~ II ~
Every so often, the memory came hurtling back into Narcise's mind.
Although it was more than ten years since Giordan Cale had destroyed her, every nuance of the moment, every sight, sound, color, scent...even the remembrance of the way her being simply stopped and then imploded...it all came back.
As if it were happening again.
Anything could trigger it: the sight of a piece of charcoal on her drawing table. The sound when her maid dropped a handful of hairpins that scattered on the floor. The glimpse of a head of brown curls. The scent of a peach.
Whatever it was would send her mind shooting back to that moment when she walked into Cezar's private chambers.
Even now, her belly shuddered, threatening to send her last meal spewing forth, but try as she might, Narcise couldn't keep herself from going back there, reliving the very minutiae of a time she'd kill to forget.
She'd been looking for her brother-something she generally avoided doing, but there was no help for it, for she hadn't had a fencing lesson or a painting session for three weeks, including a false one with Giordan Cale-and she wanted to find out if and why he'd canceled the meetings with her tutors.
Cezar had been unusually absent since the night he'd brought her back after she seduced Cale, and Narcise had welcomed the reprieve, knowing how difficult it would be to hide her feelings about Cale in front of her brother. Fortunately Cezar had been in a relatively fine humor and had actually released most of the children he'd had captive. Perhaps that should have been a warning sign to Narcise, but at the time, she was merely grateful those lives had been spared.
She'd also expected to hear from or to see Giordan himself...but three weeks had passed since she seduced him, and she'd seen and heard from no one. Including Monsieur David and her fencing instructor. But it was Giordan's absence, of course, that tortured her the most.
And that had her active mind making up scenarios and explanations-none of which were pleasant in the least. The worst of them all was the image of him with another woman, or women, perhaps...being the jovial, sensual host she knew him to be...and providing all form of hospitality.
Or perhaps now that she'd actually seduced him, that they'd actually been together, he'd moved on to another conquest. That was the Dracule way. Her heart grew cold at the thought.
Had she trusted him only to be betrayed and set aside?
At last, after neither David nor Cale appeared for her lesson for the third week, she went in search of Cezar, noting vaguely that all of the servants seemed to be otherwise occupied. His private parlor, where he kept the dish of sparrow feathers, was empty, but...
She stepped just inside the door, despite the deterrent of the feathers. She smelled him. Giordan. Giordan had been here recently.
The flush of a thrill warmed her and her heart began to pound with hope. She had no doubt, no doubt at all that Giordan would find a way to free her from Cezar. He'd been here, recently, very recently. Earlier today.
It was at that moment that two things happened: the first-and now, much later, she understood the significance-was that the ever-present tray with feathers was not in the chamber. The second was that she noticed that, across the parlor, the door to Cezar's private bedchamber was slightly open. And there were sounds and scents coming from inside...heavy, erotic, strong scents.
Even now, in her mind, her memory of it, Narcise screamed at herself don't go over there...
But she did. Whether she realized what it was, whether it was the scent on the air, permeating the chamber, or whether there was some other reason she was compelled to walk on silent feet over to the chamber door...
To peer around the crack and to look in...no, no, noooooo, don't...but she does it again...she looks in...
At first, she doesn't realize what she sees. It's the scent of arousal...heavy and thick...of lifeblood and eroticism and man.... It catches her, giving that little tug in the center of her belly that spears down low and causes desire....
The chamber is lit well enough by the blazing fire that Cezar always keeps, and several lamps, turned up to a golden glow. There is a massive bed, its curtains pulled wide, to one side. A large divan and two chairs are arranged in front of the fire. A table covered with glasses and bottles sits next to it, and even from here, she can see that three of the four bottles are empty. The scent of whiskey and blood mingle strongly with musk and virility.
There are two people, not on the bed, but on the divan, directly in front of the raging fire, opposite the door around which she peers. Since her brother's varied proclivities aren't unknown to her, she's not surprised to see that he's with a man.
