Underworld: Blood Enemy, page 13
A choking noise interrupted Kraven’s self-aggrandizing recitation. All eyes turned to Brother Ambrose, who began to convulse violently on the floor. His eyes rolled upward until only the whites could be seen. A bloody froth bubbled past his lips. His spine buckled, so that his back arched above the floor, and his arms and legs jerked as though he were having an epileptic fit. Swollen veins bulged from his neck and forehead, while the bite mark on his throat turned black and gangrenous. His pallid face took on a bluish tint. Wet, gurgling sounds issued from his lungs. Groping fingers grabbed onto the cloth draped over the altar, yanking it from its place. Candlesticks and collection plates clattered to the floor.
Lucian recognized all the symptoms of a fatal vampire bite. Brother Ambrose must have been particularly sensitive to the venom in Viktor’s fangs to have reacted so quickly. No matter, he thought. The monk will be dead within seconds.
Indeed, Brother Ambrose ceased his thrashing a few moments later. A final breath whistled from his throat. His entire body went slack. The whites of his eyes stared blankly at the arched ceiling of the church as the crazed monk joined his butchered brothers in the hereafter.
“It seems his prayers were answered,” Viktor observed. He nudged the robed body with the toe of his boot, but Brother Ambrose remained limp and lifeless. “Just as well. I had no desire to look upon that porcine face for centuries to come.”
“Nor did I,” Kraven added obsequiously. He spat upon the monk’s body for good riddance. “His death was more merciful than he deserved.”
“Quite so,” Viktor agreed. His keen eyes took the younger vampire’s measure. “You seem a useful sort, Kraven. It may be that you shall have future opportunities to prove your worth to me.”
Kraven beamed at the Elder’s praise. “Whatever your lordship demands, you may rely on both my obedience and my discretion.”
Provided neither judgment nor courage is required, Lucian thought, holding back a snarl. It vexed him to see the ambitious Englishman ingratiate himself with Viktor. Kraven had done little to endear himself to the lycans of the castle. Still, these are matters quite above my station. The politics of the coven are the vampires’ affair. Kraven is probably no worse than any of the other preening courtiers who flock around the Elders and Council members.
Casting a final disparaging glance at Brother Ambrose’s corpse, Viktor turned and headed toward the shattered front doors of the church. “Let us depart,” he announced, leaving the monk’s body splayed on the floor before the altar. Kraven and Lucian both followed in the Elder’s wake.
They emerged from the building to find Strasba in flames. Bright orange tendrils of fire crawled up the wooden walls of the shops and turned the thatched roofs of the peasant huts into roaring bonfires. Billowing clouds of smoke filled the sky, hiding the moon. An occasional scream issued from the burning structures.
A blazing figure leaped from the top floor of an alehouse, crashing to the street below like a fallen star. The smell of burning flesh reached Lucian’s nostrils. Saliva dripped from his snout as the tantalizing aroma made his mouth water. Flames continued to consume the roasting villager as he tossed and tumbled in the dirt, until Vayer silenced the mortal’s screams with a well-placed sword thrust.
The smoldering corpse was but one of dozens of bodies lying strewn about the streets and square. Torn throats and pallid flesh testified to the final moments of many of the luckless townspeople. The Death Dealers had supped well tonight.
Viktor contemplated the flames and the mortal debris with obvious approval. By morning, Strasba would be nothing but burned-out ruins, populated only by carrion. “It is well,” he pronounced. “It shall be a long time, mayhap many mortal lifetimes, before any human rabble dares to challenge us again.” Putting his helmet back on, he remounted Hades and turned the horse around so that the church was at his back. “My dear wife has been avenged.”
And Sonja, Lucian rejoiced within his wolfen breast, is no longer in danger!
The feast began shortly after sundown, in celebration of Viktor’s triumphant return to Castle Corvinus. Elegant vampires, bedecked in finery, crowded the great hall of the castle, which was a scene of most robust merriment. Crimson banners hung from the ceiling. Troubadours performed in the gallery, the sprightly music of their lutes and harps competing with the high-spirited laughter and chatter of the gossiping vampires. Blazing flambeaux lighted the hall, the better to show off the splendid raiment of the undying gentlemen and ladies.
Viktor presided over the high table, looking out over the assembly from his place on the dais. Sonja was seated to his right, while Nicolae occupied a position of honor at Viktor’s left hand. August members of the Council occupied the remaining seats at the table, their relative proximity to the Elder reflecting their stature in the coven. Crisp white linen was draped over the table, while beeswax candles provided additional illumination by which the prominent vampires might see and be seen. Goblets and cutlery were made of gold or pewter, so as to avoid scalding the lycan servants whose duty it was to prepare and clean the table settings.
Below the dais, on the main floor of the hall, trestle tables and benches had been set up to accommodate the various courtiers, artisans, soldiers, and ladies-in-waiting in attendance. Fresh straw, cunningly scented with herbs, was spread upon the floor to soak up spilled sauces, wine, and blood. Lycan servers scurried back and forth between the hall and the kitchen (located a safe distance away, as a precaution against fire), toting a seemingly endless array of savory treats and dishes.
