“The best book I've read this year...I'm hoping to convince you all to buy this book...a page turner...all-around satisfying, pick this one up. Romance fans will not be disappointed...” -VampChix blog, October 21, 2010
Read an excerpt from this highly anticipated book here:
The Greyfriar (Vampire Empire Book 1)
Clay & Susan Griffith
“YOUR HIGHNESS WOULD be safer below. It’s getting dark. Vampires are very unpredictable.”
“Thank you, Colonel. I believe I’ll stay on deck a bit yet. It’s quite warm. That should keep the beasties quiet. Yes?”
Princess Adele noticed a slight smile on the dark, chiseled face of Colonel Mehmet Anhalt, who stood close to her, as was his habit. Under her gaze, the short but powerfully built Gurkha officer covered his bemusement by clearing his throat and offering his brass telescope. “In that case, Your Highness, would you care to have a look?”
“Yes, I should. Thank you, Colonel Anhalt.” Adele crossed the quarterdeck of HMS Ptolemy and leapt with girlish pleasure down three steps to the ship’s waist. A crowd of redjackets from her household guard parted to make a path to the port rail. A stiff breeze rolled the heavy skirt around her calves and whipped the ends of the scarf that struggled to restrain her long auburn curls.
Adele snapped open the telescope and steadied her booted feet expertly against the airship’s sway. The distant clouds were turning brilliant orange and bruise purple in the darkening eastern sky. Five miles
off the port beam Adele spotted two figures floating silhouetted in midair.
The young princess felt a delicious thrill spread through her. Vampire cadavers were displayed occasionally in the streets of her home, Alexandria, and she had even viewed the purported preserved head of the clan chief of Vienna, but she had seen only a few living specimens in her days. These two lay spread-eagle on the air, vibrating in the drafts that buffeted their nearly weightless frames.
Adele felt a tingle of horror when one turned its head and, she thought, stared at her, looking in her eye with its cold glare. She closed the glass with a sharp breath, going pale. Frustration swept through her that the creature should startle her so. It was not as if the beast had truly been looking at her. It merely had looked toward the ship. Struggling to regain her composure in front of her guardsmen, she resumed strolling the quarterdeck.
A young boy suddenly exploded up out of the main hatch. His face was red from the exertion of racing up the companionways, as indeed he raced everywhere he went. He was barely twelve years old and still round-faced as a baby, with darker hair than Adele’s, cropped short. A flowing striped cotton Bedouin robe over breeches and sandals made him look like a ragamuffin from the alleys of Cairo.
He scampered to Adele’s side, shouting, “I heard there are two of them out there!”
Princess Adele cut a very different figure from her wild younger brother, Simon. She was the heir, the future empress, and her very proper traveling garb was chosen for reasons of state. Today she wore a heavy cotton shirt, a leather jacket with a Persian sash, and a long velveteen skirt covering high leather boots. In the sash, she had her prized weapon, a jewel-hilted khukri, a broad-bladed dagger that had been a gift from her mother. More, it was a Fahrenheit blade, with chemical additives in the scabbard that gave the steel an intense chemical heat when exposed to air, making it more destructive than a normal blade.
The blade was not all Adele had received from her Persian mother. A light veil wrapped her head and shoulders to protect her against the sun and wind. Unlike her brother’s red-cheeked visage that he got from their father, Emperor Constantine II, Adele had olive skin and the distinctive nose of the late empress. Her appearance was a subject of murmured derision among the northern-featured courtiers who dominated the imperial court in Alexandria.
“They’re very far away, Simon.” Adele put an arm around her brother’s shoulders. While two lone vampires posed little threat to a heavily armed Ptolemy, she still would have preferred her brother locked safely below.
Prince Simon looked disappointed. “Can I look at the vampires, Colonel Anhalt?”
“May I look at the vampires,” Princess Adele corrected with a light cuff to the boy’s shoulder.
Anhalt was perspiring in his tightly buttoned uniform. “Unfortunately it’s grown too dark for observation, Prince Simon. And Khartoum has blocked our view.” He bowed stiffly to the eager prince, indicating a thirty-two-gun frigate maneuvering through the gathering clouds four miles off the port quarter. HMS Cape Town, Mandalay, and Giza were putting on or taking off sail, struggling to answer the signals to form the nightly cordon around the flagship.
“And you’ve seen vampires before,” Adele argued to Simon.
“So?” The boy craned his neck, straining to peer into the east through the billowing sails of Khartoum. “It’s probably the most interesting thing that will happen on this trip.”
Adele noticed a stony glare on Colonel Anhalt’s face as he looked in the direction of the vampires. It was unusually harsh and uncharacteristic of the man.
“Something, Colonel?” she asked, handing the spyglass back to him.
The Gurkha blinked in surprise, then flushed with embarrassment. He studied his polished boots. “No, Highness. Nothing.”
“Your expression said otherwise.” She stepped closer to him. “Feel free. Have I done something wrong?”
The colonel looked up suddenly, mouth agape. “No! I would never—never—”
“Easy, Colonel.” Adele smiled warmly and laid a hand on his forearm. “You merely looked angry. Is there something wrong?”
He wrestled with his thoughts for a moment, and then said, “Forgive my bluntness, Your Highness, but I think it unwise to send you so far north on tour.”
Adele nodded in consideration.
Anhalt continued. “And to send both heirs. I don’t know what the court was thinking. It’s irrational.”
“Politics aren’t always a matter of the most rational path. I am happy to be here, forging goodwill.” Adele, in fact, was thrilled to be away from Alexandria, on board this tossing ship. The alternative was to be at home, immersed in court tedium. When Lord Kelvin, the prime minister, had suggested the tour, Adele had leapt at the opportunity. But she couldn’t just make the argument that she enjoyed the adventure. There was a purpose, and it was one that was important to her aside from escape. “It’s imperative that the independent city-states on the frontier, such as Marseille, see the future empress of Equatoria. The connections I can make on this tour could be very helpful. There is a war coming.”
This was a fact both Adele and Colonel Anhalt knew well.Within a year, conflict would begin that would reshape the world in blood. Adele was no warmonger, but she knew the fight was necessary.
It had been 150 years since the vampires rose. The monsters had lurked quietly among humanity from the beginning of time, but one dark winter night in 1870 they came en masse intent on subjugating human society. It was not known why they chose that moment to attack. Perhaps a great leader had inspired them. Perhaps they sensed a particular weakness in human culture as it teetered between faith and science. And clearly, humans were not prepared; they were taken totally by surprise. Most people had even given up their beliefs in the existence of such creatures as vampires.
The vampires struck at the hearts of the Great Powers of Europe, America, and Asia. They decapitated governments and armies, and destroyed communication and transportation. Order was replaced by
horror, panic, and collapse. Within two years, the great industrial societies of the north were cadavers and the vampire clans divided the old world between themselves.
At that time, no one had understood the true nature of the vampires. Few enough did, even today. Adele, however, had the benefit of the dons of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Alexandria to teach her what was known, or thought was known, of the biology and culture of humanity’s greatest enemy. Myths about these creatures had grown up over the centuries—myths that were based on truths, but not the truth. Vampires were far more dangerous than the old legends could have imagined.