She can't see well, she's not even certain why she's compelled to watch-perhaps the scent hooked into her mind and dragged her there-but the first glimpse of a pale, slender hand curling over a strong, sleek shoulder makes her breath seize.
There is a cast of amber light over his skin, over the familiar golden curve of arms and shoulders now marred with bitemarks, shadowed by the flickering fire...the golden brush of lamplight over the strong profile with the patrician nose, so handsome, so perfect...the glow creating a nimbus from behind thick, dark curls, and an unholy halo around an even darker head adjacent to his.
She can't breathe. The floor is falling away from her feet as if she is standing on a house of cards, and her body ceases. Everything halts: breath, heart, sensation, emotion.
His rich, tawny skin is slick with perspiration, shadowed from the hands on him...his face half turned from the door, etched tight with pleasure and pain. His lips, drawn back from his mouth in some sort of groan or grimace as fangs drive into his shoulder...
For all of the details of that moment, Narcise remembered hardly anything of what happened afterward. She must have made her way from the chamber, she must not have screamed despite the shrieking and wailing inside her, stumbling from the private parlor, somehow back to her own room before her body began to feel again.
And then, after that, it was dull and empty.
Sometime later-days, she thought, based on the number of times a servant came for her to feed...but she had no true concept of time for a while-Cezar sent for her.
She had no choice but to answer his summons, hardly aware of what she was doing. When she walked into Cezar's private parlor, the conduit that had led to her destruction, Giordan was there.
Cezar was sitting in one of the chairs, looking complacent and relaxed. "You have a visitor, Narcise," he said with great congeniality.
"He's not my visitor," she managed to say. Despite her best efforts, her voice shook. Rage and pain threatened to erupt.
Cale turned from where he'd been standing in the corner, his back to the room, his broad shoulders straight with tension. His eyes were bright-too bright. And yet the skin around them was tight. He was fully, formally dressed, but his clothing was wrinkled, less than perfect.
He looked weary-and well he should, based on what she'd witnessed. Narcise's stomach threatened to revolt just then and despite the fact that she hadn't fed for who knew how long, she knew something would come up anyway.
"Narcise," Giordan said. His voice was rough and low. But anger and command hummed beneath.
Why was he angry with her?
She couldn't-she fled the room, the world spinning into hot red nausea. She couldn't think, couldn't comprehend, could hardly feel. Nothing but the raging whirl of her emotions.
He came after her, out of the chamber into a corridor that was uncharacteristically deserted. "Narcise."
His scent came with him-and with it, a revolting mix of opium, hashish, whiskey, blood. And Cezar. She steadied herself against the wall, trying to block the images that assaulted her, that matched the stew of debauchery emanating from him. The scents of his betrayal.
Somehow, from the depths of herself, she managed to find words. His words. "'It's you, Narcise. It's only you.'" She threw them back into his face, the ones that had sustained her for weeks. "You disgust me."
"By the Devil, you can't truly believe-"
"I don't have to believe. I saw. You." Her voice broke and she felt herself falling back into that chasm of desolation and grief, a whirlwind of blackness. Disbelief and pain. Such pain. She had to get away from him. A roaring filled her ears, the deep, dark roar of hatred and agony. "Get away from me."
He stepped toward her, grabbing her arm. "Do you have any idea what I've done for you?" His voice raw, his face, terrible, was close to hers. She hardly heard the words, for they were lost in the horrible swirling scent of blood on his breath, the smells of depravity and sweat and other darkness.
She talked over him, the roaring in her mind and heart blocking his words as she spewed her pain onto him. "You've completely destroyed me. Something even my brother wasn't able to do, in decades." She jerked her arm from his fingers with a sharp movement, turning away, starting back down the corridor. "Get away from me." Her voice threatened to break, but she wouldn't allow it. "Get away."
He'd said she was strong. Oh, he had no idea how strong she was. Her hand closed over a doorknob and she turned it, not caring where it led, hardly aware of what she was doing. Have to get away from him.
