Chapter 4: Just Drinks

I walked into the office at noon, a large black coffee and a Hungry Like the Wolf breakfast sandwich from White Wolf Roasters. Whether drunk, sober, rested, or exhausted, that combination of sausage, ham, lacquered bacon, eggs, and cheese on a toasted everything bagel smeared with roasted poblano goat’s cheese never failed to satisfy. Destiny looked up from her well-worn InuYasha manga. She whistled.

“You’re in late today, Sam. Rough night?”

I sipped my coffee, rolled my eyes, and grumbled. “Yeah. I spent more time translating Cassie’s great grandmother’s diary than I did writing my paper for that Elizabethan Comedies class.”

“Yeah? What’d you find?” She grabbed a legal pad and her Bulbasaur pen.

I went over what I uncovered and how Masilda Walser’s journal led me to conclude that we were dealing with a liderc that had grown angry for either a slight or a perceived slight—possibly even jealousy. Destiny nodded and took notes. Her eyes shot almost as wide as those of the women in her manga when I mentioned being attacked. Mom would have scolded me for talking with my mouth full, but I was hungry. I mentioned having another dream where the thing ripped my heart out and that this time the thing took on the form of a short Irishman, but I didn’t have an explanation for that.

“I would like to scan some of her journal and send it to your family in Hanau for a second opinion.”

Destiny nodded. “I think that’s possible. I certainly can’t translate Hungarian or anything east of Vienna. Might take some time.”

“I figured it might.” I swallowed the last bite of my sandwich and tossed the waxed paper bag into the trash can. “In the meantime, I’ll banish the fucker so that Cassie feels safe enough to stay in her home.”

“So I take it you have a plan?” Destiny walked to the mini-fridge we kept in the office and grabbed another Monster Ultra Watermelon. She shot me an angled side eye glance.

“Yes, but I know you already have reservations, Des. What gives?”

Destiny set the Monster can atop the coaster on her desk, straightened the collar of the white shirt she wore under her blue, gray, and black argyle cardigan, and sat down. “Rushing forward worked so well for you that time in Osaka.”

I sighed and rubbed my temples. I wanted to forget that blunder, the embarrassment it caused, and the challenges it created. “It won’t be that bad. It can’t be. I mean, I didn’t do a full search of Cassie’s house, but I doubt I’ll stumble upon a weapon or drug deal that would lead to getting a little roughed up and threatened by the mob. The S-T’s aren’t even involved, so this will be a cakewalk.”

Destiny shook her head and sighed. “So, what’s the plan? Remaking the bottle?”

I walked to our dry erase board we used for working out plans and drew the Third Pentacle of Jupiter as it should have been drawn. “Okay, so we started with the Third Pentacle of Jupiter, which is for protection against evil spirits. But it also compels spirits to obey the pentacle’s creator. Okay?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty familiar with the theories of Solomonic magic. But why was it in that witch’s bottle?”

“That’s where the research on the liderc comes in.” I wrote out the three types of liderc, what research said they could do, and how to capture them when they become problematic. I drew a line connecting the pentacle to one of the capture methods. “Here. My theory—and I guess Great Grandma Walser left no directions for safety concerns—is that she convinced the liderc, the ‘problematic hen,’ to get into this bottle and try to escape. Once it was in, she stoppered the bottle and then sealed it with wax, drawing the pentacle into it. This wasn’t Appalachian magic, Des. It was Old World Romani magic disguised as Appalachian folk magic so that the neighbors wouldn’t make a fuss.”

Destiny copied down my work on her legal pad, nodding as she wrote. She scratched her head with her pen. “Okay. That’s plausible. I just… I just wish we had more evidence. The Oma’s spell notes. A more detailed diary entry. Something directly linking the bottle and the pentacle to this creature.”

I ran my fingers through my hair and exhaled. I yawned. “Yeah, I know. We’ve got enough to make a reasonable guess as to the cause. I’m confident that I can banish the creature so Cassie can have peace in her home. I’m not having to smuggle a selkie out of an aquarium or prevent Veil Watcher violence. Heck, amateur ghost hunters could probably handle this without much danger to themselves. I’ll wrap this up by tomorrow night, and then we’ll have a calm and quiet month.”

Destiny nodded. Her shoulders relaxed, and she tilted her head to the left. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth a few times. “What about your dream? The one where Cassie’s Oma asks you to remember something about your family traditions.”