Most respected men of science stated with certainty that vampires were not the resurrected corpses of humans. The creatures were now classed as a parasitic species that thrived on human blood, and they had been categorized Homo nosferatii. Vampires and humans had disturbingly similar anatomies and physiologies, except that vampires had sharper teeth, retractable clawlike fingernails, and eyes acutely adapted to nocturnal hunting. Four of their five senses were magnificent; sight, smell, hearing, and taste were well beyond the level of a dog or cat. However, vampires had a stunted sense of touch, making it difficult for them to manipulate objects or use simple tools. Anatomy lessons conducted in the gaslit chambers beneath the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Alexandria had demonstrated that vampires seemed to feel no pain and rapidly healed from even the most horrific wounds.
It had never been demonstrated convincingly that vampires created new vampires by infecting humans. Scholars debated with great vigor how, or even if, vampires propagated. There were many theories, but the current dominant belief among the learned was that the creatures lived forever and that there were as many now as there had ever been or would ever be.
Vampires had never been seen to transform into bats or wolves, but they could travel on the wind by amazing control over their density, which was not yet fully understood. Specimens rarely lived long enough in captivity for satisfying experimentation. Sunlight did not turn them to dust, but they were pathologically susceptible to heat, which made them weak and lethargic. Hence, their tendency to come out at night and haunt northern climes.
Certainly none of this latest scientific knowledge had been available to the terrified victims of the Great Killing in 1870. After those attacks, hundreds of thousands of humans had fled south toward the equator, where they sought refuge in colonial possessions and fought savagely for land in a great frenzy of cultural collapse and coalition. Eventually the shell-shocked remnants of northern humanity blended with local people and set about trying to re-create new versions of their beloved societies based on steam and iron in the wilting tropical heat where vampires rarely trod.
Prince Simon scrambled to the rail again. “I think I see them!” He looked back at Colonel Anhalt with a pleading gaze.
The Gurkha offered the young prince his spyglass before turning his attention back to the princess, his hand resting on the hilt of his Fahrenheit saber, an officer’s weapon. “I still think it’s foolish to waste your time currying favor with the border states. There are only two sides to this war: human and vampire. What’s the purpose of diplomacy with those who will need us once the fighting starts?”
Adele sighed cheerfully. “You’re just argumentative. You know it isn’t that simple. We will need the independent states on the frontier as much as they need us. We will want their ports and facilities to move our armies into Europe. Isn’t it better to have an understanding beforehand?
No one expects a human state to side with the vampires, but the border states have self-interests too. And there will be opportunities for the Empire to expand as we roll back the vampires. Our world is about to change forever.”
Adele’s world was very different from the one her great-grandfather would’ve known, and which she had read about in history books. There were new Great Powers that were like the resurrected corpses of the world powers at the time of the Great Killing. Her own Equatorian Empire was built on the ruins of the British Empire. It stretched from India to South Africa, with its great capital set amid the dusty mosques of Alexandria. The American Republic was a republic in name only. It was ruled by an oligarchy of wealthy families from its center in the torrid quietude of Panama with firm control over most of Central America and theWest Indies, and growing hegemony over the southern region of the old United States.When the vampires attacked Japan, that emperor removed himself to Singapore and spread his power over the green temples of Malaya and much of Southeast Asia. The world over, a
dizzying array of semi-independent city-states struggled along the vampire frontiers, where warm summers made it difficult for the monsters to extend their power on a permanent basis.
Those who traced their heritage to the north remained galled by the vampire clans’ continuing domination of the old lands. They always talked of returning “home” and driving the vampires back into the darkness.
Now that moment was at hand.
The human states believed they were sufficiently reorganized to strike and had the proper technology to counter the swift, savage hordes of the vampire clans. A brutalWar of Reconquest would begin with the coming of spring in the north.
And Princess Adele, standing windswept on the deck of Ptolemy, was a linchpin in the strategy. It was her birthright to be part of the bloody struggle for the future of the world. She was the matrimonial prize that would unite the two greatest human states into an allied war machine.
Adele regarded the imposing figure of Colonel Anhalt and laughed at his worried scowl. “Thank you for your concern, but surely nothing will happen. We are far south of clan territory. Marseilles hasn’t been attacked in—what—fifteen years?”
“Seven then. And the weather is quite warm. As our meteorologists predicted.”
Anhalt grunted in tepid acceptance of her logic.
“And I have my White Guard around me.” Adele smiled at the furrowed brow on the dark face before her. “You’ll keep me safe, won’t you, Colonel Anhalt?”
There was a sudden and surprising glisten of moisture in Anhalt’s hard eyes. “With my life, Your Highness.”
Adele replied, “Dear Anhalt. Where would I be without you?”
“I pray you never have to find out.”
“I as well.”
A nervous young naval officer stopped and bowed. “The admiral’s compliments, Your Highness. He says we will have chemical lights momentarily, and perhaps you should consider moving belowdecks.”
The princess replied with proper formality, “Thank you, Lieutenant Sayid.” And she noticed his surprise and pride that the imperial heir recalled his name. “I think that two vampires would hardly dare attack an imperial capital ship of one hundred guns.”
“One hundred and fifteen guns, Your Highness,” the boy responded stiffly.
“Indeed?” Adele smiled. “Impressive. But in any case, since vampiric vision is reputed to exceed a cat’s, surely they could easily perceive the better part of a regiment on deck.”
Lieutenant Sayid raised a knuckle to his brow in salute and immediately turned to pass orders to the bosun’s mates with a less nervous voice. Then he pulled appropriate signal flags and stuffed them into
hardened gutta-percha cylinders. The foot-long cylinders went into shining copper pneumatic tubes and were shot to the platforms high in the ship’s rigging.
Princess Adele watched as gangs of sailors clambered up the shrouds and ratlines toward the gigantic, gas-filled dirigible overhead. The dirigible was encased in a tightly crosshatched metal eggshell designed to protect it from enemy cannon fire. A row of three wooden masts extended laterally from each side and also along the top spine of the steel frame. Sails were set in concert with filling and evacuating parts of the multichambered dirigible, to propel and steer the massive airship. It was an intricate ballet, a wonder to watch.
Simon glanced at his big sister. “You want to be up there with them, don’t you?”
A startled Adele began, “Don’t be silly. . . .” Then she stopped and responded honestly, “Yes. And so do you.”
The boy laughed and nodded his head vigorously, craning his neck to get a glimpse of the fearless sailors. Adele dropped her arm around her brother’s shoulders and followed his gaze upward, feeling a powerful desire to climb the quivering lines alongside the sailors and scale the dizzying main topmast swaying high above the airship to feel the clouds on her face. She envied those simple men who shouted, laughed, and even sang in the wind-ripped tops with only the sureness of their grip separating them from a long but certain death.
On the blustery quarterdeck, Lieutenant Sayid interrupted her thoughts by touching the brim of his cap politely. “Your Highness, if you would please step to this spot between the carronades. I would be loath for you or the prince to be struck by an inconsiderate falling airman.”
