Lord Scorthas sipped the blood in his cup, and as soon as it touched his tongue, he spurted it out through pursed lips.
What was that foul taste? That sting against his tongue that made his eyes water and filled his mouth with a disgusting aftertaste?
He eyed the contents of his cup with great suspicion, sloshing the red liquid around. It moved with the sluggish flow of human blood, as it should. He brought the cup up to his nose and sniffed. There it was: a note of bitterness, a hint of impurity in his otherwise perfect and exquisite bloody drink.
Cringing, he set the cup on his table, pushed his chair back, and rushed to his precious collection of bloody wines. Stacks of oaken barrels, lying on top of each other, lined the east wall of his dining room. He pushed the spigot into one of them and let the blood flow into a new cup, then brought it to his mouth. A small, tentative sip, and there it was again: a foul taste like dirty feet. He spat it out and moved on to the next barrel, grabbing another cup.
Once again the bloody wine flowed into his cup, and once again he brought it to his lips and met with the same foul taste, his stomach now angry and growling.
“Spe-e-e-e-encer!” he yelled, springing to his feet.
Soon the door creaked open. A wide-eyed slow loris shuffled his feet as fast as they would let him and entered the room. He wasn’t much taller than a four-year-old child, and he wore a simple garment that bore the colors of sand. “You called me, master?”
“Did you just come to taunt me?” Lord Scorthas said, narrowing his eyes. “I called your name, now, didn’t I?”
The loris bent his head in greeting, his pointy ears quivering slightly.
Lord Scorthas waved a dismissive hand and shoved the cup with the foul liquid into Spencer’s arms. “What have you done to my collection? My bloody wine is ruined!”
Spencer tentatively sniffed the cup and shook his head. “Why, my lord, I tried to tell you last night, but you were loath to listen …”
Lord Scorthas shot him a demanding look underneath thick black brows. He recalled his servant had come to him, squirming, but he had dismissed him faster than a human’s heartbeat. “Speak now. What is this treachery? What infection ruins my dinner?”
“The wine is perfectly safe to consume, my lord, should you wish to,” Spencer said.
“Safe to consume?” Lord Scorthas stormed. “Why would I wish to drink this foul fluid? What happened to the plummy sweetness of my bloody wine? I checked every barrel—they are all ruined!”
Spencer flinched at his master’s words. “Not so much ruined, my lord. I would daresay … different.”
Lord Scorthas felt anger stir in his chest. “What game are you playing?” At six feet tall, he loomed over his servant. “If you have thought to mix my wine with the venom in your mouth to be rid of me …”
Spencer cowered and stretched out his short fingers in his defense. “I would never do such an awful thing, my lord. Why would I seek to be rid of you when you have been nothing but kind to me?”
Lord Scorthas snorted. He had been called many things—ill-tempered, untrustworthy, cunning, and selfish—but kind? No, no. No one had ever called the great Lord Scorthas kind. However, he had been accommodating enough to this small loris. He’d bought him from a cruel merchant and brought him to his home. As a servant, yes. But wasn’t that much better than the cage the merchant used to keep him in? He’d never thought to give a name to his action, but now it seemed that Spencer had: kindness. That made an infinitesimal part of Lord Scorthas’s heart stir, but he hated stirrings.
He grunted. “What is this taste, then?”
“Why, it’s only pickled cabbage, my lord,” Spencer said, biting his lip just lightly. Even the smallest drop of blood would make his master rabid, and Spencer knew better than to let his blood flow in the presence of a vampire master.
“And how did this filthy cabbage get into my wine? Did you mix my precious wine with your cooking?”
Spencer shook his head. “I’m afraid it was already there, my lord. Mixed with the blood your citizens gave you as their lawful sacrifice.”
Lord Scorthas knitted his bushy brows. How could the cabbage flavor have ended up in the blood his citizens had donated to him, as was the custom of his ruling? Surely the loris was jesting. Unless … “You mean to say that all my people are eating cabbage? All at the same time? The maidens and the farmers? The jesters and the teachers? Even the milkmen and the basket weavers?”
“All of them, my lord,” Spencer said with a solemn voice.
“How can this be? Explain.”
“It’s just … there’s this woman. A traveling trader. She came to our town’s market last full moon, peddling all kinds of goods, but soon she became famous for her pickled cabbage. Your citizens are lining up just for a jar.”
Lord Scorthas banged his hand on the table and rushed to the window. His castle was built on a hill that overlooked the entire town and gave him an unobscured view of his dominion. A heavy night had fallen, and the town’s market was quiet. There was nothing that could betray this woman’s existence. “I have to see her,” he said to Spencer, rubbing his chin.
