2004 Romance Writers of America Rita Award Finalist
Nominated, Romantic Times Book Club, Best Historical Paranormal Romance of 2003
2004 Holt Medallion Finalist, Paranormal category
Simone de la Fer paid a high price for youthful indiscretion. Forced into a vampire's world of darkness, she uses the powers of her curse to help victims of the French Revolution. British spy Michael Corday lives a dark life of his own, though one forged from childhood scars.
The two join forces to complete their respective missions, never dreaming each would be the other's salvation. This story would be noteworthy enough for its female vampire, a rarity in the romance world, but Harbaugh paints a poignant portrait of all forms of faith lost and reclaimed, and of redemption, against a richly detailed canvas of the chaos of turn-of-the-nineteenth-century France.
The small yacht that left from a hidden shore was sturdy and slim, and cut through the water like a knife. Corday watched as the dim white shores faded into gray in the night. He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in the dank salt air. The cold wind scored the skin of his face with icy fingers and lifted his hair from his scalp. He should go belowdecks and stay as warm as he could, but he always stood on deck when leaving England. Pulling his coat closer around him, he shrugged his shoulders, then thrust his hands in his pockets. How sentimental. But he supposed, after all these years of leaving, he should be allowed some sentimentality.
He watched the faint gray in the distance turn dark at last, then walked across the deck to the stairs that led to his chambers below. As he entered his room, he could hear the shush-shush sound of the water against the creaking hull, and the footsteps of sailors above; oddly soothing sounds. Perhaps it was because he was relatively safe here; it was a small reprieve before pulling on the cloak of wariness and sensitivity to danger once he went ashore. Safe...he must be getting on in years, to be thinking of such things. Better to think of the assignment before him.
Opening a small chest, he pulled out the papers Sir Robert had given him, as well as notes collected from his various sources. He brought near the lantern he had left lit when he last left his room, then examined the papers. Sir Robert was very thorough, which Corday appreciated; his supervisor had detailed each movement, each incident thought to relate to the man Corday was to seek, as reported by Johnson and Bramley.
Corday tapped his fingers against the wooden table as he thought over the man’s movements, the course of the revolution, and areas of unrest. Every right had been suspended since the summer, and even the powerful Church was in fear. He smiled cynically. The leaders of the Revolution were said to be the most intelligent and educated of men, and yet they worshipped slogans and let empty words do the thinking for them. Of all people, the intelligent were among the most easily manipulated, for they often thought they were beyond manipulation.
The man he sought was a master manipulator; he seemed to have his fingers in every pie, both social and political, and certainly criminal. He went by different names, and even sometimes seemed to have a different appearance from time to time, but Corday shrugged at that. It was a simple thing to fool people regarding one’s appearance. But the man’s influence was web-like, with strands connecting him here and there to people of influence. And yet, Corday doubted that those very people the man influenced knew exactly who he was.
How very spider-like, Corday thought, then smiled. That would be what he would call him: the Spider. Much easier than calling him “the man,” and besides, who knew which of the names he called himself was his own?
So much like yourself, said a little part of his mind. Corday’s smile turned wry. But of course. It was the very nature of gathering information, was it not? He had half contemplated not going on this mission; he could be entering into a trap. Sir Robert had mentioned an infiltrator, after all. But would he have mentioned it to him if he himself was the infiltrator, and intended to trap him? Probably not. It would have been simpler not to have mentioned it at all, and have let Corday himself find out about Johnson’s and Bramley’s deaths when it was too late to turn back.
And so, he was going. It did not take long for his contacts to give him the information he needed. They were efficient and careful, and did their job well. Indeed, he even had some inkling as to who the infiltrator might be. Should he inform Sir Robert? Perhaps. It depended on whether he could get the information to his superior without anyone knowing about it. He would have to see.
He shuffled through the papers again, reading them once more. He had been in Paris before, but had not dealt much with the docks, or with those involved in the French side of smuggling. That would be his weakness. It might be possible to find help in this. He had heard of aristocrats--trying to escape the guillotine--being smuggled out of France...perhaps a trade of services. He even had a few contacts to lead him to those smugglers of humanity. Corday grimaced. There was no counting on such a thing, however. He might have to rely on bribery or threats, but those were uncertain ways of dealing with informants at best....
The watch above decks, calling out the hour, made him aware that his eyes were closing. He rubbed his face with his hands. He was getting old to be so tired. No, not so old--he was only thirty two. But he felt old--ancient, even. He sighed. It was a warning to him. He needed to be wary, more watchful, especially of himself. He would sleep, and then be ready for what was before him. Slowly, he tore up the papers, burned them bit by bit with the candle in his room, then brushed away the ashes. He checked his weapons and put his dagger under his pillow before he settled himself for sleep.
