The day came for blood tax collection and, as usual, people lined the streets to have their fingers pricked for a few drops in the blood bowls. Even the royal family gave a little to be drunk by the sun. King, queen, princess … no one had any problem until the collector reached the prince.
“I won’t be giving blood for this,” the prince said, and the king’s court gasped. “The sun is powerful enough without our help, and as for loyalty to the king, I’ve shown it in my love for his daughter.”
The king and queen accepted this, but Clo scowled. “It’s tradition,” she said.
“Concocted by you,” Prince Aude said. “In my land, only abominations of nature ask for the blood of others.”
“Remember that when the chef presents your blood sausages tonight.”
“Is that what you do with the people’s blood? If you want to eat the peasants, there are easier—”
Clo stormed off in a huff. “I’ll be waiting for the bowls in my old bedroom.”
The prince found this strange, and then infuriating, and decided to investigate. He waited for nightfall and made his way up to the old chamber. His wife lay on the bed, sound asleep. The bowls sat on the balcony. Not a drop of blood remained in any of them.
“The sun couldn’t do this so quickly,” Aude said. Powerful, shadowy hands grasped his arms and teeth sank into his neck. His high-pitched scream woke the princess and her wild eyes turned on his attacker.
“Not him!” she cried. “I didn’t bring him for you to eat! He’s my husband!”
The vampire released the prince, who collapsed on the floor. “I missed tasting him earlier,” she said. “Next time, he’ll give blood willingly.” Then she slid into the ceiling. “I can hide in any shadow, Aude. The shadows of the woods, the shadows of bodies, even the shadows of men’s hearts—so though you won’t see me, don’t forget I’m here.”
Clo cleaned the prince’s neck and begged him to calm down, but he could not. The next day, he went to the king and waited his turn as court proceeded.
“My poor son-in-law,” the king said. “No prince should have to wait so long.”
“Agreed, especially in an emergency,” Aude said. “There’s a vampire in your daughter’s old room. Your blood tax has been feeding it for years. The sun never drank a drop.”
The king stared vacantly at him. “But the tax is collected, yes?”
“Good. Please let me know if there’s a problem.”
The prince briefly wondered about a thing that would be called divorce, only it hadn’t been invented yet, and besides, without Clo he could not be a king. He would not be beaten. “It does involve the tax,” Aude said. “It’s a—a misappropriation of funds!”
This yanked the king out of his seat. He sent several guards and a captain up to the princess’s room, where they searched for a vampire who was stealing the blood tax. Aude went with them. They tore the room apart, but found no place for a vampire to hide.
“It’s in the ceiling,” the prince said. “In the shadows. It must be powerful.”
The guards snickered. “There’s no vampire here. Perhaps you should stay out of this room, prince. It’s not for grown men, anyway.”
From then on, the people of the castle believed that the prince feared his own shadow. He was mocked in court as a coward and no one invited him to manly gatherings such as hunting, jousting, and plunging swords into various things. Clo denied his story, saying she was asleep, and everyone thought Aude had cut his neck while shaving. The mockery only worsened when one day, after visiting a vicar, the prince came to court adorned in vampire protection . Holy water filled a vial on his necklace. Garlic and wolfsbane stuffed his pockets. Images of the sun were embroidered into the cloth. Spikes of silver dotted his chest. A thick neck guard stood from his shoulders and made the laughter echo in his ears.
“You can end the mockery whenever you want,” Clo said to him.
“Is that so I won’t embarrass you, princess?” Aude asked.
“It’s not for me. It’s for you. I can see the shame eating at you and I don’t wish you any pain.”
Clo’s kindness only angered the prince. Still, she had a good point. He could end this mockery whenever he wanted.
On the eve of the next blood tax, Aude knocked the princess unconscious, threw her onto his horse’s back, and rode away from the castle. “Do not worry, kind Clo,” the prince said when his wife woke up. “We won’t live in my land forever. When your father dies, we’ll ride back here to be king and queen, and men loyal to my family will tear through the castle until the vampire is dead.”
