My son, heir to my empire.
Here is the first of three gifts to mark this auspicious first night of blood-taking. Come to my cabin when the clock strikes midnight, and I will present you with your other two gifts.
Your blood father,
Connor stood at the captain’s door. Instinctively, his hand dropped to his belt, his fingers seeking out his sword, resting in its sheath. Connor squeezed the sword hilt, as he often did in times of stress. It reminded him of the moments when he was utterly in control — when his sword was drawn and he was in the midst of battle. If only he could achieve the same simplicity and clarity in the rest of his life as he did when he was engaged in combat.
Adrenaline surged through his body. Adrenaline is a strange thing, he thought. You need it to fuel you in times of pressure. Yet too much of the stuff almost paralyzes you. His life had changed and he knew there was no going back. He couldn’t even be sure that his sister, Grace, would still be alive by morning. When he had last seen her, she had observed that they were in control of their own destinies. She could not have been more wrong, Connor thought bitterly now. They were no more than flies, caught in a steel web.
The gold watch that had accompanied Sidorio’s note weighed heavily around his wrist. Connor glanced at it now, glimmering under the corridor lights. There were only seconds until midnight. He could delay no longer. He took a breath, lifted his hand, and knocked on the metal panel. There was a pause, then the sound of bolts sliding back. The heavy door opened and Connor stepped inside.
“Connor,” Sidorio said, pushing the door closed. “Welcome! It’s good to see you again. And you found the first of my three gifts. It suits you.”
“Yes,” Connor said. “Thank you, Father.”
“Come here,” Sidorio said, beckoning Connor deeper into the cabin. “I have the second of your gifts.”
Connor walked on. Sidorio was standing in front of a long chest made of blue-lacquered wood with silver letters etched into its surface. “This was the war chest of Kublai Khan,” Sidorio said, running his hands along the surface. “It was kept in his battle tent so he could select which weapon he favored on any given day. This chest was a wedding present from my wife.” There was something almost respectful in the way Sidorio opened the top drawer and pulled it toward them both. Inside was an array of swords unlike any Connor had seen before. They surpassed even the captains’ swords housed at Pirate Academy and those in Master Yin’s workshop.
“These are weapons fit for an emperor,” Sidorio said. “And therefore for an emperor’s son.” He placed his hand on Connor’s shoulders. “Choose one for yourself, my boy. This will be the second of my three gifts.”
Connor was momentarily dazzled as his eyes traveled across the spikes of polished metal, set among a sea of blue silk. Any one of these swords was a rare prize indeed. It scarcely mattered which he chose.
“If none of those are of interest to you,” Sidorio said, “open the second drawer, or the third. Take your time.” He stepped back, allowing Connor full access to the war chest.
Connor did not need to open any other drawers. There, in the corner of the top drawer, was the sword that was calling to him. It was not an obvious choice, being one of the simplest of the weapons, but Connor saw with his experienced eye that this was the perfectly designed sword. He knew in his heart it was the one that Master Yin, pirate swordsmith of Lantao Island, would have singled out.
Connor reached into the drawer and lifted his chosen sword. As he clasped the hilt in his hand, he knew he had made the right decision. It felt like the very best of swords, as if it were an extension of his arm. He had no doubt it would prove useful should he ever use it in combat.
“Is that the one?” Sidorio asked.
Connor nodded. “Thank you, Father. It’s incredible.”
“You’ve made a good choice,” Sidorio said, pushing the drawer closed again. “And now, let’s sit.”
The words were innocent enough, but Connor’s heart was hammering as he fell into step with Sidorio and walked back to the table. Sidorio nudged Connor gently toward the opposite chair. Connor sat, letting his old sword hang down at his side and laying the newly acquired one at his feet.
On the table was a folded velvet cloth edged with brocade. Connor’s eyes traced the detail in the brocade and then traveled back up to the cloth and what lay upon it. A golden goblet, its handles fashioned to look like two writhing snakes.
Sidorio lifted the goblet in one hand. “This belonged to Caesar, once.” He turned to Connor, his voice proud and strong. “Now Caesar is dust, and the goblet belongs to me.”
He placed it back on the table, beside a crystal decanter, which had been filled to the neck with a dark, somewhat opaque, crimson liquid.
Sidorio wasted no more time. Connor watched as his father’s hands removed the crystal stopper from the decanter and upended the vessel, pouring a generous amount of liquid into the two-handled goblet. Then he set the decanter back on the table and reinserted the stopper. Sitting down, he lifted the goblet to his thick lips and drained its contents in one swallow. Connor watched. Sidorio swallowed it so easily. It would be his turn next.
Sidorio set the goblet down on the table and then lifted the decanter and refilled it. He held the cup out to Connor.
Connor could see his pale reflection in the ruby-red liquid. He had anticipated that his hand would tremble as he took hold of the goblet, but strangely it did not. He was possessed by a surprising serenity. This was a good sign, he thought — a sign that he was ready. Besides, he figured, it wasn’t as if this was actually the first time he had taken blood — he had just never drunk it straight like this before.
“My son,” Sidorio said, his lips stained dark by the drink. “Blood of my blood. Heir to my eternal empire. Drink.”
Connor lifted the goblet to his lips. He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but, as he took his first sip, he was surprised at how natural it felt. He took a second sip, aware of Sidorio watching him attentively. The Vampirate smiled as Connor finished the contents of the goblet. That wasn’t so difficult, thought Connor, pleased with himself. He felt warm, somehow glowing, inside. And he felt strong, too, invincible, as if new energy was pumping through him.
“Good?” Sidorio asked.
“Yes.” Connor nodded.
“More?” Sidorio’s hand was already on the decanter.
“That’s my boy!” Sidorio refilled Connor’s goblet. “We’ll share this one. Half for me, half for you.” Smiling, he brought his lips to the cup, then passed it across to Connor.
Connor drank and felt the glow within him expanding and, with it, the energy. He felt very powerful — as if he could fight off an army single-handedly if he had to. If he chose to.
“Another?” Sidorio asked.
Time blurred, until Connor was suddenly aware of Sidorio tapping the empty decanter. “It appears we’ve drained this dry. But I can have more sent up, no problem.” His expression grew serious. “Next time we feed, my son, we shall dispense with these formalities and hunt for fresh blood together. Side by side.”
Connor recoiled at Sidorio’s words. Hunting for blood felt like a step too far. But, after everything else that had happened these past six weeks, he couldn’t rule it out. As Sidorio had observed, Connor Tempest was long gone. He was Connor Quintus Antonius Sidorio now.
Sidorio had resumed speaking. “Now it is time for your third gift. I think you’ll find I’ve saved the best for last.”
“The watch and sword are incredible gifts. I can’t believe it gets much better than this,” Connor said, wondering what Sidorio’s third gift could possibly be.
Sidorio lifted one of his chains from around his neck. At first Connor was disappointed. After the excitement of the first two rare and luxurious gifts, some secondhand jewelry was a definite anticlimax. Then he noticed that suspended on the chain was a key. And engraved into the metal of the key was a number.
Intrigued, Connor turned the key over in his hand and looked up at Sidorio. “What is this?” he asked.
“The key to cabin number three twenty-nine,” Sidorio said. “Your third gift is waiting for you there. All you have to do is open the door.”
“Shall I go now?”
“If you like,” Sidorio said. “In fact, I’ll come with you.”
Connor nodded. “Sure, okay… Father.”
Once more, his use of the word brought a soft smile to Sidorio’s lips. They got up from the table. Connor reached for his new sword. He wasn’t about to let it out of his sight. It was way too beautiful.
Sidorio proudly led Connor from the cabin, and they made their way out into the corridor. Other crew members were waiting outside. They made no effort to disguise their interest in Connor. He did not mind or feel at all self-conscious. Who could blame them for being interested in him? Connor felt as if he was walking in a golden spotlight. In the brief time he had spent in the cabin, his role as their future commander had been sealed. He was the captain’s son, heir to the eternal empire of night.
Father and son strode purposefully along the corridor. At the end, they came to another door. Sidorio paused, then pointed. “Cabin three twenty-nine,” he said. “Your gift is waiting inside.”
Connor reached forward with the key.
“I should warn you,” Sidorio said, leaning closer as Connor positioned the key in the lock. “It isn’t quite ready for you.”
“What do you mean?” Connor asked, turning the key. He felt the bolt turn and the metal door give way. He stepped into the cabin. Sidorio followed.
“There,” Sidorio said. “My final gift. As I said, not quite ready for you.”
Connor couldn’t speak. As he looked into the heart of the cabin, every fiber of his being froze. Was this some trick, some hallucination brought on by his first proper taste of blood? No. It was what it was. He could see it and sense it. Sidorio’s third gift. This, this horror, was truly Sidorio’s idea of the best gift of all.
“What have you done?” Connor rasped. “Why have you done this?” He shook his head, then opened his mouth once more and let out a deep, keening wail.
Sidorio stood on the beach, cradling in his hands the decapitated head of his new bride.
Lola. He opened his mouth to speak her name, but it was too painful to say the word and know that she was gone. To know that she would never again glance up at him, her eyes sparkling with dark purpose. That she would never again smile and take his hand. Never again lift one of her favorite antique glasses, filled with her own special vintage, and sip from it with all the grace of her aristocratic lineage.…
He gazed down at her in wonder. Even in this state, with her face turning as pale as the reflection of the moon on the still sea, her beauty was peerless. Lady Lola Elizabeth Mercy Lockwood Sidorio. It was not yet an hour since they had been married, and already she had been taken from him. Cruelly dispatched at the altar by his own son. A tear welled up in Sidorio’s eye. It was not a familiar sensation. The bead of water escaped and fell like a raindrop onto Lola’s cheek. Sidorio had a sudden hope that the water might somehow revive her. That she was not dead but only sleeping. But deep down, in the knot of his stomach, he knew she was gone. He was alone again.
Sidorio lifted his eyes for a moment and saw a small boat skimming away across the water: the pirate squad heading back to its ship, their terrible mission completed. Already, they were too far off for him to distinguish between the silhouettes of the vicious captain Cheng Li and her youthful assassin. But Sidorio held the image of the boy’s face clearly in his mind. For it was the face of his own flesh and blood. His son, Connor.
“My boy,” he rasped in agony.
From somewhere came a sound resembling a sigh. Instantly, he glanced down at his wife’s head, wondering if there was any conceivable way the sound had emanated from her. But no. It was merely a rogue wave, lapping against the shore. Lola’s face was as impassive as ever. Sidorio traced the line of his wife’s cheek. Her skin had begun to change now — not only in color but also in tone — no longer the smooth alabaster he was used to.
Sidorio stared down at the tattoo of a black heart painted around Lola’s left eye. That black heart, that closed eyelid, covered the most precious of jewels. Sidorio willed Lola to open her eyes just one more time. If only he could see her beautiful mahogany-colored eyes for one last, fleeting moment. But no, a single moment with Lola would be too tormenting. He would always want more. Even if he could turn the clock back a mere hour, when all eternity was spread out before them, he would always feel ravenous for more time with Lola, whose skin was growing more wrinkled with every second. Now that the seal of her immortality had been broken, the hungry years were racing to catch up with her and consume her. It was a terrible thing to behold.
Sidorio thought back to their first meeting. It had been on another beach, not dissimilar to this one. She and her crew had been playing games with him; but, as she had confessed that night, it had all been a ploy to catch his attention. How had she put it? She was so dexterous with words. “How else can a minnow signal a whale?” That’s right! He could almost hear her voice. He smiled momentarily. How long, though, he wondered, before he lost the ability to recall that distinctive, cut-glass tone of hers? How long before even this memory was lost?
His thoughts moved on to the time he had trespassed onto her ship, The Vagabond — a considerably smaller vessel than his own, the mighty Blood Captain. That night, he had interrupted her as she prepared for her nightly bloodbath. It was part of her secret beauty regimen, but she had broken it for him. Instead, they had drunk together from the antique glasses she prized so dearly. She had fed him sweetmeats.
This memory soon spiraled into another — the first time they had gone hunting together. Lola was always clear that she preferred to drink blood from a glass, but still she had hunted with him, telling him she wanted to know his ways — not only to know them but to experience them. He had tried to do the same for her, too, though he had never quite understood the appeal of the glass over the human vessel. Those nights they had hunted together, like two rampant wolves, had been nights of the purest joy he could ever remember. To think of them now brought only coldness to his immortal bones and a dull, heavy ache to his head. In his hands, Lola’s face grew more wrinkled with every passing minute. Her skin was so dry, it was starting to flake. She was being ravaged before his very eyes. Sidorio began to fear his beautiful wife might simply turn to dust and slip through his fingers into the night air.
He closed his eyes, urging darkness to engulf him. Now, even to think of her was a constant source of pain. But she was within him. Images of her filled his being as completely as blood cells: the time she had helped him pick out new clothes, like the wedding suit he was wearing still, though he would never again have use for such finery; the evening she had placed her tiny hand on his and shown him how to swirl the vintage inside the glass to release its aroma; then that moment — that magical moment — when she had consented to become his wife…
She had become his wife, but, more than that, she had become his world. Now she was gone.
Sidorio had been lonely before, but never like this. He let out a sorrowful roar.
The wind whispered close in his ear, as if somehow it shared his mourning. The sound came again, and Sidorio wondered if it could, after all, be the wind. The beach was calm, and the air was still and dry.
There was a third sound, not so much a whisper as a cough. Tempted to believe that some drop of life still remained in Lola, he glanced down, fearful of the bitter disappointment ahead. But he had no choice. He had to gaze again at her beautiful face. At that perfect tattoo of a black heart.
He contemplated his wife’s ruby lips. Was it his imagination or had they parted slightly since he had last looked? And her skin seemed, if not smoother, then at least no more wrinkled and cracked than before. Sidorio shook his head. A man could drive himself mad with such thoughts.
And now perhaps madness had taken hold of Sidorio. Because, as he gazed at his wife’s face once more, he saw a fragile eyelid flutter. The black heart was broken. And, in its place, he saw the dazzling beauty of Lola’s eye.
Sidorio felt himself inextricably sinking into the depths of insanity. “No,” he moaned. “Don’t play tricks on me! Let me mourn her.”
At that Lola’s cracked lips shifted into a soft smile. Then he heard her unmistakable voice. “You’re a touch premature in mourning me, my darling husband.”
Sidorio froze. “No more tricks!” he cried. “Whoever you are, whoever is doing this, stop! I must let her go!”
Lola’s eyes blazed with fire at that. “Darling Sid. I am not going anywhere just yet. Though if you would be a dear and hurry up and reunite me with my body, I’d happily go back to one or the other of our ships with you.…”
This was no dream. No madness. It was a genuine miracle!
Sidorio couldn’t contain the waves of joy that spread through him. “You’re back!” he cried, tears streaming down his face. “But how? How can it be?”
Lola gazed up at him. Though her face was creased and dried out, it was still unmistakably one of rare beauty. “Dear, dear Sid. Did you really think I’d leave you on our wedding night? Not a chance! A man like you is hard to find.”
Sidorio shook his head in wonder. Now he knew he wasn’t imagining this. Only Lola would say something like that. “You’re back,” he said. “You’re really back!”
“Yes,” said Lady Lola Elizabeth Mercy Lockwood Sidorio. “I’m back, husband. So let’s not waste another moment. Take me to my body, and then I’m going to need something exceedingly strong to drink.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” he said. As he spoke, Sidorio was already striding across the sand, cradling his precious wife’s head in his hands. Joyously, he broke into a run, then propelled himself up into the air. He flew up to the top of the cliff, where Lady Lola’s svelte but motionless body lay patiently waiting on the cliff top, ready to be reunited with her wayward head.
Sidorio laid Lola’s head down upon the grass, holding it as close as possible to the torn veins and arteries, the broken bone and muscles of her neck. As he did so, Lola closed her eyes once more. She frowned, as if in excruciating pain. Sidorio was struck with fear that this wouldn’t work, but soon the fibers of her neck began to knit themselves back together.
Sidorio watched, fascinated, as Lola’s bruised and bloodied skin rapidly began to repair itself. The flaking skin fell from her face, and the wrinkles ebbed away like the outgoing tide. Her face quickly regained its customary sheen and suppleness. If anything, she looked younger than before. Her eyes remained closed, and she looked peaceful now, as if she were taking a restorative nap.
Sidorio laid the palms of his thick hands on either side of his wife’s beautiful face, tendrils of her raven-black hair spilling over his grubby fingers. He could scarcely believe she was actually here; that he was not imagining this miraculous reunion. But the mere touch of her flesh felt different now. He could sense a new energy fizzing beneath the surface of her skin. He knew little of vampire biology but imagined dark cells multiplying, oscillating within her veins.
Lola opened her eyes, and an extraordinary light beamed from inside them — a light that seemed to illuminate both the life within her and the journey ahead. Now that Lola was back at his side, they could embark on their voyage together at last. Who knew where it would take them?
Sidorio felt himself coming back to life again, along with his wife. Once more, he thought of Connor. If this miraculous reunion with Lola had been possible, why shouldn’t he be able to reunite with his son, too, however unlikely it seemed? And with his daughter, Grace, of course. It was time to unite his whole family.
Suddenly, he became aware of his wife staring up at him, her head pillowed on the soft grass. Sidorio leaned down, carefully stroking a stray wisp of hair away from her eyes, so that her distinctive tattoo was clear to see once more. “What’s next for us, I wonder, my black heart?”
Lola’s eyelids fluttered as delicately as the velvet wings of a moth. “After a wedding,” she said, huskily, “isn’t it customary for the groom to take his new bride on a honeymoon?”
“A honeymoon?” Sidorio found himself racing to catch up. “A honeymoon. Yes, of course. Where would you like to go?”
“Somewhere cold,” Lola answered. “I’m tired of this incessant heat. Take me somewhere bitterly cold.”
Sidorio beamed at her, his twin gold incisors glinting in the moonlight. “Whatever your beautiful black heart desires, my love. You know I’d do anything for you.”
Lola smiled at that and lifted her hand to Sidorio’s. “And I for you,” she said. “For all eternity.”
Excerpted from Vampirates 5: Empire of Night by Somper, Justin Copyright © 2010 by Somper, Justin. Excerpted by permission.
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