A light jolt woke him; the setting of the anchor, he supposed. It was time. He gathered together his belongings into his bag, then hung the bag from his shoulder--he would go about as a common man, an itinerant storyteller and scribe, and--Corday smiled slightly--a very harmless individual. If he needed more, then he had his resources, though he preferred not to use them. He had, also, a dagger strapped to his leg and another to his arm, and a pistol--very plain, and purposely crude-looking, but of German make and very well balanced and straight-shooting. One could never be too careful in this lawless land, after all.
He nodded to the captain as he stepped down into the small rowboat that eventually took him to shore. The captain had nodded back, but did not address him--it was better this way. There was no need for names. He was sure the captain was involved in smuggling goods, and would prefer no questions.
When his feet touched the shore, it was still dark, near dawn. The cold humid wind promised wet misery, though Corday could still see the moon’s fugitive light through passing clouds. He hurried his steps; he did not want to appear to have arrived from the ship, but from some distance down. A mile, perhaps, and along the shore, and the tide would wash away his footsteps before the sun rose. Then he could turn to the woods, and find some slight shelter there if he could not find a suitable hedge tavern or inn.
And then a sound: a creaking, a rustling from ahead--the stomp of hooves, the sound of a wagon. Not, Corday thought, an enemy. The sleepy cry of a child quickly hushed spoke of farmers, perhaps, or fishermen, although he had been told he’d be far away from any such. He frowned at first, then grinned. Perhaps the ship he had just left had another sort of smuggling career in addition to French brandy--he had suspected as much, but it was rare that a man involved in smuggling goods would also be smuggling for humanitarian reasons.
Perhaps the captain was well paid to do it. In which case, Corday thought, it was possible that the organizer of this effort was not only well moneyed, but even very knowledgeable and had useful resources. Corday sank down behind a small hillock near the woods, then took out his pistol. He would watch, and perhaps cultivate this person’s acquaintance once his task was done.
A large wagon came close to the shore and trundled near him; a cloaked figure sat atop it. The wind wafted the smell of stale, dirty straw to him--it seemed the wagon was filled with it. Then it stopped, and the hay moved.
“Allez-vous! Vite, vite!” The voice was low and husky--a boy, it seemed drove the wagon--or no, perhaps a woman. Clearly the French side of this smuggling scheme. A sob, then a hushing sound came from the wagon, and the mound upon it rustled and moved furiously as a man leaped down, and gave his hand to a woman clutching a bundle--a baby, from the way it moved. Two more people climbed from it, one an elderly, bent shape, one a child. “Quickly! You must go, hurry, down to the ship--do you see it?”
The man bowed before the figure on the wagon. “Merci, merci, our rescuer--”
The cloaked one waved an impatient hand. “No time! Go, quickly! I will have your thanks later, if we meet, if le bon Dieu so wills. Go now!”
The man stumbled back, then got his footing, and hurried the family beside him down the shore.
A shout from near the woods, and gunfire, and the man fell.
“Henri!” His wife beside him sank to her knees and pulled at his arm. The cloaked figure at the wagon was gone.
“Damn,” Corday muttered, and settled his pistol on his arm. The Revolution’s Public Safety corps, no doubt, and eager to catch aristocratic prey. He glanced at the couple huddled together, and at the old man who shielded the boy with his body. The man next to the woman groaned, and made a staggering step upward. Not dead yet. Good. One of the agents came forward, swaggering. Corday took careful aim.
At nothing. He blinked.
A high keening wail rose in the air, raising the hair on his neck, and then the thump of a body sounded near the hillock he sat behind. The old man sank to his knees and crossed himself. “La Flamme!” he cried. “Ah, Dieu merci!
What the devil?
A dark shape whirled in front of him, and then away into the woods. A cut-off cry of mixed terror and pain, and then the cloaked figure emerged again, crouched low, a hunter’s stance, searching, searching.
Good. She hadn’t run away.
The flicker of moonlight on metal caught Corday’s eye--another agent--and he turned his pistol and pulled the trigger. Another cry, and the bushes crashed. Three. He slid the dagger down from his sleeve, then primed his pistol again--not easy in the dark, but he could do it. There could be others; he had heard the agents rarely came in few numbers when there was a fugitive family to arrest. Perhaps one or two more.
Another man came at the cloaked one, but the cape swirled again and the man fell. Four. Perhaps another--? One more agent leaped at the smuggler from behind, and Corday shot. The man fell upon his prey, a dead weight. Five. Corday smiled.
