The awful hush that followedKurda's proclamation seemed to last an eternity. Finally, Seba Nile rose slowly, pointed a trembling finger at Kurda, and spat, "You lie!"
Kurda shook his head stubbornly. "I don't."
"You have seen this Vampaneze Lord?" Seba asked.
"No," Kurda said. "I would have killed him if I had."
"Then how do you know he exists?"
Kurda shrugged in response.
"Answer him!" Paris thundered.
"The vampaneze have a unique coffin," Kurda said. "They call it the Coffin of Fire. Mr. Tiny bestowed it upon them many centuries ago, around the same time that he gave us this magical dome in which we stand. Ever since, it has been guarded by a troop of vampaneze who call themselves the Carriers of Destiny.
"The coffin is like any other - until someone lies down in it and the lid is put in place. Then the coffin fills with a terrible fire. If the person is destined to lead the vampaneze, he will emerge unscathed. Otherwise, he perishes in the flames.
"Over the decades, many vampaneze have braved the Coffin of Fire - and died. But six months ago a human lay down in it, faced the flames, and came out whole. He is the Lord of the Vampaneze, and once he has been blooded, every member of the clan will obey and follow him - to the death, if required."
The Princes stared at Kurda uncertainly, fearfully, until Paris asked in a whisper, "Were you there when this human was tested?"
"No," Kurda replied. "Only the Carriers of Destiny were present."
"Then this might be only a rumor," Paris said hopefully. "A tall tale."
"Vampaneze never lie," Kurda reminded him. "Perhaps they've changed," Mika mused. "The Stone of Blood would be worth a few lies. They could have tricked you, Kurda."
Again Kurda shook his head. "Many vampaneze are as troubled by the coming of their Lord as we are. They don't seek a war. They fear the losses such a struggle would incur. That's why thirty-eight agreed to accompany me on this mission. They hoped to prevent total, all-out conflict, sparing their colleagues and friends."
"You keep talking about preventing a war and saving us," Paris noted. "I do not see how you thought betraying our cause could be of any help."
"I intended to force a union," Kurda explained. "When I heard that the Vampaneze Lord had been unearthed, I knew it was too late to put in place a fair peace agreement. Weighing my options - which were few - I decided to chance a coup. Had I succeeded, vampires everywhere would have been at the mercy of the vampaneze. Those in the Hall of Princes could have communicated with their kin and, via the Stone of Blood, fed them the exact location of most living vampires. Our people would have had no choice but to agree to my terms."
"And what would they have been?" Paris asked contemptuously.
"That we join the ranks of the vampaneze," Kurda answered. "I'd hoped for an equal union, where vampires and vampaneze each made concessions. Given the change of circumstances, that was impossible. We'd have had to adopt the vampaneze ways and customs. But that would have been preferable to annihilation."
"Not for me," Arrow growled. "I'd have rather died."
"I'm sure others would too," Kurda agreed. "But I believe most would have seen sense. Even if they hadn't, and you all chose to fight to the death, at least I'd have tried."
"What was in it for you, Kurda?" Mika asked. "Did the vampaneze promise you a title? Are there to be Princes in the new regime?"
"The vampaneze made no offers," Kurda replied shortly. "Many wish to avoid a war, so a few dozen volunteers - brave men, who you killed like vermin - agreed to risk their lives and assist me. We had no ulterior motives. We did it for your sakes, not our own."
"Very noble of you, Kurda," Mika sneered.
"Nobler than you imagine!" Kurda snapped, losing his cool. "Have you no brains? Don't you see the sacrifice I made?"
"What sacrifice?" Mika asked, taken aback.
"Win or lose," Kurda said, "my reward would have been death. The vampaneze despise traitors even more than we do. Had everything worked out, I'd have remained within the Hall of Princes to oversee the merging of the clans. Then, when our people's future was assured, I'd have offered myself for sentencing and suffered the very same fate which awaits me now."
"You expect us to believe the vampaneze would have killed the man who presented their archenemies to them?" Mika laughed.
"You'll believe it because it's true," Kurda said. "Neither the vampires nor vampaneze will suffer a traitor to live. That law is written in the hearts of each and every member of the clans. The vampaneze who came with me would have been heroes - they'd broken none of their own laws, except trespassing on vampire turf - but me, a man who'd betrayed his own?" Kurda shook his head. "There was nothing 'in it' for me, Mika, and you're a fool if you believe any different."
Kurda's words disturbed the vampires. I saw them gazing around at one another, ominous questions in their eyes and on their tongues. "Perhaps he wants us to reward him instead of dropping him on the stakes," someone cackled, but no one laughed.
"I expect and ask for no mercy," Kurda responded. "My only wish is that you remember what I tried to do in the difficult years to come. I had only the best interests of the clan at heart. I hope one night you see that and acknowledge it."
"If all you have said is true," Paris Skyle commented, "why did you not come to us? If we had known about the Vampaneze Lord, we could have taken steps to stamp him out."
"By killing every living vampaneze?" Kurda asked bitterly.
"If we had to." Paris nodded.
"That was not my wish," Kurda sighed. "I sought to save lives, not take them. Fighting won't save the vampires, not if Mr. Tiny's prophecy is valid. But a union - before the threat could come to pass - might have saved us.
"I can't say I was right," Kurda continued. "For all I know, my actions will provide the spark which leads to war and destruction. But I had to try. I believed it was in my hands to divert the course of fate. Right or wrong, I couldn't willingly surrender my people to Mr. Tiny's grim prophecy."
