomans to care about a few peasants being ripped apart or drained of blood.”
“His wife got attacked. The poor woman threw herself off a tower to escape being eaten alive. She jumped into the river, but she couldn’t swim and thus she drowned.” I raised my shoulders. “Such a tragedy.”
“So all this was for a woman.”
“Yes. When Ţepeş returned from battle and heard what happened from the chambermaid, who miraculously survived the bite, he ordered all the fanged ones to be killed. He even paid two gold coins for proof of killing. He paid more for bringing them in alive. Those, he had staked on two meter tall wooden poles, sharpened at the tip, and he made sure the tip went straight through their hearts.”
Max couldn’t suppress a shiver. “Ouch.”
“Yes… so for a while, the roads were lined up with these scarecrow-slash-vampire corpses, scaring the crap out of everyone.”
“That sounds very much like a legend exaggerated over time,” Max commented.
“Maybe… but still, we’re here.” And they weren’t, not anymore. “Ţepeş wasn’t stupid. He figured out quickly that a lot of luck was needed for a human to kill a vampire. So he delegated members of his council to study them. This is how the Little Council was formed.”
We moved into the next room where several sketches and paintings hung on the walls, showing scenes with vampires being staked, impaled on poles, or in the process of being tortured. Skulls and various tools decorated the place. A big wooden chest rested by the wall. It was open and filled with sharp teeth from several hundred dead vampires.
Max stopped near the chest with his head lowered, lost in thought. I couldn’t see his eyes to figure out what he was thinking, so I kept quiet. He’d speak when he was ready.
“From the experiments?” he asked in a low voice.
“No. These were brought as proof of killing one so people could get their reward,” I said. “Five thousand three hundred twenty-six. The last fangs brought in. I’ve counted them once.”
“You must have been one peculiar child.”
“Oh, I thought it was cool. But these I liked best.” I walked to the pedestal on the side where several devices were displayed. “This one.” I pointed at one metal contraption with leather bands attached to the sides. “It was used for keeping a vampire’s mouth open to pull the teeth out.” I showed him the pliers next to it. “I used to take one of the skulls from over there, put the contraption on and pretend to…” I mimed pulling out the teeth. “Once, I dropped the skull on the floor, and a fang broke. Mr. Kloetzer was so mad at me that he banned me from coming here for a whole month. When I returned, I discovered he’d had those high shelves built so I couldn’t reach them anymore.” I sighed. Ah, the good old times.
“Didn’t you have any friends?”
“I did, but Rodica hated this place, and Ştefan was more interested in video games.” And Radu wasn’t part of the gang yet. Not that he was anymore. Bad memories. I shrugged. “And I had dance classes right around the corner.”
“Well, it only lasted for a couple of years—winters mostly,” I said. “Then, I discovered boys and—”
“You were too busy chasing after them.”
“More like the other way around.” I laughed. “But yeah, that too…” Some steamy moments with Ştefan came to mind, and I shook my head. Those times were gone too. “Come, there’s a torture chair in the other room.” I pulled him by the arm towards the door. “And a cage I want you to test.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to test some of those things on me?” Max pointed back at the instruments lying on the table. “Kloetzer seemed to believe you might like that.”
“Maybe, but the man upstairs wouldn’t.”
“The President. He must have brought you here for a reason, and I don’t particularly want to get on his bad side. Too much paperwork to do if we needed to change him.”
“So it’s all politics to you?”
“Unfortunately, sometimes it has to be politics.” You had to know which ones to let slide in order to be owed favors in return. And next time, when it mattered to me, I would collect. This wasn’t the right time to accuse the President of high treason, especially when I didn’t know exactly what this was about. Besides, he wasn’t the worst President we had ever had. Aside from that, his health wasn’t great, and there was a good chance he wasn’t going to run for another term.
Max nodded in understanding and looked at the heavy chair. The iron work was rough but solid. I had spent many hours sitting on it, playing with things or doing homework. The wall in front was empty, being used as a cinema screen to project documentaries or real life footage for those with a strong stomach. I didn’t think it was a good idea to play the movies. Even I didn’t like them much, although I had studied them with fresh eyes after my return from college. But Max had to have his limits too, and I didn’t want to push them. I turned instead towards the cage made of iron bars at our right. The door was open.
“I was wondering about this,” I said. “Would you mind stepping inside?”
His eyebrows arched up as if asking whether I was serious. I was. “All right.” Max entered the cage and turned to face me. “Now what?”
“Nothing. I was just curious to see how it looked with a vampire inside.” They might not have worn expensive designer suits or sported a modern haircut, but the sight was close enough. “Can you bend the bars?”
Max inspected the cage surrounding him and placed his hands on the bars near the door. His fingers clenched. He pulled and then stopped. “It might take some effort to do it,” he said.
I grinned, knowing he didn’t want to reveal how strong he was. “Well, I suppose there weren’t that many old vampires back then. It was quite useful at the time,” I said. “Anyway, we don’t use them anymore. We just kill them now.”
“Of course,” he said sarcastically, but he didn’t look disturbed when he stepped out.
The next room was decorated with portraits of our most famous vampire hunters. They were all dead by now, so we passed quickly through it.
“No modern techniques?” Max wondered when we reached a small foyer that signaled the end of our tour.
“No. This is a museum of history. The rumor is that somewhere in the basement they still have a living one.”
“And is there?”
“I could never find out. And I can’t just ask on official channels. The paperwork would be just—” I looked at the ceiling “—insane, if there is one.” The amount of laws broken by the hypothetical presence of such vampires within our borders for so many years would be enough to take down the entire government and, possibly, the Little Council too. I shook my head and said, “I think that’s enough sightseeing for today.”
Max didn’t move. We stared at each other for a long moment with no fear on either side, just curiosity. “Why did you bring me here?” he asked, breaking the silence.
“I wanted you to know who you’re dealing with. This is who we are.” The killing, the torture, everything, I added silently to myself. “Whatever you were promised, I wouldn’t trust them.”
“So why warn me then? If you think they’ll betray me, and I’m assuming this implies some beheading in the end, wouldn’t that solve your problem?”
“Maybe I just want your ass kicked out of here faster,” I said with a smirk, but it wasn’t a happy one. The truth was I dreaded to think what he could offer to make everyone break the rules. And still, there he was, right in front of me, ruining centuries of hard work and sacrifices by simply breathing.
Max laughed quietly. “You and me both. But some things are just above us.”
–Excerpt from The Impaler’s Revenge, part I of The Impelar Legacy series