ARRA SAILS was waiting for Mr. Crepsley and me outside the Hall of Princes. Arra was one of the rare female vampires at Vampire Mountain. She was a fierce fighter, the equal - or better - of most males. We'd fought a contest earlier during my stay, and I'd won her hard-to-earn respect.
"How are you?" she asked, shaking my hand.
"Pretty good," I said.
"I was too, when facing my Trials," she said with a smile. "Only a fool goes into them without feeling anxious. The important thing is not to panic."
"I'll try not to."
Arra cleared her throat. "I hope you don't hold what I said in the Hall of Princes against me." Arra had urged the Princes to make me undertake the Trials. "I don't believe in going easy on vampires, even if they're children. Ours is a hard life, not suited to the weak. As I said in the Hall, I think you'll pass the Trials, but if you don't, I won't step in to plead for your life."
"I understand," I said.
"We're still friends?"
"If you need help preparing, call on me," she said. "I have been through the Trials three times, to prove to myself more than anyone else that I am a worthy vampire. There is very little that I don't know about them."
"We will bear that in mind," Mr. Crepsley said, bowing to her.
"Courteous as ever, Larten," Arra noted. "And as handsome too."
I nearly laughed out loud. Mr. Crepsley - handsome? I'd seen more appealing creatures in the monkey cages in zoos! But Mr. Crepsley took the compliment in stride, as though he were used to such flattery, and bowed again.
"And you are as beautiful as ever," he said.
"I know." She grinned and left. Mr. Crepsley watched her intently as she walked away, a faraway look on his normally solemn face. When he caught me smirking, he scowled.
"What are you grinning about?" he snapped.
"Nothing," I said innocently, then added slyly, "an old girlfriend?"
"If you must know," he said stiffly, "Arra was once my mate."
I blinked. "You mean she was your wife?"
"In a manner of speaking."
I stared, slack-jawed, at the vampire. "You never told me you were married!"
"I am not - anymore - but I used to be."
"What happened - did you get a divorce?"
He shook his head. "Vampires neither marry nor divorce as humans do. We make temporary mating commitments instead."
I frowned. "What?"
"If two vampires wish to mate," he explained, "they agree to share their lives for a set amount of time, usually five or ten years. At the end of that time, they can agree to another five or ten years, or separate. Our relationships are not like those of humans. Since we cannot have children, and live such a long time, very few vampires stay mated for their whole lives."
"That sounds bizarre."
Mr. Crepsley shrugged. "It is the vampire way."
I thought it over. "Do you still have feelings for Arra?" I asked.
"I admire and respect her," he answered.
"That's not what I mean. Do you love her?"
"Oh, look," he said quickly, reddening around his throat, "it is time to present ourselves to the Princes. Hurry - we must not be late." And he took off quickly, as though to avoid more personal questions.
Vanez Blane greeted us inside the Hall of Princes. Vanez was a games master, responsible for maintaining the three gaming Halls and watching over the contestants. He only had one eye, and from the left-hand side he looked awful. But if you saw him from the front or right-hand side, you could tell at a glance that he was a kind, friendly vampire.
"How do you feel?" he asked. "Ready for the Trials?"
"Just about," I replied.
He took me aside and spoke quietly. "You can say no if you want, but I've discussed it with the Princes, and they won't object if you ask me to be your Trials tutor. That means I'd tell you about the challenges and help you prepare for them. I'd be like a second in a duel, or a trainer in a boxing match."
"Sounds good to me," I said.
"You don't mind, Larten?" he asked Mr. Crepsley.
"Not at all," Mr. Crepsley said. "I had planned to be Darren's tutor, but you are much better suited to the job. Are you sure it is not an inconvenience?"
"Of course it isn't," Vanez said firmly.
"Then it is agreed." We all shook hands and smiled at one another.
"It feels strange being the center of so much attention," I said. "So many people are going out of their way to help me. Are you like this with all newcomers?"
"Most of the time - yes," Vanez said. "Vampires look out for each other. We have to - everybody else in the world hates or fears us. A vampire can always depend on help from his own." He winked and added, "Even that cowardly scoundrel Kurda Smahlt."
Vanez didn't really think Kurda was a cowardly scoundrel - he just liked to tease the soon-to-be Prince - but many vampires in the mountain did. Kurda didn't like fighting or war and believed in making peace with the vampaneze. To a lot of vampires, that was unthinkable.
A guard called my name, and I stepped forward, past the circular benches to the platform where the thrones of the Princes were. Vanez stood just behind me, while Mr. Crepsley stayed in his seat - only Trials tutors were allowed to accompany contestants to the platform.
Paris Skyle, a white-haired, grey-bearded Prince - he was also the oldest living vampire - asked if I was willing to accept whatever Trial came my way. I said I was. He announced to the hall in general that the Period of Preparation would be used, and that some Trials had been withdrawn, because of my size and youth. He asked if anyone objected. Mika Ver Leth - who'd suggested the Trials - looked unhappy about the allowances and picked irritably at the folds of his black shirt but said nothing. "Very well," Paris declared. "We shall draw the first Trial."
A bag of numbered stones was brought forward by a green-uniformed guard. I'd been told that there were seventeen stones in it, each with its own number. Each number corresponded to a Trial, and the one I picked would be the Trial I'd have to face.
The guard shook the bag and asked if anyone wanted to examine the stones. One of the Generals raised a hand. This was common practice - the stones were always examined - so I didn't worry about it, just focused on the floor and tried to stop the nervous rumblings of my belly.
When the stones had been checked and approved, the guard shook them up once more, then held the bag out to me. Closing my eyes, I reached in, grabbed the first stone I touched, and drew it out. "Number eleven," the guard shouted. "The Aquatic Maze."
The vampires in the Hall mumbled softly among themselves.
"Is that good or bad?" I asked Vanez while the stone was taken up for the Princes to verify.
"It depends," he said. "Can you swim?"
"Then it's as good a first Trial as any. Things could have been worse."
Once the stone had been checked and put aside so that it couldn't be drawn again, Paris told me that I would be expected to report for the Trial at dusk tomorrow. He wished me luck - he said business would keep him away, though one of the other Princes would be present - then dismissed me. Leaving the Hall, I hurried away with Vanez and Mr. Crepsley to prepare for my first test and brush with death.