Simon immediately planted himself and stared up at the swelling sails, forcing Adele to tow his rigid form against the rail. She began to say something to the young officer, but he was already engaged in another duty. With a heavy sigh, she leaned against the hardmahogany gunwale, content to monitor her restless brother in the gathering darkness.
A maid appeared from below with Adele’s heavy cape and a coat for Simon. The weather was too warm for a cloak, and Adele would have refused, but the maid was only following orders. If the poor girl returned below with the cloak still in her possession it would create a crisis that would envelop Adele’s entire staff. The maid confidently informed Adele that dinner was in exactly twenty minutes. Then, on her way below, the servant exchanged light, bubbling words with the handsome Lieutenant Sayid. Adele watched them, fascinated by the mix of hesitance and boldness; a young woman, a handsome officer. Such charming simplicity.
A sudden flash of moonlight reflected in the ostentatious diamond ring on Adele’s left hand and forced her to remember her wedding was barely a month away. It wasn’t so much a wedding as the starting gun for the war, the signal that Equatoria and the American Republic were one. All the linen, china, and warships would be bound to the same household. Adele thought of the beautiful gold locket that held a picture of her Intended, Senator Clark. War hero. Vampire killer. Scion of a great American house. Undeniably handsome. He had the open brashness of an American, which in another situation she might have found attractive.
Still, the young woman had generally refused to think about the Impending Event because the thought of a stranger’s weight on the other side of her bed caused many sleepless nights bathed in a frightened
sweat and with a shortness of breath. She couldn’t conceive of how her Intended’s war-roughened hands would feel on her skin, nor did she want to. Her spy inside the Office of Court Protocol had confided to her that the issue of sexual commerce was still under negotiation and, although it probably could not be eliminated completely, it would at least be kept to the minimum necessary to conceive an heir. The marriage was a political necessity and, therefore, Adele’s duty, but she doubted it would ever be more than that.
Adele reached up absently and through her heavy blouse damp with perspiration she felt the small stone talisman hanging around her neck. She wore it instead of the beautiful gold locket with a photo of her Intended, which was buried deep in her luggage. Her revered mentor, Mamoru, had given her the religious stone talisman for protection, and it gave her a sense of solemnity and calm. But Adele kept it hidden; no one could know that their princess wore such a superstitious item. Members of court already suspected that her youthful exuberance was a dreadful portent of her failure as empress. Surely they didn’t need to know that she had a penchant for the occult and miraculous. The “better” class of people in Equatoria put religion and magic in the same category. Churches and mosques and temples still existed, and services were still held, but those who attended were viewed as quaint at best and deranged at worst. Mamoru was a very spiritual man, and Adele found that part of him fascinating. He claimed that spirituality and naturalism, as much as steel and steam, would destroy the vampires. It was
only a matter of firm belief and correct practice.
Ptolemy began to glow with the quavering blurs of chemical bulbs. The other ships in the fleet appeared as vague yellow smudges in the night sky. Far beneath the ship the earth was hidden in a swallowing blackness that had fascinated and terrified Adele since they had left the civilizing lights of the Empire for the vampire frontier of southern France.
Prince Simon’s urgent voice interrupted Adele’s thoughts. “Do you think we’ll meet the Greyfriar out here?”
Adele shook her head with confusion. “What? The Greyfriar? What in the world are you talking about now?”
“The Greyfriar! He’s a hero who fights the vampires in the north.”
“Oh, yes. No, of course not. He’s not even real, Simon. Just a story to make people feel better.”
Simon narrowed his eyes at his sister’s ignorance. “He’s not a story. He’s real. I saw pictures in a book. He carries swords and guns and wears a mask. People say he killed a hundred vampires in Brussels. A hundred!” The young prince began to wave his arm around as if he had a sword, striking and slashing. “He’s a master fencer with all blades! His swords move so fast vampires can’t see them! Whoosh whoosh whoosh! Their heads are rolling before they even know the Greyfriar is there! Hah! Colonel Anhalt, you believe in the Greyfriar, don’t you?”
The soldier said over his shoulder with mock solemnity, “Indeed I do, Your Highness. I heard he killed a hundred vampires in Brussels too.”
“You see, Adele! I told you!”
Adele replied, “Simon, be still.”
“Why can’t we meet him? I’ll bet if we told him we were coming, he’d meet us. We’re the royal family of Equatoria.”
“We can’t see him because he’s not real! Now stand still and mind me!”
Simon huffed. “Well, then, will they let me command the ship?”
No, of course not,” Adele snapped irritably. Then she blinked and said more softly, “Not now. Perhaps tomorrow when it’s light.”
Adele wanted to nurture Simon’s youthful curiosity and excitement, not stifle it. His enthusiasm was important. The Empire needed men like Simon, brazen and curious. Currently at court, to her dismay, there already were far too many of the venal type of man he would become if the palace drudges got their talons on him.
“Why not?” Simon wandered from her side, intent on exploring the ship’s wheel, where blazingly bright copper pneumatic tubes gathered to form something like a Baroque organ. Prince Simon was due to become an officer in the Imperial Navy, and this idea excited him.
Colonel Anhalt coughed commandingly at the young prince as small hands played over the pneumo tubes.
Adele darted from the rail and grabbed her brother’s arm. “Simon, don’t get in the way!”
“I’m not going to hurt anything!” the boy retorted.
They were interrupted by the clack of a pneumo arriving from the tops.
With his back straight, Colonel Anhalt said to Simon, “Would Your Highness care to retrieve that signal from the chief of the top mizzenmast?”
With a yelp of joy, Simon lifted a round copper flap, and a rubber cylinder dropped out into his hand along with a splash of dark liquid. “Ew. What’s this?” He lifted his stained fingers into the yellow light.
Oil or grease, Adele thought with mild exasperation, automatically reaching into her pocket for a handkerchief. Anhalt stared at Simon’s hand with furrowed brows. He pulled the pneumo cylinder from the boy’s grasp and sniffed it.
“Blood,” the rough soldier murmured. Abruptly his stern visage turned on a horrified Princess Adele. His voice was firm and demanding. “Your Highness, take your brother below, if you please.”
Adele put one hand instinctively on the hilt of her dagger and with the other tugged Simon toward the main hatch as Colonel Anhalt gazed up at the vast dirigible one hundred feet over his head as if trying to see through it to the invisible topmasts above. Several naval officers on the quarterdeck stopped chatting among themselves and watched with growing interest.
Suddenly the airship lurched. Adele grabbed a pneumatic tube for support and pulled her brother back to his feet. In the rigging high above, she saw a figure tumble sickeningly, flipping this way and that,
unable to grasp a safe hold, until he shot past the deck into the black atmosphere below the ship. Before Adele could understand that sudden tragedy, another man fell and then another. Then she saw strange shadowy things moving with unnatural agility down through the lines, pulling hand over hand toward the deck.
Two dark cadaverous figures settled to the deck amidships with no sound and lifted their bloodstained faces into the light. Adele saw true savagery for the first time. These vampires were not stories or frightening figures in the distance; they were real, covered in blood that glistened in the lamplight. She clutched her brother close.
