I couldn't bear to talk to anybody that night. I sat by myself in a seat high up in the football stadium while the show was in progress, thinking about Annie and her child, Mum and Dad, all that I'd lost and missed out on. For the first time in years I felt angry with Mr Crepsley for blooding me. I found myself wondering what life would be like if he'd left me alone, wishing I could go back and change the past.

But there was no point tormenting myself. The past was a closed book. I could do nothing to alter it, and wasn't even sure I would if I could - if I hadn't been blooded, I wouldn't have been able to tip the vampires off about Kurda Smahlt, and the entire clan might have fallen.

If I'd returned home ten or twelve years earlier, my feelings of loss and anger might have been stronger. But I was an adult now, in all but looks. A Vampire Prince. I'd learnt to deal with heartache. That wasn't an easy night. Tears flowed freely. But by the time I drifted off to sleep a few hours before dawn, I'd resigned myself to the situation, and knew there would be no fresh tears in the morning.

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I was stiff with the cold when I awoke, but worked it off by jogging down the tiers of the stadium to where the Cirque was camped. As I was making for the tent I shared with Harkat, I spotted Mr Tall. He was standing by an open fire, roasting sausages on a spit. He beckoned me over and threw a handful of sausages to me, then speared a fresh batch and stuck them over the flames.

"Thanks," I said, eagerly munching the piping-hot sausages.

"I knew you would be hungry," he replied. He looked at me steadily. "You have been to see your sister."

"Yes." It didn't surprise me that he knew. Mr Tall was an insightful old owl.

"Did she see you?" Mr Tall asked.

"She saw me briefly, but I left before she got a good look."

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"You behaved correctly." He turned the sausages over and spoke softly. "You are about to ask me if I will help protect your sister. You fear for her safety."

"Harkat thinks something's going to happen," I said. "He's not sure what, but if Steve Leopard's part of it, he might use Annie to hurt me."

"He won't," Mr Tall said. I was surprised by his directness - normally he was very cagey when it came to revealing anything about the future. "As long as you stay out of her life, your sister will be under no direct threat."

"What aboutin direct threat?" I asked warily.

Mr Tall chuckled. "We are all under indirect threat, one way or another. Harkat is correct - this is a time and place of destiny. I can say no more about it, except leave your sister alone. She is safe that way."

"OK," I sighed. I wasn't happy about leaving Annie to fend for herself, but I trusted Hibernius Tall.

"You should sleep some more now," Mr Tall said. "You are tired."

That sounded like a good plan. I scoffed another sausage, turned to leave, then stopped. "Hibernius," I said without facing him, "I know you can't tell me what's going to happen, but before we came here, you said I didn't have to come. It would have been better if I'd stayed away, wouldn't it?"

There was a long silence. I didn't think he was going to respond. But then, softly, he said, "Yes."

"What if I left now?"

"It is too late," Mr Tall said. "Your decision to return set a train of events in motion. That train cannot be derailed. If you left now, it would only serve the purpose of the forces you oppose."

"But what if?" I said, turning to push the issue. But Mr Tall had disappeared, leaving only the flickering flames and a stick speared with sausages lying on the grass next to the fire.

That evening, after I'd rested and enjoyed a filling meal, I told Harkat about my trip home. I also told him about my short conversation with Mr Tall and how he'd urged me not to get involved with Annie.

"Then you were right," Harkat grunted. "I thought you should involve yourself with? your family again, but it seems I was wrong."

We were feeding scraps of meat to the Wolf Man, part of our daily chores. We stood at a safe distance from his cage, all too aware of the power of his fearsome jaws.

"What about your nephew?" Harkat asked. "Any family resemblance?"

I paused, a large sliver of meat in my right hand. "It's strange, but I didn't think of him as that until now. I just thought of him as Annie's son. I forgot that also makes him my nephew." I grinned crookedly. "I'm an uncle!"

"Congratulations," Harkat deadpanned. "Did he look like you?"

"Not really," I said. I thought of the fair-haired, chubby boy's smile, and how he'd helped Annie bring in the washing. "A nice kid, from what I saw. Handsome, of course, like all the Shans."

"Of course!" Harkat snorted.

I was sorry I hadn't taken more notice of Annie's boy. I didn't even know his name. I thought about going back to ask about him - I could hang about and collar Bridget the gossip again - but dismissed the idea immediately. That was precisely the kind of stunt which could backfire and bring me to Annie's notice. Best to forget about him.

As we were finishing off, I saw a young boy watching us from behind a nearby van. He was studying us quietly, taking care not to attract attention. In the normal run of things, I'd have ignored him - children often came nosing around the Cirque site. But my thoughts were on my nephew and I found myself more interested in the boy than I'd otherwise have been.

"Hello!" I shouted, waving at him. The boy's head instantly vanished behind the van. I would have left it, but moments later the boy stepped out and walked towards us. He looked nervous - understandable, since we were in the presence of the snarling Wolf Man - but he was fighting hard not to show it.

The boy stopped a few metres away and nodded curtly. "Hello," he mumbled. He was scrawny. He had dark blond hair and bright blue eyes. I put his age at somewhere in the region of ten or eleven, maybe a little bit older than Annie's kid, though there couldn't have been much of an age difference. For all I knew they might even be going to school together!

The boy said nothing after greeting us. I was thinking about my nephew and comparing this boy to him, so I said nothing either. Harkat finally broke the silence. "Hi," he said, lowering the mask he wore to filter out air, which was poisonous to him. "I'm Harkat."

"Darius," the boy said, nodding at Harkat, not offering to shake hands.

"And I'm Darren," I smiled.

"You two are with the freak show," Darius said. "I saw you yesterday."

"You've been here before?" Harkat asked.

"A couple of times. I've never seen a freak show before. I tried buying a ticket but nobody will sell me one. I asked the tall guy - he's the owner, isn't he? - but he said it wasn't suitable for children."

"It is a bit on the gruesome side," I said.

"That's why I want to see it," he grunted.

I laughed, remembering what I'd been like at his age. "Tell you what," I said. "Why don't you walk around with us? We can show you some of the performers and tell you about the show. If you still want a ticket, maybe we can sort one out for you then."

Darius squinted at me suspiciously, then at Harkat. "How do I know I can trust you?" he asked. "You might be a pair of kidnappers."

"Oh, you have my word we won't? kidnap you," Harkat purred, treating Darius to his widest grin, displaying his grey tongue and sharp, pointed teeth. "We might feed you to the Wolf Man? but we won't kidnap you."

Darius yawned to show he wasn't impressed by the theatrical threat, then said, "What the hell, I've nothing better to do." Then he tapped his foot and raised an eyebrow impatiently. "Come on!" he snapped. "I'm ready!"

"Yes, master," I laughed, and led the harmless-looking boy on a tour of the Cirque.

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