Myra stared at the prisoner. The vampire was dressed in a red blouse and wore a wide, short skirt over her tight black leggings. Black lace gloves covered her hands, and her dark brown hair, streaked with golden highlights, fell around her shoulders in soft, silky waves.
The Resistance is fighting hard to get food and medicines while vamps have access to hair products. How a dead woman could have such perfect hair, Myra would never know. She ran her hand self-consciously through her own mousy-brown shoulder-length hair, which would turn frizzy at the slightest hint of moisture. She knew the vampires would never pick her as one of them.
As soon as the thought came to her, she realized how ridiculous it was. She would rather die than be turned. And yet, a silly and vain part of her was irritated at the knowledge that she never stood a chance to be a part of the world she hated.
The captive grinned at the many Warriors surrounding her. She held her head high, her dark eyes bright.
“I hear you have information for us?” Zack said. “What is it, and why do you wish to share it?”
“And I hear you wish to assassinate our beloved Prince,” the vampire said. “And I can assure you that nothing would make me happier than to see His Highness part with his haughty head.”
“Right,” Zack said. “And I’m supposed to believe you?”
“You would be a fool to think His Highness is the most fit to rule among us, and no one strives to overthrow him,” the captive said. “But before you start throwing questions and accusations at me, let me make the rules clear.”
“The rules?” Lidia blurted out. “You’re our prisoner, and you want to set the rules?”
Zack raised his hand for silence. “What is your name?” he asked the vampire.
She smirked. “Rim.”
“Very well, Rim,” Zack said. “Name your terms.”
“No torture,” Rim started. “I will tell you all there is to know about Prince Vladimir, but if you so much as touch me, I will stop talking.”
“If you wish to work with us, why did you kill two of our people?” Thomas said.
She snorted. “What was I supposed to do? I was minding my own business when your people attacked me. I never planned to get captured, but now that I am here, and I learned that we share the same goal, I think we should all try to make the best of it.”
“Fair enough,” said Zack. “Your terms sound reasonable. No one will torture you.”
“I am not finished. I am going to share everything that can help you assassinate His Highness, and nothing more. If you ask any questions I deem irrelevant, I will leave them unanswered. And”—she paused—“you are to release me once I have told you everything.”
Zack and Myra exchanged a glance. The vampire had been blindfolded when the Resistance had brought her inside, and she would not be able to find their hideout. Still, the request posed another problem. “What are you planning to do once you’re free?” Myra asked. “Are you going back to the Prince?”
“This question falls into the ‘irrelevant’ category,” Rim replied.
“We can’t agree to those terms,” Zack said. “Your proposition is suspicious as it is. I find it much easier to believe you’re sending us into a trap. And now you want us to release you? And I’m supposed to believe you’re not running back to the Prince to tell him exactly where you’ve sent us?”
“Believe what you will,” the vampire said. “These are my terms.”
“What if we release you after we’ve killed the Prince?” Myra suggested. “Our party goes and does the job, they return safely, and then we let you go. How does that sound?”
Rim fiddled with her chains, as if testing them. “Thrilling,” she said. “Am I supposed to place my trust in your skills? What if you fail? I will end up rotting in this hole forever.”
“Trust what you will,” Zack echoed. “These are our terms.”
The vampire grinned. “Well, well, General, you are starting to grow a spine. Fine. I will talk to you, and you will release me after the Prince is dead. You will, of course, not mistreat me in the meantime. Can you give me any guarantee you will keep your side of the bargain?”
“I can give you my word,” he said. “I’m afraid I can’t give you anything else.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Rim said. “Very well. I will trust a friend’s word.”
“You claimed to have information about the Prince,” Lidia said. “Where does he live?”
“He is based in the Palace,” Rim said. “It is an old castle, up in the Highlands.”
Myra nodded. It made sense; most former cities were turning to ruin, slowly falling apart, while medieval stone buildings were easier to maintain.
“How far away is this castle?” Zack asked.
“Less than ten miles from the place where your people captured me, though I am not surprised you have never discovered it. There are many patrols on the way, so I suppose your people met them and turned back. I can draw you a map, or help one of you draw it since I doubt you will untie my hands. I can also show you how to avoid the patrols.”
“That would be helpful,” Zack said. “Now, about the Prince. Who is he exactly?”
