Authors: Clay Griffith,Susan Griffith
“The gates must stay locked.” Eskandari's gaze darted to Colonel Anhalt, and his eyes lit up with recognition before settling on the mysterious Greyfriar. “The city is in a state of emergency.”
Adele spied a motionless figure on a high palace balcony. Even at this distance, she could recognize the vulturous form. “I demand to speak with Kelvin Pasha.”
“That's quite impossible. Please, disband your followers immediately.”
“General, Lord Kelvin's government is illegal and I—”
“That's not my concern. Now, please, you must comply for public safety.” He had to shout over the rising din, “There is no other solution to this that doesn't end in bloodshed!”
Hearing Eskandari threaten bloodshed, overly fervent screaming young men rushed the gates with their hands full of rocks and bottles. They pushed against the ornamental wrought iron, and some started to climb it. Stones and bottles flew at the Home Guard inside. Handguns appeared in the crowd. Rifles snapped up. From somewhere a loud crack broke the humid air and gunfire erupted.
“Get down, Highness!” Anhalt shouted as he shielded her from the palace wall.
Adele felt hands grab her and pull her away from the bodies and shouting, the smoke of guns and the dust of trampling feet. Her White Guard backed away from the gate with rifles flaming. From above came the merciless staccato popping of machine guns spraying bullets into the crowd, which desperately fought to escape into the alleys of Old Town, only to find them choked with surprised new arrivals unsure what the uproar was about. People fell with their faces masks of pain or surprise, bullets tearing through workman's twill, banker's wool, and lady's silk alike.
Greyfriar wrapped Adele in his arms and cloak as her small entourage battered their way back through the terrified madness. The dreadful snapping of gunfire outside her home horrified her. This was Alexandria. This didn't happen here. She was carried behind the substantial marble base of the equestrian statue of the first Equatorian emperor, Simon I, and pressed to the ground. It had been years since she had been small enough to see the mighty monument that dominated Victoria Square from this low angle. Greyfriar hovered over her back with Anhalt beside her, while Mamoru crouched behind. White Guardsmen went to one knee around her, firing back at the gate.
Mamoru shouted, “There is a secret entrance into the palace nearby.”
“No!” Adele snapped as bullets ticked off the statue, spraying marble fragments. “I won't sneak into my own home like a thief. My people are dying in the street before me!”
“You must see reason,” Mamoru retorted. “We cannot storm the gate with a handful of men under fire.”
In that instant she knew what she had to do. Her people were dying because of their faith in her. Her eyes locked with Greyfriar's, and despite the smoked glasses she saw that he knew what she was thinking. Perhaps her scent had changed from frightened to determined. He shook his head, but she was committed.
“I don't intend to storm it,” she stated.
“My God! Get down!” Mamoru shouted as many hands reached up for her.
The princess roughly shrugged off her protectors and stepped into the open. Bullets ticked all around, but by the grace of God none struck her. Greyfriar rose to his feet with her, but Adele's stern glance stayed him. He nodded his unwilling compliance but remained with her in the open, refusing to slip back behind cover. Her raised hand signaled the rest of her entourage to stay where they were. Colonel Anhalt repeated a prayer he vaguely remembered from his childhood as he watched the small young woman traverse the killing field, which still hung with gunsmoke and was puddled with blood.
Adele walked through the hail of gunfire straight toward the nearest wounded, a young man. Dropping to her knees next to the man, who was bleeding profusely, she attempted to stanch the flow with a bandage torn from her dress. Only moments ago he had followed her wildly through the streets chanting her name. Now here he was, dead or dying, far from help.
General Eskandari's voice rang out from inside the grounds, “Cease fire! Cease fire, damn you!” The guns of the palace fell silent and the White Guard likewise halted, but kept rifles to their shoulders. The hot silence of the square was broken by the pitiful moaning of the wounded. At least twenty bodies sprawled on the paving stones.
“I warned you,” Eskandari cried with an anguished voice from behind the wrought-iron bars decorated with an intricately worked family crest. “I begged you.”
Adele looked straight at him. “General, I am Princess Adele, the heir to my father Emperor Constantine the Second. My father is dead. I am your sovereign. I command you and your men to lay down your arms and bring aid to my people.”
The Persian marine studied the firm expression of the woman. She was not playacting. Her aura of command was impressive; her bravery was unquestionable given that she now waited unarmed, far from her men, with nothing more than her character to protect her, kneeling in the blood of her subjects.
“Your Highness,” he said, “you are no longer the heir—”
“The decision of Commons is illegal. They have no authority over succession. Lord Kelvin's regency is illegal. You are serving an outlaw regime.”