Sailors stared at the horrific intruders. A squad of redjackets raised their rifles and opened an erratic fire. One vampire was blown off his feet. The other streaked forward, a blur in the half-light, and two soldiers screamed. The wounded vampire then bounded to his feet and also rushed into the fight. It was a short, bloody affair.
Two other vampires dropped onto the quarterdeck, hissing like cats, only yards from Adele and Simon. One leapt at Simon, too fast for Adele to scream or react.
The vampire’s head exploded and the body tumbled.
Anhalt appeared at Adele’s side with a smoking revolver extended and Fahrenheit saber in hand. “Get below! Quickly!” He fired twice, hitting the second vampire in the head, and it dropped palsied to the deck.
“Form square!” Anhalt bellowed over the staccato gunfire erupting across the deck. “Fix bayonets! Up and out! Up and out!” Soldiers scrambled for the quarterdeck and gathered into a ragged square around the main hatch. The men fumbled with bayonets and tried to work their rifles as they’d been drilled, each trooper alternating his aim out or up to cover both ground and air. Some young faces were blank, others stained with horror and blood.
Adele sent her brother down into the companionway. She saw the rigging over her head was full of vampires, perhaps a hundred of them squirming and crawling, like a dead tree full of caterpillars. Then the two royals were below, where soldiers and sailors raced frantically through the corridors. Officers shouted orders and counterorders that were lost in the din of tramping feet. Anhalt dropped quickly through the hatchway and detailed five soldiers to accompany Adele and Simon into the bowels of the ship.
They went down and down, past the acrid-smelling chemical room, into the reeking orlop deck. They were taken to a small dark chamber, fore or aft Adele could no longer say, inhabited by goats, pigs, and crates of chickens.
“You’ll be safe here, Your Highness.” A soldier shoved the royal siblings into the manger, then slammed the door shut.
For a long time, neither Adele nor Simon spoke in the blackness. She hugged her brother, noticing that he was shivering, his unblinking eyes staring at a small goat that stood in the straw nearby. They strained to hear traces of the battle, hoping for hints of victory. Surely, the finest troops of the Equatorian Empire could defeat vampire raiders. The vampires would flee like vermin once they realized that this was not a lazy merchant vessel that had strayed too far north.
The room shuddered and made a heart-sickening lurch to starboard. Simon screeched and squeezed Adele as they tumbled across the manger. Trying to cushion Simon’s body, she hit the bulkhead amid a pile of chicken crates. Adele lifted a crate off her brother and brought him closer.
After several frightening minutes in the dark, the door flew open and Colonel Anhalt appeared with a horrid gash marring his dark face, his tunic torn and drenched in blood. He carried a trooper’s carbine and his saber, smoking with boiling blood. “Highness, quickly if you please. The ship is going down.”
Adele climbed to her feet. “Lifeboats?”
“No.” Anhalt shepherded the royal pair from the room. “Too unsafe.” Airship lifeboats were small gondolas attached to chemically inflated balloons; easy prey to vampires. Three soldiers moved ahead and four fell in behind. As the group climbed to the gun deck the chemical lighting went out, plunging the ship into pitch black. The hallway was listing at a rough angle, and footing was treacherous. Ahead, sailors were filling a room with mattresses and rolled hammocks. Anhalt indicated for Adele and Simon to go inside. “Stay here, Your Highness. And don’t worry.”
Adele pushed Simon to the floor, where he stayed compliantly. Sliding her hand off her brother’s stiff shoulder, she moved back to her trusted Gurkha colonel and whispered, “What’s our situation?”
Anhalt hesitated, but after staring into the steady eyes of the young woman he admired, and again realizing why he admired her, he said, “The vampires have destroyed most of the sails and damaged the dirigible. And we can no longer stay aloft. The White Guard is losing the deck.”
“How is this possible?” she asked, incredulous. “Raiders don’t—”
“These aren’t raiders, Your Highness. This is a full-scale attack by clan packs. They mean to destroy this ship. Perhaps the entire convoy.”
“That’s incredible! Surely we have the firepower to stop them.”
“I hope so. Vampires are desperately hard to kill. The monsters do not know they are injured until they are in pieces. Even with a Fahrenheit blade, you have to destroy a vital organ or sever the head.”
“How many are there?”
He shook his head and hefted his red saber without outward emotion. “Fewer now.”
“How many men have we lost?”
“Many,” Anhalt answered, and turned to leave.
Adele noticed the bloody footprints left by the colonel and his four White Guardsmen, and anger raced through her. The door closed and she knelt beside Simon, dragging a mattress over them. She sang softly to her brother, a lullaby she used to sing to him when he was a baby. They waited.
Adele heard a strange sound mixed with her own voice.
But there was so much noise enveloping the ship that at first Adele dismissed the sound as just part of the battle. Then it came again from just by her ear. It was coming from the other side of the bulkhead. She strained to hear. Men running? The creaking of stressed timber? Rats scurrying for safety? There was something about it that didn’t seem to fit any of those.
“What is that noise?” asked Simon in a small voice.
“Nothing,” Adele responded. “It’s nothing.” But the anxiety inside her wouldn’t go away. She shifted and eased Simon away from the wall. From within her cape emerged her Fahrenheit khukri dagger. The glow from the blade gave her some small comfort, but couldn’t stop the wild pounding of her heart.
Then the wall started to break apart.
ADELE AND SIMON were showered with splinters as a hole was punched in the wall and a thin object snaked through. Something sharp dug into the young woman’s side. There was a horrible hissing noise, almost one of pain as it grabbed her. Arching back with a cry, Adele instinctively slashed at what held her. Her blade came into contact with something long and bony. An arm!
Simon was shouting. The pale arm of another vampire had reached through another hole and was dragging him toward the bulkhead.
“No!” Adele grabbed Simon and stabbed the arm holding him. There was no satisfying screech of pain from behind the wall, only the smoldering stench of burning flesh from the khukri’s chemical, which
would continue to burn for some time.
A skeletal hand slapped the dagger from Adele’s trembling fingers, sending it skittering across the floor. Simon was yanked away from her, and he crashed against the splintering bulkhead. Claws tore at the wood, widening the hole behind Simon.
Adele staggered to her feet and tore through debris for another weapon. Without one, she and Simon would be lost. Her hand landed on something metal, slender, and over two feet long; it was a marlin-
spike. She spun it around and jabbed the closest vampire arm. The small grunt that echoed gave her hope that she could hurt them.
“Adele!” Simon shouted in a panic as he struggled to keep himself from being pulled through the ever-widening hole. The vampire on the other side didn’t seem to care that he didn’t quite fit. It was desperate to have him.
Adele struck again at the hand gripping Simon’s shoulder. “Hold on, Simon!” There was less than an inch of space between her brother and her target, but the steel tooth hit its mark and plunged through the thin wrist. The claw released Simon, and the boy scrambled around his sister.
Adele held onto the spike like she had gaffed a thrashing fish. The hand twisted unnaturally and grasped the tool, ripping itself free of the spike and tearing its own wrist to shreds before pulling its arm back through the wall to safety.
Glancing wildly about for the direction of the next attack, the royal siblings backed away, though there was little space for them to go.
