A COLLECTIVE GASP GOES UP AS STEFFAN'S HEAD separates from his body. Blood geysers for the instant it takes the vampire's body to die. The blood turns to red ash and falls like a gentle rain over those standing nearest to Vlad and Steffan.
I've never seen a vampire die like this. Steffan's body bursts into flame, then crumbles into dust so quickly, there's soon nothing left but a few remnants of fabric not caught in the maelstrom. I find myself clutching Frey's arm, horrified but unable to look away.
But there's another reason I stand transfixed. At the moment the sword touched Steffan's flesh, there was a flash. A fleeting burst of energy. My skin crawls. Did anyone else . . . ? I grasp Frey's hand as the implication hits me.
"What's wrong?" he asks.
"Steffan." My voice is barely a whisper. "I don't think he's gone."
My eyes search the crowd. I don't know what I'm looking for but I'm guessing Steffan has made the leap, just as Avery had when I staked him. Just before his body dissolved to ash. Avery picked another species, a werewolf, to inhabit. I didn't know it then. But if Avery could do it, and if Steffan had a suspicion Vlad might show himself tonight . . .
A lot of ifs. Still, I search out the shifters standing transfixed to one side.
"Frey. Weren't there five shifters when we came in?"
He nods, his gaze following mine.
"There are only four now. We need to talk to Vlad."
I start for the staircase, Frey at my side.
Vlad has turned to the six coconspirators huddling like frightened rabbits between their captors. I have no idea who these vampires are or how long they have been on this earth, but it is clear from the fear on their faces that mortal or immortal, facing death in some brings out cowardice.
Except in my mother. Unbidden, the thought flashes through my mind. My mother is facing death heroically.
Vlad senses my approach. He turns to face me. What is it?
Steffan. I don't think he is gone.
There is no hesitation on his part. Transmutation?
If that's what it's called.
The conversation is between just the two of us. Around us, the crowd grows restive.
Vlad casts his eyes around the room. I must finish this. The others must see. Then we can talk.
He doesn't wait for my acknowledgment or concurrence.
He approaches the six. His bearing, authoritative, commanding, makes me remember the name he was given after his death, the name Frey called him . . . Vlad Tepes. Vlad the Impaler. I catch the fevered thoughts of his captors and they are thinking of the stories, too. It's hard to reconcile the man in the duster who talked so passionately about living in peace with the images of a bearded, steely-eyed tyrant who is reputed to have killed thousands.
Vlad stops and turns to look at me. Would you free these six?
I shouldn't have been startled that he had been reading my thoughts. He'd already demonstrated his prowess. Still, I take a moment to choose my words before replying.
Are they are a threat?
These six? They are Steffan's sycophants.
Then perhaps you can win the loyalty of those present by showing mercy.
He flashes a smile. Would it win yours?
My loyalty? I have others to whom I owe my loyalty. But it would demonstrate that we share a common bond: the willingness to protect our worlds-vampire and mortal-with . . .
Another smile as he finishes my thought. Justice tempered with mercy?
Vlad gestures to the guards on either side to remove the chains. Still uncertain as to their fate, the vampires remain hunched together, heads bowed, shoulders slumped.
You are free to go, Vlad says simply, dismissively. But you are banished from Europe. If you return, it is in peril of your lives. Do not go to your homes. Your belongings are forfeit. They will be sold and the money used to ferret out the mortals working in concert with Steffan.
He walks slowly as he talks, pausing in front of each vampire as he makes his pronouncement. One by one, they look up at him, whether by their own volition or because he is mentally compelling them, I can't tell. There is no relief on their faces. Banishment is almost as dreadful in their minds as death. But they are all resigned to their fate. No one is willing to argue or plead.
Vlad motions to the guard. Take them to the boat docks at Marseilles. Give them enough money to book passage on the first ship out to . . . He glances back at me again, telegraphing his intention before giving voice to it. Any ex-Soviet republic. I will alert Alexi to expect them. He knows how to deal with insurrectionists.
I'm impressed with Vlad's knowledge of the world outside his own domain. Alexi is one of the heads of the Thirteen Vampire Tribes. I met him when I was declared the Chosen One and I remember his stern, unyielding posture and harsh, uncompromising demeanor. Vlad has picked his choice of "jailer" for the six well.
The six are shuffled off; Vlad is surrounded by sycophants of his own. Whether they agree with his decision or not, no one is letting anything but admiration and pledges of loyalty color their thoughts. Steffan's ashes are trampled underfoot as the orchestra resumes playing and glasses are refilled.
I stir restlessly. Vlad, we must talk.
His eyes meet mine. He nods, excuses himself and leads Frey and I off to the side of the hall.
"I saw a burst of energy at the moment your sword touched his flesh."
"And you know of transmutation?"
"I didn't know what it was called then." I pass a hand over my face. "I'd never heard the term before but I know what it is. Transmutation is an ability possessed by only the oldest vampires to leave their bodies at the moment of the second death. I have first-hand knowledge. Avery."
