FOR A MOMENT, NO ONE SPEAKS. ARCHAMBAULT'S widow wants to fight for her husband's right to vengeance. But it's clear she recognizes Vlad and it's not only the vampire's legend she's aware of but the man's as well.
Vlad makes the first move. "You have a right to be compensated for your loss. I will see to it. But as for revenge, it comes at a steep price. Know that Steffan, a vampire, has lost his life as well as your husband. Try to be content with the knowledge that the scales have been balanced."
Tears are rolling down the woman's face. She looks down at her husband's body. It has morphed back to its human form.
"Do you wish us to help prepare him for burial?" Vlad's voice now is soft, conciliatory.
She shakes her head but does not meet his eyes. "I will take care of it. I need to go inside to call his friends. I would like you to be gone when I return."
She reaches down to touch Archambault's cheek, then disappears back into the house.
Frey turns then to look at me.
I touch his flanks. "I'm all right," I say.
He rubs his head against the open wound on my chest. It's already starting to mend and once he's satisfied I am telling the truth, he goes to Vlad's side.
I follow. Once the woman is out of sight, Vlad sinks to the ground and closes his eyes. I've had my own experience with gunshots and they hurt like hell.
I kneel beside him and tear the shirt away. As I watch, buckshot works its way to the surface of his skin, falls away, and each lesion mends until by the time Vlad's eyes have reopened, his chest is fully healed.
He sits up.
Frey purrs and head butts him, making Vlad send me an eyebrow-arched look of surprise.
"I think he's glad you're all right."
Vlad climbs to his feet. "I think we'd better get out of here. Someone is bound to have heard that shot."
I glance toward the house. "Do you think she's accepted what you said about the scales being balanced?"
Vlad shrugs. "I'll make sure she's well taken care of. We'll keep an eye on her. It's all we can do. We spared her life-you spared her life. Let's hope she appreciates that."
We leave the garden, gather on the sidewalk in front of the house. Anxiety over being gone so long rears its head. "How are we going to get back to Lorgue?" I ask.
Vlad fishes in the pocket of his sweatpants for his cell. "Lucky for us, she aimed high," he says, pulling it free. He dials, has a brief conversation once more in French, disconnects.
"There is a small municipal airport not far from here," he says. "There will be a helicopter and pilot waiting to fly us to Ampus. From there it's just a twenty-minute drive to Lorgues."
I glance down at my torn and bloody shirt and then to Vlad's. "Hope your pilot doesn't ask too many questions," I mutter.
"He'll be too curious about the panther traveling with us to ask about our clothes." He peers skyward. "Come on. We can make it before daybreak if we hurry."
* * *
WE MAKE IT TO STEFFAN'S HOUSE AS VLAD PREDICTED, an hour or so before sunrise. It seems strange to be back in the place our adventure began, a house now cold, dark and deserted. I wonder how long the guests stayed after the demise of their host but from the number of glasses and empty wine bottles strewn about, it appears the guests stayed until the liquor ran out.
Vampires are nothing if not resilient.
Vlad and I tramp our way upstairs while Frey retreats to the spot behind the bar where he left his clothes. I take a quick shower, washing away flakes of dried blood. There is not a hint of the bear's claw mark, not even a bruise or reddened skin.
Vampires are nothing if not tough-skinned.
I leave my torn clothes in a pile on the bathroom floor and slip once more into the dress Steffan chose for me. I finger-comb my wet hair, knowing there is little else I can do. If my parents see me in this disheveled state, I can only hope they attribute it to a fast ride in a convertible.
Vlad is dressed in his evening wear when I return to the bedroom. And perched on the end of the bed Frey waits, too, once again in his handsome human form. He rises when I come in and we embrace.
"Quite a party, huh?" he breathes in my ear.
"You're sure you're all right?" I whisper back.
"Thanks to Vlad."
Who clears his throat. "My driver will take you home if you are ready."
Frey slips an arm around my shoulder. "Actually, if you can take us back to Le Course cafe, we'd appreciate it. We left our car there."
"Of course. Shall we go?"
* * *
IT'S QUIET ON THE RIDE BACK TO THE CAFe. VLAD'S driver has raised the privacy partition though he needn't have bothered. Fatigue seems to have seeped our energy.
I'm laying in the crook of Frey's arm, my feet curled up on the seat. From the rhythmic rise and fall of Frey's chest, I'm guessing he has fallen asleep.
Vlad faces us, his head resting against the window, his eyes closed.
Are you asleep? I inquire gently, not wanting to wake him if he's dozed off.
No. He smiles. Are you?
He rouses himself to a seating position. I study the man sitting across from me. I've had a lot of unbelievable things happen to me in the months since becoming vampire-not all of them good-but sitting in a car at six a.m. with the one who might just be the original, the first vampire, has to top the list.
What would you like to ask me? His dark, intense gaze is as penetrating as his ability to probe my thoughts.
At first, the question seems too complicated to tackle. Until I realize it's really very simple. Are you the first vampire?