Then a wide portion of the weakened bulkhead close to the deck shattered in a cloud of dust and wood splinters. Through the haze of smoke and dust Adele was looking at the female vampire face that she had seen through the spyglass while on deck earlier. Now there was nothing to stop the vampire from coming in.
Adele dragged Simon with her as she retreated. He was softly crying against her. She could feel her brother’s fear mixing with her own. But there was no time for comforting words, because the face of death appeared in the hole, head and shoulders visible as a long bony arm clawed for purchase.
Determined to protect her brother, Adele reared back with the spike and stabbed again. The spike sank through ribs and flesh and embedded deep into the wood, pinning the female to the deck. The creature bared her teeth and hissed, thrashing in anger, but she couldn’t free herself.
The ship shuddered and threw Adele and Simon to the deck. Their stomachs lurched as the big vessel dropped sharply. Everything in the cabin started a slow slide. Adele grabbed a mattress and tried to use it to shield them.
“We’re going down!”
HMS Ptolemy hit the ground.
How was this possible? It was even warmer on the ground. Why were they still coming? What was driving them?
HMS Ptolemy hit the ground.
The impact tore Adele and Simon from under the mattress, throwing them into the air and slamming them against bulkheads. Adele tumbled for what seemed hours. Her world was noise and pain. She no longer knew up or down.
When everything finally stopped, Adele lay still in the flickering dark and choked, “Simon! Simon! Are you all right?” There was no answer. She heard nothing—no screaming, shooting, or explosions.
Clawing at the mattresses and rolled hammocks around her, she struggled to stand but was unsure how or where to put her feet. She could smell smoke; the ship was on fire. They had to get out.
Adele saw a small leg sticking up awkwardly into the air. The frantic girl scrambled to it and grabbed the ankle. Tearing at the wreckage, she reached down, feeling along her brother’s torso, and gathered
the front of his robe. With all her strength, she pulled Simon up out of the maw. She stared at his face; his eyes were open.
“Are we dead?” he asked her, coughing against the smoke and dust.
Adele pressed her face against his heaving chest. “No. We’re fine. We made it. Now we just wait for another ship to come and pick us up.” It was a pale attempt to reassure him, and her eyes darted around them. But no frightening faces stared back at her.
Together, the imperial siblings took unsteady bouncing steps across the jumbled mattresses to the door of the cabin. A glint of light caught Adele’s eye, and she saw her dagger lying amidst the debris, the chemically heated blade now cooled into a normal weapon. She snatched it up with a small yelp of triumph and slipped it back into the scabbard at her belt to be charged once more. Adele’s shoulder and legs felt hot, but she didn’t pause to look for injuries. Better not to know for now. They kicked wreckage away from the door, which she then wrenched open. The corridor outside was a world of debris. Wooden planks and metal rods, barrels, and broken beams created a jagged landscape. Redjackets who had been standing guard outside the door were trapped in the chaos. All were dead. Adele shielded Simon’s eyes.
As quickly as they could, the two made their way from the remnants of the cabins into the open gun deck. Massive iron cannons on their huge wooden carriages, each weighing several tons, had broken loose and were scattered like toys or carelessly thrown pieces of driftwood. Sailors stumbled through the wreckage, some helping comrades who were trapped or injured. The hot dusty air was filled with muted moans of pain and anguish, and the smell of smoke and blood.
Adele saw the night sky above through a long fissure in the ship’s bulkhead. “Up there,” she told Simon. “Let’s climb.” She helped the boy clamber his way up the tilted deck. They grabbed whatever handholds they could find. Wreckage shifted suddenly, threatening to throw them down, but they finally reached the jagged hole and emerged onto the sloping hull of the overturned hulk.
Taking in great breaths of fresh air, Adele turned to her silent brother. “Are you hurt?” She touched his limbs and head. She wanted him to talk. She wanted him to react.
The young prince flexed his elbows and knees, then shook his head. “No. Everything works.”
“Me too.” Adele laughed and kissed the top of her brother’s head. “We’ll be okay.”
The gem of the imperial fleet had smashed through a Provençal forest, leaving behind a wasteland of uprooted trees. The airship was heeled over on her starboard side with the dirigible and its metal shell
shredded. Masts were snapped and scattered across the great mounds of earth the crashed ship had gouged up. Men crawled out of gashes across the length of the hull and wandered over the vast beached wooden whale. Adele helped several of them while speaking calmly and encouraging them as best she could. It was her duty in a crisis. Men also moved around on the ground. She saw surviving White Guardsmen among them and searched unsuccessfully for Colonel Anhalt and members of her household staff. She prayed that Colonel Anhalt was still alive.
Adele turned her gaze up to the cloud-filled sky, searching for the glows of the other ships in the fleet. She thought she saw a faint yellow blur, but couldn’t be sure. Then she noticed tiny, wavering shapes flitting over the face of the grey clouds.
How was this possible? It was even warmer on the ground. Why were they still coming? What was driving them?
Adele tried to push Simon back inside the ship’s hull as a vampire landed near her. The creature seized Adele’s arm, but immediately released her with a screaming hiss. He stared intently at the young woman with his head bobbing like an animal. The vampire wore a mixture of military uniforms, including a general’s jacket replete with tarnished medals and badges of honor. But the weird uniform meant nothing; vampires wore what clothes they could loot from cadavers or wrecked homes. He continued to hiss in that language that no human had ever penetrated. Adele realized, without understanding how, that the thing was talking about her. She couldn’t distinguish specifics in the
horrid language, but she suddenly perceived that this entire attack was about her. The vampires were searching for her.
Even more incredibly, this vampire “general” was afraid to approach her. Adele could sense his fear, and she used it. She came forward aggressively, and the thing shuffled back, brandishing his claws. Then Adele heard a short but recognizable grunt from behind. She whirled to see another vampire wrapping his pale, bony arms around her shell-shocked young brother. She lurched toward them as the thing leapt from the ship’s hull with Simon in his grasp. Adele choked a scream as she watched them plummet to the ground. The vampire landed hard on his feet and carried Simon off through the high grass into the dark forest.
Adele climbed down the airship’s ruptured hull. She ignored the vampire general as he continued to hover threateningly. She missed holds and slipped several times, but didn’t panic. The hard-minded
princess didn’t notice her bloody hands as she dropped to the ground and sprinted after Simon, racing headlong past dazed soldiers and sailors who were trying to fight the descending vampires. Pausing only long enough to wrest a saber from a dead trooper, she plunged into the forest, heedless of branches and thorns that scratched her face and body. Her breath tore from her throat and her heart pounded.
The princess came to a stop in a grassy clearing. On the far side of he glade stood a female vampire dressed in black knee breeches and black silk stockings with no shoes, bare-breasted under a dark swallow-tail coat with gold ribbons festooning the shoulders. The female was tall and statuesque, but pale and blue-eyed, like all of her kind, and wore her ebony black hair in a braid that hung long down her back. Simon lay at her feet with his abductor kneeling nearby.
The tall female hissed and pointed with her well-formed hands. Her clawlike nails, which Adele knew vampires could deploy like a cat’s, were retracted to display her lack of fear. The female smiled and said with harsh sibilance, “Princess Adele.”