Kurda trained his gaze on me. "I have few regrets," he said. "I took a chance, and it didn't pan out - that's life. My one real source of sorrow is that I had to kill Gavner Purl. It was not my wish to shed blood. But the plan came first. The future of our people as a whole outweighed that of any individual. I'd have killed a dozen more like Gavner if I had to - even a hundred, if it meant safeguarding the lives of the rest."
With that, Kurda drew his case to a close and refused to say any more about his betrayal. The Princes asked him if he knew where the Vampaneze Lord was, or what the vampaneze were planning, but in answer he just shook his head.
The Princes opened the questioning to the floor, but none of the vampires accepted the invitation to address the fallen General. They looked downcast and ashamed of themselves now. None of them liked Kurda or approved of what he'd done, but they had come to respect him and regretted the way they'd treated him earlier.
When a suitable period of silence had elapsed, Paris nodded at the guards on the platform to position Kurda before the Princes. When he was standing in front of them, Paris reflected inwardly for a few minutes, gathering his thoughts. When ready, he spoke. "I am troubled by what you have said. I would rather you had been a nefarious traitor, out for profit and personal gain. That way I could sentence you to death with a clear conscience and no hesitation.
"I believe you acted in good faith. It may even be as you say, that by thwarting your plans, we have condemned ourselves to defeat at the hands of the vampaneze. Maybe it would have been for the best if Darren had not chanced upon your colleagues in the cave, or survived to carry news of them back.
"But you were discovered, you were revealed, and the vampaneze were dispatched by all bloody means possible. There is no way to change these things, even if we wished to. The future may be bleak, but we shall face it on our feet, as vampires, with firm hearts and wills, as is our way.
"I have sympathy for you, Kurda," he continued. "You acted as you thought you must, without consideration for yourself, and for that you are to be commended. However, you also acted without consideration for our laws and ways, and for that you must be punished. There is only one fitting punishment for the crime you have committed, and it is absolute - execution.?
A heavy collective sigh swept through the Hall. "Had I a choice," Paris went on, "I would grant you the right to die on your feet, as a vampire, with pride. You do not deserve to die ignominiously, bound and blindfolded, impaled on stakes from behind. I would let you embark on a series of harsh tests, one after the other, until you perished honorably. And I would drink a toast to your name as you were being cremated whole.
"But, as a Prince, I have no choice. Whatever your reasons, you betrayed us, and that harsh fact of life overrules my own wishes." Rising, Paris pointed at Kurda and said, "I vote that he be taken to the Hall of Death and summarily executed. After that, he should be dismembered before cremation, so that his soul may never know Paradise."
After a brief pause, Mika Ver Leth stood and pointed as Paris was pointing. "I don't know if it's just or not," he sighed, "but we must obey the customs that guide and maintain us. I too vote for the Hall of Death and shameful cremation."
Arrow stood and pointed. "The Hall of Death," he said simply.
"Does anyone care to speak on behalf of the traitor?" Paris asked. There was complete silence. "We may be persuaded to reconsider our judgment if there is opposition," he said. Still no one spoke.
I stared at the pitiful figure in front of me and thought of how he'd made me feel at home when I arrived at Vampire Mountain, how he'd treated me like a friend, joked with me, and shared his knowledge and years of experience. I remembered when he knocked Arra Sails off the bars, and how he'd offered his hand to her, the look of hurt on his face when she refused to take it. I recalled how he'd saved my life and gone out on a limb for my sake, risking even the success of his mission to help me out of a jam. I wouldn't be here now, alive, if not for Kurda Smahlt.
I started to rise, to speak up for him and request a less horrible form of retribution. Then Gavner's face flashed through my mind, and Arra's, and I stopped to think what he'd have done if Mr. Crepsley, Seba, or any others had gotten in his way. He would have killed all of them if he'd had to. He wouldn't have taken pleasure in it, but he wouldn't have stopped either. He'd have done what he felt needed to be done, the same as any true-hearted vampire.
Sinking back, I shook my head miserably and held my tongue. This was too big. It wasn't for me to decide. Kurda had fashioned his own downfall. He must stand alone to face it. I felt lousy, not sticking up for him, but I'd have felt just as lousy if I had.
When it became apparent that the judgment of the Princes was not going to be called into question, Paris signaled the guards on the platform, who surrounded Kurda and stripped him bare. Kurda said nothing as they robbed him of his clothes and pride, just gazed up at the roof of the Hall.
When Kurda was naked, Paris held his fingers together tight, dipped them in a bowl of snake's blood that had been hidden behind his throne, and ran his hand over Kurda's chest. Mika and Arrow followed suit, leaving three ugly red marks - the sign among the vampires for a traitor or one of bad standing.
Once Kurda had been marked, his guards led him away. Nobody spoke or made a sound. He kept his head bowed low as he exited, but I saw tears dripping down his cheeks as he passed. He was lonely and scared. I wanted to comfort him, but it was too late for that. Better to let him pass without delay.
This time, as he was guided past the assembled vampires, nobody jeered or tried to harm him. There was a brief pause when he reached the open doors, to clear the way through the vampires packed beyond, then he was escorted out of the Hall and down through the tunnels to the Hall of Death, where he was caged, blindfolded, raised above the pit of stakes, then brutally and painfully executed. And that was the end of the traitor... my friend... Kurda Smahlt.