Spencer yelped. “But, my lord, she only comes during the day, and you … you never go out during the day, seeing as you are—”
“Don’t presume to tell me what I already know, Spencer,” Lord Scorthas barked. “I have a plan. Come to me in the morning, and prepare a sack that you can hang over your shoulder. Now, leave me be. It looks like I will have to wash my dinner down with simple water.”
Spencer bowed so deeply his ears touched the ground, and then he retreated.
Lord Scorthas tied a cloth around his eyes, shading them against the glaring rays of the morning sun. That felt much better. He hadn’t been outside under the morning’s bright light for years, but that was about to change. His bloody wine was too precious to him to be spoiled in such a manner, and this strange woman had to be dealt with.
As expected, he received a soft knock at his door, and Spencer slipped inside, carrying a small sack over his shoulder. Lord Scorthas nodded and changed his form into a small bat, his robes collapsing on the floor over his head. “Spencer!” he squeaked in his high-pitched bat voice. “Take this off me!”
Spencer untangled his master from the robes, and as soon as Lord Scorthas was free, he flew into the sack, folding his membranous wings around him. “Now, take me to the town’s market!”
The sack swung lazily over Spencer’s back as he slowly made his way through the cobbled streets that led to the center of the town. Every once in a while, Lord Scorthas would peer outside, taking in a closer sight of his people. Everyone seemed so happy as they made their way toward the square, laughing and talking about how much they liked the lady’s pickled cabbage and how they hoped she hadn’t yet left the market, so they could enjoy her goods just one more time.
At last, Spencer stopped behind a big line made of humans. “What’s happening?” Lord Scorthas whispered into Spencer’s ear.
“Why, my lord, this is the line for the pickled cabbage.”
Impossible! They were still in a narrow alley that led into the open square. They hadn’t even arrived at the center yet, and already there was a line? “I, a lord, shall not wait in line! Push your way through and get me to the front!”
“But, my lord, the people …”
“If anyone challenges you, just say you’re under my orders.”
Spencer nodded quietly and elbowed his way through the crowd, earning some angry stares and tutting sounds of disapproving tongues. None dared to question him, however, as everybody in town knew that the slow loris was a servant of their lord.
“We’re here, my lord,” Spencer said after a while.
Lord Scorthas lowered the side of the sack with his tiny bat thumbs and looked. Before them, there was a bench filled with small jars of pickled red cabbage. Men, women, and children shoved each other relentlessly, trying to get to the front to snatch a jar. Lord Scorthas fell back as a sturdy man gave Spencer a hard nudge on the shoulder.
“If you won’t buy, then stay back!” the man said.
Lord Scorthas opened his mouth to release a profanity but was stopped by the voice of a woman. “Only one at a time, please!”
Forgetting the insolent man, he turned his attention to the source of the voice. And there, on the other side of the bench, was the most beautiful woman Lord Scorthas had ever seen in his dominion. She had a round, plump face with cheeks the color of a ripe apple and chestnut braids that fell around her shoulders and swayed as her slender hands worked to please the demands of her hungry customers.
“It’s her,” Lord Scorthas said in Spencer’s ear. “Get me closer.”
Spencer shoved some more and got himself in front of the lady, who smiled as she saw him. “A jar for the sweet loris?” she said in a honey-dripping voice.
“My lord?” Spencer said over his shoulder.
“Get one,” Lord Scorthas said absentmindedly as he now focused on something else. Around the woman’s neck hung a golden chain that kept a stone over her bosom. It was a little purple gem that sparkled, reminding Lord Scorthas of the purple cabbage the woman sold.
He rubbed his hairy bat chin with interest, but he knew that facing this woman among all these people would be impossible. “Get us home,” he ordered into Spencer’s ear as soon as the slow loris had thrown a coin into the basket the woman had laid out for payments.
“So, what do you make of her, my lord?”
Lord Scorthas paced the room in his human form once more. “I do not know yet, Spencer, but I intend to find out. I have a feeling she’s using magic.”
“Magic, my lord?” Spencer’s eyes grew wide.
“Yes, indeed. That little stone around her neck. I do not trust it.” He moved to the window, gazing at the human line before the woman’s bench. As the sun painted the square crimson, the line grew smaller, as well as the number of jars on the woman’s bench. His gaze didn’t waver until he made certain of his suspicion. The woman’s last client took the last jar off the bench.
Lord Scorthas clicked his fingers. “I knew it!”
“What was that, my lord?” Spencer said, hobbling closer.
“The number of jars was enough for all. She couldn’t have calculated that without magic.”
Spencer scratched the top of his head. “Now that you mention it, my lord, it’s always said that the merchant woman leaves no one unattended. Everyone can get a jar every single day.”
The night had fallen now, and Lord Scorthas rubbed his hands. “She’s packing up to leave,” he said to Spencer, right before he changed into his bat form. He flew to the window’s ledge.