"By the Fates, Narcise, listen-"
"I can't bear-" She shoved a hand over her mouth to hold back the vomit, and stumbled through the door. As she slammed it behind her, falling against it, trying to breathe something other than him and his depravity, he slammed against it, rattling it in its hinges.
And then he was gone.
He didn't remember leaving Cezar's subterranean residence after those nights of hell.
In retrospect, a decade later, Giordan wondered that the man even allowed him to do so-but then, of course, by that time, Cezar had gotten all that he'd wanted.
At least, for the moment.
With Narcise's hate-filled, witchlike visage burning in his memory, her acid words screaming in his mind, Giordan found himself raging blind and lost through the streets. Violence pounded through him, his abused body weak and overused, his hands, his very skin a reeking reminder of the hours and days past.
He had no real memory of where he went and what he did once out of Cezar's place: it was dark, and his world became a hot, red rampage, filled with the taste and scent of blood, the heat and suppleness of living flesh, the rhythmic pulsing against his body, the slap and thud of flesh against flesh. There might have been screams, shouts, cries, moans and groans. There were certainly deaths and injuries.
Giordan's vision burned with red shadow. It was as if coals had been shoved beneath his lids and seared into his irises, coloring his sight.
He supposed he went mad.
Do you have any idea what I've done for you? His own hoarse words rolled in his brain, over and over, desperate and angry even as he sought relief. She wouldn't even listen. She wouldn't listen.
He woke sometime, some hours, perhaps days, later in one of Paris's narrow alleys. Tucked back in a corner. Alone.
That moment was clear in his mind even today, a decade after: that moment of reemergence, of clawing up from the depths of a heavy, dark sea. As if he'd dragged himself awake from the worst of nightmares.
But it had been no nightmare, those three nights of hell. And what he'd thought of as the light at the end of the tunnel, as the prize for his endurance and existence through hours of torture, turned only into the slap of betrayal. And the hot memory of humiliation.
Giordan rubbed gritty eyes with trembling fingers that smelled of blood and semen and opium and filth. He saw that the alley was hardly wide enough for him to extend his legs, but so long that he could see only that it angled into nothingness.
The walls on either side of him loomed tall and windowless, like dark sentinels. The brick was cold against his bare back, chill and rough with dirt, sticky with unidentifiable substances. Even springy with a bit of moss. The ground below, uneven with cobbles and filtered with a random tuft of grass, seeped damply into his breeches.
All at once, Giordan became aware of the sun. It emerged from a heavy cloud as if a curtain had been drawn away. The golden light spilled into the alley next to him and would soon filter over the spot where he lay.
At first, he didn't have even the energy to pull to his feet. Nor the desire.
His mind was stark and empty, devoid of thought, even emotion. Just...empty.
She'd finished him.
But then, as the base need for self-preservation stirred with the shift of the sun, Giordan prepared to heave himself upright.
At that moment, he saw the cat.
She sat there, pale and blonde against the shades of indigo and violet and gray that filled the alley. Her blue-gray eyes were fixed on him in that way of her race, unblinking and steady.
But there was no miffed accusation in this feline's stare. Her tail, which curled comfortably around her, had no annoyed twitching at its tip. She exuded peace.
She looked just like the cat who'd stared at him from a nearby roof some weeks ago. Just after he'd met Narcise.
Giordan realized belatedly that some of the weakness in his body stemmed from the presence of his Asthenia, positioned just-so in front of him. She sat just far enough away that he wasn't breathless and paralyzed, but close enough that he felt the essence of her presence like uncomfortable waves.
And he realized that, until she moved, he could not escape from the alley.
"Scat!" he said with as much sharpness as he could muster, but at the same time, a wave of grief for his own fat orange Chaton roughened the back of his throat. "Move!"
The cat looked at him, her eyes intelligent and steady. And she didn't move.
Even when he threw a stone toward her, she didn't flinch. She hardly deigned to notice when the rock scuttled across the stones next to her.
Giordan looked up and saw the light blazing above in a perfect, cerulean sky. Hot and yellow and bright. The beams had begun to fill the alley in an ever-widening triangle of light, turning the stones lighter gray, glazing them with hints of yellow and rust, coloring the random tufts of grass green.