He pauses, as if turning the idea over in his mind. "I hadn't heard. You were not hurt?"
"Not because he didn't try. He used a friend's body as host-a werewolf. Then tried to coerce her through pain to attack me."
"But you vanquished him."
I think back to that terrible scene in the basement of Avery's house. Avery had possessed the werewolf Sandra, tried to force her to attack me. She had the will and strength to resist and in doing so, drove Avery from her body to perish.
"No. The were vanquished him. I think Steffan used the same tactics. There were five shape-shifters when we arrived here. There are four now."
Vlad looks to Frey. "Do you know the shifters you were talking to?"
Frey shakes his head. "Met them for the first time tonight. But they seemed to know each other."
"Then we need to speak with them." Vlad waves a hand and a vampire steps to his side. "The shifters. Bring them to the library."
The guard leaves and another memory from that terrible time with Avery surfaces. "There must be a talisman. Something of the shifter's that Steffan now possesses. For the werewolf, it was the talisman she wore to effect the change. I don't know what it would be for this shifter. But I'd bet he took something that belonged to one of them. It's what makes the magic work."
"Magic." Vlad sniffs. "More like devilry."
* * *
VLAD LEADS US ACROSS THE BALLROOM AND THROUGH a door at the far wall. He is obviously familiar with Steffan's home and we find ourselves in a large square room lined on three walls with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and on a fourth with a fireplace and raised hearth. Next to the hearth is a paneled bar.
Vlad shuts the door behind us and goes to the bar. He pours some dark amber liquid into three heavy, squat glasses. He keeps one for himself and pushes the others toward Frey and me. Frey picks one up, hands me the other. The aroma is heady and smells of oak and vanilla.
Frey takes a sip, rolls it around in his mouth, swallows. "Whiskey. Good stuff."
"The best," Vlad agrees. "Fit for a king."
I lay the glass untouched on the bar. "I'm a beer gal," I say.
Vlad raises an eyebrow but says nothing.
In another moment, the door opens. Vlad's guard escorts the four shape-shifters into the room and bows an exit.
Vlad continues to sip, his eyes focusing like lasers on the faces of the four men.
They look to Frey and I wonder what thoughts are transmitting themselves between them. They don't appear nervous. Only curious and maybe a tiny bit uncertain. They are all dressed, as were the vampires in attendance, in formal wear, tuxes, silk shirts, colorful cummerbunds and handkerchiefs. They are clean-shaven, all dark haired, three look to be in their late twenties. The fourth is older, forty maybe, hair touched with gray at the temples. They are handsome in a tough, old-style-gangster way, more Italian than French.
There is no indication that Vlad frightens them
. They are not vampire, after all, and it is improbable that they would have played a part in Steffan's scheme. Steffan was old school, relegating any species other than vampire to the ranks of the subservient.
So why did Steffan invite them tonight?
Vlad's thoughts echo my own. Why indeed?
Once again, he is following my thoughts without my being aware that he is doing so. I heave an irritated sigh and turn to Frey.
"Do they speak English?"
Frey nods. To the men, he says, "This is Anna Strong and Vlad Tepes."
I glance at Frey. He has purposely used the name associated with the historically cruel figure instead of the more benign "Dracul." And it gets a reaction from the shifters. Worried glances exchanged one to the other. Finally, one speaks.
"Why have we been called to speak with Vlad Tepes?" asks the one who looks to be the older of the four. He speaks English with an accent I can't place. "We are only invited guests. We have nothing to do with what transpired with Steffan."
The three behind him stir and nod in quick agreement.
Vlad smiles. "We do not accuse you of being a part of Steffan's intrigue."
His voice is as smooth as his oily smile. It makes my blood run cold and I am not on the receiving end of his attention. I see a bit of the legend now and wonder . . .
Vlad continues. "Why were you invited? What connection did you have to Steffan?"
The four look at each other. Once again, the one who appears older than the others speaks. "We are not sure why we were invited. The invitation came by way of messenger only yesterday. It said as leaders of the shifter bands we were to be in attendance at a grand convocation. An announcement was to made that would affect us all-vampire and shifter alike."
Vlad raises his eyebrows. "What connection is there between vampires and shifters? I know of no such alliance."
This time, a spark of concern flashes in the eyes of the shifter. "Recently, Steffan reached out to our community. We were not aware he was violating any accord in doing so."
"What did he ask of you?"
"Nothing." The shifter glances back and meets the eyes of the others. All nod in quick agreement. "We supposed he wanted to widen the circle of his sphere to include all supernaturals. We were not aware it was only shifters that he approached."
Vlad takes another slow drink from his glass. The silence hangs heavy, seems interminable.
What are you doing? I finally ask Vlad.
Waiting, is his curt reply.
The numbing quiet stretches on.
Frey shifts at my side. His patience is growing short.
So is mine.
If we wait too much longer, Steffan is going to get away, I remind Vlad.
It won't be much longer. Watch their eyes. They are communicating among themselves. Can Frey understand what they're saying?
Frey must have answered in the negative because Vlad is shaking his head.
