Read the concluding volume in this gripping fantasy series about ambition, revenge and the rise of a vampire assassin from a critically acclaimed British author.
The emperor rode ahead on a high-stepping stallion draped with a cloth of gold, and behind him came his flag bearer, the double-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire snapping in the winter wind. A small group of carefully selected courtiers followed wrapped tightly in furs against the early snow. Old men riding down a valley towards a troop of younger men who were the future if they lived long enough.
Sigismund of Germany had come to meet his son.
The emperor was in his fifties, long-faced and tired eyed, exhausted by the effort of controlling an empire for which he hadn’t provided a proper heir. The boy he approached was a youthful indiscretion. Well, as Frederick was seventeen, perhaps not that youthful on Sigismund’s part, but still an indiscretion.
Since he was a bastard, had lost his battle against Venice and was returning with a dispirited army, having gained little glory from his siege of the island city, Frederick wondered why his father bothered to greet him.
At a word from the emperor the courtiers halted, and though they stayed in their saddles they relaxed enough to let their tired mounts feed on the thin Alpine grass of the high meadow. The emperor rode on alone.
Sliding from his horse, Prince Frederick knelt on the damp grass, bowed his head and waited. Only for his father to vault from his saddle with the enthusiasm of a man half his age. “Stand,” Sigismund insisted, dragging his son to his feet.
Frederick said, “I apologise. The fault is all mine.”
Clapping him on the shoulder, the emperor grinned. “Nicely said. Always take the blame and share the glory. It costs nothing but words, and makes your followers love you.” He glanced beyond Frederick at the returning troops. “Sieges are always hard – especially when they fail. You could have done with a proper battle and a few more deaths.”
“Your majesty . . .?”
“What did you lose? A half-dozen of your friends, no real soldiers at all. Your troops need comrades to mourn and enemy outrages to make them angry. I’m riding for Bohemia to put down a Waldensian heresy, your army can join mine. There’ll be killing, mourning and drinking enough to make any soldier happy.”
“I would be honoured to ride with you.”
“And use that sword?”
How did he . . .? Frederick shifted uncomfortably and his father smiled.
Sigismund said, “It was well done, a fair exchange. We get the WolfeSelle.” He nodded at the anonymous-looking blade slung across his son’s shoulders. “And we gain proof that her brat is . . .”
“One of us?”
“One of you, certainly.” There was slight jealousy in the emperor’s voice. One Frederick had noticed before. “So, as I say, a fair exchange. I’ll be honest, I never expected you to win.”
“Father . . .”
“You stand here before me. The emperor in Constantinople waits to get his son back in a barrel pickled in brandy. You lost well. The Byzantines badly. Venice remains Venice and ready for the taking.” Wrapping his arm round his son’s shoulders, Sigismund hugged him. A gesture undoubtedly noticed by both the courtiers and Frederick’s friends. “Why should I not be happy?”
“Who said you were meant to win?”
“You did.” Frederick’s voice cracked and he blushed, hoping no courtiers had heard. “You said . . .”
“Whatever I said it’s enough Byzantium is damaged. Now, I have another task. You are to return to Venice and woo Lady Giulietta. What you could not make Venice give you through force – and I’ve been unable to gain through fear – we will make them give us from love. Take your friends and go humbly. In battle, timing is all. So wait for the right moment.”
“You want me to win Giulietta’s heart?”
“And her other parts,” Sigismund said. “Make her like you. Make her love you. Hell.” He smiled. “Make her smile. That usually gets them into bed.”
Cheers greeted the news of a fresh campaign, rising loud enough to echo from the mountains when Frederick’s troops discovered the emperor himself would be leading them. Having appointed a replacement for Frederick, Sigismund ordered them to head up the valley, through the pass and keep moving until they reached the first town on the other side, where they were to billet. He would join them there that evening. His courtiers were to remain with him but keep their distance. He wished for time to say goodbye to his son.
Frederick watched and he listened and he wondered as all this went on around him. Mostly, he wondered why his father thought winning Lady Giulietta di Millioni’s heart would be any easier than conquering her city. She was notoriously as stubborn as the
city was strange. He watched his own armour and baggage be sent back the way he’d come to wait for him at an inn below. His friends were gathered in a group, talking quietly. They’d asked as many questions as they dared.
“Now,” Sigismund said. “Tell me about the man who gave you the WolfeSelle.”
“Tycho,” Frederick said. “Lady Giulietta’s lover.”
The emperor saw his son’s unease and waited, listening to Frederick’s faltering attempt to describe how the battle on Giudecca ended.
“Tell me exactly what you saw.”
“Flames,” Frederick said. “Wings of fire.”
“My Moorish astrologer says she beds a djinn, my bishop that he’s a devil, my cabalist says a golem of china clay. The Englishman Maître Dee says an elemental fire spirit. What did he look like to you?”
“Competition,” Frederick said after a moment’s pause.
The emperor laughed. “How long since you’ve run?”
“Weeks,” his son admitted.
“Since you ran as a pack? For the joy of it,” Sigismund said firmly. “I mean, how long since you ran as a pack for the joy of it?”
“That day in Wolf Valley when you came to find me.”
Sigismund said, “Then run now. Run here where no one can see you. Catch up with your carts when the hunt is finished and take new clothes. But enjoy yourself for today and worry about duty tomorrow.”
A run . . .?
The boy stripped quickly, his enthusiasm overwhelming shyness. The others, his friends, realising what was happening, grinned and stripped in their turn. Frederick was the youngest, his body slight, the hair at his groin pale as gold, the hair on his chest so fine as to be near invisible. And then he began to change, and his father, despite having seen what happened half a dozen times before, looked away as his son’s flesh rippled and his bones twisted and fur rolled up his body in a wave, closing over the wolf ’s head. Only his eyes remained the same.
Frederick was not the largest animal in the pack. But he was the only one with silver fur and he was the one who opened his mouth and howled loud enough to echo off the valleys around them. And then, without even glancing at his father, he turned and headed for distant rocks and the pack followed without question, a streaming V of smoke behind their leader as they raced forward, and a stag that had been hiding among the rocks lost its nerve, rose to its feet and ran.
Sigismund sighed. He was emperor of half the Western world and, God-given duty or not, he’d give it all to run with his son.