It was only a matter of time until the rays would fall onto him; now they eased slyly against his breeches and filtered over the heel of his battered boot.
He pressed himself up against the wall, crouched in the corner, glaring at the cat.
"Move!" he shouted again, and looked for something else to throw at the stubborn creature. There was nothing. He managed to work one of his boots from his foot-a very long, difficult process in his weakened state-and when it finally came free, he flung it clumsily toward the thing.
It tumbled just behind her and she barely lifted her chin as it thudded onto the cobbles.
He began to heave himself to his feet, but at that moment, the cat decided it was time to move...and she sauntered toward him.
As she came closer, the rest of Giordan's strength fell away. His lungs slowed their movements, his chest felt heavy and constricted and his muscles ceased to respond.
Giordan sank back onto the ground, leaning against the wall as the cat positioned herself directly in front of him. So close he could see the gray and black flecks in her unblinking eyes, and even the fact that she had whiskers in both white and black. Her ears were two perfect triangles sitting at the top of her head, and her fur was lush and long like corn silk. He had a moment of madness and nearly reached to touch that soft fur.
Feeling ebbed from his body and he closed his eyes against the nothingness that swept over him. Blankness...something even beyond paralysis.
After a moment, he opened his eyes and saw the sun just peeking over the roof above him. Soon, it would be directly overhead, pouring into the alley.
If the damned cat didn't move...he'd burn. He had nothing to cover himself with, nowhere to hide.
"Go!" he shouted, but his voice was weak. And perhaps it even lacked conviction.
The cat, of course, didn't move, and although she continued to watch him with those wide eyes, her expression was not haughty.
It was determined.
Giordan closed his eyes when he felt the first brush of the sun's warmth.
It was an impossible juxtaposition of pleasure and pain...the warmth, as if someone's hand brushed over him, warm and tender...and yet edged with sharpness, bespeaking of the agony to come.
He huddled against the building, curled up like a cat-or a fetus-pressing as close against the bricks as he could. But the back of his shoulder was exposed, the only part of him that he couldn't keep in the shadow, and the sun's rays inched inexorably closer until at last they seared into his sensitive flesh.
A wave of agony screamed through him and he realized from deep inside the white pain that it was coming from his Mark.
The light poured onto him, battling with the dark, undulating roots that branded him Lucifer's. They writhed and screamed with their own pain as the sun burned and burned and burned.
The last thing he remembered was a light...bright and white and pure, burning inside his mind.
And a voice, deep inside him, that said, "Choose."
In the decade that followed Giordan's betrayal, as the Reign of Terror in Paris ended and the Revolution metamorphosed into a new era under Napoleon Bonaparte's leadership, Narcise came to a realization: despite her inability to banish the memory of what Cale had done to her, there were other men who wanted her, ones who could love her. At least for a time.
There were other men who, if she found one who was infatuated deeply enough, could perhaps finish the job Giordan had begun-or at least had made her think he'd begun; she had no reason to believe Giordan had ever even truly meant to free her.
She firmly pushed away her pang of unease as she remembered his face during their final confrontation. Everything from those moments was a blur of pain and darkness, of sordid, hedonistic smells assaulting and pummeling her with the knowledge of what he'd done...everything except the dull shock in his eyes.
Narcise shook her head to banish the image.
Now, perhaps she could find a man who actually would help her escape from her brother.
She didn't have to love him, or even care for him-she wasn't certain she could ever open her heart again.
She merely had to make them want to help her.
Because it had become clear to her, with a bitter and terrifying finality, that she had no chance of escaping Cezar on her own. For too long she'd held out hope that she could find a way...but he was too smart and cunning. There were sparrow feathers, it seemed, everywhere in the house and in its adjoining tunnels, and he kept anything that could be considered a weapon far from her except when she was forced to entertain. Nor could she trust any of the servants, for they were all bound to her brother.