No. He frowns. Legend bestowed that title on me. And that hack Stoker perpetuated it.
No one knows. The vampire has been a part of every culture stretching back as long as man's memory.
Why do we exist?
Vlad reaches for my hand. That is like asking why there are a million species of birds or insects or why there are different races.
No. I shake my head. Not the same thing. Evolution, environment, climate. They dictate flora and fauna on this earth. We are not evolved. We are made. One from the other. But for what purpose? We are parasites, feeding on the blood of mortals.
You think we have no purpose.
I haven't determined one yet. I know I have little experience in this existence, but what I have has led me to believe there are more like Steffan in our ranks than like me.
Perhaps you just answered your own question.
He is stroking my hand. I pull it free. I hope not, if you're saying I have nothing to look forward to but evenings like tonight-an immortal lifetime of fighting vampires intent on world domination.
But you succeeded, did you not? The world is safe for mankind once again. He chuckles, raising an imaginary glass. To humanity. The vampire's greatest weakness.
I don't see the humor. But safe for how long? I want to live a simple life. I want to marry the man I love and raise his child.
Frey will die. Vlad utters the words without emotion, a simple statement of fact.
My own answer is more heated. I know that. I lean toward him. But at some point one has to decide what is important. If we have forty years together, thirty, twenty, they will be good years and worth the pain of loss when the end comes. I suddenly remember a fact of history. Wasn't your time with your mortal wife Jusztina worth it?
Vlad looks surprised that I would know his wife's name. I smile ruefully. There is very little about your life that has not been recorded. Including the way she met her death.
He looks away, briefly, as if unsure how to respond. When he meets my eyes again, they are clouded with remorse. I was away when that happened-when she threw herself from the parapet. I've wished every day of my life since that I would have turned her before I'd left on that godforsaken mission.
Why didn't you?
Instead of answering, he searches my face. Your mother is facing death, is she not?
Yes. Bravely. She is the most heroic woman I know.
I assume you considered turning her?
I gave her the choice. She turned it down. She believes in the immortal life her god promises.
Then you understand how it was with Jusztina. Do you hold your mother's beliefs?
I did when I was young. No longer. I have seen too much. I let a beat go by. Do you still think of Jusztina?
After six hundred years? He smiles, softly, sweetly. Every day.
Would you have preferred she never existed? That you never loved so deeply?
No. My memories of our life together sustain me. Life is too grim otherwise.
Then you understand how it is with Frey.
I realize suddenly that he is asking more questions of me than I of him. This isn't going quite the way I expected.
Vlad laughs softly, feeling my discomfort, and answers the question swirling around my head. You are intriguing. I wanted to know more about this Chosen One.
I believe we have a lot in common, you and I.
And what have you learned?
That the rumors about you are true. I saw it myself tonight. Still, I'd like to learn more. Will you meet me tomorrow?
I shake my head. I'm afraid that's not possible. Frey and I are getting married in two days. After that, well, how long we stay depends on- I can't bring myself to finish the thought, the words stick in my throat.
Vlad nods sympathetically. Your mother. I understand. But we will meet again. When one has all the time in the world, one develops patience.
All the time in the world. I sigh. What history you have lived.
Vlad shrugs. History is just the present in retrospect. Times change but people do not. After a while you come to realize stepping back from mortals is the only way to survive. Otherwise your soul becomes deadened by the evil humans perpetuate upon themselves.
Yet were you not mortal when you received the name Vlad the Impaler? I ask quietly.
Vlad doesn't shrink from the question but meets my eyes squarely. Yes. I was a fanatic willing to protect my country against all threats-whether Ottoman Turks or German merchants. As ruler I thought I could eliminate crime by being pitiless against transgressors. I held myself as arbiter of morality and punished anyone whose conduct I deemed morally wrong. I deserve to be called cruel but not capricious. Those in my kingdom knew what I stood for and if they committed a transgression, they understood the consequences.
His words are straightforward but the emotion behind them is great sadness.
Do you think history has judged you too harshly? If so, why don't you try to set the record straight?
He chuckles. You mean write a book? The Real Untold Story of Vlad Dracul the Third? Who would believe it? My enemies were thorough. The portrait left behind of me is one of a monster who lived only to torture and kill. But I no longer care what history chooses to remember. It very rarely reflects the truth.
Obviously. History says you were killed by the Ottomans, your head put on a stake outside of Constantinople.
Vlad smiles, stretches his arms over his head. Inventing your own death is something you will learn to deal with as time goes by. Though it was far easier to disappear with no Internet or newspapers or even photographs to leave a trail.
Hmm. When the time comes, I hope I don't have to resort to leaving some innocent person's head on a stake to make it happen.
Who said he was innocent?
The driver knocks gently on the partition, signaling we are nearing the cafe. Before I rouse Frey, I reach a hand to Vlad. It has been a pleasure meeting you, Vlad Dracul.
He takes my hand, raising it to his lips. And you, Anna Strong.