THE THREE VAMPIRE PRINCES in attendance were Paris Skyle, Mika Ver Leth, and Arrow. (The absent Prince was called Vancha March.)
Paris Skyle had a long gray beard, flowing white hair, and no right ear, and he was the oldest living vampire, at eight hundred earth years or more. He was worshiped by the others, not only for his immense age and position, but for his exploits when he was younger - according to the legends, Paris Skyle had been everywhere and done everything. A lot of the tales were outrageous - he'd sailed with Columbus to America and introduced vampirism to the New World, fought beside Joan of Arc (a vampire sympathizer, apparently), and provided the inspiration for Bram Stoker's infamous Dracula. But that didn't mean the tales weren't true - vampires were, by their very existence, amazing creatures.
Mika Ver Leth was the youngest Vampire Prince, a ?mere" two hundred and seventy. He had shiny black hair and piercing eyes, like a raven's, and he dressed all in black. He looked even sterner than Mr. Crepsley - his forehead was creased with wrinkles, as were the sides of his mouth - and I got the feeling he rarely smiled, if at all.
Arrow was a thickly built bald man, with long tattoos of arrows adorning his arms and the sides of his head. He was a fearsome fighter whose hatred of the vampaneze was legendary. He'd been married to a human before becoming a General, but she had been killed by a vampaneze who'd come to fight Arrow. He returned to the fold, sullen and withdrawn, and trained to be a General. Since then he had devoted himself to his work, to the exclusion of all else.
All three Princes were burly, muscular men. Even the ancient Paris Skyle looked like he could toss an ox over his shoulder using a single hand.
"Greetings, Larten," Paris said to Mr. Crepsley, stroking his long gray beard and studying the vampire with warm eyes. "It is good to see you in the Hall of Princes. I did not think I would look upon your face again."
"I vowed I would be back," Mr. Crepsley replied, bowing before the Prince.
"I never doubted it." Paris smiled. "I just did not think I would be alive to welcome you. I have grown long of tooth, old friend. My nights are numbered."
"You will outlive us all, Paris," Mr. Crepsley said.
"We shall see," Paris said with a sigh. He fixed his gaze on me while Mr. Crepsley bowed to the other Princes. When the vampire returned to my side, the old Prince said, "This must be your assistant - Darren Shan. Gavner Purl has spoken approvingly of him."
"He is of good blood and strong heart," Mr. Crepsley said. "A fine assistant, who will one night make a first-rate vampire."
"One night indeed!" Mika Ver Leth snorted, squinting at me in a way I didn't like. "He's just a boy! This is no time for children to be admitted to our ranks. What possessed you to -"
"Please, Mika," Paris Skyle interrupted. "Let us not speak rashly. All here know the character of Larten Crepsley. We must treat him with the respect he has earned. I do not know why he chose to blood a child, but I am certain he can explain."
"I just think it's crazy, in this night and age." Mika Ver Leth grumbled his way to silence. When he was still, Paris turned to me and smiled.
"You must forgive us, Darren, if we seem discourteous. We are unused to children. It has been a long time since any were presented before us."
"I'm not really a child," I muttered. "I've been a half-vampire for eight years. It's not my fault my body hasn't aged."
"Precisely!" Mika Ver Leth snapped. "It's the fault of the vampire who blooded you. He -"
"Mika!" Paris snapped. "This vampire of noble standing and his assistant have come before us in good faith, to seek our approval. Whether we grant it or not, they deserve to be heard politely, not challenged rudely in front of their colleagues."
Mika collected himself, stood, and bowed to us. "Sorry," he said through gritted teeth. "I spoke out of turn. I will not do so again."
A murmur spread through the Hall. From the whispers, I gathered that it was most unusual for a Prince to apologize to an inferior, especially one who was no longer a General.
"Come, Larten," Paris said, as chairs were brought forward for us. "Sit and tell us what you have been up to since last we met."
Once we were seated, Mr. Crepsley ran through his story. He told the Princes of his association with the Cirque Du Freak, the places he'd been, the people he'd met. When he came to the part about Murlough, he asked to speak to the Princes in private. He told them in whispers of the mad vampaneze, and how we'd killed him. They were disturbed by the news.
"This is worrisome," Paris mused aloud. "If the vampaneze find out, they could use it as an excuse to start a war!"
"How could they?" Mr. Crepsley responded. "I am no longer part of the clan."
"If they were suitably enraged, they could overlook that," Mike Ver Leth said. "If the rumor of the Vampaneze Lord is true, we must tread very carefully where our blood cousins are concerned."
"Still," Arrow said, contributing to the conversation for the first time, "I don't think Larten erred. It would be different if he were a General, but as a free agent, he is not bound by our laws. Were I in his position, I'd have done the same thing. He acted discreetly. I don't think we can fault him for that."
"No," Mika agreed. Glancing at me, he added, "Not for that."
With the matter of Murlough out of the way, we returned to our chairs and raised our voices so that everyone in the Hall could hear.
"Now," Paris Skyle said, adopting a grave expression. "It is time we returned to the business of your assistant. We all know that the world has changed vastly these last few centuries. Humans are more protective of one another and their laws are stricter than ever, particularly with regard to their young. That is why we no longer blood children. Even in the past, we blooded few of them. It has been ninety years since we last added a child to our ranks. Tell us, Larten, why you decided to break with recent tradition."