Adele was shocked to hear a vampire speak English, particularly her own name. She stared at this vile parasite, so much like a beautiful woman.
Then she heard human voices, and two of her White Guardsmen ran into the clearing beside her. The vampire who had abducted Simon was already on the attack. Both soldiers fired, and his torso exploded.
The tall female vampire with the long black braid snarled and moved. The dark creature seemed to appear in front of the two soldiers as they frantically worked their rifle bolts. The two men disintegrated into a shower of viscera and bone without another shot or sound. The female paused to lick the hot blood off her hands.
Adele heard a sound just over her left shoulder and wheeled, catching the image of a pale figure with no splash of soldier’s red or sailor’s white. She cut through the target, feeling a brief tug on the saber
blade, and completed the spin to face the tall female vampire with the saber already back to attack position. A vampire’s head rolled on the ground; the body made a slight sighing noise as it slumped to the dirt behind her.
The princess felt neither exhilaration nor disgust—only duty, and the weight of the sword in her hands. She was naturally aggressive, bursting with relentlessness unexpected in a small girl, which had
always served as an advantage. But she had never mastered defensive skills, earning her many a thumping from her tutor during fencing matches.
She charged the tall female vampire, three strokes already mapped in her mind. In the fleetest part of her brain she saw the female moving at the same time.
Adele looked up from the dirt. Her hands were flat on the ground. The saber was gone. Standing over her, the female vampire inspected a raw stomach wound and a slash in her brocade coat.
The female said, “You struck me. No human has struck me in a hundred years.” The creature was impassive, showing neither anger nor desire for retribution. Still, she eyed Adele curiously.
“Please,” Adele breathed, “take me if you wish. But release my brother. He’s just a boy.”
“We will take you.” The female strolled away from Adele and continued observing her wound with the minor annoyance of someone who has lost a button from her coat. “But he’s not just a boy. He is the heir when you’re gone.” She raised her head and emitted a piercing cry like the screech of a rusted cemetery gate, a scream that seemed to slice across the countryside.
A male vampire slid into view between trees and reached for Simon. Then the creature’s head suddenly parted from his shoulders.
A booted foot shoved the decapitated carcass into the dirt.
A man stood over Simon. He was tall and thin, and his face was covered by a head wrap similar to that worn by the high desert Bedouins. Over his eyes he wore smoked, dark glasses. His clothing was dark grey, almost black, a short military-style jacket and cavalry pants with a red stripe, and knee-high, black riding boots. Over it all he wore a long cloak with a hood thrown back. He had a gun belt with two holstered pistols. In his left hand was a basket-hilted longsword; in his right was a well-blooded scimitar.
The man bounded toward the tall female vampire. “Take the boy and run!”
Adele realized the mysterious swordsman was shouting at her. She scrambled to her feet and ran to her prone brother, already hearing the ringing of steel against claws. The stranger in grey seemed eerily
familiar. Inexplicably, she was afraid for him and afraid of him at the same time.
Adele gathered Simon in her arms and ran. A group of vampires dropped to the ground in front of her, but they were staring beyond her to the fight. As she stumbled past, two of them recovered their senses and flashed over to block her. Their movements were no longer blurs to her. Adele could see their actions with a clarity and purity that surprised her.
She had no purpose other than to protect Simon. Holding him awkwardly with one arm, she landed a staggering blow on the jaw of one vampire. She then drove curled fingers into the face of another. The
princess blocked a swipe, locked the arm, and drove a foot into the vampire’s knee. It would’ve been devastating against a human, but she instantly realized that she’d made a mistake, because the vampire
showed no pain. The thing seized Adele’s neck, but instantly yanked his hand back with a screech.
Clawed hands surrounded Adele and wrenched Simon from her grasp. He was lifted into the air. The boy screamed. The vampire reared back and threw Simon with all its horrible strength. The boy’s little
form flew through the air as if shot from a cannon and smashed sickeningly against a tree.
Adele’s legs nearly gave out as she stared at the sight of her little brother lying motionless. The seemingly endless moments they had shared flashed in her brain, crowding out any conscious thought. All Simon had been, all he could have been, come to this? This was his end? A lifeless body in a forest in France. She started to move toward her brother, but slavering vampires crowded her way, reaching out, slapping sharply at her but hardly daring to touch her.
The swordsman drove his scimitar down through the tall female’s shoulder. The force of the blow staggered her to her knees. He left the scimitar embedded in the vampire as he wheeled toward Adele. Three vampires moved to intercept the charging swordsman. Without breaking stride, he pulled a pistol with his free hand, aimed, and fired. One vampire spun from the impact and collapsed. The swordsman then shot a small female in the stomach and battered the other creature with the basket hilt of the longsword, knocking him onto his back. His foot pressed against the supine vampire’s throat, he plunged the sword into his heart and then fired a shot into the head of the wounded small female, who was rising to her feet.
A clawed hand raked the swordsman’s shoulder, tearing his cloak. He blocked the next swipe, kicking the attacker away. He aimed for a debilitating head shot, but he sensed something behind him and twisted to dodge a savage blow from the tall commanding female that would have torn off his head.
“You will die,” the female told him, with one arm hanging limp.
He wasted no words but drove the palm of his hand flat against the female’s bare chest, sending her airborne back toward the treeline. Midway she changed her density and hit the trunk of a tree with no
more than a subtle bounce. Righting herself, she stepped to the ground.
The swordsman was already running toward the princess. He swung his blade and severed the top of a vampire’s skull. With one hand he reached down to pluck a Guardsman’s saber from a motionless body at his feet and flung it end over end toward the tall female. The blade plunged into the female’s chest and into the tree behind her. The hilt of the vibrating blade stuck in her ribs. She screamed and clawed at it in a rage.
The swordsman grabbed Princess Adele roughly by the arm and dragged her into the dank forest.
ADELE STUMBLED ALONGSIDE her rescuer.
“This way,” he commanded.
“Simon . . .” Adele gasped. “Go back . . . my brother.”
“Impossible. He is lost.”
Her face immediately locked in an expression of horror and anguish.
“I’m sorry, Princess. I must keep you safe.”
Tears grew in Adele’s eyes, though her words were angry and sharp. “Why won’t you help him? I don’t care about me!”
“You are next in line. Your brother is most likely already—”
“Don’t you dare say it!” Adele stopped running, forcing the swordsman to turn back to her. The top of her auburn head barely came to his chin, but her eyes snapped defiance. “He could be alive!”
“They want you.”
“I demand we go back for him.”
“My father will hear of this!”
He nodded without great interest. “We must go. Quickly. They’re coming.”
Adele took an involuntary breath of fear.
The swordsman stared at her, the glass lenses covering his eyes hard and cold. “Once we get you to safety, I will go back for your brother, if possible.” Then he added without conviction, “With any luck your troops will have rallied and repelled the attack.”
Adele squeezed her eyes shut and forced her emotions down. She needed to think clearly. She could hear the logic in his words; they echoed in her ears, especially what he wasn’t telling her. It was better Simon die than fall into vampire hands. The swordsman crackled with a compelling urgency, and she knew she was slowing him down in more ways than one.
“Please, Princess, no more discussion.”
She gathered her skirts again. “I’m ready.”
