I followed Alard through the winding, cobblestone streets, taking every opportunity to twist my neck to see the buildings around me. I hadn’t existed for enough centuries to become jaded yet, and part of me hoped I never would. Even Alard, as old as he was, still managed to have a spark of curiosity about him. He’d told me once that the vampires who survived the changing times were the ones who never stopped being curious. Then he told me that by that measure, I’d outlive them all. I’m still not sure whether that was meant to be a good thing or not. I took it as a plus. So far, being dead (perhaps ‘undead’ was a better word) had been good to me.
Alard stopped in front of a small shop several streets behind the waterfront. A sign said “Vanities,” and, from the window I could see that it was one of the antiques and curio shops that Alard favoured.
“In here. Be quick about it.” Alard motioned for me to maneuver our bags through the narrow door. The shop looked closed. I was about to protest that breaking into a shop might attract the attention we were trying to escape, when a lamp flared behind us, its glow shaded to avoid making it too easy for passers-by to see.
“Alard. Come in.”
I put the bags where Alard bid and followed as Alard and our host continued, more than began, a lively conversation. Two things stood out to me: they were obviously old friends, and our host was clearly mortal.
“Drink this.” Alard must have known that after the voyage my hunger might endanger our host. I usually had good control, but it wasn’t wise to be in close quarters with such fresh, delicious blood when I hadn’t eaten. He handed me a goblet of blood, goat blood by the smell, and although while not my favourite, I was hungry enough not to quibble.
“I thought you might be hungry, so there’s a flagon for each of you.” For the first time, I got a good look at our host. He was an older man, perhaps in his late sixties. Spry but beginning to show his age. He had a bald head with wisps of white hair that refused to lie flat. He squinted like a scholar, and he wore a jacket that looked worn at the elbows. “I’m Carel. Welcome to Antwerp. You must be Sorren.”
Carel motioned for us both to take a seat. We were in a fairly large sitting room. Everywhere I looked there were manuscripts: old, leather-bound illuminated manuscripts, and such a multitude of trifles and treasures that I hardly knew where to look first. The books alone would have been worth a small fortune. Alard had been expanding my thiefly education to recognize value that the commoner might overlook.
“What do you see, Sorren?” Alard downplayed my guesses that he could, as my maker, at least partly read my thoughts. But there were too damn many coincidences for me to doubt. I’d learned to keep my mouth shut when I was mortal. Now, I’d learned to keep unflattering comments in the back of my head, where they hadn’t quite taken form as words. I was grumbling a bit to myself like that now, and if Alard read it, he didn’t respond.
“I see pottery, probably Greek, definitely ancient. The gold jewellery on the desk: Egyptian. I’d have to be up close to know the dynasty. The brooches on the shelf are ancient Celtic. Nice work, too. From the number of manuscripts, I’d guess someone ransacked a monastery. The inlaid box is a miracle, but I’ve no idea where it comes from.”
“India,” Carel replied offhandedly. “Not surprised you couldn’t place that.”
“You’re a collector?”
Carel gave a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Of sorts. It was dark in the shop when you came in, and we hurried you through, so you probably didn’t get much of a look around. I deal in treasures and antiquities, most legal; some not so much.”
“You’re our fence.”
Carel chuckled. “Really, Alard. You can take the thief out of the alley, but have you taken the alley out of the thief? I prefer ‘merchant,’ thank you.”
Before we could quibble more over wording, the door opened. Alard moved before the handle turned, and I was just a blink behind him. Without a word, we’d both flattened ourselves against the ceiling. Mortals rarely look up when they’re indoors.
“You’re at the shop late, aren’t you?” A young man walked into the room, and from his manner and the resemblance, I knew he had to be Carel’s son. To my surprise, he glanced upwards. “Hello, Alard. You need to change your hiding place.”
Alard grinned and drifted down to the floor. I followed him. “No one but you ever looks up in here, Dietger.”