After they left, Janos stood there staring into the fire, mulling on the problem for a while. The up-timers, as usual, had not understood his question. They categorized families by their deeds, as if noble families did not typically have more outlandish members and histories than most peasant families; simply because they had more power, if for no other reason.

            So. It was still probably a preposterous idea to entertain, for many political reasons. But if he persisted in contemplating the matter—which he very well might; he was an introspective man, and knew himself rather well by now—then, sooner or later, he would have to face the problem squarely.

            It was a thorny one, given that he was Hungarian. In many of the Germanies, by now—elsewhere too in the western countries, he thought—the theory had taken hold that Americans as a class belonged to the noble ranks. At the very least, stood outside the class categories altogether. Hungarians and Austrians thought that nonsense, by and large, although Janos was fairly sure their resolve would start crumbling as time went by.

            As such resolve always did, given realities and the passage of enough time. His own august family could trace its origins back to Naples. Three centuries earlier, they had come to Hungary in the entourage of Charles Robert of Anjou, when he assumed the throne of Hungary as King Charles I. Family tradition insisted they’d been a highly-respected family in the Italian aristocracy. Perhaps it was even true. Given Italy, though, that was always suspect. That was a land steeped in commerce, quite unlike rural Hungary. Everything was for sale, including titles.

            But even if it were true, what then? Trace it back still farther, if you could, and what would you find? No Christian family in Europe could claim, as did some Jewish ones, to be able to trace themselves back to the lords spoken of in the Bible. And who had made them lords, except the Lord Himself? Who had also made the Ring of Fire, through which came the man whom many Germans now called their prince. And whose soldiers had, just a few months earlier at Ahrensbök, shoved the title down the throats of haughty French noble generals.

            But that took a lot of time, as a rule. Probably more than Janos would encompass in that span of his life that mattered. Soon enough, he would have to marry again. His little boy Gÿorgÿ needed a mother, and given his position in the empire he really should produce more heirs in case misfortune took his son as it had taken his wife. For which latter purpose, unfortunately, if not the first, a morganatic marriage would probably not be suitable.

            So. He flashed a quick grin at the fire he was staring into. A problem, then. Complex; complicated; even tortuous at points.

            Janos enjoyed solving problems. He also took vows seriously, although he seldom made them formal ones. At the age of twelve, after he realized the full scope of his responsibilities, he had made a solemn vow that while he would be a faithful son of Hungary, he would not—would not—agree to marry a dullard. Be her rank never so high, or her station never more suitable.

            He’d kept that pledge to himself when he married Anna Jakusith. The all-too-short time he’d shared his life with her had confirmed the wisdom of his youngster’s vow. As a purely personal matter, and leaving aside the needs of state, he’d far rather remain a widower for the rest of his life than marry the sort of woman who, every morning and every nightfall, only made him think regretfully of the woman who was no longer there. He would remember Anna always, of course, so long as he lived, as he remembered her in his prayers every day. But he wanted a wife who could forge a place of her own in his life and affections.


            “You’re kidding,” hissed Denise. Quickly, almost surreptitiously, she glanced at Drugeth. The way he was just standing there, not moving at all while he studied whatever the hell he found so fascinating in a campfire, matched Keenan’s depiction perfectly. The expressionless, handsome, brooding face, half in shadows, the easy stance—everything. She could picture him just like that, standing in a castle in Transylvania. Which was part of Hungary, now that she thought about it. Well, parts of it were, anyway.

            “Oh, wow.” She took her eyes away from Janos, lest she draw his attention somehow. She didn’t really believe in supernatural powers, but you could never be sure.

            “Yup,” said Keenan. “That’s the whole story. I got it from Gardiner and Gage just an hour ago, while we were out foraging for wood. Janos Drugeth is a vampire.”

            Noelle sniffed. “Keenan, I am quite certain that neither Gage nor Gardiner said any such thing.”

             “Well, sure. Not in so many words. But what else could we be talking about? I mean, I’ve even heard of his grandma. The Blood Countess. She’s almost as famous as Dracula himself. The one who sucked all those virgins dry of their blood so her complexion wouldn’t get bad. Dozens of virgins.”

            Noelle sniffed again. “There are so many errors in what you just said that I don’t know where to begin. For starters, she didn’t ‘suck the blood’ out of anybody. She—uh…”

            Denise had heard the story, too. “That’s quibbling, Noelle. So she drained them dry with a knife and bathed in the blood. Big fucking difference. And it’s a fact—well, that’s what I heard, anyway—that when they caught her they didn’t try to execute her ‘cause they couldn’t. So they walled her up in a room until she died of old age.”

            “Why didn’t they drive a wooden stake through her heart?” Lannie asked plaintively. “That’s supposed to work.”

            “There are no such things as vampires!” Noelle hissed. But Denise figured the reason she hissed it instead of shouting it was because Noelle was just as concerned as anyone else not to draw Drugeth’s attention.

            Denise glanced quickly at Janos again. He was still in that brown study he seemed to fall into about twenty times a day. Not surprising, really. Denise figured if she were a vampire she’d probably spend a lot of time contemplating the whichness of what herself.

            How fucking exciting could it get? A vampire.

            Well. Close enough, anyway.