I shook my head and threw my hands up. “I don’t have a fucking clue, Des. My family is Irish and English, with maybe some Scandinavian or German way back in the pool. To my knowledge, I’ve got no Eastern European or Romani heritage. And before you say it, there is no fucking way I’m calling Donal to ask. I’ll figure it out on my own time.”

“And then we can spend the rest of the week getting you ready for your date on Friday night.” Destiny sipped her Monster.

I felt my cheeks flush and turn red. Shit. Destiny hasn’t forgotten about that. And I’m sure she figured out I was hurrying this case, so I’d have time to prepare for Friday night. Carmilla must have used some sort of vampiric charm on me. That’s the only explanation for why I can’t get her out of my head. I haven’t been this nervous, excited, anxious about a date since my first date with Sarah Whitestone right after I came out. And this isn’t a date. It’s just drinks. Nothing more.

“It’s not a date. We’re just meeting for drinks at The Four Winds. It’ll be public and low key. Nothing to become excited or nervous over. It’s not like we’re going to see the new snow leopard cubs the zoo is going to let us see in August.”

Destiny blinked once before staring through my eyes and raising a single eyebrow. Her voice remained calm and even. “I said nothing about nervousness or excitement, Sam. Is there something you’d like to share?”

Fuck! I pushed my hair behind my right ear and shook my head. “No, I guess it’s just the case and my lack of sleep lately that’s getting to me.”

I sipped my coffee, lowering my eyes to avoid her probing gaze. “Sure. I know you’re focused on the banishing for tonight. But don’t think we won’t finish this conversation tomorrow after you return Cassie’s key to her.”

I knew Destiny wouldn’t let that conversation die. She was right; I needed to focus on and prepare for tonight’s banishing rite. It was basic only in the sense that it was a general banishing that could be used against many types of threatening supernatural creatures and curses. That said, this rite required more preparation, focus, and energy than any other rite I had learned. I hated using magic to solve cases—mainly because it proved Donal might have been right about me needing training.

And my plan for tonight was more involved than simply banishing this spirit. I never learned its name, so I knew I had to do that. The Third Pentacle of Jupiter compelled spirits to obey. If I were to summon this spirit, I could use that sigil to order it to tell me its name. Knowing its name would give me power over it. And so, armed with that knowledge and the sigil, I could banish the fucker. Risky? Sure, but it wasn’t riskier than anything else I’ve done since starting this business.

I returned to the Waters’ house at sunset, carrying my ritual supplies in the tattered midnight blue canvas and leather backpack that carried my textbooks during my college years. I locked the door behind me. The old house was colder than I expected. The drip of the kitchen sink and my boots on the floorboards were the only sounds I heard. I shot Destiny a quick text telling her to send for help if she didn’t hear from me by two in the morning.

I cleared a space in the middle of the den, noting where everything was so I could return the furniture after I finished. I repurposed a side table as my ritual altar. The table rose to my hips, making it on the short side, but it would have to do. I only exceeded average height when I wore heels. Then I set my candles, censor, wand, chalice, pentacle, and dagger on the altar in their respective places. I took a single deep breath.

I lit the taper candles on my altar and then switched off the lights in the room. Using the candle’s flame, I lit the charcoal inside the censor. Holding my nose to avoid inhaling the charcoal’s reek, I sprinkled the rich, earthy resin incense onto the coal. The smoke spiraled toward the ceiling in thick, warm gray wisps. I held the censor high and circled the altar. Taking the dagger in hand, I performed a quick protection rite before returning to the center of my circle.

I intoned a standard evocation. When I finished, I held the wax disc containing the Third Pentacle of Jupiter at eye level. I held my breath before trying something unusual. “I summon you, spirit who stalks this house. I summon you, spirit who haunts dreams. I summon you, spirit who assaults the living. Come before me, visibly and audibly, remaining just beyond the edge of my circle.”

The smoke rising from my censor darkened, thickened, and spread, filling the den with a wispy, perfumed fog. Footsteps thudded against the floor. They moved closer. I heard a flute and fiddle playing what sounded like a jig. I shook my head and shrugged. The footsteps grew louder. A low, hollow growl reverberated from the eastern edge of my circle. The smoke there swirled and parted as a shadowy, humanoid figure emerged. Its featureless head stood equal to my shoulders, and its elongated, clawlike hands hung below its knees.