The swordsman turned and was off, sprinting, practically flying over rocks and mossy, fallen trees.
A squad of determined White Guardmen broke through the trees in ragged formation. Colonel Anhalt was in the lead, a pistol and saber at the ready and two more pistols jammed in his waistband. The sturdy Gurkha had one objective: protect the royal family.
Laid out before him was a sight from his deepest nightmares. A clutch of vampires surrounded the tiny body of Prince Simon with their claws raised and teeth bared. Anhalt fired with a retort that silenced the triumphant cackle of the vampires. The head of the creature closest to the unconscious prince snapped back with a bullet lodged in his forehead, and he slammed to the ground. Anhalt shouted and ran toward his objective. He didn’t know if his men were still behind him or not.
The pistol fired again, accurate to a fault, shattering the jaw of another vampire near the boy. Anhalt blasted the temple of a third vampire as he reached the prince, sweeping his Fahrenheit saber to knock
aside a lifted claw coming from his right. A second later the creature was on the ground and two White Guardsmen were running it through with bayonets.
“Form square! Protect the prince! Or die trying!” Anhalt shouted with his feet firmly planted on either side of motionless Simon. His men quickly complied. There weren’t nearly enough soldiers to form a proper barrier, but it didn’t stop them from creating the barest of defense around the remaining heir to Equatoria.
More vampires descended from above, and the White Guardsmen lifted their rifles to the sky. Every man on the line fired, and the air filled with white smoke and blood. The front wave of monsters fell. Colonel Anhalt knelt low over his charge. When the next surge came from the vampires it too was a gruesome slaughter.
For the first time, the creatures faltered. But the male creature festooned like a general screeched in rage behind his brethren, and they came again swiftly and without mercy.
“Fire! Fire! Fire!” Anhalt shouted.
A cacophony of shrieking, hissing, and rifle discharge deafened the colonel. Then suddenly the vampires were among them. Bayonets slashed flesh to the bone; pistols shattered skulls to pulp. The fighting and dying all screamed.
Anhalt moved not an inch from his position and hacked relentlessly with his saber. It was not elegant or superb to see, merely effectual and lethal. A vampire came in low under his blade and slashed him on the left leg. Anhalt actually felt it strike bone. He grunted, and the whites of his eyes flashed at the agony, but he twisted his saber and drove down deep into the back of the vampire’s neck, twisting and severing the spinal column. It slumped at his feet, tendrils of smoke rising from its mutilated neck.
Anhalt raised his head, searching for another target, but saw instead the vampires holding back. There were only a few of them now. All bloodied, with gaping wounds, some without arms or legs. They staggered and then took to the air. The Gurkha thought they were gaining altitude for another run at his ragtag squad, but instead they veered off toward the north.
It was over.
Anhalt regarded his men. Most were dead, but seven were still standing, soaking in blood and gore.
“Well done,” he rasped as he knelt to find whether they had been defending a dead boy or a live one.
The youngster stirred. His face was covered in blood. “Where’s Adele?”
“Stay still, Your Highness,” the soldier answered, laying a calming hand on the boy’s small shoulder. The vampires were gone, and Anhalt could only assume they had what they wanted: the heir to the Empire. He feared the worst for the princess, but could not tell her brother yet.
“I want to see her,” Simon gurgled.
“Where’s our ship?”
“Don’t worry about the ship.” The colonel didn’t know where the remainder of the fleet was or when they might come. Or if they would come at all. The frigates could well have been destroyed in the attack.
Anhalt knew the boy was gravely injured, but his cursory examination of the prince didn’t show any mortal wounds. Still Simon had to receive medical attention soon. The ship’s surgeon was lost, and none of his aides had been found in the hours since the crash. Marseilles was not far; reachable by foot. Although Anhalt was loath to strike out overland with so many vampires abroad, it was an even greater danger to stay where they were. The prince’s life was even more crucial now, particularly if the princess was lost to them.
His princess lost. That fine young spirited woman. That magnificent heir to the Empire. Gone. Taken by those animals. Subjected to such horrors and degradations. All because of Anhalt’s failure. He smelled the blood soaked into his tunic and felt shame in his gut. He had to bite his lip to prevent utter despair from welling. The gash across his face burned. He touched the butt of his revolver.
The colonel quickly shoved down the dishonor. Plenty of time for that later. He had to see through his duty to Prince Simon. He collected a squad of ambulatory men. There were only twelve, but that would have to serve. He couldn’t ignore the searing pain in his leg where the vampire had slashed him. He bound the wound as best he could, and it would have to do until the young prince was safe. The colonel gently gathered up the boy in his own red-jacketed arms and started off to the west.
It was hours later when Adele and the swordsman came to the base of a small cliff. Adele couldn’t speak; she only slumped beside the kneeling swordsman with loud, painful gasping. Her quivering fingers gripped his cloak, as much for comfort as for physical support. His back stiffened as she dropped next to him. With eyes tearing in the harsh wind, she could barely see the outline of a tiny hovel embedded in the face of the cliff. Immediately she tried to stand. The swordsman grabbed her arm and yanked her down. Too fatigued to respond, her breath hissed through her lips with harsh gasps.
Why was he so unaffected? She could only wonder, and wish she were a man instead of a feeble girl as she lay muffled by her exhaustion. Staring at him through burning eyes, she wondered again why he
seemed so familiar.
Then it came to her in a rush. He was the Greyfriar. Like everyone, she’d seen a picture of this man: a blurry photograph of this grey-clad figure standing over vampire cadavers on a cobblestone street. The photo had been smuggled out of the north as proof of rumors that there was an active human resistance inside clan Europe. The Greyfriar’s exploits were legendary, but as Adele told Simon, his exploits were so legendary she believed him mythical, the photograph merely fabricated to create hope. The stories, she felt, were born of more than a century of subjugation and frustration, a resurfacing of the legends like Rostam, King Arthur, or Robin Hood. It was an understandable desire for a hero to
deliver humanity from horror.
Then he was in her ear, a slow low voice as if it were a mere spirit on the back of a wind.
“I will make sure the way is clear. Stay here.”
Adele could do nothing but comply.
He melted away before her eyes, dissolving into the predawn twilight that leaked across the European nightscape. She huddled and tried to hear his passage over her harsh breathing. It took effort, but soon her ragged gasps slowed into rhythmic deep breaths.
Several minutes went by, and the swordsman had not returned. The shadows became large patches of pitch that could hide an army. Adele slid her hand to her scabbard, where her fingers clenched the hilt of her jeweled dagger as she pulled it to her chest for protection. She didn’t dare draw it because the glow of the blade might give away her position.
The woods were silent around her. Nothing stirred, not even insects or creatures of the night. Her heart thudded harder against her breastbone, and she struggled to still it. Could the vampires have gotten here before them? Their path had been erratic. No one should have been able to predict or follow their route.
To her left the thicket shifted with a hiss. She spun and her blade struck.
The long steel of a sword pressed her dagger aside. The swordsman eyed the girl, but said nothing and motioned for her.
“Sorry.” Adele laughed weakly and lowered her small luminous weapon, slipping it back into its sheath.
