New York, June 1780
Where the devil was his pursuer, the rebel who dared chase a Carrington-Smythe? By Jove, somebody had fired a musket ball through his hat, just before he would have drained that fisherman dry. Another second and he’d have known whose messages he was ferrying across Long Island Sound to General Washington, as well as having a damned good long drink of blood!
Instead, here he was racing through farmyards, cow pastures, and pigsties in New York, New York – or what passed for a city, here in the rebellious colonies. His breeches were ruined and his best boots reeked of things which would cost a fortune to remove. His creador had never mentioned those hazards when he’d asked an earl’s third son to leave the boredom of the artillery and serve the crown by becoming a vampiro.
But in their brief time together, his creador had taught him to watch the inexorable march of the constellations overhead. Yesterday had been one of the longest days of the year – and the shortest nights. Supposedly any vampiro who was less than two – or was it three? – centuries old, would die if touched by a beam of sunlight.
He snickered and vaulted another of those rock piles, which passed for walls. The tale sounded like the sort of reasoning to be found at the bottom of a punch bowl to him. He’d used it as an excellent excuse for debauchery and hunting Washington’s spies through the great cities, as he’d done for the past year.
Panting hard, he paused in the field beyond the wall and tried to listen for his pursuer. Panting – and he a vampiro! But he’d been running since just after sunset and he hadn’t fed for two days. As a year-old vampiro, he needed more than a pint a day and he hadn’t had any trouble in taking it either. Until tonight.
No scent, as ever, of another vampiro, damn the tenacious devil who’d started this round of fox and hounds. Just the overwhelming reek of prosaicos, the ordinary mortals packed into Manhattan’s southern tip’s hovels and mansions, who filled Long Island’s farms and villages.
Still, he’d gone far enough east and north on Long Island that he could hear the Long Island Sound.
With fewer prosaicos to stink up the air, he should be able to locate the more transitory scent of a vampiro, even while standing in a meadow with oak and pine trees in the distance. And ignoring the damn great owl watching him, who’d dined on a skunk recently.
It was time to turn the tables on his enemy. He was a Carrington-Smythe, who’d ridden to hounds since he was a lad and whose ancestors had been knights for centuries. Knowing how to hunt was bred in his bones.
He sniffed, straining all his senses – and sniffed again.
But the night winds told him nothing of who followed him.
A branch cracked sharply, evidence of a heavy animal. A man. And damn close-by.
Carrington-Smythe bolted for the Sound, instinct taking over. Anyone who could put a musket ball through a tricorne hat, without touching a hair on his head, was nobody he wanted to meet face-to-face. He could rip out that fisherman’s memories another day.
He leaped up the long, grassy slope to the top of the bluff – and stopped abruptly.
“Bon soir, m’sieu,” the apparition said politely. He was taller than average, with a horseman’s clean-limbed frame, and a saber hanging comfortably at his hip. The fading moonlight gave the impression of handsomeness to make ladies swoon, matching his voice’s smoothness. Beyond him lay sand dunes and the deceptively placid water of Long Island Sound, with the tall masts of a British sloop-of-war glittering in the distance.
Carrington-Smythe would happily have gutted him on the spot.
“How d’you do?” he returned, cursing silently. Without a boat and a boatman, he had no chance of crossing those waters or reaching the sloop. There was little time to kill an importunate prosaico before the devil hunting him arrived. “If you’ll forgive me, I believe I’ll continue my evening stroll now?”
“Oh, but I must insist you remain here,” the stranger responded equally coolly. Steel suddenly flashed across the moonlight and a curved, lethally sharp tip pointed at Carrington-Smythe.
“What the hell are you thinking of?” he roared, furious at himself for wanting to step back. He was a vampiro, dammit! Nobody was faster than he was. He whipped his own blade out – and the other had the effrontery to purr.
“I’m offering battle – Carrington-Smythe.”
For the first time in more than a year, cold ran through his veins. He stared at his opponent, measuring him with every vampiro sense, and found only a prosaico. “What sort of fool are you – to challenge a hungry vampiro? I’ll capture you, you pitiful prosaico, and drink your blood dry in the meal you’ve delayed all night.”