Odd. It spoke in raspy, growling words tinged with a brogue. “You have called me, witchling. What do you require?”

My muscles tensed as I started into this creature’s eyeless face. “I have called you to make two demands of you, which, by the Third Pentacle of Jupiter, I compel you. The first is I would know your name.”

The creature laughed. Green flames burned through its head where its eyes should have been. A ruddy beard grew on its chin, and its skin took on a pale blue palor. It smiled a wicked, crooked smile. “Names give power. Power you’ve not earned. But let none say I am naught but a miserly king. You may call me ‘Glenullin Abhartach.’”

I’ve heard that name before, but I couldn’t remember where. The creature mocked me with a bow. I narrowed my eyes. “Well, Glenullin Abhartach, my second demand…”

“I will not have my spirit be bound by a witch’s bottle again!” The candle flames flinched and flickered as he voiced his rage.

“That is correct.” I knew I had to speak carefully now. When dealing with spirits, either imprecise or incorrect wording could turn this into a fucking shit show. “Glenullin Abhartach, by the power of the Third Pentacle of Jupiter, I command and compel you to leave this residence, causing no more harm to the Waters family and to their property. Leave now and let there be peace between us.”

“So you demand I leave? You, without ears to hear and mind to ken, demand I leave? What power have you to demand that, witchling?” Abhartach’s voice dripped with predatory venom.

Fuck! This is why I hated ceremonial magic. It was all about fucking authority and lineage, as well as reeking of misogynistic bullshit. I didn’t have another option right now, so I gritted my teeth and growled, “On the authority of Donal Hain, former Arch Magus of the Hermetic Order of the Astrum Argentum who sired me and upon the authority of Magus Ronan Fingal who trained me, I, by the power of this Third Pentacle of Jupiter, command you to depart from this residence and to trouble and harass the Waters family no more. Be gone!”

Abhartach bowed again and laughed. “Very well, little witchling, I will leave this property.”

He retreated into the incense fog, laughing, as he disappeared from view. I remained in the circle, holding the sigil, for a few moments. When I was certain he had departed, I cleansed the space once more and cleaned up after myself. I sighed, allowing my shoulders to slump and my muscles to relax. I texted Destiny to let her know I was safe and successful, and then I settled down to sleep.

On this Wednesday night, a mountain of black, gray, burgundy, red, emerald, and cobalt dresses rose from atop Carmilla’s antique mahogany bed. The Countess, dressed in an elegant set of black lingerie along with stockings and garters, stood before her open wardrobe. She clenched her fists and screamed. She grabbed a white pencil dress with a black lace overlay, held it to her body, and turned toward the mirror. A strand of hair fell from her loose bun and swung before her left eye. Carmilla frowned and tossed the dress over her shoulder.

Martin, her estate steward, entered the room carrying wine on a tray and pursed his lips when the dress fell on his head. He sighed. Walking to the nightstand, he set the tray down and poured a glass of wine. He removed the dress from his head, smoothed it, and lay it atop the mountain of clothes atop the Countess’ bed. Martin brought Carmilla the wineglass.

“Having trouble deciding what to wear when you meet the new investors tomorrow?”

Carmilla spun and glared at Martin. She hissed and bared her fangs. Martin’s face remained emotionless. He extended his hand, allowing Carmilla to take the wineglass. She sipped the Sanguinovese. Her shoulders relaxed.

“You know that I always wear the black Dolce and Gabbana skirt suit that has a subtle black satin pinstripe.”

Martin nodded. “Then do not hiss at me. You may be the matriarch of our clan, but you are no longer a fledgling. This whirlwind of chaotic energy is due to your upcoming date, correct?”

Carmilla glided to her vanity’s stool, sat, and collapsed onto her vanity with a dramatic sigh. She nodded. Martin rolled his eyes. She had not behaved like this since Metternich’s reign. That was when her accident happened, and Martin knew the memories of that event and its fallout compounded her anxiety. He sighed, nodded, and offered her a concerned but caring smile.

“It is not a date, Martin. We are simply spending the evening together.” Carmilla’s right arm muffled her words as she spoke.