“An arrogant upstart who thinks the world belongs to him.” Rim’s face twisted into a grimace.
Myra sighed. “Can you try to be more specific and less subjective?”
Rim shrugged, as much as her fetters allowed. “He is the one who destroyed your world and caused the deaths of millions of your people. What more do you need to know?”
“Fine,” Zack said. “How much power does he have? How many soldiers does he command?”
“Over eight hundred soldiers are in the Palace alone. Many more are in nearby castles or in the camps around the Wizard and can be called if needed. You cannot attack the Palace full force if that is what you are planning.”
Myra stole a look at Zack. Over eight hundred soldiers. This matched what the previous prisoner had said. Oddly enough, Rim appeared to be telling the truth.
“And the nearby castles will answer if he calls?” Myra asked.
“A local noble-vampire rules over each castle, but they all report to His Highness. A few may disagree with him, but they will still send troops if he asks. He holds too much power; no one would oppose him openly.”
“You said some of your people wished for his death?” Myra asked. “How many? Are they in the Palace too?”
Rim glared at her. “Little girl, I hope you realize that the people you send to assassinate His Highness can be captured and tortured for information. I would not risk any intelligence on my accomplices leaking to the Prince. Let us just say that most people at the Palace are still loyal to the Prince, or are too afraid to oppose him. You will not find allies. You must rely on yourselves.”
“You said we can’t launch an assault on the Palace,” Zack said. “I assume you have other suggestions?”
Rim rolled her eyes. “Must I make your plans for you now, General? Obviously, you need to send a small group of assassins. One or two will be best.”
“And how would my people get close enough to the Prince and live to tell the tale?” Zack asked.
“You cannot enter the Palace. It is a proper castle, with a moat and a drawbridge. You cannot get inside, and even if you do, you will not make a single step before someone spots you. You will have to kill the Prince once he is outside.”
“Does he regularly leave the castle?” Thomas asked.
“Almost every day,” the vampire said. “One option is to catch him while he is hunting, though he is usually not alone and it will be harder. The better alternative would be to attack when he is reading in the Rose Gardens.”
“Rose Gardens, you say?” Myra said. “Are real roses growing there? That must be one of the places you keep sunlit. Are there any others?”
Rim laughed. “None of your business.”
Zack cleared his throat. “Fine. Then let me ask you another question, and if you refuse to answer this one, our deal is off. You claim your Prince spends time alone in those Rose Gardens. You claim that you, and possibly others, wish for his death. If killing him is so easy, why haven’t you done it already?”
“I never said it would be easy.”
“Is he well guarded?” Lidia asked.
“He thinks he can guard himself,” Rim said. “He is an exceptional fighter, but he is not infallible. I admit we might have had opportunities. The main reason we hold back is caution. Many vampires would oppose a violent overthrow, and we wish to avoid a rebellion. If the Prince is killed by your people, it will unite us and help me and my associates place our preferred ruler on the throne.”
“How would the vampires know it was us who killed the Prince?” Zack asked.
“They will know,” she said.
“The Rose Gardens,” Myra said. “Are they sunlit every single day? All day?”
“At this time of year, yes,” Rim replied. “Your people will be safe there during the day.”
“And what if the Prince learns my people are coming and switches on the clouds?” Zack asked.
“This is not how the WeatherWizard works,” Rim explained. “The control is not instantaneous. You can program all weather changes in advance, by the minute, but if you want to make an unplanned change, it may take a few days to take effect.”
Zack nodded and walked out of the room. He returned in a minute, carrying paper and pencils. “Alright, then, let’s do this,” he said.
They sat for over an hour, Zack jotting down all the details—vampire patrols on the way, numbers, the Prince’s nightly comings and goings. Once he was satisfied, he handed Lidia his notebook.
“Lidia, please continue the interrogation. Rim will walk you through the route, and you’ll sketch a map. Everyone else, please join me in the Headquarters.” Zack turned to Rim. “We have a deal. Help my captain draw the map, and we will kill Prince Vladimir.”
“Alright, just say it,” Myra muttered when she could no longer stand the aura of smugness radiating from her commander.
“You want me to say it?” Zack asked, and a mischievous twinkle appeared in his dark, catlike eyes.
“Most certainly not,” Myra admitted. “But you want to say it, and I can’t stand watching you sit there and bask in your glory.”