“I don't know about such matters. I am only a soldier.”
“And I am your empress,” Adele said loudly. “I thank you for your service preventing Senator Clark from usurping power. Your actions were directed toward safeguarding Equatoria. You must now be consistent in that principle. There has been enough blood shed here. I give my word that no revenge will be taken on you or your men. You are bound to defend Equatoria; you have sworn an oath to that. Do so now.”
General Eskandari glanced back at the small figure on the balcony, so far from harm's way, before slowly turning to the young woman who faced his guns, and the wounded citizens around her. Unbuttoning his tunic, he reached in and, with a strong tug, produced a sturdy key on a thin chain. He inserted the key into the lock on the gate and turned it with several loud clacks, then swung one side of the iron gate inward.
The general stepped out and handed the key to Adele. “Your Highness, Victoria Palace is yours.” He then drew his sword, dropped to one knee, and held the hilt toward her. “I surrender myself into your mercy. All I have done was for Equatoria.”
Adele looked up at the balcony. Lord Kelvin was gone. She heard footsteps rushing up behind her, and then Greyfriar, Anhalt, Mamoru, and her men appeared at her side. Some of her White Guard darted to the aid of the wounded while the rest formed a half circle about her.
“General, rise and resume your duties. I want the wounded tended to immediately. Your men on the gate should be confined to barracks for their own protection. Colonel Anhalt, you are now commanding officer in Alexandria with the rank of brevet general. General Eskandari, you will inform imperial troops of this change in command.” She relinquished the bloody tourniquet to one of her soldiers. “I would like Lord Kelvin brought to me.”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than Adele saw the long-limbed bureaucrat approaching across the manicured palace courtyard. She almost laughed as he loped toward her in a manner that was both reticent and eager. He seemed remarkably calm and unflustered for a man whose government had just been toppled.
“Your Imperial Highness,” he intoned with a deep bow as he reached the gate. “Allow me to join in with a hearty welcome home.”
Adele rose. “Welcome home? That's an odd sentiment given the gates were locked against me.” She accepted a handkerchief from Anhalt and tried to wipe the blood from her hands.
“Against you?” Kelvin stared like a confused owl. “No, Your Imperial Highness. Not against you. We had word of an unruly mob rioting through Alexandria, and had no firm knowledge of its intent. So we took reasonable precautions. The gunfire was unfortunate, but after your rabble attacked the palace guard, there was little alternative. Naturally, tense young men defended themselves. Sad, but predictable.”
“Where is Simon?” Adele had no time to counter his ridiculous summary of events.
“In the palace. Quite safe and no doubt eager to see you. As we all are.”
“You didn't seem so eager judging from your cables to Bunia.”
Lord Kelvin raised his eyebrows innocently. “It's unseemly to bicker about policy in front of the casualties.”
Adele glared at the man angrily. “Indeed. Why aren't doctors out here? Get them now! Then we can go inside to plan my coronation.”
“Yes. Delightful. It may take some time to prepare. We can't use your original crown when you were to be wed to Senator Clark.”
“I will use my father's crown.”
“Oh? I doubt that will fit.”
“I think you'll find it will.”
Simon passed among the marble sarcophagi as if they were walking between rows of wheat. Their footfalls echoed in the dim recesses of the crypt. It was cool and quiet, with calming white marble, red quartzite, and black basalt forming the vault. The monuments were lavishly decorated, boasting imposing sculptures of dead men. The crypt was similar to many of the tombs of the north where Gareth had sought rest before the Great Killing. It was pleasant when compared to the balmy air above; he could easily reside here while in Alexandria. But that would likely cause gossip around the court.
Greyfriar walked beside Adele, whose long, crimson cloak flowed behind her. Her stride was sure and steady now, even if her scent was altered by a tinge of fear. He touched her arm to reassure her, and she looked nervously at him. They stopped before a large sarcophagus of black basalt. Compared to many of the others, it was relatively plain, with straight edges and no frivolous accentuations. Great thick letters carved into the base proclaimed the name
Adele removed her glove before laying her hand on the hard surface of the tomb. Her head dropped, but no tears fell. Greyfriar waited to comfort her, but she simply stood over her father's resting place without overt reaction. Reaching out with her other hand, she drew her brother, Simon, closer. The lad was resplendent in a blue naval uniform complete with white gloves and dress blue cap. He seemed grim, but not distraught, as if he were playing the part of a mourner. Simon had already had time to come to terms with his father's death. The boy watched his sister with concern. He glanced at Greyfriar, who gave him a supportive nod, appreciating the boy's kindness toward Adele.
“I can't even cry,” Adele said.