“Of course, my Countess.” Martin slid the wine glass closer to her as he kneeled on the wooden floor beside her. “You are the matriarch of one of the oldest and most noble houses of all European and Levantine vampires. You are the leader who brought our clan into modernity—a task that confounds many clans to this day. And you have partnered with political and academic interests that have helped both our clan and the mortals who dwell in our lands to live better, happier, and more ecologically sustainable lives. You are not some princess in a Walt Disney animation. What about this mortal woman has you so flummoxed?”

Carmilla threw her hands in the air while her face rested upon her vanity. “Everything.”

Martin narrowed his eyes and furrowed his brow. Yes, this was set to be identical to her last relationship with a mortal woman. He massaged his temples with the thumb and index finger of his left hand. “Your penetrating specificity is most helpful, my Countess.”

She hurled a glare at him. Martin remained unphased. Carmilla sat up, her shoulders slumping forward. She sighed and then sipped the wine. “Very well. Samantha is impulsive, courageous, unfettered by fear of failure. Have I told you what she does for a living? She works to help mortals and those like us survive and coexist.”

Martin stood, moved to Carmilla’s bed, and began returning her clothes to her wardrobe. “I am aware of her professional activities, my Countess. Based upon reconnaissance conducted by our agents, she has quite the resume and positive reputation among our own kind and other non-mortal beings. Concern and compassion for others are traits the two of you share.”

Carmilla jerked her head as she focused her gaze on Martin. “Reconnaissance? Martin, have you had her investigated?”

He continued his task. “Of course, my Countess. I am both your servant and your guardian. Your father, before he chose to face death, instructed me to serve as your protector. When you mentioned this upcoming rendezvous, I took it upon myself to learn all that I could about the character of your potential lover.”

Carmilla shook her head and bit her lip. Blood trickled from the puncture wound left by her fang. “We will not reach that stage, Martin. I am not ready.”

“What about this dress?” Martin held a sleeveless pencil minidress in black satin that sported both a low neck and a burgundy lace overlay.

She shook her head. “Too much lace. I do not want to look like the image American popular culture has of our kind.”

Martin nodded and returned the dress to its position in the wardrobe. He produced a black-and-white striped swing dress with cap sleeves and a boat neckline. “This one always looked nice on you, and you seemed relaxed whenever you wore it.”

Carmilla sighed. “It is too much like the clothing she wears. I do not want to come across as copying her style. How would that look?”

Martin frowned. He wanted her to be happy, but her fears over repeating her past mistakes and her unstated desire for this rendezvous to be perfect proved frustrating. Dress after dress, Carmilla had a reason to dismiss it from consideration. One was too short. Three were too long. A handful were either too dated or too fashion forward. Martin returned each to the wardrobe as he listened to Carmilla’s critiques of her clothing and of herself.

When he cleared her bed, Martin softened his gaze and asked, “If this rendezvous will lead to nothing, then why does choosing your outfit evoke such stress and fear?”

“Because she might think this is a date. Because I want her to enjoy the evening since I asked to see her again.” Carmilla paused in thought. Her gaze fell to the floor. Her voice became a whisper. “Because I would like for it to lead to something more.”

Thursday afternoon brought a return to thunderstorms in Butcher’s Bend. Thick gray clouds covered the sky for most of the morning until swift drops in pressure brought temporary relief from the sweltering summer sun. After the storms ended, a humid haze perfumed with sweat lingered in the air. Tires screeched as horns honked like enraged geese.

After leaving A Thread in Time Clothiers, Sam and Destiny drove to Sal’s Pastas and Pies. The red brick building with its white awning stood at the corner of Harry and Main. The restaurant’s interior—with its full wall murals depicting the Amalfi coast through the archways of an old Roman villa, white tablecloths, and rustic oak furniture—evoked the atmosphere of Ford-era Italian restaurants. Sal Fuero, the gregarious owner, boasted of his plans to remodel, but the process would begin “next year.”

Their server, a friendly but reserved college freshman with a lavender undercut named Morgan, brought them water and Chianti before taking their order. Sam sipped her wine while Destiny’s index finger circled the rim of her water glass. “So you’ve got your new outfit for tomorrow night and your mani-pedi. You’re taking tomorrow afternoon off to catch a quick nap so you’ll be rested for your big night out. Anything else we need to do? Oh! What about your hair?”