“Alright, then, I’ll say it.” The General made a dramatic pause before continuing. “I told you so!”
“So what?” Alerie challenged. “You were right, Zack. After capturing and interrogating tens of vamps, one was bound to talk. We have everything we wanted to know about Prince Vladimir. What are we going to do about it?”
“We have to act fast,” Zack said. “The Prince has no idea we have this information. Now is the best time to send an assassin.”
“Zack, that would be suicide,” Myra said. “There’s so much about this I don’t like. For starters, how do we know Rim isn’t sending us into a trap?”
“The vamps would benefit from such a trap only if many of us go, and they destroy us all with one stroke,” Zack said. “Rim suggested we send only a couple of Warriors. Why would she do that if this were a trap? The vamps gain nothing by killing one or two of us.”
The door opened and Lidia walked into the Headquarters with a few papers in hand. “I have the maps,” she said. “The Rose Gardens are well outside the Palace. The vamps want to keep the Palace in shadow at all times, for obvious reasons.”
“Good,” said Zack. “Did you get any more information?”
Lidia nodded. “We talked a bit about the vamps’ means of transportation. Apparently they mainly use horses and carts.”
Myra looked up. Horses? Horses would need grass. The vampires would have to take them to living fields, so some sunlit spots had to be close to the Palace. She had seen horses only in pictures, but she hoped to see real ones one day, and to travel in a cart. It sounded magical, but there was no place for magic in her life.
Zack nodded. “I can imagine electrical and hydrogen cars are out of the question. Sun-powered ones even more so.”
“They do have some old gas cars left,” Lidia said. “The engines run on propane, but the vampires’ fuel supply is limited and only very important vamps get to drive them on special occasions.”
“And by ‘very important vamps’ you mean the Prince?” Alerie asked.
Lidia grinned. “Apparently he’s the only one driving. Our captive was bitter about it.”
“Speaking of our captive,” Myra said, “what should we do with her?”
“We’ll kill her,” Zack said.
She stared at him. “What? Zack, you can’t. You gave her your word.”
“She killed two of our people,” he said. “Will you tell Tory’s daughters that we’re releasing their father’s murderer? You got a chance to stake the vamp who killed your parents. Surely you understand why others need the same justice.”
“Staking him brought me no peace,” Myra said.
“Letting him go would have brought you even less peace, believe me,” Zack said. “What’s wrong? You hate vamps more than most of us. Every vampire has to die if we are to restore human civilization. Surely you know that.”
“I hate vampires as much as anyone,” she said. “But what I hate even more is watching us become monsters like them. Zack, you gave her your word. If you break it, we’re no better than them. Yes, she has to die, and she will. But not now. Not like this.”
Zack was silent for a moment, but nodded slowly at last. “Very well. Once we’ve killed the Prince, I will set her free. I hope we won’t regret it.”
An anguished scream echoed through the hall, and Myra paled and turned to the door. There, behind a high cupboard, peeked a little girl. Her dark eyes were wide and moist, and she was shaking her head. Shanice, Myra’s mind supplied. Tory’s daughter. Ten years old.
A whimper escaped Shanice’s lips, and she turned around and bolted out the door. Zack sighed and looked at Thomas.
“Tommy, please, take care of this,” he said.
Thomas nodded and ran after the girl.
Zack ran his hand over his face. “I’ll have to talk to Shanice later,” he said and turned to Myra. “Something else is troubling you?”
“The vampire told us all about her Prince,” Myra said, “And perhaps she wants us to succeed. Yet, she doesn’t seem worried that we might use the ensuing chaos to attack the Wizard. Why? My guess is, she doesn’t expect any chaos. They already have a substitute ruler in place and the transition will go smoothly. What if we don’t gain anything from the Prince’s death?”
“I can’t believe that,” said Zack. “Rim may have a ruler in mind, but other vampire factions likely have candidates. There’s no way to avoid chaos once their leader is gone. Perhaps Rim hasn’t guessed that attacking the Wizard is our final goal, so she’s not worried. Lidia, do you think you can find these Rose Gardens?”
“Sure, the map is clear.”
Zack hesitated. “I wish to send only a couple of good fighters. Lidia, I hate to ask this of you, but you would be my first choice. Alerie, you’d be my second. I’d like to send you both.”