The cabin was nestled at the base of the cliff. It was small and sparse, but seemed a godsend. The swordsman opened the rough-hewn door, and they went inside quickly. It was hard to see through the murky gloom that permeated the room. Still, the swordsman moved through the house and its furnishings as if it were his own home.
Adele stumbled against a chair and took it as a sign. She flopped between its cold padded arms, watching the Greyfriar make their meager sanctuary secure. Before she knew it her eyes had closed. She awoke what seemed like seconds later. The cabin was suffused with pale sunlight. She tightened her grip on her dagger.
Her protector wordlessly offered her a meager meal of hardtack. She took it gratefully and choked it down, followed by a few swigs of water from a tin cup.
A nod of his head indicated clean linen and herbal antiseptic on the table. “For your wounds.”
Adele’s eyebrow rose when he just moved to stand at the window. No offer of assistance came, so she doctored her hands and various other scratches. Perhaps it was more prudent that he keep watch for their enemies.
From his place leaning against the far wall, the swordsman said, “Drink as much as you can while you can, Princess. Our flight took a lot out of you.”
“And you too.”
His forehead crinkled with what Adele could only perceive as humor. “I ate and drank while you slept. Refresh yourself now. We’ll leave soon.”
“Leave? Why? We’re hidden here.” She leaned back in her seat, taking another long draft of water. It had never tasted so good.
“The enemy can find you here,” the swordsman pointed out. “Flay is proficient at such things.”
“Flay led the vampires who attacked you. The tall female.”
“You know it by name?”
Greyfriar hesitated a moment, then nodded. “She is renowned. The most brutal warrior I have ever seen.”
“You sound as if you’re afraid of this Flay.”
That admission did little to comfort Adele. “Where will we go now? Back to the ship?”
“No. Toward the nearest human settlement.”
“How far will that thing follow us, this Flay? For how long?”
“As long as it takes. She won’t dare return to face her master without her prize.”
Adele gazed at her companion for the first time with real scrutiny. His face and eyes, mainly covered, revealed little. She relied more on his body movement to detect what little emotion she could.
His garb hid most of his details, save his height. He was a very tall man and thin, but made a dashing figure in his peculiar uniform. And though he tried to hide it, there was a noble way about him. Something only a princess would be able to see, despite the fact that he hunched his shoulders or stooped a bit lower when he walked. There remained poise and reserve and a touch of arrogance. Traits she knew too well.
Adele’s brain cast about through the various families of noble birth in an effort to place him. She leaned toward him and tried to look into his glasses again, desperate to see something familiar about him.
“You are the Greyfriar, aren’t you?”
He glanced quickly at her. “You’ve heard of me?”
“Of course. Everyone’s heard of the Greyfriar, although honestly I thought you were just a fable. You’re very famous back home in Equatoria.”
The swordsman considered her words. “Do they . . . do they make books about me?”
Adele laughed softly. “Oh well, yes, I believe so. You’re certainly the talk of the ladies in court. They’ll be so jealous of me.”
“These books . . . have you seen them?”
Adele replied, “Sorry, no. I don’t have time for popular reading. The life of a princess, you know. But believe me, you are a great hero to the free humans.”
“I see.” Greyfriar appeared to smile, although his features were draped, and Adele could hear the pleasure in his voice. But then his tone became sharper. “Your future husband is a great hero too.”
This jolted the princess with surprise. “My future husband? How do you know about him?”
“The coming marriage of the Equatorian heir to the greatest American warlord is common news. Even in the north. The vampires fear him, and your union.”
Adele felt the first pulse of pride she had ever taken in her Intended. “Well, he is a soldier of note, that’s true. It’s a rare man who takes the fight to the vampires.”
Greyfriar nodded and turned back to the window without another word. Had she offended him? Adele wondered suddenly. “Why do you dress like that, so mysteriously?”
The swordsman touched his swathed chin. “To hide myself from my enemies. And from those whom my enemies might exploit.”
She couldn’t fault that logic, but still she offered quietly, “There’s no one here but me. I would keep your secret.”
His shoulders bobbed with a bit of mirth as he turned toward her. “You are a hairsbreadth from being captured. It would be foolish to take such a risk.”
Her face fell, not only with disappointment but also with fear. “That doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.”
He added, “Perhaps someday when the world is not so harried, I may reveal my identity.”
Adele drew in a deep breath, but her voice did not crack. “I would like that very much. I owe you a great deal.”
Greyfriar said, “Flay’s attack was both flawless and uncommonly large. It’s been years since I’ve seen such a gathering. I’d wager she threw five packs into that meat grinder. All after a single prize—you—and she risked much to seize it. The weather was against her, but she attacked anyway. She drove her army where it shouldn’t have been. Her losses were great, and she still doesn’t have what she desires.” He seemed to smile again as he approached Adele to refill her cup.
“But how did you know about the attack?” the princess asked sharply.
“It’s my business to know.” He tugged gently at his mask to adjust it. “And I tried to prevent this disaster. I sent a warning to the Empire that Flay intended to attack your fleet. My message was lost or ignored.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to doubt you. I’m not blaming you.” Adele laid a hand on his. He was chilled. She could feel it even through his glove. It made her guilt even more acute.
He jerked his hand back a bit too abruptly and stepped away. “You have every right to question me. I am nothing but myth and hearsay. I wear a mask to hide my true self.”
Why did he wish not to be touched? she wondered in dismay. Was it merely because of her nobility? Was she wrong about his birth? Was he a common man?
Adele said, “My mentor told me once that only a fool would reveal himself to his enemies out of arrogance or for glory’s sake. I don’t see any of that in you. You want to help push the vermin back, not for accolades and riches, but because you want to see justice done.” She rose and stood beside him. “Don’t ever doubt that you are appreciated by all humanity.”
“Thank you. Now, we should go.”
Adele replied quickly, “I still think we should stay here. We’re hidden and the house has the mountain at its back. We can defend ourselves here.”
Greyfriar paused, studying his charge. “Princess, scent is a vampire’s tool. They can smell the blood of their victims from quite a distance. There is no way to mask it. Flay will have hunters on your trail. The only possible safety is to get you beyond her reach.”
Adele drew a deep breath and shook her head in apology. “Of course. You’re right. I’m just scared. But why should I be? I’m with the Greyfriar. My brother would be jealous. . . .” Her words trailed off as once again little Simon’s death became real. For a brief moment she had actually forgotten. But now that she had remembered, the pain was that much more acute.
“Princess, I will see you home. Trust me.”
Several seconds went by before Adele nodded with a pale smile. “My life is in your hands.”
Cover Illustration © Chris McGrath
Design by Grace M. Conti-Zilsberger
Clay and Susan Griffith are a married couple who have written and published together for more than a decade. Their credits include two novels for Bantam Doubleday Dell in the mid-1990s and another novel for Pinnacle Entertainment Group in 2002 plus numerous short stories published in many anthologies, some featuring noted genre characters like Kolchak the Night Stalker and The Phantom. They’ve also written scripts for television and published graphic novels. The authors have attended many cons over the years and are committed to doing every con they can for Vampire Empire. Visit them at clayandsusangriffith.blogspot.com.