Sam exhaled as she ran her fingers through her brown curls. She shook her head. “Todd’s booked, so I can’t get the highlights or straightening I wanted. I need to wash my hair, buy more bobby pins and dry shampoo, and fuck! I’m out of primer, mascara, cat food, and hair ties. The electric bill needs paying. I’ve got so much to do. Maybe I should—”

“Stop making excuses for being nervous?” Destiny smiled. Morgan brought their garlic knots. Destiny tore the end off one knot and tossed it into her mouth.

“I’m not making excuses.” Sam drained half her wine before taking a knot for herself. “I’ve got a lot to do, and I really don’t have time for dating—if this even is a date. Plus, it would just be a bad idea.”

“Why?” Destiny eyed Sam from behind the rim of her wineglass.

“Think about work.” Sam leaned forward as she pleaded her case. “If I start dating a vampire, then how many of my Full Moon Specials will think I can’t be impartial? What happens if some random vampire attacks an innocent person? What happens if we have another synthoflavin poisoning psychosis case? Oh! And what would happen if she or her clan cause problems for a client? It compromises me, so maybe I shouldn’t even show up.”

Destiny narrowed her eyes. Morgan brought their large Quattro with sausage, onion, bell peppers, and jalapenos. Destiny snatched the largest slice and ate with a knife and fork. She moaned and smiled as she swallowed the first bite. Sam grabbed her first slice, and Destiny pointed her fork at Sam. “And what if none of that happens? Or—hear me out—what if this helps you better understand the challenges that NHMs face while interacting with our world?”

“Yeah, maybe.” Sam took a large bite to give herself time to think of a rebuttal. “What if she doesn’t see this as a date? What if she’s only looking for a one-nighter or for a blood doll?”

Destiny nodded. “Well, that means you could either have a night of passionate sex, which you haven’t had in a while, or you remember that consent matters. Even if she wants to drink your blood, you have the right to say ‘no.’ Tell me, what are you really afraid of?”

Sam looked around the restaurant. “It sure is crowded here today.”

Destiny rolled her eyes. “That’s why we usually order takeout and eat in the office. It’s great for hiding your feelings and avoiding conversation.”

Destiny beamed as Sam nodded. “I’m not afraid of—look, it’s just that I don’t have time for—fine. What if I’m the only one who wants this to work?”

On Friday evening, Sam woke from her nap. She took a quick shower to wash her hair. She readied herself for the evening and then dressed in the sleeveless fit-and-flare dress she bought yesterday. The constellations of the northern hemisphere adorned the midnight blue fabric. Sandy Paws whined in front of her mostly filled food dish. Sam chuckled, shook the bowl, and watched as her cat devoured the food. Sam slipped into a pair of open-toed, nude pumps to show off the rose gold polish on her toes. She frowns as she looks at her reflection in her mirror, unhappy with how her arms looked in the dress. She grabbed a white cropped cardigan from the closet and her purse from the table before opening the portal to the Four Winds.

Only a few patrons populated Nick Scratch’s speakeasy on this evening, their quiet conversations indistinguishable amidst the general din of clinking glasses and shuffling feet, paws, and hooves. Black and red taper candles rose from golden candelabra. Lilith, backed by Gabriel on piano and Mephistopheles on violin, crooned “Crimson and Clover” in her earthy voice that drenched each word in lust and longing. Sam held her breath as her eyes darted about the room. No sign of Carmilla. Sam sighed, and her shoulders slumped. She walked to the bar and sat down.

Anxious thoughts raced through Sam’s mind. She’s not here. I knew she was just teasing me. This was stupid. I should’ve stayed home. Well, I guess I’ll have a drink first. Maybe Nick will have a good laugh out of this.

Nick Scratch stood at the far end of the bar, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the polished wood. A wistful smile stretched across his lips as he watched the stage, his eyes focused on his wife as she sang. After a few moments, he glimpsed the pensive Samantha Hain from the corner of his left eye, smirked, and sauntered toward her.

“You’re looking especially lovely this evening, Miss Hain.” He poured her a glass of red wine. “Elysian Merlot. You seem tense.”

She snorted as she sniffed the cool, earthy scent of the wine. “Why would you say that, Nick? I’m fine.”

He leaned across the bar and whispered, “The constant shifting of your gaze toward the doors as if searching for Countess Karnstein’s appearance.”

