Blood Maidens (Page 19)


Lydia spent the following morning writing up a report of what she had seen at St Job’s. She made neat sketches – as if she were illustrating a dissection – of the layout of the monastery, insofar as she had seen it, and of the thing – the boy – she had encountered in the crypt. To these she appended an account of the meeting between the unfortunate youth and ‘Petronilla’ in the sun-drenched hall of the clinic.

Obviously, Horace Blaydon wasn’t the only man in the world who had had the idea of producing artificial vampires. And, by the look of it, Benedict Theiss had had the advantage – which Blaydon had not had – of finding a true vampire willing to work with him . . .

But if Theiss had a vampire working with him, why go to the clumsy expedient of producing them by artificial means? Especially when the result – or one of the results – was so disastrous?

She sat turning her teacup for a time, gazing out into the light-filled woods beyond the veranda.

To prevent Madame Ehrenberg from holding over them the power that a master held over her fledglings?

But, in that case, why would La Ehrenberg go along with it? In Lydia’s experience, no vampire – not even Ysidro, in so many ways atypical, (no, he isn’t! she told herself) – yielded a finger-breadth more control than he or she had to . . .

Or was there something amiss with the vampires that La Ehrenberg made? Like the late Master of Constantinople, who had been incapable of getting fledglings? Were they all turning out as monsters? Had she come to Theiss to be cured? Lydia’s mind toyed with the idea even as she rejected it. No matter how badly Benedict Theiss needed money for his researches, she could not see that gentle, kindly man agreeing to help a vampire produce better fledglings.

What, then?

At one in the afternoon, the Baroness Sashenka put in an appearance, dressed to the nines in lavender Poiret that made Lydia feel gawky and schoolgirlish, and carried her off for luncheon at the ultra-stylish restaurant Donon with assorted members of the Circle of Astral Light. (‘My darling, you can’t abandon me, that frightful Muremsky woman is going to be there, going on about the instinctive wisdom of the Russian peasant, and I need to have someone there whose husband has actually spoken to peasants . . .’)

While being waited on by the ubiquitous staff of Tatars (Sashenka was quite right about Madame Muremsky’s conversation), Lydia inquired about the monastery of St Job and received a torrent of conflicting information, involving spectral lights and noises, secret rituals of the Illuminati, corrupt medieval abbots, eighteenth-century scandals, and the plain financial mismanagement that had eventually closed the place down. It was very difficult to sort out useful facts which could apply to vampires from mere gossip – or even to ascertain which pieces of gossip might have a basis in truth.

‘There were supposed to be just miles of secret passageways, between it and its little priories—’

‘When the heretical sect was cleared out of there in the time of the Empress Elizabeth, I’m told all its adherents were bricked up in underground cells—’

‘They can’t have been terribly far underground, can they?’ Lydia looked up worriedly from her mushrooms and toast points. ‘I mean, it’s rather close to the river.’

‘That’s just it, darling.’ Madame Muremsky laid a delicate hand on Lydia’s wrist, gazed into her eyes. ‘They were bricked up alive, and when the tide came up the Neva, the cells would flood, drowning them—’

‘Honestly, dearest, the same could be said of my cellar,’ retorted the Baroness Sashenka, which got a general laugh.

‘Scoff if you will, darling.’ Madame sampled a dab of Donon’s extremely tasty kasha. ‘But the Common People, in their wisdom, avoid the place . . .’

‘The Common People avoid the place because someone is paying the police a truly startling sum every quarter to keep people away from it,’ returned a Commissioner’s pretty wife.

Not much more success attended Lydia’s efforts to pick up information about Madame Ehrenberg, aside from the fact that the woman was generally disliked. (‘She’s so intent, you know, dearest – and the way she runs poor Dr Theiss’s life for him is positively obsessive! One used to see him everywhere – always so charming – and now that she’s taken to supporting him he’s always either at the clinic or his laboratory . . .’).

So, obviously, reflected Lydia, the woman that the real Petronilla was using as a stalking horse had come to Petersburg with her . . . which meant it would probably be impossible to find out anything about her true identity by making enquiries here.