Unfortunate that there is not communication among shifters as there is among vampires. Frey has no knowledge of the language they're speaking.
I sigh. Vampires think communication is like Esperanto . . . universal to all.
Vlad continues, But Frey did say the timbre of the conversation is becoming heated. I don't think it will be long now.
Vlad is right. The spokesmen for the group steps forward once again.
"We do not know what plan Steffan had for us. But one unusual thing transpired tonight that we will share with you as a token of our goodwill. One of our ranks, Louis Archambault, disappeared shortly after you . . ." He clears his throat, starts again. "After the unfortunate scene with Steffan."
"Disappeared?" Vlad's tone is sharp.
"We were all transfixed, as you might imagine, by what was taking place in front of us. When it was over, we noticed that Archambault was gone. None of us saw him leave nor did he tell us where he was going." He looks away, almost as if afraid to continue, but feels he must. "We thought he was overcome by the brutality. It may indeed be the case."
Vlad ignores the knife-sharp accusation. "Where does Archambault live?"
"Near Paris. Asnieres-sur-Seine." He rattles off a street address.
"If he took a car," I say to Vlad, "we could beat him cross-country."
Vlad crosses to the door and, opening it, calls to his guard. He snaps something in French and the guard disappears, to return an eye blink later. His answer brings a smile to Vlad's lips.
"His car is gone."
Frey addresses himself to the shifters. "What form does Archambault take?"
"Bear," the spokesman answers.
Frey's expression is almost blissful as he looks at me. "A challenge. It's been a long time."
"No, Frey," I snap back at him. "It's too dangerous. You can't come."
But Frey has already retreated to a corner behind the bar. We hear rustling and I know he's stripping off his clothes in preparation for making the change.
I sigh. Unless I'm prepared to hog-tie him, arguing with Frey when he's made up his mind is useless.
Vlad is waving a hand to dismiss the shifters when I stop him. There is still one more piece of the puzzle to snap in place.
"Did something happen tonight between Archambault and Steffan?" I ask. "Did Steffan borrow something of Archambault's maybe or-?"
One of the younger of the shifters speaks up for the first time. He looks to his friends. "The tie?"
"Tie?" I say encouragingly. "What happened with the tie?"
His face reddens. "It seems Steffan liked Archambault's tie better than the one he was wearing. He asked if they might trade. At the time we all laughed, it seemed silly. But the two did trade. And Steffan put Archambault's tie on immediately."
I nod to Vlad. He waves the shifters off and they waste no time beating a hasty retreat back to the party.
"Well, at least we have more than suspicion. Even if Steffan's leap to Archambault was unsuccessful, he was planning on trying it if things didn't go his way."
I pause as another thought strikes me. "Which means Steffan must have suspected you might show up tonight."
Vlad shrugs. "Ours is a tight-knit community. There are those whose allegiance to me is strong. Word can and does pass both ways."
"And was it Chael who told you of Steffan's plan?" I speak the words without giving them conscious thought. Chael played a major role in getting me here. And his cryptic words in the car about history to be made all make sense now.
"Chael is a friend," Vlad replies.
He says nothing more.
The rustling in the corner stops. Frey emerges, a sleek black panther, and flashes us a green-eyed greeting-a growl emanating from deep within his chest.
He pushes against my legs until my hand lies on the top of his head.
Vlad watches, a smile touching the corner of his lips. "I may have been wrong about your panther," he says. "He is not so biddable as I thought."
Frey snaps in Vlad's direction and I swear, I see him smile.
Vlad looks down at himself, then over to me. We are not so fortunate as your cat. We cannot shed our human forms, but we can shed these clothes. Steffan has a gymnasium in the house, which means he must have something we can use to make our travels more comfortable. Come.
Once again Frey and I follow Vlad through another door and up a staircase to the second floor. Frey bounds up the stairs with feline grace. Every time I see him in this form I'm amazed at the powerful muscles that ripple under midnight black fur. He is beautiful. My heart races. And mortal. I will protect him at all costs tonight.
The "gymnasium," as Vlad called it, is in fact an exercise room: recumbent bike, free weights, a treadmill. Attached is a shower room and then another door that leads into what I guess is Steffan's bedroom.
Not what I would have imagined a "king's bedchamber" to be. It is spartan. A plain bed of rustic wood, a huge armoire with simple lines, a writing desk. And yet, a search of the closet and armoire yields Steffan's clothes, finely tailored suits, slacks, silk shirts of the palest hues. In a drawer, we finally find what we are looking for. Sweatpants and shirts, sports shoes.
Vlad hands me a sweatshirt and pants, a pair of socks and a pair of Steffan's shoes. They may be too big, he says, although I have found American women to have surprisingly large feet.
I would object but for the fact that Steffan's shoes look to be a pretty good fit. I head back for the shower room to change. As I shut the door, I see Frey take up position in front of the door and it brings a smile.
When I've changed, I lay the dress Steffan bought for me on the bed, reflecting that I never thanked him for the gift.
A moot point now.