She was utterly alone, and felt that loneliness more acutely than she ever had before-now that she realized what it was like to love someone, and now that she had lost hope of finding escape on her own.
But if she had nothing else, she had strength and determination: the same characteristics that had helped her become a nearly undefeated swordswoman and had kept her from going mad during the years of rape and molestation.
Perhaps that was why Lucifer had chosen her. An iron core beneath a seductive, beautiful woman was a formidable weapon.
And so she looked more closely at her opponents when she faced them. Sometimes, she even allowed one to win, just to remind herself that she could still feel. Pain, pleasure, apprehension...whatever.
Just so she could feel.
Chas Woodmore was surrounded by vampirs, which would normally be a convenience rather than a concern, since he was, in fact, a vampir hunter. And a damn good one at that.
Some called those who shared his occupation Venators, but that was a completely different society-in fact, it was an entire family from Italy that spent their lives hunting and slaying the half-demon vampires that had descended from Judas Iscariot.
Woodmore happened to specialize in the hunting and staking of the very different vampirs that originated in Romania, where Vlad Tepes, Count Dracula, had made his own deal with the Devil in the late fifteenth century. Unfortunately for his progeny, the unholy covenant applied not only to Vlad himself, but also to any of his descendants selected by Lucifer to participate. They had to agree, of course, just as Dracula had done, but Luce was a master at manipulation and it was rare that any of them declined his juicy bargain-partly because it was most often made during their dreams.
Thus, some of the Dracule embraced their newly immortal lives, complete with bloodlust and damaged souls that belonged to the Devil for all eternity, and some of them existed more judiciously, realizing only after the fact that perhaps it hadn't been such a good deal after all....
And then there was Woodmore's employer, Dimitri, the Earl of Corvindale, who fought the regrettable bargain with every breath he took, every single day.
It was because of his association with Corvindale that Woodmore was not only surrounded by some of the less rapacious vampirs at this very moment, but also comfortably unarmed-and playing cards with the lot of them. This lot happened to be safe from Woodmore's lethal stake because they were of the mind that, for example, one didn't have to murder a mortal in order to feed.
And Woodmore happened to be losing tonight because of one Mr. Giordan Cale, who seemed to have some sort of magic about him when it came to having the winning hand every time. Or at least when the pot was very large.
"By the Fates, Giordan," Corvindale said in disgust, tossing his cards onto the table. "You dragged me out of my study for this? What precisely is the benefit to me of being relieved of three thousand pounds in the space of two hours?"
A fleeting smile curved Cale's lips as he collected the pound notes and coins from the latest winning pot. "A change of scenery," he suggested mildly. "Perhaps even some social discourse, no?"
Although he spoke excellent English, he had a trace of French in his pronunciation. Woodmore knew that Cale was originally from Paris, but had left the city ten years ago, near the end of the Reign of Terror, and hadn't returned. He'd been in and out of London for the past decade, but they had only become acquainted a few weeks ago.
"Corvindale? Social discourse?" Lord Eddersley laughed, his gangly hands bumping the table, making the coins clink. "But Luce's hell hasn't yet frozen over."
The earl slid his companion a dark look, but Woodmore wasn't certain whether it was because he took offense, which was bloody unlikely, or because he didn't want to be here in the private apartment at White's gentlemen's club in the first place. His employer-which was a loose term, for they were more like associates working toward the same goals than master and minion, and, aside of that, a gentleman never actually worked for anyone anyway-rarely left his study unless it was to seek out more ancient books or parchments to add to his collection.
Brickbank, a baronet from Derbyshire who was also a member of the Dracule, gestured to a hovering footman for a refill on his whiskey, complaining, "Wish those Brits would run that damned frog Boney out of Paris. Damned tired of drinking this rot from Scotland. Miss a good Armagnac."
"Those Brits? Do you not consider yourself one of them?" Cale asked, sipping his own "rot."