Although the vampires could live on blood alone, few were willing to deny themselves the epicurean pleasures of feasting on mortal food as well. They ate for the taste and sensation of doing so, rather than to sustain themselves. Eternity was too long a span not to require a bit of variety now and then.
Lucian observed the festivities from his post behind Viktor. Clad in his best wool tunic and hose, a new pewter badge gleaming on his chest, he stood at attention at the Elder’s shoulder as he waited for the servers to deliver yet another fine repast for Viktor’s enjoyment. It was Lucian’s task to sample each course before the Elder, in order to ensure that the meal was not poisoned.
In truth, the risk was minimal, the practice more from tradition than necessity. Lucian had personally assigned himself the honor of tasting Viktor’s food, mostly as an excuse to be close to Sonja. That the task also allowed him to sample the rich delicacies prepared for the high table was an added, and very welcome, benefit.
Already tonight Lucian had savored bites of roasted boar, starling, and peacock, along with exotically seasoned stews, tarts, and puddings. He had particularly enjoyed what he had tasted of a pastry “coffin” packed with dates, herbs, ginger, and eggs. Such rarefied cuisine was quite a change from the porridge and raw mutton he was accustomed to as a lycan. Not quite as tasty as that butcher in the village, he judged, but delicious nonetheless.
Yet, despite the gustatory splendors of the vampires’ banquet, the greatest marvel at the high table remained Sonja herself. A gown of shimmering yellow samite graced her lovely form. Gold dust sparkled in her hair.
Lucian could not resist sneaking peeks at the ethereal princess, especially when her father was engrossed in conversation with his guests. Her delicate table manners were quite unlike the slovenly habits of his lycan peers. She did not gnaw savagely on the bones of her entrees or wipe greasy hands upon her clothing. Instead, she neatly picked apart her meal with her fingers and knife, making little or no mess. Lucian covertly admired her slender hands, remembering how gently they had once tended to his wounds. He watched dainty morsels of food pass through her lips, and his body stirred at the memory of those same soft lips pressing against his flesh.
“Keep your eyes to yourself, lycan,” Viktor hissed in a low tone, and Lucian realized that he had been caught. He hastily looked away from Sonja, turning his gaze to the crowded hall before him.
Seated next to Soren, Kraven attempted to lift the overseer’s spirits with some light remark. Lucian frowned at the sight of the two of them together; although he could not make out what they were saying over the general tumult, the prospect of Kraven and Soren getting to know each other troubled him. Neither vampire struck him as particularly trustworthy or well disposed toward him and his fellow lycans. Fate forbid that they should ever make common cause to advance their positions in the coven!
An outburst of cheers and applause heralded the arrival of the chef’s masterwork: a spectacular subtlety of sugar, marzipan, and gelatinized blood, molded into a perfect recreation of the castle itself. A flourish of trumpets accompanied the sparkling scarlet dessert as a team of lycan bearers delivered the miniature castle to the Elder’s table.
“Exquisite!” Viktor declared as the subtlety was placed before him. He used his own knife to cut a thin slice from the castle’s outer walls, then nodded at Lucian, who broke off a piece of the slice with his fingers before popping it into his mouth. Viktor gave Lucian a baleful look, as though the Elder half hoped the dessert was poisoned after all.
When the sugary confection failed to strike Lucian dead, pieces of the subtlety were distributed to all present, with the diners on the dais receiving the lion’s portion. Sonja herself was treated to a gelatinous red belfry, while Viktor devoured the better part of a turret. The taste of the dessert lingered on Lucian’s tongue, the provocative tang of the congealed steer’s blood recognizable beneath the sweetness.
After the subtlety had been consumed entirely, Viktor rose to address the assemblage. “Brothers and sisters of the blood, it pleases me greatly to see you all gathered together on this festive occasion. Our coven has known much sorrow in recent weeks, but I can assure you that our enemies have been harshly dealt with and will trouble us no more. Let tonight’s feast mark the beginning of happier times for us all.”
Jubilant cheers greeted the Elder’s pronouncement. Viktor accepted the shouted accolades before speaking once more: “As a harbinger of that joyous future, it gives me great pleasure to announce the royal engagement of my own daughter, Sonja, to the crown prince Nicolae, son of Marcus. This superlative union, to be consecrated on the eve of Saint George’s Feast, some three months hence, will strengthen the bonds between our two bloodlines and ensure that our coven stands united against whatever this new century holds!”
What? Lucian’s heart plummeted. He could not believe what he was hearing. Nor, judging from the stricken look on her face, could Sonja. Her horrified expression suggested that this sudden engagement came as a total surprise to her.
And not a welcome one.
“But Father!” she softly protested. “You cannot be serious.” She regarded Nicolae with open disgust. “I beg of you, please reconsider!”
Viktor silenced her with a look. “Not now, daughter,” he whispered curtly. He raised a jeweled goblet filled with mulled blood. “To the happy couple,” he toasted.
The entire assembly lifted their own cups. “To the happy couple!” they cheered in unison, their enthusiastic voices mocking Lucian’s despair. Only Sonja declined to join in the toast.