He primed his pistol once more and waited. A low noise came from under one agent’s body and it heaved. Corday tensed, then relaxed, remembering that it was the last one he had shot. The noise grew louder, and he grinned, recognizing French curses.
The body turned over, and the cloaked one rose from beneath it. “Idiots!” she said. “So stupid they shoot themselves in their haste to catch us.” The dark figure looked to the family huddled on the shore and strode toward them. “Can he walk?”
“Yes, monsieur,” replied the man. “The bleeding is not bad. My good wife has bound the wound.” Monsieur? Was the cloaked one a youth after all? Corday pursed his lips in thought. Her--or his--voice was just in the range that could belong to a boy in the midst of adolescence, or to a woman with a deep contralto voice.
The figure paused, gazing toward the east, then said, “Nevertheless, I will help you. Come, take my hand.”
Corday wondered if he should accompany them, perhaps even offer help. But the cloaked one took the weight of the injured man as if he weighed less than a feather, and the group trudged forward. No, he would let the youth--or woman--take the family, and follow at a discreet distance. There was no need to let the refugees know of his presence--better if they did not, in fact.
He skirted close to the woods, so that his form would blend against the shadows of the trees and small rises here and there, and watched the group carefully. The injured man seemed not too hurt; he managed a limping walk after a while.
It was indeed the boat he had just left that took in the refugees. He watched as the family was transported to the yacht while their rescuer stood silent on the shore, the only movement a brief flapping of the cloak in the breeze. At last, the ship lifted anchor, and glided out to sea.
Corday moved behind a tree before the figure turned and walked back along the beach, then pulled out his pistol. The cloaked one was quick, and if he, or she--it--needed persuading, it was best if the pistol was ready.
The figure stopped.
“If you were going to shoot me, monsieur, I think you would have done so by now.”
Corday raised his brows--he thought he had been very quiet, very discreet. The cloaked one must be quick-witted as well. He stepped out from the shadows. “True. However, one can never be too careful,” he replied.
“Your accent is very good, but not from...Normandy, I believe?” The dark figure before him turned slowly, seeming to look at him.
“You may believe what you will.”
The figure gave a shrug. “It matters not. I have things to do, so if you will excuse me, monsieur....” La Flamme bowed, and walked away.
Corday’s pistol cocked with an audible click. The cloaked one stopped again.
“If you think to shoot me, do it now, unless you want something of me. Money? You would have done better to have shot me earlier and given me to the Committee of Public Safety.” The figure bend its head, apparently in thought. “Therefore, it is something else. Let me see.... Perhaps you are a desperate man, in need of some aid. Perhaps you think I can give you some information.” Its hands came up to its waist. “In either case, I tell you I will not be persuaded by gunpoint.”
Perhaps it was the cloaked one’s mocking voice or posture of seeming unconcern and defiance, but something about him--surely male because of that defiance--made Corday want to laugh; the youth in front of him was a mouse compared to what he faced, and yet he acted as if he were a lion. Corday suppressed his brimming chuckle. “You might be persuaded by pain, however,” he said instead.
The figure cast a hurried glance at the eastern horizon again, where the merest brush of light appeared. “So I might,” he conceded. “But if you shoot me, who is to say that I would not be so overcome by pain, that I would be incapable of giving you what you want?” He stamped his foot--the cloaked one must be young, Corday thought. “I have no time for this. I must leave, and so must you. When these agents do not return with those they sought, they will seek both of us, which I am sure you do not want.”
Corday’s brows drew together in a frown. “What, are they not all dead?”
“You may have killed them--and yes, I know you must have been the one who shot them, though I said differently--but I did my best not to, only injure them enough to put them out until the day dawns...which is soon, too soon.”
Irritation shot through Corday, but he uncocked his gun and put it away. “You should have killed them.”
“I will not have more blood on my hands.” The cloaked one spat out the words.
“Very noble, but very impractical.” More blood. So the cloaked one had killed before. Male, then, and one whose voice had not yet turned; few women had the stomach to kill at all. It meant, of course, that the youth could kill again. Good, if it meant that they would have to join forces for a while. Bad, if it meant that the youth would be inclined some time in the future to kill him. However, the latter was not that bothersome; the cloaked one was a youth, and Corday was a man who had killed since youth. And he was, as always, watchful.
“I have no time to talk to you. I must go.” The cloaked one turned and walked swiftly away.
Corday hesitated for a moment, then followed, catching up with a few quick steps. “Very well then: I believe you might be the one who could give me the aid I require.”
“And you sought to persuade me with your so elegant manners!” the cloaked one replied sarcastically.
This time Corday did chuckle. “You are a dangerous one, mon petit. It was the only way I believed I could get your attention.”
A reluctant laugh emerged from the youth. “Should I be flattered?”