"I'm too old to be a damned soldier," Brickbank replied, and all of the vampirs laughed. Even Corvindale managed the sharp bark of a chuckle. Of course they would: each of them was well over a century old, and they looked no more than in the prime of their lives. "And I don't give a bloody damn about their Prinnys or their Parliaments or anyone's cock-licking emperors."
Woodmore wouldn't trade places with any of the Dracule, even to live and be forever young and virile...for when they died, they belonged to Lucifer. Even vampirs, like their mortal counterparts, had the illusion of free will and some choice to be good or evil; still, a life of taking sustenance from other living creatures, of the uncontrollable bloodlust that came with it...of being cloistered from the sun, and knowing that one would spend eternity in the bowels of hell-whenever eternity struck-such a life was repulsive to Woodmore.
That was, perhaps, the only reason he and Corvindale had become friends-because he knew that more than anything, the earl wanted to sever his relationship with Lucifer. As proof, for over a hundred years, the earl had refused to feed as the Devil intended, and instead resorted to butchers' bags of blood for sustenance.
Among the Dracule, this long-term abstinence was routinely blamed for the earl's irritable disposition and dark personality.
"But of course Corvindale can get anything through the lines," Cale said with a sidewise glance at the man in question. "He's hardly noticed any inconvenience from the war between our nations, despite the problems crossing the Channel, have you, Dimitri? He's kept me in supply of my favorite Bordeaux as well."
"You have a stash of Armagnac?" Brickbank said, looking at the earl in surprise. "And haven't brought it here to White's? Should move the game to Blackmont then."
Corvindale shot another dark look, this time aimed at Giordan Cale, who smiled as he lifted his own glass to drink. "Naturally I've charged you a substantial fee to keep you in such supply," the earl replied to Cale.
Woodmore hid his own amusement. The last thing his employer wanted was people at his home, bothering him while he was trying to immerse himself in old scrolls and ancient languages. Searching for a way to break the covenant with Lucifer.
Which was why Woodmore felt particularly grateful that, some years back, Corvindale had agreed to play guardian and guard for his sisters should anything happen to him. He had three younger sisters-Maia, Angelica and Sonia, the latter of whom happened to be ensconced far north of London in a Scottish convent-and a dangerous occupation of which none of them were aware.
"I'm of a mind to take the game to Rubey's," said Cale, "if we're talking of moving it. I suspect Dimitri has supplied her with some excellent vintages as well-and she won't make us leave so she can hole herself up in her study."
Corvindale glanced at him, lifting one eyebrow with skepticism. "Spying on your potential competition?"
"Not any longer. She's convinced me that it would be futile for any establishment of mine to try to compete with hers here in London. Now I'm attempting to persuade her to take on an investor-namely me-to make some improvements to the place. Aside of that...ah, well, she meets another criteria of mine and she's been rather accommodating." Cale smiled with exaggerated modesty.
Woodmore, along with every Dracule in London, was well-acquainted with Rubey's-the luxurious brothel that catered to vampirs and, occasionally, a select few mortals who were aware of the Draculean underground. Rubey, a mortal herself, was a formidable character who reminded Chas of his half-part-Gypsy great-grandmother in personality, if not looks. She was sharp in business acumen, quick of wit and overly generous with lectures and advice-wanted or otherwise. Nearing forty, she was also very attractive, if not a bit long in the tooth for him.
Because he needed to be so ingrained in his employer's world of the Dracule, he'd visited her establishment on more than one occasion. But the most recent incident had been when he was too far into his cups and he ended up in one of the bedchambers with a female vampir make. That night of heat and pain and passion had been his first-and last-intimacy with a vampir, and one he did not intend to repeat...despite the fact that the very memory haunted him.
He tried to feel only revulsion for the night of debauchery, but even two weeks later, the marks from bites he'd begged for in the blur of drunkenness and lust hadn't quite healed. And remnants of the night's pleasures still weaved within his dreams.
As he picked up his drink, Woodmore noticed a little spider making its way along the edge of the table between him and Cale. He lifted his hand to smash it, but the other man raised his palm and said, "Allow me." And as he watched, Cale scooped the spider onto one of the playing cards and dropped the creature in a corner, where, presumably, it scuttled away to safety.