Clo wept all the way, even during meals and in her sleep. Never to see her father again, not to see home for perhaps many years—it wasn’t right. “You’re supposed to love me,” she said.
“I’m supposed to be your husband,” Aude said. “And I am and will be.”
Clo never saw Aude’s castle. She was taken to a small, iron building and placed in a small, iron chamber. No windows shed sunlight into that place. The prince ordered his father’s men to proof the room against vampires, which they did. Then the princess was made to wait.
“It will follow,” the prince said to the men. “I want this room and building guarded night and day so that my wife won’t escape and won’t be visited by the vampire.”
“It could hardly follow in daylight,” said one guard. “And would it leave the place where it’s being given all the blood it wants?”
“These creatures are possessive. It wouldn’t even let me stay at the castle without taking a bite.”
“Then perhaps it has followed you.”
The prince recalled then that the vampire could hide in shadows, even those of men’s hearts, and in taking the princess from her family, his heart likely had more shadows than light.
“I must be cleansed!” he shouted, throwing off his protection. “Bring hot iron! Bring garlic! Bring the sun!”
Some of these items were brought and the prince began a painful ordeal. For three days and three nights, he was forced to eat nothing but garlic and drink nothing but holy water. In the day, he was chained to the ground beneath the burning sun, and in the night his skin was seared by hot iron rods.
By the cleansing’s end, Prince Aude could scarcely walk, but he felt surely clean of the vampire. “The princess may be freed, so long as she submits as well. Garlic. Holy Water. Sun. Iron.” The prince staggered into Clo’s confines. “We all have our trials. No blood taken from you. No vampire in me.”
Princess Clo looked unwell. She had been given little to eat or drink. Her bones stuck out and her skin was pale. Still, she had no fresh wounds. The vampire hadn’t breached the prison, or else it would’ve eaten her, having missed its day of blood tax.
“Take my hand, princess, and we’ll live better lives. Submit to the cleansing and we’ll be free.”
“We’re already free,” said a familiar, raspy voice. “And we’ll take more than your hand.”
The darkness itself grabbed the prince by the throat and hauled him off his feet. Cold hands cut off his breath, but he managed to eke out a word. “How?”
“I can hide in any shadow, Aude. The shadows of the woods, the shadows of bodies, even the shadows of men’s hearts—so when you didn’t see me, you forgot I’m here. Clo’s kind heart is so big that it cast an easy shadow where I could hide.”
“She’s not a man,” the prince coughed.
“Neither are you.” The vampire shook Aude and an iron rod clanged on the floor. “Nor are you a husband.” Blood dribbled on the floor beside the iron and the vampire drank.
“Childish of him to think men’s hearts only meant men,” Clo said softly.
The vampire paused her meal. “You can forget the world of men, princess. Become a creature of the night, like me, and share drinking your prince’s life.”
“But if I was a vampire, I couldn’t help you.”
“I killed your husband. I’m the reason he tormented you.”
“He chose to do that.”
“You’re not obligated to help me.”
“I never was.”
The pale woman felt full before she meant to and laid Aude’s body on the floor. “I’m ready to take you home.”
Clo nodded. The vampire held the princess’s hand and took off into the night. Princess Clo did not weep on the way, not in sleeping, not in eating, not in waiting for nighttime when her protector could emerge from within.
In time, they reached the castle. Clo arrived without much in the way of health or husband, but she had a stronger guard than anyone knew. The people only wanted their princess, however she was, so they threw a celebration anyway. The king and queen hugged her and doted on her. Many people gave condolences when they heard the prince had died of “being a horse’s ass,” or so the princess had told them, but she also told them, “I’ll surely find a better one.” No one disagreed.
The blood tax carried on as usual, supposedly for the sun’s benefit, and the vampire dwelled in the castle, watching over Clo, her family, and her children, for the princess did find a better husband one day. Though times have changed since then and the mandatory royal blood tax has become more of a donation these days, the vampire remains where she once fed from royal bowls, watching over the princess’s descendants.