He backed away, smirked, and winked. Sam narrowed her eyes, glaring at him, and he laughed. Their eyes locked, and they stared each other down in silence. Sam closed her eyes and nodded, sighing.

“Yeah. I guess she didn’t really mean it when she said to meet her here.”

“Drink your wine.” Sam eyed him. Nick Scratch ignored her searching gaze as he checked his golden pocket watch. Sam tasted the clove, ginger, and blackberry notes in the Merlot. He cocked an eyebrow and nodded. “Hm. Well, it seems you have arrived an hour before her normal arrival time, so you have time to enjoy the show. And you’re not getting another round until she arrives.”

His wink took Sam by surprise. “Why not? Should I be worried?”

He laughed and leaned against the massive mirrored liquor shelves. Nick Scratch shook his head. “Elysian wine calms the souls of those who drink it. Once Countess Karnstein arrives, you may want something that fortifies the heart and inflames the passions.”

Sam snorted wine. She swallowed hard and shook her head. “Why does everyone act like this is anything other than what it is? We’re just meeting for drinks. Nothing more.”

Nick Scratch poured himself a glass of a deep amber whisky from a bottle shaped like a dragon’s head. He walked away, raising the glass to his lips. “Of course.”

As the next hour passed, Sam sipped her drink and listened as Lilith seamlessly transitioned from covering some of the greatest women of rock and punk to the jazz classics like Ma Rainey’s “Prove it on Me.” She stared into the remaining dram of Merlot. Her left middle finger circled the rim. She sighed. An hour early. I must look fucking desperate. Great start to my night. Fuck.

“Drink rarely possesses the prophetic utterance that mortals ascribe to it,” a feminine, Austrian voice purred from behind Sam.

Sam spun on the bar stool and saw Carmilla standing behind her. The bar’s candlelight flickered in the Countess’ eyes as she smiled. Sam gasped and bit her lip as her eyes ran the length of Carmilla’s lean but shapely arms, displayed by the sleeveless, split-necked cocktail dress of green silk she wore. Sam’s eyes blinked rapidly, and her heart sped up as she straightened the skirt of her dress. Carmilla chuckled as she sat beside Sam.

Sam shivered as a chill filled the bar. Nick Scratch glided toward them and handed each a glass of wine. With a smile, he said, “Black cherry, orange peel, ginger, cardamom, and clove. Perfect to warm the soul on the darkest night of the year.”

He strutted away as the women sipped their drinks. His words proved true. As the warm spice notes hit her tongue, Sam warmed. Her cheeks flushed. She actually came. Wow, she looks amazing, but I guess vampirism has its benefits. I’ve got to say something. But what? Think, Sam. You’ve done this before. Not with a vampire, but with normal humans.

“You look really lovely tonight. How was your day?”

Carmilla smiled and nodded as she sipped the wine. “Thank you. As do you.” She paused. “My day was filled with meetings and mid-quarter reports. It contained nothing as exciting as you probably had in your day, no?”

She sipped her own wine. Did I come across as dismissive? I hope that I did not. I have worked to break the aristocratic habits imparted to me by my parents when I was a child. Yet, I still hear my mother’s disdain for anything mortal in my voice.

Sam’s cheeks flushed. She grinned and then shrugged. “My day was quiet. I closed my Full Moon Special earlier this week, and I don’t have any cases that need my attention until the end of July and maybe not until early August, depending on the docket scheduling for the family and criminal courts.”

Carmilla nodded and then tilted her head. “The Full Moon Special? What is that?”

Sam chuckled. “That’s what my friend Destiny calls the, for lack of a better word, supernatural cases I handle. Whoever needs my help—whether mortal or Non-Human Mythic, as the feds say—always shows up on the full moon. I don’t take one on every month, and I’ve never gotten one on blue moon months.”

They continued talking, mostly about work and the passions that led them to choose their forms of employment. Nick Scratch appeared as needed to refill their glasses, disappearing to focus his attention on his wife’s performance. Sam twirled her hair around her finger as they talked and laughed. Then Carmilla leaned forward and stroked Sam’s hand with the tips of her cool, pale, manicured fingers. Sam bit her lip to stifle a gasp. Carmilla smiled.

“While drinks and conversation here are nice. I have an activity planned that I would love to share with you before the night ends.”

“Oh?” Sam’s eyes widened as she again straightened her skirt. “I’d love that, honestly.”