Woodmore couldn't help but eye the man curiously-a Dracule, sparing the life of a spider? Perhaps he felt some sort of bloodsucking kinship with the critter-and noticed that Corvindale had been watching as well with a bemused look on his face.
The earl looked as if he were about to comment, but he was interrupted by Brickbank.
"Woodmore, heard you tried to hang Cale on a stake, few weeks back," said the man, peering into his glass as if hoping it would change to something French. "Something about smoke explosives?"
"It would have been unfortunate if Woodmore succeeded," Corvindale said dryly. "For Cale still owes me for the last shipment."
"But since the casks are nearly empty, that would have been to my benefit," Cale retorted, giving rise to another round of laughter.
"It wasn't my best effort, that attempt," Woodmore admitted ruefully, thinking about how the little packets had fizzled and not puffed into a thick cloud of smoke when he'd thrown them into the fireplace. That had made it difficult for him to distract his victim. He looked at Cale, acknowledging at least privately that the man could easily have killed him that night. But for some reason, like the spider, Woodmore had been spared. "But as it turns out, it was for the best. Corvindale tells me you're intimately familiar with Cezar Moldavi and his place in Paris."
The last vestiges of levity drained from Cale's face. Corvindale said something sharp under his breath and Wood-more glanced at him, but the earl was watching as his friend raised a glass to sip.
"Dimitri is correct," replied Cale, his eyes iced-over brownish gray.
Unclear as to what had provoked such a turbulent response, Woodmore nevertheless continued. "He's the sort of bastard that deserves a little less efficient way to die than a simple stake to the heart, the damned child-bleeder."
"On that, at least, we are all in complete agreement," said the earl.
Indeed, the stories Woodmore had heard about Moldavi were enough to make his blood run cold. He found it disturbing enough that these immortal men, beholden to the Devil, needed to drink blood to live, but to take from children...and to leave them to die... It was tales like these that only confirmed for him that his dangerous mission was the right thing to do.
And the only reason he hadn't attempted the assassination of the beast so far was that he knew he needed a perfect plan in order to outsmart Moldavi.
He looked at Cale. "I need to find a way to get in to his hidey-hole so I can kill him. Corvindale is financing the effort, and he'll get me across the Channel."
One of the reasons Woodmore was such an effective vampir hunter was his ability to sense the presence of a Dracule, and thus identify them easily. Even members of the Draculia couldn't identify each other merely by sight, or smell, but even as he sat here in the midst of them, Woodmore's belly was filled with the familiar sort of gnawing-itching sensation that indicated the presence of a vampir. He became used to it after a while, as one did with a smell or aroma, but it was always present. Another advantage was Woodmore's ability to move about in daylight, and his innate fighting ability and speed. And then there was his lack of an Asthenia.
Of course, being mortal, he had any number of things that could slow, weaken or even kill him.
Cale gave a brief nod. "I'm willing to assist in any way. I am more than passing familiar with the place." He drank again, draining his glass, and set it deliberately at the edge of the table nearest the footman, who responded immediately to refill it.
"There's a sister," mused Brickbank. "Dashed beautiful, according to Voss. Can't remember her name."
"Narcise," said Cale quietly, curling his fingers around the refilled glass. "I believe her name is Narcise."
"Yes. She'll be included in my plans as well," Woodmore said. He knew from experience that some of the most vicious and bloodthirsty vampirs were the female ones. "Two for the price of one, Corvindale. She's rather accomplished with the epee, I hear."
"The saber, if I recall correctly. And rather than be your target," Cale said, setting down an empty glass again, "you'd be better off utilizing her as an accomplice. There is no love lost between her and her brother and she'd like nothing better than to see him skewered on a stake." His mouth twitched in a humorless smile as he added, "Unless things have changed in the last decade."
"I can't imagine they have," Corvindale replied flatly, confirming for Woodmore that he was definitely missing some underlayer of conversation. He would get the story from Corvindale later. "He is the worst sort of dog."