“Why?” Greyfriar asked.
“I don't know. I thought it would destroy me to come here and see his grave for the first time. But I feel numb.”
“Can you tell me what he was like?”
There was a long silence. Adele stared at Greyfriar with a sad smile, unable to see his eyes through his smoked glasses. “I don't know. I never really knew him. I knew my mother much better, at least so I thought. I suppose I never knew either of them. Now they're both gone.”
Greyfriar studied the crypt. “Where is your mother's place? I thought it was customary to bury couples together.”
Adele shook her head. “This crypt is for emperors. My mother is in another mausoleum. Not far away. I'll be here too. Maybe I could have her moved.”
“Didn't you spend time with your father?” Greyfriar asked.
“He was always busy,” Simon offered.
“When I was very young,” Adele added, “I remember some state events and a couple of family trips. After our mother died, our father stayed close to us for a year or two. But it didn't last. He was the emperor. His time was not his own.”
“My father was similar,” Greyfriar said.
Adele replied warily, eyeing Simon, who was not privy to Greyfriar's secret, “But you said he taught you to hunt. And taught you lessons about…survival.”
“Yes. Surely your father taught you similar lessons.”
The princess shook her head. “No. My mother, yes, but my father taught me very little.”
“Do you think he wanted to?”
“I don't know. At the end, he seemed to want to reach out to me. Maybe he sensed something. Maybe he was sorry about the marriage to Senator Clark. He tried, but I was so angry.” Adele took Gareth's hand and leaned against him. For the first time there was a slight hitch in her tone. “They say he fought back against Flay. That he wasn't afraid.”
Simon said with pride, “They found him with a sword in his hand.”
Greyfriar bobbed his head in admiration. “Good. I hope he hurt her.”
“He didn't stand a chance,” Adele said.
“I hid.” Simon spoke in a low voice, toeing the marble floor. “I hid in a servant's pantry.”
Greyfriar said forcefully, “Smart. I would've hidden too.”
“No, you wouldn't,” the boy argued. “You're the Greyfriar. You would have killed that vampire.”
“No, you're wrong.” The swordsman regarded Simon like the little prince was a fellow warrior. “I've faced Flay before, but not by choice. I've never defeated her, and only escaped with my life by sheer luck. Simon, there's no victory in being goaded into combat by a stronger enemy. The wise war chief chooses the proper time to strike. That night was Flay's time. Escaping her was the greatest victory you could have scored. In time, we will have her, and you will be a part of that success. If you had played her game on her terms, you would be dead too, and her victory would be complete.”
Simon nodded, smiling slightly as though a burden had been lifted. “Now that you're here to help Adele, can we really win this war?”
“She doesn't need me.” Greyfriar's voice was assured and confident. “But we will win.”
Adele was grateful for him engaging her brother, easing the boy's guilt over the night their father died and softening his fears of the future. She cuffed the back of Simon's neck playfully, and he pulled away with typical boyish annoyance to wander off among the other sarcophagi.
Adele asked Greyfriar in a low voice, “So, is Flay better than you? In a fight?”
He thought about it as Adele studied what little of his face she could see, measuring the question. He said cautiously, “I'm not sure. It would likely depend on who struck first. Surprise would decide it. Flay is fast. Deathly fast.”
Adele looked around for Simon, then whispered, “What about your brother? Is he better than you?”
“Cesare?” Greyfriar gave a derisive snort and said quietly, “He's no match for me. I'm much stronger than he.”
“Really?” Adele felt a pleasant flush. He wasn't bragging, merely stating a fact. His arm did feel like iron under her fingers.
“I am capable of decapitating and disemboweling with my claws. In my society, that makes me quite desirable.”
“No doubt. Though in my society, keep it to yourself.” Adele gave him a sly look. “I'm in this relationship for the capes and castles.”
“So am I,” he said with mock seriousness.
“We can't both be romantics. One of has to be a realist.”
“I nominate you.”
“Thank you.” Adele crossed her arms. “So what about me? Do you think you could beat me?”
His head lifted slowly, and he reached up to remove his glasses, revealing his crystal blue eyes. “In a fight to simply defeat one another, in practice, I would easily best you. My strength and stamina would overwhelm you. In a fight to the death, however, I stand no chance.”
“Are you being serious?”
“Of course. In life, I am your master. In death, you have no equal. You would slay me.”
Adele stared at him open-mouthed. She couldn't respond. She didn't know how to take what he had just said. His expressions and tones were not always the same as a human. Part of her felt some sliver of pride that he judged her so powerful and competent. But another part felt there was an accusatory undertone to his statement, some unspoken fear, some untapped unease about her. Perhaps it was an inbred resentment about her
, her native ability to kill his kind. Still, it was unlike him. Even when they had been at odds early in their stay in Edinburgh, he had never expressed such confidence in her savagery. Maybe in his world, he had just paid her a great compliment.
