Alex McCauley couldn't help but worry about Vlad Count. She worried about him on his very first day, taking in his pale, wan face and too thin frame. And she worried about him months into the school year, when he had still failed to settle in and make friends, and she came across Darren Hicks from form 11G attempting to shove him down the staircase.
She spoke to his form tutor and had a word with the school counsellor. She even arranged an appointment to speak with Vlad's father, though the man brushed off her concerns airily, seemingly unable to believe that Vlad might not be able to take care of himself.
It could backfire, she knew, but she tried talking to Vlad himself. Just to let him know that she was there, that her door would always be open to him. He looked at his feet, and down the corridor, anywhere but at her face and, though she could tell he had taken her words on board, she knew he would never act on them.
All she could do was keep an eye on him, wait and watch and hope that things would improve for a boy who was obviously struggling to reconcile pleasing his father with missing his old school friends. It was then she wondered about his mother, and the venom in Mr. Count's voice when she broached the subject told her that, however it had happened, it hadn't been amicable.
Vlad's obvious pall of misery was the reason she fought so hard, and so vocally to keep Mr. Count from taking the boy out of lessons entirely. She didn't doubt that the Count had Vlad's best interests at heart, but it would be Vlad who suffered in the long run. He couldn't hole himself up indefinitely in that darkened apartment, losing out on the day to day interaction she was convinced he needed to bring him out of his shell.
Mr. Count compromised, to her relief, and agreed to let her meet Vlad's new tutor. The man was charming, smiled at her, but it didn't meet his eyes and, when his gaze strayed away from her face, it made her skin crawl.
"I have trained for many years for this task," Bertrand told her, accent thickening with the intensity. "He is so far behind already."
"Vlad is a very capable student," she said in response, uncertain, for once, how best to phrase her next comment. "I feel what he needs more than anything is to have his confidence bolstered. Vlad's a very sensitive boy."
Bertrand stood, swept his notes together.
"He won't be when I've finished with him."
In the coming weeks Bertrand did nothing to improve her first impression of him. He was too hard on Vlad, had the poor boy working late into the night, so that he could barely stay awake during his timetabled lessons. What was worse was the power he seemed to hold over him, the way he could silence Vlad with a single look, haul him from whatever he was doing with little more than a click of his fingers.
It wasn't right. It wasn't something she was willing to see continue, in the grounds of her own school no less.
Vlad's mother saw it, for all her other faults, and Alex tried not to judge the other woman too much, not when she saw the look on Bertrand's face, the barely restrained fury as he hauled a case down a deserted corridor. It didn't last, couldn't, and Alex didn't miss the way Bertrand touched Vlad the following Monday, too close and too familiar.
She tried not to be hasty, and not to jump to conclusions. There were a myriad of innocent explanations, and then there were the cultural differences, but she ran into an old colleague at a seminar and he told her that, if anything, the relationship between student and profesor would only be more formal than that she was accustomed to.
Vlad became quieter, more withdrawn than ever, and Alex demanded Mr. Count listen to her concerns, telling him that it wasn't so much the age difference as the fact that Bertrand was abusing his position.
"Don't be ridiculous," she got in answer, "I think I'd know if Bertrand was up to anything he shouldn't be. I am master in my own domain, you know."
Renfield, the Count's manservant, looked up at her from where he was shining Mr. Count's shoes and nodded, and she could see that she wasn't going to get anywhere.
"Bertand is exactly the sort of role model Vlad needs," Mr. Count went on, "he's cunning, bloodthirsty and, most of all," he met her gaze as she made to leave the room, some unknown emotion darkening his eyes, "he doesn't waste his time worrying about other people's feelings."
It left her with no choice, no other option, and she tracked Bertrand down to some dank underused room off the south wing of the building, pausing to simply watch him for a moment as he savoured a mouthful of the blood red wine in front of him.
"Can I help you?" he asked without opening his eyes. "I'm a very busy man, Miss McCauley ."
She didn't like the way he said her name, didn't like the way he turned to look at her, slow and calculating. She had to be strong however. She had to stand her ground.
"I want to talk to you about Vlad," she said, bluntly. "I know what you're doing to him."
His expression didn't change, no tell tale twitch, and she forced herself to meet his eye, to not be intimidated by him.
"You're taking advantage; Vlad is very impressionable. I could report you."
Bertrand moved then, stood too close, towering over her so she had to arch her head back to look at him. She imagined Vlad in her position, torn between saying no and the desperate urge to impress, to keep people on his side, that she had witnessed on more than one occasion.
She opened her mouth to say more, to tell him that he had to put a stop to it, that he ought to be ashamed, but he was speaking, tone low and dangerous, before she had chance to,
"You've no right to lecture me. I've waited my entire life for this, gave up everything I held dear. I'm going to see it through, right to the end."
He glowered at her, eyes almost black, though with what emotion Alex couldn't be certain. Her heart was thumping in her chest, the atmosphere growing thicker and thicker, even as he leaned in still closer, hissed words she could see no reason she shouldn't believe,
"There is nothing you, or anybody else, can do to stop me."