“You plan to follow her, my lord?”
“I do. And after I’m rid of her, I can finally enjoy proper bloody wine!”
Lord Scorthas didn’t have any difficulty following the young woman. His wings flapped without a sound as he sliced the air behind her. Soon she led him out of the town and into the dark forest, and she didn’t stop until she reached a clearing with soft ground and what seemed to Lord Scorthas to be a thousand small heads of cabbage.
So, this was where the woman was growing the cursed vegetable that ruined the taste of his wine.
Lord Scorthas landed on the branch of a tree, hanging himself upside down as a true bat. He was of a mind to watch the movements of the woman just for a while longer before confronting her about the situation.
The woman took out a short knife and dipped her hands into the earth, slowly working the small cabbage heads free of their roots. All the while, she sang—a mellow song that dripped like honey and caressed Lord Scorthas’s pointy ears.
Grow my lovelies, grow.
Let yourselves be nourished by the rich soil.
Open your hearts to nature’s call,
And let your leaves unfold and
Wrap themselves around your soul.
Lord Scorthas harrumphed. Cabbages had no souls. This woman was batty. And he would put an end to this once and for all. He left the tree branch and landed with a soft thump on the ground behind her, taking his human form.
The woman turned, gasping. But soon her gasp turned into a shy smile, and she giggled.
“Do I not scare you enough?” Lord Scorthas asked, annoyed.
“You might have been more formidable, my lord, if only you weren’t naked,” the woman said through pearly teeth.
Lord Scorthas looked down, and his eyes widened with horror. In his haste to deal with the woman, he had forgotten to take his robes.
“Here,” the woman said, offering him a cabbage leaf big enough to hide his manhood.
Lord Scorthas took it and hid his nakedness, furious with himself. This woman was making him forget his ways. “How dare you!” he said, trying to ignore the flush of blood that rose to his cheeks. “Coming into my town and bewitching my citizens with your cheap cabbage.”
“Do you not like the taste of my cabbage, my lord?” The woman rubbed her soiled hands on her apron.
“Of course I don’t! It ruins the taste of my bloody wine! My people eat it, and it passes through to their blood.”
“I see,” the woman said with a slight smile.
Lord Scorthas demandingly waved his free hand—the other was still holding the cabbage leaf in place. “You shall stop bewitching my people at once and move your stall to the next town, away from my domain.”
“Bewitching, my lord? Why, you think I am a witch?”
Lord Scorthas pointed at the small amethyst stone that hung around her neck. “That stone is helping you meddle with people’s taste to make them crave your cabbage. Disguising its tangy taste with titillating spice that grabs their tongues and doesn’t let go.”
“This?” the woman said, wrapping her fingers around the stone. “Why, my lord, this stone holds no magic.”
“Don’t try to cloud my judgment,” Lord Scorthas said. “It must be sorcery, for no one likes cabbage so much. Why, it tastes like moldy bread. The horror!”
The woman laughed and started walking away. “It isn’t magic, my lord, I promise you. Come, I will show you.”
Lord Scorthas narrowed his eyes. For a moment, he contemplated changing into his bat form, but his bat voice didn’t sound the least bit imposing, and he had already made a fool of himself. He teetered after the woman, trying to keep his balance as he held the cabbage leaf in place and jumped over the cabbage heads that littered the ground.
The woman stopped and picked her satchel up. With a quick move, she fished out a jar full of pickled cabbage. “This one rolled under my bench in the commotion. I wondered who would come to claim it, and as it turns out, it’s you, my lord!”
Lord Scorthas scoffed, “It is most certainly not me. I came here to order you to stop—”
“Just try it, my lord,” the woman said, opening the lid and offering him the jar.
“Don’t …” Lord Scorthas started, wrinkling his nose, but he suddenly stopped. The smell … it wasn’t as bad as he had thought. The odor that rose from the jar was ambrosial and delicious, making his mind travel back to memories of his mother cooking his favorite meal. For a moment, he stood there, unsure of what to make of his feelings, until he dipped his fingers in the jar and brought a cabbage bite to his mouth.
As soon as it touched his tongue, the taste exploded—it was like honey in hot tea to take away the pain of a sore throat; it was like warm soup to cast away the chill of the body; it was like melting chocolate that stirred the heart.
“You see, my lord,” the woman said with a smile on her face, “your people come to me not because of spells and witching, but because my cabbage tastes like …”
“Love,” said Lord Scorthas, letting the leaf drop from his grip.
“You will be drunk, my lord,” Spencer said as he refilled his master’s cup once more.
“I want it all, Spencer,” Lord Scorthas said with a smile that bared his pointy fangs. “I want to be drunk with love.”
Down in the town’s center, the line was only growing bigger.