She asked hesitantly, “Do you think I would kill you?”
Gareth didn't pause. “I think you could. That's all. That's what you asked me. That is what you are training to do. Your…what do you call it, geomancy? Your lessons with Mamoru. You are becoming a weapon to destroy vampires.”
“That's not what I'm doing! Just because I may have an ability doesn't mean I have to use it. I have control over myself. I think this ability—whatever it is—can lead to better things. It doesn't have to be a weapon. I will learn to control it so what happened in the Mountains of the Moon doesn't have to happen again. Don't you trust me?”
Simon's voice came from the distance, low and conversational. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Adele and Greyfriar both bolted toward the boy. Greyfriar leapt over a sarcophagus to find Simon face-to-face with a strange man, his beard unkempt and his long, matted blond hair hanging about his face in clumps. He wore filthy clothes and stank of sweat and dirt.
“Selkirk?” Adele said in confusion as she reached Simon's side. She stepped in front of the boy, but waved Greyfriar off his aggressive stance.
The man was on one knee beside a large tomb. He made no threatening move, but slowly looked up with recognition in his intense eyes. Greyfriar eased his sword back into the scabbard, sensing Adele's alarm shift to curiosity.
Adele asked the disoriented man, “What are you doing here? What happened to you? Does Mamoru know you're here?”
Selkirk rose and took an unsteady step toward her. He seemed weak, perhaps hungry, not quite sure of his surroundings. His hand lifted from the folds of his stained coat holding something. He launched himself the few feet to Adele and plunged a dagger into her chest. The princess gasped and raised her hands.
Greyfriar shouted in alarm, and his rapier tore free. Selkirk pulled the knife out and stabbed her again with a sick, solid sound. The swordsman seized the man by the shoulder and threw him away from Adele. Selkirk grunted as he crashed against a tomb. Greyfriar drove his blade deep into the man's rib cage, and Selkirk collapsed with a whimper.
“Adele!” Greyfriar turned as the princess stumbled and fell to the ground. The swordsman dove to the floor beside Adele and scooped her into his arms.
Wet scarlet spread across her white silk gown. She looked up at Greyfriar, but her eyes were wide and jerking side to side. Her mouth moved soundlessly, and her breath rasped.
“Adele,” Greyfriar cried. “Can you speak? Can you hear me?”
Her eyelids fluttered and her eyes rolled up in her head. Adele went limp and heavy in his arms. Her heartbeat faltered.
“No, no!” He looked up at Simon, who stood petrified next to them. “Get someone, anyone. Go! Now! Please!”
Greyfriar huddled in the dark corner of a small room in the Iskandar Hospital. Adele's blood was dried stiff on his clothes, but he could still smell her as if it were fresh. It had been hours since General Anhalt, never far from her side, had responded to Prince Simon's cries for help and fell into action. Military doctors had attended Adele on site, struggling to halt the bleeding, while word was sent for surgeons to assemble at the hospital. Simon was taken under guard in case the attack on Adele was part of a larger scheme. The mysterious assassin was still breathing, so he was bundled unceremoniously onto a gurney and rolled away, with instructions from Anhalt to preserve his life. Then, Adele was rushed, pale and unconscious, from the palace grounds in an ambulance, a shrill blast of steam erupting from the brass whistle as it departed.
Greyfriar had almost been forgotten in the chaos. He pushed into the ambulance with Adele. Only when orderlies at the hospital carried her poor, helpless form through the swinging doors did General Anhalt place a firm arm against his chest.
“You can't follow,” the general said. “She is going into surgery.”
Greyfriar stood helplessly as the door closed on Adele. He was overwhelmed by the scent of blood and alcohol and death, and by the sounds of fear and sorrow that surrounded him in this place. He turned to the Gurkha. “They will save her, won't they?”
“She will have the best surgeons in the world.” Anhalt glanced around. “We have not told the public that the princess has been injured. You must wait out of sight. If the Greyfriar is seen here it will cause talk. Come.” As the two men walked the tile hallway with its flickering gas lamps, the general said, “I will have a change of clothes brought for you.”
Anhalt left the swordsman in the small, cool room with orders to stay inside until he was summoned. And so he did. Hours passed as figures moved through the hallway beyond the door, but Greyfriar's ears never picked up word of Adele's condition. Finally, he strode to the door, ready to demand information. Then he smelled something harsh and acrid.