"What of the Astheniae? Do you know what theirs are?" he said, looking at Cale.
"But of course, no, or I would have employed it myself. No one knows Moldavi's weakness. But because he keeps himself so cloistered, the assumption is that it's something very common."
"And the sister? Narcise? Do you know her Asthenia?"
"I do not."
"Poor bastard Sabbanti died fifteen years ago," Brickbank commented. "His was pine needles. Didn't last more than five years before he got staked."
Woodmore glanced at him with a wry smile. "He was one of my first slayings, in fact. I was sixteen."
"Thought it was an unfortunate accident," Brickbank replied, clearly stunned. "By Luce's bollocks!"
"That's how I make most of them look. I don't need the damned Bow Street Runners sniffing around, complicating things. They get in my way often enough as it is."
"It wasn't long after that when you attempted to stake me," Corvindale said. "Naturally you didn't have a chance at succeeding."
Eddersley, whose eyelids were always half-closed, suddenly looked interested. "You tried to slay Corvindale? And you're still alive?"
Woodmore nodded. "He took the opportunity to educate me on the precise angle with which to employ my stake- I was slightly off, and therefore not nearly as accurate as I am now. And then the lesson deteriorated into a philosophical conversation about how, just as with mortals, there are good vampirs and evil ones, and then on to covenants with the Devil and how to break them when they are, indeed, unbreakable."
"I merely convinced Chas that he should exploit his quite exemplary skills toward ridding the earth of those Dracule who have a different perspective of how to live as immortals, among mortals, than we do. Rather than hunting us."
"You mean, those who choose not to do business with you, Dimitri, or who otherwise compete with you," Cale said. "You're a ruthless bastard in your own way." His glass had been filled and then emptied a third time, and the congeniality that was normally in his expression had completely disappeared.
"Aren't we all?" Corvindale replied evenly, but, yet, there was no dangerous glow in his eyes. Instead his gaze was somber. "And isn't that precisely why we're sitting here- Woodmore excepted, of course? Because we're all ruthless bastards, selfish and violent and lustful? That's why Lucifer came to us with the offer in the first place. And not a one of us has changed since then."
"Change?" Brickbank echoed, sloshing his drink. "Why the bloody Fates would we change? Live forever. Women-or men," he added, glancing at Eddersley, who didn't look particularly sleepy at that moment. "All we want. Power. Money. All of it. No one can touch us." His eyes gleamed with pleasure.
"But therein lies the flaw," Corvindale said, crooking a finger to have his own glass refilled. "We do not live forever. At least, here, on earth." He gestured to Woodmore. "And some of us leave this place sooner than others, thanks to our friend here. At some point, we are beholden to Lucifer. We belong to him."
Corvindale's deep bitterness effectively flattened the congenial mood, and they lapsed into silence.
Woodmore was fascinated and horrified in turn by the depths of this conversation. They were saying the very things he'd struggled with ever since he came to know Corvindale-and realized it was possible that all vampirs weren't deserving of being hunted and killed in cold blood.
In fact, he suspected that Cale knew full well that his accusation wasn't quite accurate-Corvindale didn't employ Woodmore to simply assassinate his competition, or even those with whom he disagreed.
Woodmore certainly made threats to those who interfered or otherwise attempted to sabotage the earl's business ventures, but his slayings were confined to those who were more like Cezar Moldavi, those vampirs who fed greedily and left their victims to die, or who otherwise used their strength and constitution to violate and terrorize mortals simply for the pleasure of doing so.
Because they had given away their conscience with their soul.
Thus, his occupation as a vampir hunter was one that brought Woodmore both revulsion and satisfaction. He associated socially with the very race he stalked-how much better it was to know well what he hunted-while picking and choosing among the servants of Lucifer to slay some and protect others.
It made for many dark, empty nights, lying in bed or in some form of transport, wondering if he truly had the right to be judge, jury and executioner of these men and women.
But he, of all men, was particularly suited to the task. And it was a cross he must bear.