Authors: Clay Griffith,Susan Griffith
“If you can even hear me,” Cesare said, “I've come to tell you that the clan is thriving under my hand. I have delayed the Equatorians' war. I have scattered their airships and will soon begin to cripple their ability to come for us on the ground.”
The young prince stopped walking. “I alone have had the vision to spawn a new theology among the humans based on their old myths about us. Increasingly, they believe they will rise from their grave as vampires. They are desperate to escape their fate as food.” He laughed. “And I am gathering knowledge about their magic and religion. Remember the old days when they had power to cause us harm? I will find a way to put an end to it once and for all.”
Cesare laid a hand on his chest and towered over Dmitri. “I am doing it. No other clan lord would dare. No other would even consider it. No other clan lord in history has done what I am doing. Not even you! I will save our people. I will do it!”
The king's dewy eyes rolled slowly toward the figure of his son standing over him. His mouth closed slowly, and he tried to lick his cracked lips. “Gareth?”
Cesare screamed and extended his claws through reddening vision, lunging for Dmitri. Claws sank into the king's papery throat and tore flesh with terrible ease. The young prince raised his hands and slashed again and again, ripping the face beneath him until there was no sign of his father left. He continued to rain blows on the unresisting body. The last gurgling breath racked from Dmitri and the old vampire's chest sank in death.
Cesare paused with a dripping hand above his head. He looked at the carnage he had wreaked on his father and struggled to bring his snarling, heaving breath under control. He stared in horror at the flecks of blood and flesh covering his coat and shirt. He tore off his jacket and flung it across the room to the stone floor. His bloody hands left red stains on his once-pristine white shirt.
“No, I'm afraid you're mistaken,” the prince said in a strangled voice as he retracted his claws with a mixture of pleasure and shame. He could barely contain a manic laugh as he dared taste the blood of his father on his fingers.
“I am King Cesare.”
the First, Empress of Equatoria; Sultan of Egypt and Arabia; Shah of Persia; Maharana of India, Bengal, and Ceylon; Lord Protector of East Africa and the Cape; Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland. I do hereby proclaim and foreswear to defend this Empire from all enemies. Done this day in Alexandria, the seventh of September, in the year Two Thousand and Twenty.”
Adele took her father's golden crown from her brother's outstretched hands. She broke her immobile ceremonial face to give Simon a wink, and the boy's lips turned up slightly. Then she held out the glittering crown for the throng gathered in the palace square to see.
Normally an imperial investiture would have been held in stately Suez Hall with only Equatorian grandees in attendance; only later would the new sovereign have been paraded onto a public viewing balcony. Adele, however, stood atop the main portico entryway to Victoria Palace, where the grounds had been opened to the public. The dour grandees were still in privileged places in the front, but a shoulder-to-shoulder citizen crowd jostled behind them, cheering at the sight of the old crown of Constantine about to grace the brow of their beloved Adele.
Prince Simon stood on one side of her while General Anhalt took the other. The general was stone-faced and resplendent in his dress uniform covered with medals of valor. The fully reconstituted White Guard lined the wide semicircular steps like statues.
Adele lifted the heavy crown high over her head. A shaft of pain seared through her, but her face remained serene. A light breeze ruffled her crimson-and-white gown. Slowly, she lowered the crown onto her head, and her wild auburn curls were finally captured.
The mob exploded in a frenzy of exultation. The cheering was all the louder because everyone knew how close their empress had come to death at the hands of an assassin, an agent of the late Lord Kelvin, it was said. Explosions came from on high as fireworks erupted into the fading sun of late evening. The sounds and colors of rockets were the signal to all Alexandria that their new empress was crowned. The cheer that rolled across the capital was like an earthquake that had the power to shake the world.
Adele held out her arms to her people, still careful to keep her head high. Her father's crown had been augmented with an inner ring of foam, but it was still unsteady on her brow. On the first step below her, she noted a beaming King Msiri of Katanga, who had taken his fastest airship to make the ceremony. He cheered loudly, to the annoyance of the Equatorian lords clapping politely beside him.
She regarded General Anhalt, who stared stiffly over the crowd. “Thank you, General. This wouldn't have been possible without you.”
“You're welcome.” The stoic Gurkha turned his head to reveal a tear dripping down his cheek. He could barely find the voice to say, “Your Majesty.” He looked forward again to hide his unmanly face from her.
Adele laid a hand on the general's shoulder, which brought even more cheers from the crowd. Then she looked at Simon, who was grinning now, not so reserved as before.
“Congratulations, Adele,” her brother said. “Better you than me. Can I have the cat?”
The vast sea of faces below her began to turn upward in a wave. Hands lifted to point. Adele thought they were reacting to the spectacular fireworks booming overhead, but then she realized the adulation had become louder yet again. Even King Msiri was holding up his hands and applauding something high behind her.
Simon turned. “It's the Greyfriar! He's on a balcony, watching.”
Adele could picture him clinging to the shadows, swathed in his cloak with a hood obscuring his wrapped face. She had offered him a place of honor on the dais. Everyone in Alexandria knew the Greyfriar was the imperial consort; it gave Adele an aura of mystery, romance, and power. However, he had refused to join the coronation ceremony; this moment was about her.
Adele smiled, but didn't look back. She need not see him; it was enough to know he was there.
Aden, had spent a long day with matters of state. Despite his noble title, Randolph was a member of parliament, representing some rotten borough in Aden where he had never actually set foot. In truth, he was a member of parliament by virtue of his empire-tilting wealth. There were few economies of steam and steel that his fingers did not at least graze. It was this power that allowed him to retain his influence at court despite his connections to the government of the disgraced Lord Kelvin. He had willingly resigned his briefly held post as prime minister, but that was not a change he regretted. He wasn't built for a life of politics; it was too limiting for him.
Aden enjoyed his first gin and tonic of the evening and perused dispatches from his vast business concerns. The wind had picked up a storm from the sea and battered the coastal city. The long fingers from the branch of a palm tree outside scraped wildly against the patio door. Aden paid it no heed, pulling his tuxedo jacket tighter about him to ward off the chill. He sat stone still with his hands flat on the desk, letting anarchic thoughts run over him.
The coronation of Empress Adele had sent the capital into a frenzy of delight and celebration. However, not all of the centers of imperial powers were quite so pleased. Many of the old families were mortified that the new empress had betrayed the great Senator Clark, sent him away, and replaced him with some masked brigand she wasn't even married to. The Persian lurkers would begin to seek undue influence on imperial affairs, as if they didn't already have it. The more fractious provinces would push for greater autonomy. Commerce might suffer and the cost of doing business would soar. Equatoria's foreign partners might lose confidence, and Lord Aden might lose money.
These were the very disasters that his old friend, Lord Kelvin, had fought to prevent. How ironic. Kelvin had nothing but the good of the Empire at heart; he distrusted Princess Adele, hated Senator Clark, and feared the impact of a long, exhausting war in the north. To prevent his fears from coming about, he had sought the assistance of humankind's greatest enemies.
However, there were secrets even Lord Kelvin didn't know.
The scratching outside grew more insistent until finally the handle of the ornate French doors turned. Aden looked up but never flinched at the sight of a nearly bare-breasted female walking toward him, her throat covered by a purple silk scarf.
The vampire's lips curved into a wicked smile around her teeth. “We have much to discuss, you and I.”
“Quite,” replied Aden, lounging back in his chair and sipping his drink. “Everything has changed, Flay. I fear we must prepare for an uncertain future.”
LAY AND SUSAN GRIFFITH
are married. Coincidentally, they write together and have published books, short stories, and graphic novels. They share a love of adventure stories, sprawling epic romances, pulp-action tales, Victoriana, and dark fantasy. And since they both like those things, they put them all in the Vampire Empire trilogy.
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