VLAD, FREY AND I LEAVE THROUGH A BACK ENTRANCE. THE HOUSE BEING PERCHED ON THE TOP of the hill makes the first part of our journey effortless. Downhill all the way, we easily pace each other, panther and vampire. Vlad is our guide. He knows the countryside, and once we reach the main highway to Paris, he keeps us to underbrush when we can find it or out-of-the-way back roads when we can't. An auto trip of five hundred miles takes about eight hours. We should make it in three.
Vlad and I exchange very little communication during our race. He once comments that I have remarkable stamina for a new vampire. That gets a chortling snort from Frey and no comment at all from me.
The countryside goes by in a blur. I can't distinguish village from town from city. It's still dead of night and at our speed, even farmland and gently rising hillock flow under our feet and paws like a smooth river. The star-dazzled clear sky above is a Milky-Way smudge. It's a most wonderful feeling-as close to flying as an earthbound, flesh-and-blood being is likely to get.
My worry that Frey would be unable to keep up with us is unfounded. He sometimes bounds ahead like a frisky puppy off the leash and I realize we, he and I, need to make sure we set ourselves free like this on a regular basis.
It's almost as satisfying as sex.
Then you must not be doing it right.
Vlad. Impertinent and insolent as ever.
Keep out of my head.
I can't help it. You American women think such delicious thoughts. Like children, whatever pops in your mind, you express.
My mind, Vlad. My mind. You don't find me violating your privacy.
He chuckles. You should. Oh, the things I could teach you. Frey would thank me.
Frey would chew you up.
So provincial. Wait until you've been around as long as I have. Morality becomes an archaic concept.
And love? Does that become an archaic concept as well?
No reply. Vlad turns his thoughts off like a curtain coming down. Good.
We're approaching the outskirts of Paris. Vlad stops and Frey and I gather near him.
"Archambault lives in a northwestern suburb of Paris. Rue de Chateau is a main street. We have beat him by many hours. We will go directly to the address. We can rest there and wait for him to show up."
Frey presses against my legs and I scratch the top of his head. An act that sets Vlad to laughing.
"A girl and her pet," he snorts.
Frey raises a paw and growls a retort.
* * *
ARCHAMBAULT'S HOME TURNS OUT TO BE A BIG VILLA on a street studded with them. It is approaching three in the morning yet there are lights on inside. We can only guess that he must have called ahead to let someone know he was returning-perhaps a servant. Or a wife. I realize we should have asked for more particulars about his household.
Too late now.
The house has a huge walled garden in the rear. Frey bounds over the fence easily. In a moment, he is back, taking my hand in his mouth to pull me toward the yard.
"I think it's clear," I tell Vlad.
Frey is gone again, clearing the six-foot-plus wall in one graceful leap. I follow, Vlad close behind. We alight in a garden, newly planted along one wall, centered by a stretch of green lawn, bordered on two other sides by flowers and what look like fruit trees. Nothing much in the way of shelter. But Frey has already found a place between the greenery of some big, flowering vines and a cherry tree. He lays down and looks up at me. I snuggle next to him, my head on his chest. He nuzzles the top of my head before letting his body relax. His breathing becomes deep and regular, his heartbeat slows. In a moment, he is asleep
Vlad has picked a spot a few yards away to hunker down, his back against the trunk of a willow tree. I feel him watching.
You should get some rest, too, I tell him.
I don't require that much sleep anymore, he responds. One of the benefits of age. But you should close your eyes. I'll stand guard.
There is a moment of silence and just as I'm drifting off, Vlad's voice is in my head once more.
How did you know it was Avery who possessed your friend? he asks.
She was not a friend, is my immediate reply. Far from it. She was another victim of Avery's. But at first, I didn't believe it was possible-transmutation. Until Avery started to manifest himself in the were more and more, giving himself away with cruel words and acts. He tried to coerce a friend of his host's to kill me and when that didn't work, set the werewolf upon me himself. It was only because the host he chose was strong enough to thwart him that he was vanquished.
Vlad is quiet. I let a moment go by before I ask, How will we know for sure if Steffan is present in Archambault?
Steffan is nothing if not egotistical, Vlad replies. I think he will give himself away the moment he sees us. He will want us to know how clever he has been.
I let another moment pass. How will we kill him? With Avery, with the werewolf, he was defeated because he could not stop Sandra from changing. With a shifter, there is no imperative to change. He could remain in the shifter's body for as long as he wants. Another thought strikes me. I don't know if he could impart immortality to a host, do you? If he can, and he's smart, he will not give himself away to us.
Vlad chuckles softly. At the sound, Frey stirs and opens his eyes. I stroke his head and the panther relaxes again, falling back into a deep sleep.
If only it were so easy for me.
Vlad is watching us again. I think I was mistaken. You two may be well suited after all.
I take that as a compliment.
You should. I haven't met too many mixed-species couples that have made it work. Your strengths balance each other's. You are strong, a leader. He is strong in his own way, but a follower.
I bristle. Frey has his own mind. If anything, he gives me strength. He is clear-headed and loyal-
Vlad raises a hand. I was not disparaging your mate. To the contrary, I was complimenting him. You have chosen well and I hope you have many good years together.
Not what I was expecting. I release a breath. Let my mind wander back to the problem at hand. Why did you laugh when I asked if Steffan could impart immortality to a host?
Vlad rests his chin in his hands. Because I cannot answer you. It is unclear.
Unclear? In all your years on this earth, you have never known a vampire who transmuted and continued in his host as an immortal?
No. Vlad's clipped answer is followed by a brief pause, during which he climbs from his crouched position and stretches his arms over his head. When he feels my mind probing for more, he continues.
Vampires who transmute do it because they are escaping-someone. In every case of which I am aware, the someone they are escaping eventually catches up to them. It may seem a good choice at the time, but inevitably it leads to permanent death.
For the vampire, surely. But what about the host?
I do not know the shifter Steffan chose as his host. If he was a willing participant in the plan, he accepted the risk.
And if he was not a willing participant?
In the dark, I see Vlad shrug. It makes no difference, does it? The only way we can be sure Steffan is gone is to destroy the host and its parasite.