Lidia seemed taken aback, but quickly recovered. “It would be my honor, General Wong.”
“Mine too,” Alerie whispered.
“Zack, you can’t send Lidia,” Myra protested. “She is too valuable. We can’t afford to lose her.”
“I know,” Zack said. “She is one of my best Warriors, but we are all valuable.”
“This is not about fighting,” Myra insisted. “Lidia is the only one among us with adequate knowledge of medicine. Dr. Dubois is over eighty. If something happens to her, we’re left without a doctor.”
“I know it’s important to have a doctor in our community,” Zack said. “But if we don’t do this here and now, we won’t live long enough to worry about disease.”
“If Lidia fails, we’ll lose all chances of survival,” Myra said. “Even if we destroy the WeatherWizard and overthrow the vamps, we’ll have no doctor. The medicine books in our library don’t cover all topics, and there is only so much you can learn from a book.”
“If Lidia fails in the mission, and we don’t assassinate the Prince, we’ll all die anyway, sooner or later,” Zack said. “It’s an all-or-nothing gambit. I will send a few Warriors, and if they succeed, we all live. If they fail, we all die. I have to send the ones best suited for the task.”
“Fine, but must you send Lidia?” Myra said. “Thomas is also a good fighter.”
“Thomas is needed here,” Zack said sternly. “I will ask you not to question my decisions. I have reasons for them.”
Andre stood up in his chair. “I’ll go. I’m a good Warrior, and I am more disposable. I’ve lived longer than any of you. Death doesn’t scare me.”
Zack massaged his temples. “How many times do I need to say it? This is not supposed to be a suicide mission. I’m not sending whoever is most disposable. I’m sending whoever can do the task best. Andre, you’re a great Warrior, but you are past your prime. No offense.”
Myra fell silent, thinking on Zack’s words. He had a point, and yet sending their only potential doctor on such a dangerous mission seemed insane. What if Lidia and Alerie did succeed, but were killed on the way back? Then the Resistance had a real chance of survival, but they wouldn’t last for long with no knowledge of medicine. Myra closed her eyes. Her heartbeat accelerated until her ears started ringing. “If you must send someone,” she said softly, “send me.”
“Myra, don’t be ridiculous,” Lidia snapped.
Zack shook his head. “I made it clear that we want to send a good fighter. You’re average. Your strength is strategy. You have no experience in fieldwork.”
“And how am I supposed to gain any experience if you never send me out? Zack, I want to learn.”
He sighed. “Captain Andersen, do you realize that Prince Vladimir’s assassination will be the single most crucial mission the Resistance has ever undertaken? I can’t take the risk that this task will fail, and I will not use it as your training exercise.”
“My strength is strategy, you say,” Myra argued, “and I believe we will need more than brute force to assassinate the Prince. In fact, I think brute force will have nothing to do with this. You’re sending Alerie, and she is an excellent fighter. You need her partner to be someone with a different skill set.”
Alerie stood up. “Myra, this is a serious mission that could change our future. We don’t have time for this. If you want to play the hero, do it in one of your theater plays.”
Myra felt like she had been slapped. Play the hero? Was that what she was trying to do? She had to admit it had felt good to volunteer. Her heart had pumped with excitement when she had said the words. She was offering to sacrifice herself to save their community. She was like the characters in the books she loved to read, fighting the oppressors and doing what was right. She knew she had not thought this through, but it mattered little. After all, Zack would never accept her offer anyway.
Zack leaned back in his chair. “Myra has a point,” he admitted. “Vamps are better fighters than any of us. We cannot expect to defeat them in combat. We must rely on stealth and careful planning as well. Myra, do you think you can do this?”
“I can do this better than anyone else in this room,” Myra stated with confidence she did not feel. The moment she spoke the words, she wondered if she could take them back. What was she doing? This mission was suicide, she had said so herself. She had always dreamed of going out there, of seeing more of the world, but not like this.
With a pang of guilt, Myra realized why she had made the offer. She had been certain that Zack would refuse. If she had thought there was any chance the General would pick her, she would have never volunteered. She was a coward. That was the safe way to play the hero, so she could later lie to herself that she had done the right thing.
“Very well,” Zack said. “Captain Andersen, the task to assassinate Prince Vladimir is assigned to you.”