“Drink deep, cousin!” Nicolae exhorted her. He leered at Sonja over the brim of his own overflowing goblet. His lascivious countenance was flushed with wine and blood. “It seems we are to become much more intimately acquainted.”
The curly-haired prince seemed to be taking Viktor’s unexpected announcement in stride. Was he aware of the Elder’s intentions, or did he simply regard his coming marriage to Viktor’s beautiful daughter as merely another amusing diversion? Lucian rather doubted that Nicolae would let anything as trifling as matrimony come between him and his notorious appetite for mortal women.
He does not deserve her! Lucian thought with fervor. Never mind that I can never have her. Such a woman as Sonja is entitled to a husband worthy of her, not a heartless sybarite like Nicolae.
For the first time in his life, Lucian truly hated a vampire.
Sonja obviously shared his distaste for her intended. Choking back a sob, she looked away from the smirking prince. For a second, her eyes met Lucian’s, and he could see the scarlet tears brimming behind her lashes. In that moment, she seemed to look to him for comfort and deliverance.
If only they were his to offer!
“My mind is set, Sonja,” Viktor declared. “I will not be dissuaded.”
Her father’s so-called solar was ironically named, given that not a glimmer of sunlight was ever allowed to penetrate its thick stone walls and heavy tapestries. Beeswax candles illuminated a cozy chamber generally reserved for the Elder’s exclusive use. A flagon of chilled steer’s blood rested on an intricately carved maple table, not far from a sloping pine desk that held a variety of parchments, inks, and quills. A roaring fire blazed within the hearth. A carved marble chess set rested on the mantel. The door was shut and all servants dismissed, so that father and daughter could speak freely to each other.
“But Father,” she pleaded, “I do not wish to marry Nicolae! He is a vile reprobate, who cares only for his own filthy pleasures!” She wrung her hands in dismay. “He revolts me!”
Viktor scowled. “He is the son of an Elder and thus the only fit consort for you.” He stood before the open hearth, warming his palms above the fire. “Marcus and I agreed to this union before he went into the earth, and I will not go back on my word.”
Sonja remembered pacing back and forth in the crypt beneath Ordoghaz, while her father and Marcus conferred behind the closed doors of the infirmary. Could it be that her future had been decided then, while she waited unknowingly only a few yards away?
“But why now?” she beseeched him, stalling for time. Perhaps her father would relent if she could only delay the marriage long enough. “Why must we wed so soon? The fourth of May—Saint George’s Eve—is only months away!”
Viktor’s tone remained adamant. “You are no longer a child, Sonja. It is past time you take on the duties and responsibilities of womanhood.” A trace of melancholy entered his voice, and his face took a more somber cast. “Your mother’s untimely death has made me all too aware that not even we immortals are guaranteed life eternal. Now, more than ever, I am conscious of the need to promulgate our noble bloodline. Together, you and Nicolae will beget a new generation of pure-blooded vampires.”
Sonja recoiled at the thought of bearing Nicolae’s children. She burst into tears. “Please, Father! I beg of you, do not make me do this thing!”
Suspicion flared in her father’s eyes. “Is there another?” he demanded.
Sonja thought of Lucian. His heroic features shone in marked contrast to Nicolae’s ruddy visage. She remembered being cradled safely in the werewolf’s mighty arms.
“No,” she lied.
Viktor’s expression softened. “Forgive me, daughter. I should have known you would never dishonor me so.” Crossing the room to join her, he draped a paternal arm over her shoulder. “Surely, you have always known that as an Elder’s daughter, it would be your womanly duty to make an advantageous match?” He sighed sadly. “It is a pity that your mother is not alive to counsel you in these matters. I daresay she would do a better job of it than I.”
“But… must it be Nicolae?”
Her father nodded grave
Except where a royal alliance is concerned, she thought bitterly. She held her tongue, however, sensing that nothing she could ever say would weaken his resolve.
Whatever shall I do? The thought of surrendering her virtue to Nicolae, of sharing her bed with him for all eternity, made her physically ill. Yet her father’s word was law, at least for the next one hundred years. By the time Amelia rises one century hence, it will be too late to appeal Father’s decision. I shall already be wedded to Nicolae—and my happiness doomed forever.
There was no one she could appeal to. Save one.
Sunrise was drawing near as Lucian and his fellow servants cleaned up after the banquet. The vampiric nobles, sated on fine food and blood, had returned to their chambers to sleep off their excesses or perhaps indulge in more private pursuits, leaving the industrious lycans to restore the great hall to order.
Tables and benches were carted away until they were required again, clearing the tiled floor of the hall, which was swept clean of the soiled straw. Hungry servants helped themselves to leftover morsels of meat and bone. Trenchers of stale bread, used as plates at the lower tables, were eagerly snatched up, the juicy trenchers being a prized treat now that the bread was liberally soaked with drippings from the vampires’ feast. Leyba, working beside Olga and the other scullions, chortled in glee as she came across a forgotten tankard still partly filled with wine. She avidly gulped down the dregs before returning to her labors. Unbound black hair tumbled past her face as the gypsy wench bent to retrieve a gnawed steak bone that Soren’s hounds had left behind.