Mr. Crepsley cleared his throat and locked eyes with the Princes, one after the other, until they settled on Mika. "I have no valid reason," he said calmly, and the Hall erupted into barely contained shouts and muffled, hurried conversations.
"There will be quiet in the Hall!" Paris shouted, and all noise ceased at once. He looked troubled when he faced us. "Come, Larten, do not play games. You would not blood a boy out of simple whimsy. There must be a reason. Did you kill his parents, perhaps, and decide it was your place to take care of him?"
"His parents are alive," Mr. Crepsley said.
"Both of them?" Mika snapped.
"Then they are looking for him?" Paris asked.
"No. We faked his death. They buried him. They think he is dead."
"That much at least you did right," Paris murmured. "But why blood him in the first place?" When Mr. Crepsley didn't answer, Paris turned to me and asked, "Darren? Do you know why he blooded you?"
Hoping to bail the vampire out of trouble, I said, "I found out the truth about him, so maybe part of it was to protect himself - he might have figured that he had to make me his assistant or kill me."
"That is a reasonable excuse," Paris noted.
"But not the truth," Mr. Crepsley said, and sighed. "I was never afraid of being exposed by Darren. In fact, the only reason he discovered the truth about me was because I tried to blood a friend of his, a boy his own age."
The Hall erupted into controversy, and it took the barking Princes several minutes to quiet the vampires. When order was finally restored, Paris resumed the questioning, more troubled than ever. "You tried to blood another boy?"
Mr. Crepsley nodded. "But his blood was tainted with evil - he would not have made a good vampire."
"Let me get this straight," Mika said angrily. "You tried blooding one boy, but couldn't; his friend found out, so you blooded him instead?"
"That is about the sum of it," Mr. Crepsley agreed. "I also blooded him in a rush, without revealing the full truth of our ways, which was unpardonable. In my defense I will add that I studied him at great length before blooding him, and was convinced of his honesty and strength of character when I did."
"What drew you to the first boy - the one with evil blood?" Paris asked.
"He knew who I was. He had seen a portrait of me in an old book, drawn long ago when I was using the name of Vur Horston. He asked to become my assistant."
"Didn't you explain our ways to him?" Mika asked. "Didn't you tell him we don't blood children?"
"I tried, but..." Mr. Crepsley shook his head miserably. "It was as though I had no control over myself. I knew it was wrong, but I would have blooded him regardless, if not for his foul blood. I cannot explain why, because I do not understand it."
"You'll have to come up with a better argument than that," Mika warned him.
"I cannot," Mr. Crepsley said softly, "because I have none."
There was a polite cough behind us and Gavner Purl stepped forward. "May I intervene on my friend's behalf?" he asked.
"By all means," Paris said. "We welcome your input, if it can clear things up."
"I don't know if it can do that," Gavner said, "but I'd like to note that Darren is an extraordinary boy. He made the trek to Vampire Mountain - no small feat for one his age - and fought a bear poisoned with vampaneze blood along the way. I'm sure you have heard of his contest with Arra Sails a few nights ago."
"We have." Paris chuckled.
"He is bright and brave, wily and honest. I believe he has the makings of a fine vampire. Given the chance, I think he'll excel. He's young, but younger vampires than him have come through the ranks. You were only two years old when you were blooded, weren't you, sire?" he asked Paris Skyle.
"That's not the point!" Mika Ver Leth shouted. "This boy could be the next Khledon Lurt and it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference. Facts are facts - vampires no longer blood children. It will set a dangerous precedent if we let this pass without taking action."
"Mika is right," Arrow said softly. "The boy's courage and ability are not the issue. Larten acted poorly in blooding the boy, and we must address that."
Paris nodded slowly. "They speak the truth, Larten. It would be wrong of us to ignore this. You yourself would never have tolerated such a breach of the rules were you in our position."
"I know," Mr. Crepsley said with a sigh. "I do not seek forgiveness, merely consideration. And I ask that no reprisals be taken against Darren. The fault is mine, and I alone should be punished."
"I don't know about punishment," Mika said uncomfortably. "I'm not out to make an example of you. Dragging your good name through the muck is the last thing on my mind."
"None of us wish to do that," Arrow agreed. "But what option have we? He did wrong - we must address that wrong."
"But we must address it mercifully," Paris mused.
"I ask for no mercy," Mr. Crepsley said stiffly. "I am not a young vampire who acted out of ignorance. I expect no special treatment. If you decide I am to be executed, I will accept your verdict without complaint. If-"
"They can't kill you because of me!" I gasped.
"If you decide I must be tested," he continued, ignoring my outburst, "I will rise to any challenge you care to set, and die meeting it if I must."
"There will be no challenge," Paris huffed. "We reserve challenges for those who have not proven themselves in battle. I will say once again - your good standing is not in question."
"Perhaps...," Arrow said hesitantly, then lapsed into silence. A few seconds later, he resumed. "I think I have it. The talk of challenges gave me an idea. There is a way to resolve this without killing our old friend or soiling his good name." Pointing a finger at me, he said coolly, "Let's set a challenge for the boy."