Carmilla extended her hand with the palm upturned. Sam took her hand. It felt soft and cool, like satin sheets on a late autumnal night. As Lilith belted the chorus of “Come to my Window,” the two women exited the Four Winds. They emerged in a small alcove of a beach surrounded by towering pine and fir trees. Stars gleamed in the darkness of the witching hour sky. A pair of pillar candles allowed Sam to see the wicker picnic basket with a bottle of wine protruding from the rear flap sat atop a burgundy blanket at the beach’s center.

“This place is beautiful, Carmilla. Where are we? How did this get here?”

Sam watched as Carmilla glided to the blanket and sat. She motioned for Sam to sit beside her, and when Sam did, she opened the basket. “I am glad that you think so. We are on the shore of the Bodensee, which I believe in your English is named Lake Constance. We are on the Austrian shore. Over there is Switzerland, and to the north lies Germany. As to the basket and its contents, well, my servants brought this here for us.”

Carmilla produced an oak serving board and placed the selection of cured meats, cheeses, an olive tapenade, grapes, and cherries atop the board. She then pulled a plate filled with thin slices of baguette and set it beside the board. Carmilla uncorked the wine and poured two glasses. As she handed one to Sam, their hands touched. Electricity jolted through both their bodies. Sam blushed and inhaled sharply. Blood rushed to Carmilla’s face and cheeks. She bit her lower lip.

Sam brushed her hair behind her ear. “This looks amazing. And I was starting to get hungry.”

“Please, enjoy.” Carmilla gestured to the board with one hand while plucking a grape with the other. “I knew that our meeting would be late in the evening for you, and I thought you might grow hungry.”

Sam spread cheese and olive tapenade on a slice of bread before folding a slice of salami atop it. “I ate a little before heading to the bar to help keep me from getting hungover, but this is nice.”

They ate and talked for the rest of the night. With each bite and each sentence, they inched closer to one another. Carmilla rested her hand on Sam’s shoulder as Sam spoke of fond memories with her mother. When Sam’s gaze focused on the touch, Carmilla withdrew her hand. As Carmilla gleefully spoke of the upcoming Almabtrieb, where the cattle who spent the summer grazing in alpine pastures, returned to their farms with their horns decorated with wreaths of evergreens, alpine flowers, and colorful ribbons, Sam inched closer to her neck and noticed the scent of spiced honey poking through her rose and violet perfume. When she paused her narrative, Sam pulled away, avoided eye contact, and played with her hair. Carmilla blushed and smiled.

Bands of orange near the horizon signaled the approach of dawn. Carmilla sighed, smiling at Sam. “Dawn is breaking in Austria, which means that the hour grows late for you. Forgive me, but the time slipped away with my enjoyment of it.”

Sam turned and saw gold, yellow, and orange bands color the sky. The stars receded into the retreating darkness as the woodswallows and thrushes sang their dawn songs. She smiled. “I haven’t seen a sunrise so lovely before. I—thank you. This was nice.”

Carmilla reached into the basket and produced a business card. She handed it to Sam. “This is my card, and on the reverse side, you will find my personal cell phone number. Should you desire it, you may call or text me at your leisure. I am still growing accustomed to sending these text messages, but I will adapt.”

Sam took the card and studied the number. She pulled her wallet from her purse, slipped the card inside, and then handed Carmilla one of her own cards. “I only have one cell, but you’re welcome to call me or email me. I’d…” She swallowed hard. “I would like this to happen again. Soon.”

Carmilla nodded. “As would I. We shall make plans soon, but for now, let me escort you back to the Four Winds.”

Carmilla packed everything into the basket, and they walked into the forest. A family of quail scurried across their path as the rich, earthy freshness of pine and orchid perfumed the air. After a few moments of walking, they reached a stone wall that appeared to be part of an abandoned cottage. Carmilla produced an obsidian disc with a complex sigil etched into it. She pressed the disc against the wall and waited. After a moment, a pale blue light descended from the sigil to the ground before tracing the outline of a door on the wall. As the knob formed, both women heard the audible click of the door unlocking.

“Thank you for joining me, Samantha. It was a most enjoyable night.”

Sam blushed and looked up into Carmilla’s eyes. “Thank you for inviting me, and you can call me ‘Sam.’”

Carmilla nodded. “Very well, Sam.”

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