THE DEATH of the ancient Prince should have come as no great surprise - he was the wrong side of eight hundred, the War of the Scars had taken its toll on him, and I remembered thinking when I left Vampire Mountain how poorly he looked - but I hadn't expected him to go this quickly, and the news knocked the wind out of me.
As far as Mr. Crepsley knew, the Prince had died of natural causes. He wouldn't be sure until he got to Vampire Mountain - vampires could only send basic telepathic messages - but there'd been no hint of foul play in Mika's message.
I wanted to go with him to the funeral - it would be a huge affair, which almost every vampire in the world would attend - but Mr. Crepsley asked me not to. "One Prince must always remain absent from Vampire Mountain," he reminded me, "in case anything happens to the others. I know you were fond of Paris, but Mika, Arrow and Vancha knew him far longer than you. It would be unfair to ask one of them to give up their place."
I was disappointed, but bowed to his wishes - it would have been selfish of me to put myself before the elder Princes. "Tell them to be careful," I warned him. "I don't want to be the only Prince left - if they all perished together, and I had to lead the clan by myself, it would be a disaster!"
"You can say that again," Harkat laughed, but there was no merriment in his voice. "Can I come with you?" he asked Mr. Crepsley. "I'd like to pay... my respects."
"I would rather you remained with Darren," Mr. Crepsley said. "I do not like the idea of leaving him on his own."
Harkat nodded immediately. "You're right. I'll stay."
"Thanks," I said softly.
"Now," Mr. Crepsley mused, "that leaves us with the question of whether you hold camp here or locate elsewhere."
"We'll stay, of course," I said rather quickly.
Morose as he was, the vampire managed a wry smile. "I thought you would say that. I glimpsed you through the window as you kissed your teachers cheek."
"You were spying on me!" I huffed.
"That was the general idea, was it not?" he replied. I sputtered indignantly, but of course that had been the plan. "You and Harkat should withdraw while I am away," Mr. Crepsley continued. "If you come under attack, you will be hard-pushed to defend yourselves."
"I'm ready to risk it if Harkat is," I said.
Harkat shrugged. "The thought of staying doesn't... frighten me."
"Very well," Mr. Crepsley sighed. "But promise me you will abandon the search for the killers while I am absent, and do nothing to endanger yourselves."
"You've no fear on that score," I told him. "Chasing killers is the last thing an my mind. I've something far more terrifying to deal with - homework!"
Mr. Crepsley wished us well, then hurried back to the hotel to gather his belongings and depart. He was gone when we got there, probably already at the edge of the city, getting ready to flit. It felt lonely without him, and a little bit scary, but we weren't too worried. He should only be gone a few weeks at most. What could possibly go wrong in so short a time?
The next fortnight was tough. With Mr. Crepsley out of the city, the hunt for the vampaneze suspended, and the death count stable (nobody new had been killed recently), I was able to concentrate on school - which was just as well, given the amount of work I had to put into it.
Debbie pulled some strings to lighten my load. Guided by her, I played up the effects of the imaginary fire I'd been trapped in and said I'd missed a lot of school. I explained the good marks by saying my father had been best friends with the headmaster of my old school. Mr. Chivers was decidedly unimpressed when he heard that, but Debbie convinced him not to take matters further.
I opted out of modern languages and dropped back a couple of years in maths and science. I felt more peculiar than ever sitting amidst a bunch of thirteen year olds, but at least I was able to follow what they were doing. I still had Mr. Smarts for science, but he was more understanding now that he knew I hadn't been faking ignorance, and spent a lot of time helping me catch up.
I faced difficulties in English, history and geography, but with the extra free periods I had instead of languages, I was able to focus on them and was gradually pulling even with the others in my class.
I enjoyed mechanical drawing and computer studies. My Dad had taught me the basics of MD when I was a kid - he'd hoped I'd go into draughtsmanship when I grew up - and I quickly picked up on what I'd missed. To my surprise, I took to computers like a vampire to blood, aided by my super-fast fingers, which could speed about a keyboard faster than any human typist's.
I had to keep a close watch on my powers. I was finding it hard to make friends - my classmates were still suspicious of me - but I knew I could become popular if I took part in the lunchtime sporting activities. I could shine in any game - football, basketball, handball - and everyone likes a winner. The temptation to show off, and earn a few friends in the process, was strong.
But I resisted. The risk was too great. It wasn't just the possibility that I'd do something superhuman - like leap higher than a professional basketball player - which might tip people off to my powers, but the fear that I might injure somebody. If someone dug me in the ribs while playing football, I might lose my temper and take a punch at him, and my punches could put a human in hospital, or worse - a morgue!
PE was therefore a frustrating class - I had to deliberately mask my strength behind a clumsy, pathetic facade. English, oddly enough, was a pain too. It was great to be with Debbie, but when we were in class we had to act like an ordinary teacher and student. There could be no undue familiarity. We maintained a cool, distant air, which made the forty minutes - eighty on Wednesdays and Fridays, when I had double English - pass with agonizing slowness.
After school and at weekends, when I went round to her apartment for private tuition, it was different. There we could relax and discuss whatever we wanted; we could curl up on the couch with a bottle of wine and watch an old film on the TV, or listen to music and chat about the past.
I ate at Debbie's most nights. She loved cooking, and we experimented with a variety of culinary feasts. I soon put on weight, and had to go jogging late at night to keep myself trim.
But it wasn't all relaxation and good food with Debbie. She was determined to educate me to a satisfactory level and spent two or three hours every evening working on my subjects with me. It wasn't easy for her - apart from being tired after her day at work, she didn't know a lot about maths, science and geography - but she stuck with it and set an example which I felt compelled to follow.
"Your grammar's shaky," she said one night, reading through an essay I'd written, "Your English is good but you have some bad habits you need to break."
"This sentence, for instance: 'John and me went to the store to buy a magazine. What's wrong with that?"
I thought about it. "We went to buy newspapers?" I suggested innocently.
Debbie threw the copy at me. "Seriously," she giggled.
I picked up the copy and studied the sentence. "It should be 'John and I'?" I guessed.
"Yes," she nodded. "You use 'and me' all the time. It's not grammatically correct. You'll have to rise out of it."
"I know," I sighed. "But it'll be tough. I keep a diary, and for the last fifteen years I've been using 'and me' - it just seems more natural."
"Nobody ever said English was natural," Debbie scolded me, then cocked an eyebrow and added, "I didn't know you kept a diary."
"I've kept one since I was nine years old. All my secrets are in it."
"I hope you don't write about me. If it fell into the wrong hands..."
"Hmm," I smirked. "I could blackmail you if I wanted, couldn't I?"
"Just try it," she growled. Then, earnestly, "I really don't think you should write about us, Darren. Or if you do, use a code, or invent a name for me. Diaries can be misplaced, and if word of our friendship leaked, I'd have a hard time setting things straight."
"OK. I haven't included any new entries lately - I've been too busy- but when I do, I'll exercise due discretion." That was one of Debbie's pet phrases.
"And make sure when you're describing us that it's 'Miss X and I', not 'Miss X and me," she said pompously, then screeched as I pounced across the room and set about tickling her until her face turned red!