His pursuer had the effrontery to respond with an arched eyebrow. “I’m a century-old compañero, not just a simple prosaico, and a vampiro mayor taught me how to duel vampiros.”
A chill ran threw his bones but he did his best to deny it.
“Vampiros mayores? They’re a myth!” he protested.
“Perhaps that’s why they’re such flexible teachers of swordplay – as you’ll soon discover.”
He shook his head, trying to quell the sensation the other was telling far too much truth. But the newcomer kept talking.
“I’m here to execute you, for attacking and murdering people of the United States.”
“They were spies and traitors to the King.” He drew his sword, finally caught by words whose meaning had sunk into his bones before.
“Your king, not ours,” the apparition corrected.
“But you’re French. Why would you leave Paris for this?” He flung out his free hand, gesturing at the stinking hamlets.
“This is a new country, which welcomes all who would serve it. En garde,” his opponent commanded sweetly and attacked, too damnably fast for a prosaico.
He fought hard, desperately striving to remember every second of his training from that fancy Italian swordmaster.
Thrust, parry, riposte, lunge – no matter what he did or where he aimed, the French devil was there to meet him, his blade shining, his arm strong, his wrist eternally flexible, and his footwork a miracle of finesse.
It took a long time for Carrington-Smythe to realize that his opponent was toying with him. He should have been dead in the first few minutes.
He miraculously managed to parry and disengage from the last thrust. He stepped back, gasping for air.
On the beach behind him, the tide was going out and small birds were chirping to each other as they ran along, hunting for a meal. An osprey screeched harshly from a dead tree and a fish splashed in the marsh, undoubtedly seeking cover. The hunters and the hunted. . .
He’d been nicked several times. All the gashes had healed, of course, and no blood showed on his clothes but he still couldn’t remember ever being so tired.
The prosaico – compañero – watched him pitilessly.
“If I promise you not to touch that fisherman again. . .” He tried to frame a compromise.
“You’ll only take another, and another. Do you think we want your like on the loose, free to destroy General Washington’s communications while Rochambeau and the French army are here to help him?”
The sky lightened in the east. The dawn? But he was standing on the edge of a marsh with farms beyond that, and nowhere to take shelter.
The damned prosaico had been toying with him, keeping him out here to face his true enemy – the sun.
He attacked recklessly, intent on destroying his enemy, no matter what the cost. Satisfaction surged when the Frenchman’s eyes flickered in surprise before coming back with twice his previous cunning – and Carrington-Smythe knew himself doomed. Even so, he fought like a madman, preferring a soldier’s death.
The sun’s rays touched the horizon, tinting the tips of the marsh crimson. The birdsong redoubled, like a call to prayer.
No, he would not be killed by it. Not that.
Their blades slashed against each other yet again and held. They strained against each other with all the force of their no-longer natural bodies.
His saber, worn and nicked by combat, flexed and turned against its hilt – and broke. Steel spun into the air and landed amid the grass.
They stepped back. The game was up.
The horizon was entirely alight now, sending shadows running from the land. Even at vampiro speed, he couldn’t take more than three steps before this bluff would be covered in daylight – and his death, if the rebel chose that route for him.
His gaze begged but he spoke not a word.
The only warning he received was the Frenchman shifting his grip on the saber.
He swung it like a scythe, two-handed and shockingly fast, taking Carrington-Smythe’s head in a single clean blow.
A moment later, the first ray of daylight blazed over the land and caught the British spycatcher’s body. Instantly, it caught on fire, burning brighter and hotter than any flare from a naval vessel and blindingly bright. Within seconds, all that was left was a small wildfire, hiding the few ashes which had once been an English aristocrat.
Jean-Marie St. Just turned away and started the long walk back to a friendly settlement – and the irritable greeting of the lady who’d forced him to become a compañero. He had, after all, missed her weekly card party.
Excerpt from Bond of Fire by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2008 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved