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Dragon's Oath, Page 2

P. C. Cast

  “This is the Earl of Lankford’s son. You’ll take him or answer to His Lordship about why not,” growled the Earl’s senior guard.

  “I don’t see no earl here. I see a shit-spattered boy who’s got the ague.” The seaman spit in the sand. “And I won’t be answering to anyone, ’specially no nonexistent earl, if I be dead from this brat’s sickness.”

  Bryan tried to stifle his coughing-not to reassure the captain, but to rest the burning within his chest. He was holding his breath when the man stepped from the shadows, tall, lean, and dressed all in black, his pale skin in stark contrast to the darkness that seemed to surround him. Bryan blinked, wondering if his feverish gaze was deceiving him-was that truly a crescent moon tattooed in the middle of his forehead surrounded by more tattooing? His vision was blurry, but Bryan was almost certain the tattoos looked like crossed rapiers. Then reason caught up with vision and Bryan felt a jolt of recognition. A crescent moon and the surrounding tattoo could mean only one thing: the man was no man at all-he was a vampyre!

  It was then that the creature lifted his hand, palm facing outward directly at Bryan. The boy stared in wonder at the spiral that decorated that palm, and the vampyre spoke words that would forever alter his life.

  “Bryan Lankford! Night has chosen thee; thy death will be thy birth. Night calls to thee; hearken to Her sweet voice. Your destiny awaits you at the House of Night!”

  The creature’s long finger pointed at Bryan and his forehead exploded in pain as he felt the tattooed outline of a crescent moon blaze brand-like into his skin.

  His father’s men reacted instantly. They dropped Bryan and moved away from him, staring in open horror back and forth between the boy and the vampyre. He noticed the ship’s captain had left his torch to sputter in the sand and disappeared into the darkness of the pier.

  Bryan didn’t see or hear the vampyre approach-he only saw the guards moving nervously, grouping behind Jeremy, swords half drawn, indecision clear on their faces and in their actions. Vampyre warriors had awe-inspiring reputations. Their mercenary services were much sought after, but except for the beauty and strength of their women, and the fact that they worshiped a dark goddess, little was known by most humans of their society and inner workings. Bryan watched Jeremy try to decide whether this creature, who was obviously what they called a Tracker, was also a dangerous vampyre Warrior. Then he felt an impossibly strong grip on his arm, and Bryan was lifted to his feet to stare up at the creature.

  “Return to whence you came. This boy is now a Marked fledgling, and as such is no longer your responsibility.” The vampyre spoke with a strange accent, drawing out his words almost languidly, which only added to the mystery and sense of danger he exuded.

  The men hesitated, all looking to the senior guard, who spoke quickly, managing to sound arrogant and belligerent at the same time. “We need proof for his father that he has left England.”

  “Your needs do not interest me,” the vampyre said solemnly. “Tell the boy’s father that he boarded a ship tonight, though a much darker one than you humans planned. I have neither the time nor the patience to give you proof other than my word.” Then he looked at Bryan. “Come with me. Your future awaits.” With a swirl of his black cloak the vampyre turned and began striding away down the dock.

  Jeremy waited until the creature had been swallowed by the darkness. Then he shrugged one shoulder and looked at Bryan with disgust, before saying, “Our mission is fulfilled. His Lordship said to put his brat of a son on a ship, and that is where he is going. Let us leave this fish-stinking place and return to our warm beds at Lankford Manor.”

  The men were turning away when Bryan drew himself up straight. He took just an instant to inhale a deep breath and savor the relief he felt when the choking, debilitating cough did not come. Then he stepped forward and spoke in a voice that was, once again, strong and steady. “You are to leave me my sword.”

  Jeremy paused and faced Bryan. Slowly, he pulled the sword from where he’d shoved it in his waistcloth. He ignored Bryan and instead studied the precious stone-encrusted hilt. His smile was calculating and his eyes were cold when he finally turned back to Bryan.

  “Do you have any idea how many times your father called me from my warm bed to collect you from some brawl you’d gotten yourself into?”

  “No, I do not,” Bryan said flatly.

  “Of course you do not. All you nobles care about is your own pleasure. So now that you’ve been disowned and are not nobility any longer I’ll be keeping this sword, and the money selling it will gain me. Think of it as payment for what a pain in my arse you have been these past many years.”

  Bryan felt a rush of anger, and with it came a surge of heat throughout his body. Acting on instinct, the boy closed the distance between himself and the arrogant guard. In some part of his brain Bryan knew his movements were preternaturally swift, but he remained focused on the one thought that was a driving force within him: The sword is mine-he has no right to it.

  With a motion that blurred, Bryan knocked the sword from Jeremy’s hand and, in the same movement, caught it. As the other two guards moved forward, Bryan lunged low and stuck the point of the sword straight through the bones of the closest man’s foot, causing the guard to double up and fall on the floor in agony. Bryan automatically rebounded and, changing direction, flat-bladed the second guard across the side of his head, stunning him. Moving with a deadly grace, Bryan followed the motion of his sword, whirling around, and ending with the sharpened edge of the blade pressed firmly enough against Jeremy’s neck that his skin beaded with drops of blood.

  “This sword is mine. You have no right to it,” Bryan heard his voice speaking his thoughts aloud, and was surprised by how normal he sounded-he wasn’t even breathing hard. There was no way Jeremy or either of the other two fallen guards could know that everything inside him was burning with anger and outrage and the need for vengeance. “Now tell me why I should not slit your throat.”

  “Go ahead. Strike me. Your father is a viper, and even disowned you are his serpent of a son.”

  Bryan was going to kill him. He wanted to-his rage and his pride demanded it. And why shouldn’t he kill him? The guard was only a peasant, and one who had insulted him, the son of an earl! But before Bryan could slice through the guard’s neck, the vampyre’s words sliced the air between them.

  “I have no desire to be pursued and perhaps questioned by the British navy. Let him live. His fate, to return to serving those he despises, is far greater punishment than a quick death.”

  Still holding the point to the guard’s neck, Bryan glanced behind him at the vampyre. The creature had spoken with a voice so calm it sounded almost bored, but his entire focus was on the guard’s throat and the small drops of scarlet that Bryan’s blade had freed. The vampyre’s obvious desire intrigued as well as horrified the boy. Is this what I am to become?

  Bryan shoved the guard from him. “He’s right. Your life is better punishment than my blade. Go back to it and the bitterness with which you live it.” Without another look at the man, Bryan turned his back on him and walked to the vampyre’s side.

  The vampyre inclined his head in a small nod of acknowledgment. “You made the correct choice.”

  “He insulted me. I should have killed him.”

  The vampyre cocked his head to the side, as if weighing the solution to a problem. “Did his calling you a snake insult you?”

  “Well, yes. Calling me spoiled and trying to steal what is mine was also an insult.”

  The vampyre laughed softly. “It is no insult to be called a snake. They are creatures allied with our Goddess, though I do not believe he was just in naming you such. I watched as you bested those three men. You strike more like a dragon than a snake.” While Bryan blinked in surprise he continued. “And dragons are above such petty insults as mere mortals might hurl at them.”

  “Are there dragons in America?” Bryan blurted the first of the jumbled thoughts that filled his mind.

  The vampyre laughed again. “Have you not heard? America is filled with wonders.” Then he made a sweeping motion with his hand, gesturing down the pier. “Come, let us go so that you may discover them. I have spent enough time on these archaic shores. My memories of England were not good, and nothing I have encountered during my wait for you has done anything to better them.” The vampyre started off down the dock with Bryan almost jogging to keep up with his long strides.

  “Did you say you have been awaiting me?”

  “I did, and I have,” he said, still moving purposefully down the dark pier.

  “You knew about me?”

  The vampyre nodded, causing his long brown hair to obscure his face. “I knew there was a fledging here I had to wait to Mark.” He glanced at Bryan and his lips tilted up in a slight smile. “You, young dragon, are the last fledgling I will ever Mark.”

  Bryan’s brow furrowed. “Your last fledgling? What is happening to you?” He tried not to sound worried. After all, he barely knew this vampyre. And the creature was a vampyre: mysterious, dangerous, and strangely compelling.

  The vampyre’s slight smile widened. “I have finished my service as one of Nyx’s Trackers, and am now able to return to my position as a Son of Erebus Warrior in the service of the Tower Grove House of Night.”

  “Tower Grove? That’s in America?” Bryan’s stomach tightened. He’d almost forgotten that his world had turned upside down in less than the space of one day.

  “It is, indeed, in America. St. Louis, Missouri, to be exact.” The vampyre had come to the end of the long pier-the darkest end, Bryan noted, as he could hear the creakings of a great ship and the lapping of water around it, but try as he might he couldn’t see more than a hulking shadow bobbing on the water. He noticed the vampyre had stopped beside him and was studying him carefully. Bryan met his gaze squarely, though his body felt like a tightly coiled spring ready to come loose at any moment.

  “I am called Shaw,” the vampyre finally said, and held out his hand to Bryan.

  “I am Bryan Lankford.” Bryan paused and then managed a smile that was only semi-sarcastic. “I am the former son of the Earl of Lankford, but you already know that.”

  When Shaw took Bryan’s offered hand, he did so in the traditional vampyre greeting, grasping his forearm and not just his hand. Bryan mimicked his actions.

  “Merry meet, Bryan Lankford,” Shaw said. Then he let loose the boy’s arm and made a gesture at the darkness and the ship that lay hidden within it. “This is the Ship of Night, which will bear me, and perhaps you as well, to America, and my beloved Tower Grove House of Night.”

  “Perhaps me as well? But I thought-”

  Shaw held up a hand, silencing Bryan. “You must, indeed, join a House of Night, and quickly. That Mark,” Shaw pointed at the outline of the sapphire crescent moon that still ached in the center of Bryan’s forehead “means you must be in the company of adult vampyres until you either make the Change fully to vampyre, or…” Shaw hesitated.

  “Or I die,” Bryan said into the silence.

  Shaw nodded solemnly. “Then you do know something of the world you are about to enter. Yes, young dragon, you will either complete the Change some time during the next four years, or you will die. This night you have begun a life path from which there is no turning back. Now, I told your father’s guards that you would be joining me as I make the crossing to the New World because I saw that they were set on your departure from England, but the truth is more than your fate changed when you were Marked.”

  “For the better or for the worse?” Bryan asked.

  “For exactly what you make of it yourself, Nyx be willing,” he said cryptically, and then continued, “You cannot control whether you will successfully complete the Change, but you can control where you will spend the next several years. Should you wish to remain in England I can arrange for you to be taken to the London House of Night.” The Tracker rested his hand briefly on Bryan’s shoulder. “You no longer require your family’s permission to pursue the future you most desire.”

  “Or I may choose to come with you?” Bryan asked.

  “Yes, but before you make your choice I believe there is something you should see.” Shaw turned to face the ship, which was visible to Bryan only as a huge, dark shadow resting ominously on the water, tethered by impossibly thick ropes. As if he had no trouble at all seeing through the thick blanket of the night, Shaw took two steps closer to the edge of the pier, and then he did something that utterly mystified Bryan. He turned so that he was facing south, raised his hands, and spoke four words softly: “Come to me, fire.”

  Instantly Bryan heard a crackling sound, and felt a surge of warmth in the air around him. Then he gasped as a ball of flickering fire swirled between Shaw’s outstretched palms. The vampyre flung the fire, as if tossing a ball, at what Bryan could now see was a large standing torch, the oil-soaked top of which instantly took flame.

  “Bloody hell!” Bryan couldn’t contain his shock. “How did you do that?”

  Shaw smiled. “Our Goddess has gifted me with more than the abilities of a Warrior, but that is not what I wanted you to see.” Shaw lifted the torch and held it before them so that the proud prow of the huge ship, made of wood so dark Bryan thought it looked like it has been fashioned from night itself, was suddenly made visible. And then the boy blinked in surprise, as he realized exactly what he was seeing.

  “It is a dragon,” he said, staring at the carving of the masthead. It was truly spectacular-a black dragon, claws outstretched, teeth bared, ferociously ready to take on the world.

  “It seemed to me, after the events of the night, to be a good omen,” Shaw said.

  Bryan stared at the dragon and was filled with the most intense flood of feelings he had ever experienced. It took him a moment to realize what they were, and then he knew: excitement and anticipation and longing all joined within him to create a single sense of purpose. He met the vampyre’s gaze. “I choose to enter the dragon.”


  Tower Grove House of Night

  St. Louis, 1833

  “Merry meet, Anastasia! Please, do come in. It is a fortuitous coincidence that you are here. Diana and I were just discussing how happy we are to have such a young priestess of spells and rituals join the school as full professor, and I was going to call for you to tell you how pleased I am by how well you are fitting in here at Tower Grove.”

  “Merry meet, Pandeia, Diana,” Anastasia said, fisting her right hand over her heart and bowing her head respectfully first to her High Priestess, Pandeia, and then to Diana, before she entered the large, beautifully appointed room.

  “Oh, come now, you needn’t be so formal with us when we are not in the company of fledglings,” Diana, professor of vampyre sociology and the High Priestess’s mate, spoke warmly to Anastasia as she stroked a very fat calico cat that spilled across her lap, purring loudly.

  “Thank you,” Anastasia said in a quiet voice that sounded older than her twenty-two years.

  Diana smiled. “So, tell us, though you’ve only been here for a fortnight, are you becoming settled? Does it seem like home for you yet?”

  Home, Anastasia thought automatically, had never been filled with such beauty and such freedom. She quickly shook the thoughts away and said politely and honestly, “It is not quite home yet, but I can feel that it will be. I do love the prairie and the lush gardens.” Her gaze went to the fat calico and then to the gray tiger-striped male that had begun to wind around the High Priestess’s legs. Then she blinked in surprise as she saw that both of the cats had six toes on each front paw. “Six toes? I’ve never seen such a thing.”

  Diana tugged at the calico’s paw playfully. “Some say polydoctlys are aberrations of nature. I say they’re just more advanced than ‘normal’ cats. A little like vampyres are more advanced than ‘normal’ humans.”

  “Oh, my! They look like mittens! I’m so hoping now that I’ve found my House of Night, a cat will choos
e me, too. It would be so wonderful if she had six toes!” Then Anastasia realized she was speaking her silly thoughts aloud and added hastily, “And, of course, I’m enjoying my students and my new classroom very much.”

  “It makes me happy to hear you say so,” Pandeia said, laughing softly. “And there is nothing wrong with wishing for a cat, six-toed or otherwise. Young Anastasia, Diana and I were about to take our iced wine on the balcony. Please join us.”

  “I am grateful for your invitation,” Anastasia said humbly, and reminding herself not to say anything silly, she followed the women and their cats as they opened the French doors and stepped out onto a lovely moonlight-bathed balcony on which sat white wicker chairs and a matching table that was laden with a crystal vase etched with a perfect crescent moon and filled with fragrant red roses, alongside a silver bucket brimming with ice and a carafe of wine the color of ripe cherries. Stemware etched with crescent moons that matched the gorgeous vase glistened in the silver light of the full moon.

  Roses, ice, wine, and crystal. I’m accustomed to simplicity and rules, though both had been tempered with love. Will I ever get used to such luxuries? Anastasia pondered, feeling utterly uncomfortable as she sat in one of the chairs and tried not to smooth back her long blond hair or obsessively straighten her dress. And then she shot to her feet. “I-I should pour for you, Priestess,” she said, smiling nervously up at the tall, statuesque, mature High Priestess.

  Pandeia laughed and gently swatted her hand away from the carafe. “Anastasia, Daughter, please sit and compose yourself. I am a High Priestess, which means I am more than capable of pouring wine for myself and my guests.”

  Diana kissed her mate softly on the cheek before she took her own seat. “You, my darling, are more than capable of many, many things.”

  Anastasia saw the color in Pandeia’s cheeks heighten ever so slightly as the couple shared an intimate look. Anastasia’s own cheeks warmed as she witnessed the exchange, and she looked quickly away. Though she’d spent the past six years immersed in House of Night society, first as a fledgling, then as a priestess in training, and now as a professor, she still sometimes found their open sexuality surprising. She’d often wondered what her mother would think of this female-empowered society. Would she accept it in the quiet, private way she had her daughter’s Mark and Change? Or would it be too much for her-too shocking-and would she condemn it as the rest of their community would?