London, July, 1666
Josef stood, adjusting the fall of spotless white lace over his wrists as he flicked away phantom bits of dust from the full skirts of the dark blue velvet coat that fell almost to his knees. He spared a quick approving glance around the chamber. He might be young, as vampires counted, not quite seventy, but he had been properly educated and he knew what was right.
The room where the ruling London council of vampires met was stone, hewn from ancient rock long centuries before, and cool even in the heat of the early summer night. The walls were covered with tapestries depicting centuries-old scenes of vampire knights and pale, languishing ladies with gentle, fanged smiles. And throughout the tapestries all around the walls ran a ribbon of bright scarlet, the color of fresh human blood.
The largest of the tapestries depicted a court scene, although with the once and future King Arthur who might have been unrecognizable to readers of human literature. And on a dais before this scene of Sir Gawain drinking the blood of the Green Knight from a decidedly unholy chalice, three beautiful and terrible vampires sat to rule their world. None of them appeared to be past the first full flush of adulthood, and from what Josef read from their scent, all of the three had seen the passage of more than one century. He felt a sudden stab of longing for his sire, for the fortress that still commanded the darkly forested mountains of his far away homeland.
The eldest of the council, a ravishingly attractive blonde swathed in red silk cut in the latest court fashion, made a fluid gesture to indicate that Josef should come forward into the center of the chamber.
"You are a stranger in our domain," she said, her voice light and sweet as summer honeysuckle, and somehow carrying within its tones the power of countless years. "What is your name?"
Josef made a leg, gave a deep and graceful bow in the style currently in use by the human aristocracy while he pondered this disingenuous question. He was well aware that she already knew the answer. "I was born Josef Alexandru Konstantin, most gracious lady."
One of the other tribunal members nodded approvingly. There was an appreciation for the conscious assimilation of human mores and customs. It had been drummed into Josef that in order to survive in the world, he must be able to move among the humans imperceptibly. The faintest whiff of strangeness might lead to exposure. And one of the harsh lessons of his youth had been that exposure of one of their kind would lead inevitably to the extermination of many more.
"And in this city and time?" the third member asked. The flickering torches set in sconces around the walls made the glossy black cascade of curls in his wig seem to move with a life of their own.
Josef inclined his head in acknowledgement. "My credentials introduce me as Lord Josef Alexander," he said. "As I am the scion of a noble bloodline, I find the title not unjustified." He lifted a hand to correct the placement of his own carefully curled chestnut wig, the ornate ring on his right index finger plainly visible as he did so.
He was rewarded by a widening of the eyes on the part of his chief questioner. "Indeed," she murmured. "One might even say a royal bloodline."
"My sire," Josef said easily, belying the care with which his words were chosen, "has frequently adjured me to remain humble. I would not wish to claim undue privilege so far away from my native realm."
The three vampires exchanged glances, and Josef knew there was a wealth of communication in that silent action.
"Your sire has long been the object of widespread admiration," the blonde woman said. "Nevertheless, we are a cautious lot, here in England, and we do require you to offer some small proof of your lineage."
"A test of your powers and control," the dark-wigged vampire added.
"I am yours to command," Josef said, favoring them with a tight-lipped smile. They could not, he thought, devise such a test he was not equipped to pass, and pass easily.
The blonde clapped her hands sharply, and a younger vampire, perhaps Josef's age, but dressed in far plainer fashion, came in, leading four blindfolded humans by the ropes from their bound wrists.
"It would be sadly remiss of us," the blonde said, "not to offer refreshment to our guest."
The member of the tribunal who had not spoken before, a sternly handsome man of falsely apparent youth, who wore his auburn hair pulled severely back from his face, favored Josef with a sardonic smile. "Drink wisely, Lord Josef."
Josef returned the look. He could hardly miss the slight emphasis laid on his title. "I was not aware," he said, his tones mild, "that the late Lord Protector numbered many of our kind among his followers."
The other vampire frowned, and rose slightly in his seat. "Then your awareness of our affairs is somewhat lacking."
The blonde put out a restraining hand. "Courtesy, Thomas," she said. "Josef is, as yet, our guest." With her other hand, she indicated the four humans. "If you would be so good as to make your selection."
Josef nodded to her and turned his attention to the prisoners. All were young, perhaps in their mid-teens, two boys, two girls, and as he moved quietly among them, sniffing a scent here, fingering a lock of hair there, once bending close to lick delicately at the leaping pulse of an exposed throat, they shifted covered eyes around them, trying in vain to follow his movements. And with each, as he inspected, he looked at the impassive faces of the tribunal.
At length, he bowed again to the lady of London. "Shall I explain my choice?" he asked.
She smiled. "We shall be most interested to hear it."
Josef looked at all four of the humans, and pulled one forward, a slender waif of a girl, her honey-blonde hair hanging loose around her shoulders below the white bandage of the blindfold. He slipped a hand around her waist. "Now this one," he said, "is a pretty little thing, and it's a shame so young a girl should be so thoroughly poxed. You'll forgive me, I trust, if I decline diseased blood. The taste is—not to my liking." And with a light shove, he sent her spinning into the grasp of the young keeper, who scowled fiercely. Josef suppressed a giggle, and moved to one of the boys.
He inhaled deeply. "On the other hand, the blood of this human is pure and sweet." Josef set a hand lightly on the boy's shoulder, and with a deceptively smooth motion, ripped the sleeve from his shirt. Lifting the boy's arm, he turned it so the inside of the elbow was visible to those on the dais, the raised red weals of two bites clearly in view. "Pity he's already—given—this evening." And this human, too, was put aside and removed from the chamber.
As Josef turned to the other boy, the vampire the blonde had addressed as Thomas frowned, putting deep creases on either side of his mouth. Josef favored him with an insolent smirk. "You present me with such a pleasant variety," he said, pulling the boy close, whereupon the child obediently leaned his head to one side, exposing a throat marked with multiple faint scars. Josef stroked the soft skin, his touch feather-light. "Well-trained," he said, "and ripe for tasting." He paused, and put his mouth close to the boy's neck, his eyes watching the dais carefully. "Tempting. Very tempting. However," he said, sniffing the boy's aroma again, "as I only smell one vampire on this boy, I think perhaps I will refrain from poaching on the exclusive property of another." His movements as he put this human aside were exquisitely gentle.
"Then your choice is clear," the lady said.
Josef shook his head. "There was never," he said, "a choice."
"Then drink, and welcome to our city."
The final possibility was a girl, perhaps fourteen, although Josef knew himself to be notoriously bad at gauging human ages. He could not see her eyes for the bandage over them, but she looked plump and well-cared for, even if her dress was some plain brown wool, almost the same color as the curly hair dressed in a simple bun at the back of her head. Josef wondered briefly how she had come to be in the hands of the vampires, but dismissed the thought. What did it matter, after all?
The girl shrank from his touch as he moved behind her, and Josef could hear her heart race, hear her breathing grow ragged and shallow with fear. He ran his hands down her arms, savoring the warmth of her flesh under the cool skin of his palms. When his hands reached her bound wrists, he loosened the rope around them, even as he leaned his head down to her neck. "Fear not," he whispered into her ear. She moaned softly at the feel of his breath against her. He lifted her left wrist to his mouth, feeling the push of his fangs as his thirst grew. The force of his grip overcame her faint resistance easily. The smell of her skin was spicy, redolent of cinnamon and cloves, and the taste of her was salty as he ran his tongue across the inside of her wrist. When he set his teeth, she whimpered, but her shudders, he thought while her blood welled sweetly into his mouth, were no longer prompted by fear or pain. It was difficult, not to drink too deeply, yet he knew his test was not quite completed. With some regret, he took one last swallow, then carefully licked the wounds to stop the flow of blood.
Josef carefully wiped the corners of his mouth with thumb and forefinger, darting his tongue out to capture this final taste. He was no glutton, unlike some he'd known, but he was not about to waste perfectly good sustenance. He gave the girl a quick caress on her silken cheek, paler now than it had been, and stepped in front of her. Behind him, he heard her stumble back to the wall, and sink to the floor, but he could not spare her any attention as he addressed the tribunal once again.
"A noble welcome," he said.
"And nobly partaken," the woman returned. "You are welcome in our city."
"My thanks for that, Lady—" Josef paused, waiting. He had borne with their impertinence long enough, he thought. They might be his elders, but that did not make them his betters. He had passed their little test; they owed him their names and more.
It would seem that the lady agreed. She inclined her head gracefully, and said, "Perhaps we have been too slow to introduce ourselves. My name, Lord Josef, is Elaine de Woodville. And I will also make known to you Christopher, Lord Summersisle." She indicated the black-wigged vampire to her right, then smiled winningly at the frowning man to her left. "And this is our beloved Thomas Corn."
Josef bowed again to them all. "And is every newcomer to your city the object of such scrutiny?"
Elaine de Woodville had the grace—barely—to look embarrassed, although he could see that the emotion warred with annoyance at the unaccustomed questioning of her actions. "Your pardon, my lord," she said with some asperity, "but we are lately confronted with a dilemma." She paused, a pretty hesitation, and one which felt entirely too contrived, as far as Josef was concerned. "And we knew that if you were everything you were reported to be, you might well prove a solution to our difficulties."
Josef looked down, pretending to busy himself with the cascading lace encircling his throat. At length, hearing nothing further, he looked up. "So," he said pleasantly, "you put me through tests in order to request—or is it require—my assistance in resolving a problem that is none of my making, or my concern? This is hospitality indeed."
Lady Elaine winced slightly at his tone, and Thomas Corn's expression of sardonic disdain deepened. Only the vampire introduced as Lord Summersisle looked pleased, his visage conveying interest at this novelty. Josef saw a kindred spirit looking out of those eyes that seemed to hold a wisdom far beyond his apparent age. A man who valued amusement, evidently.
"I can see," Summersisle commented lightly, "that we have found the perspicacity this task necessitates."
Josef had learned how to control his features in a hard school, and he let none of his dismay show now. "I find it difficult to believe that anything could arise that would confound the abilities of this august council," he said.
"Your sarcasm is unneeded, sir," Thomas Corn replied, a dangerous glint of silver shadowing his eyes.
Lady Elaine silenced him with a glance before turning her attention to Josef again. "We face a threat," she said, "from within."
Josef waited patiently for her to continue, but it was Summersisle who spoke.
"Without secrecy, without discretion, we are vulnerable," he said. "We move through the city, through the night, and with care the humans never know of our presence among them. It has always been so. But of late, there have been lapses—"
"Lapses?" Thomas Corn said. "Lapses? Deliberate actions, rather. Someone works to destroy us. One of our own kind."
Lady Elaine took up the story. "Bodies have been found publicly, drained, for which none of our number in the city was willing to take responsibility."
"Then someone is lying," Josef said.
"So it would seem. There have also been two of our fledglings murdered, and left on holy ground."
Josef frowned. "Holy ground has no effect on us," he said.
"True, but the superstitious do not know this. We fear someone seeks to rouse the human populace against us." Lady Elaine held out a yellowed piece of parchment with ragged, torn edges. Josef stepped forward to take it from her hand. "The fledglings were left with this message."
Josef looked at the parchment, on which a precise script contrasted with the roughness of the material, and read "Spawn of the devil, drinkers of blood, repent and burn." He frowned up at the tribunal. "This seems fairly clear."
"Find him," Lady Elaine said, her imperious blue eyes suddenly pleading. Josef looked at her, and then again at the note in his hand. There seemed little way he could refuse. He nodded shortly.
"I will do what I can, my lady," he said.
"And you will have our thanks for it," she replied, her expression lighter. There was more information he would need, but he would request that another time. For now, the negotiation was finished. The use of his hunting skills were the price for residence in the city.
As Josef turned to go, his attention was drawn by the faint sound of a heartbeat. The girl he had fed upon earlier still huddled against the wall. She had pulled the blindfold down, and Josef could see the terror in her eyes. He should be uncaring, but something in her manner, in her silent fear, reminded him too strongly of his past. His own mercy had not always been so tender, and in some ways he regretted that. He hated regret. Sooner or later, he would surely stamp out that too-human remnant of his personality, but thus far he had been unsuccessful in denying it. He turned back to the dais, and gestured toward the girl. "There seems to be unfinished business here."
Summersisle waved a negligent hand. "We have vassals who will finish her. She will be telling no secrets from this chamber."
Josef raised his eyebrows. "Indeed?" he said coolly. "I congratulate you, that you are so wealthy as to spend such a treasure so prodigally."
Lady Elaine looked thoughtful, shifting her gaze from the trembling form of the girl to this stranger in her realm. "As you are so gracious as to aid us in our need," she said, "if you wish it, take the girl. I will give her to you. Use her as you will."
The words struck Josef like a lance in the gut, a reminder of past errors and sins. His face reflected nothing but mild gratitude. "A fresh source is always welcome, my lady. I will take her, with thanks for your generosity."
He turned to the girl and snapped his fingers at her. "Get up and follow me, wench," he said. His tones were abrupt, but he quirked one side of his mouth in what he hoped she would interpret as a kindly expression, and saw a faint hope spring to her eyes. Walking out to his waiting carriage, the girl trailing in his wake, Josef wondered again why he had left his homeland. Adventure, he thought ruefully. I was looking for adventure.