The hood of the cloak flicked upward for a moment, as if the youth gave him a sharp glance. “As you, too, are dangerous.”
“Not I. I am merely a scribe and itinerant storyteller.”
A disbelieving snort burst from beneath the hood. “You are no more a scribe and storyteller than I am a v--violet.”
“Violet, you would be surprised at how good my hand is, and what stories I can tell.”
“No, I would not be surprised since you are bent on telling me a story now, but you are neither.”
Corday shrugged and grinned. “I will not convince you, I see.”
“What do you want of me?”
“Company...to Paris, if that is where you are going.”
Corday’s grin grew wider. The cloaked one was no fool. “Information, of course, which I will request of you later if you agree.”
“I work alone, monsieur.”
“As do I, so I appreciate the sentiment. However, there comes a time when company is useful...such as in accomplishing a complicated goal.”
The sky was lightening now, but though the path before them grew more clear, the cloaked one’s quick steps slowed, and his breath grew more labored.
“Think, boy. Much of your work seems best done at night. What would you say if we traveled together, both day and night? You say you work alone--I am sure the authorities know it. They would not be looking for a pair. Throwing them off the scent would accomplish your goal all the faster.”
The cloaked one had turned from the path, and into the woods. Corday followed, and almost bumped into the youth when he stopped abruptly.
“There is something in what you say,” the youth said. His voice was not much above a whisper, muffled perhaps by the hood.
“And you must know by now that if I meant you harm, I would have killed you at the start, instead of helping you.” Corday paused, then said: “I have no love for your Revolution, after all.”
A tired chuckle floated out of the hood, and then a large sigh. “English, then, if you are not a Royalist from Normandy.” The figure seemed to waver for a moment. “Very well. There is an inn some ways from here, loyal to our poor king, though they hide it well, called “La Liberté.” You may meet me there tonight, at nightfall. You will arrive there near noon--ask them for a lamp to light your room, and they will know I sent you.”
“That is all very well, but how do I know you will meet me, and what is more, how will I recognize you?”
“I have told you of the loyalty of the inn, and this is a danger to them if you prove to be false. That should be enough of a guarantee.”
“And how will I know you?”
“You will know me by this.” The cloaked one stood straight, and thrust out his hands from beneath his sleeves.
Each arm was wrapped in rags from fingertip to elbow, with not one bit of flesh showing, as if bandaged over some loathsome disease.
“And this.” The hands pushed back the hood.
The cloaked one had no face.
Simone de la Fer summoned one last burst of strength that allowed her to sprint into the woods away from the man who had helped her and who badgered her so. She smiled wearily. Covering her head and face with rags and gauze gave the impression of ghostly facelessness--a good disguise, in that it at once hid who she was and usually scared away those who did look at her. It did not fail her this time, either: Her rag-wrapped hands and face had managed to shock the man, enough so that he did not react fast enough to follow her.
Her feet knew the woods well; the trees were her protection against the light, and small hills and caves under overhanging roots and tall ferns gave blessed dark relief. She had not intended to stay out so close to dawn, but the family she had transported had both an old man and little children, slowing their progress. Then, too, the agents of the Department of Public Safety had somehow followed her. Simone grimaced. She should be more careful with her plans.
An old oak towered above her, the branches now a silhouette against the lightening sky. She could feel the sharp tingling of her skin in response to the light, even through the rags wrapped around her body. She could bear sunlight if she were well-wrapped, but it wearied her, and her strength faded with the rising of the sun. Thrusting aside the thick ferns that surrounded the large, deep hole under the roots of the old oak, she climbed inside then settled into the blankets she had hidden there.
Simone sighed. She would much prefer a comfortable bed, but she was too far from her home. Better here, anyway--the stranger would no doubt ask about her here and there, and would find she had disappeared. Very few followed her into the woods at night. She could see like a cat even on a new moon night, and even through the gauze over her eyes, so could escape easily.
An uncomfortable bulge at her back made her shake her head at herself. She had forgotten about the doll. Unstrapping the doll from her back, she turned it over and looked at it in the darkness. Its white face still wore its little pout, and its hair was still intact, if messed. Simone smoothed back the hair into a semblance of its old coiffure. It was a little more battered than it had been when Marthe had first given it to her, but still in good shape. She could not throw it away even in her rage and grief, but had for some reason kept it, and then it had become part of her disguise. It gave her a hunched back under her cloak, which she hadn’t realized until the broadsheets calling for her capture described her as such. And somehow, it gave her an odd comfort, and it reminded her of her purpose.
She sighed again, put the doll beside her, and closed her eyes. No more thinking. She would sleep, and see the stranger tonight.