‘Are they lovers?’ The question would have been unthinkable in Oxford or even London, but was commonplace around the Petersburg tea-tables.

‘Oh, I should think so,’ replied Commissioner Tatischev’s wife, and she licked crème fraiche from her fingers. ‘At least, when I encountered her at the Kustov’s, where that handsome Burenin was reading some of his poetry . . . Burenin has invented a totally new language for his poetry, to free the heart from the bondage that old meanings and old ways of thought have imposed upon words . . . Well, she – La Ehrenberg, I mean – got up to leave, saying it was a waste of time. Why seek new meanings for Love, she said, when the old one works quite well, even in this day and age . . . Quite missed the point, of course . . .’

‘I thought she spoke like a woman who was in love,’ said Sashenka.

‘Or what we were taught to believe was love,’ threw in a very advanced young Countess, ‘by priests and parents and men.’

‘What does a German know of love?’ Madame Muremsky waved a scornful and heavily jeweled hand. ‘What can one expect, of such a people? They have no understanding of the Russian Soul.’ And she clasped her hands upon her heart, as if her Russian Soul were about to leap from her breast and manifest itself, in all its glory, to the assembled ladies.

Two hours’ discussion of the Russian Soul ensued, and Lydia hesitated to bring the conversation back to Petronilla Ehrenberg, lest word reach her that Lydia Asher had been asking about her.

Jamie, thought Lydia, jotting a note in her memorandum book: labyrinth, crypt, police protection . . .

Jamie needs to know about all this . . .

There was no note from Jamie when she returned to the izba for dinner. Nor had there been one yesterday, nor the day before. She tried to tell herself that this was only some disruption in the German postal system, though given the renowned efficiency of the Reich, she was aware that this little self-deception was whistling in the dark. Not that any of the notes he’d sent her, daily, from Warsaw, from Berlin, from Prague and all those German cities had contained a word of information: he’d written in the name of a fictitious Aunt Caroline and had clearly striven to come up with the most absurd trivialities imaginable about the weather, the accommodations, and the obstinate refusal of Polish and German shopkeepers to learn the English tongue.

The message was in their arrival. The message was that he was alive and in good enough spirits to invent Aunt Caroline’s petty diatribes in that rounded, schoolgirlish writing, studded with underlinings and ellipses so unlike his own dark, jagged hand, knowing that it would make her laugh.

He was traveling with a vampire, in quest of other vampires: creatures who would kill to preserve the secrecy in which they lived. Creatures who existed on death.

She sat motionless in the little study, gazing at the darkening twilight of the woods beyond the window.

He was traveling with Ysidro . . .

She thrust the ghost-white, elegant image of the vampire from her mind.

Any vampire. They are creatures who kill those who serve them, for learning too much . . . or because they grow bored.

And though Ysidro had befriended and protected them so far, she knew nothing of the vampires of those cities whose brightly-colored stamps enlivened the one-way correspondence . . . except that they were vampires. Dear God, don’t let him come to harm . . .

From the age of thirteen, Lydia had had a physician’s clinical and rather mechanistic view of God – awe at His works, but too deep an awareness of the physical limitations of flesh and fate to hold much belief in the efficacy of individual prayer. Lately – after Constantinople, and a deeper acquaintance with vampires – her views had changed, leaving her confused about who she was praying to or why.

Her prayer was a child’s prayer:

Don’t let him come to harm . . .

Make it be all right . . .

The prayer people prayed all over the world.

There was no more reason to think God would grant that one than He’d granted her desperate plea of six months ago, that by some miracle her bleeding would stop, and her baby would live.

The blackness beyond that door in her mind was worse than the crypts of St Job’s, and as she had yesterday, she mentally backed from the thought of that lost child, mentally closed the door. Stay out of there . . .

Even as she had backed away already, a dozen times, from the whispered suspicion that had begun to cross her mind, that she had conceived again and might be carrying a child. Stay away from hope, if you would stay away from despair . . .

‘Pardonnez-moi, Madame.’

Lydia almost jumped, as the maid Alyssa came in with a lamp.

‘Ce ne’est rien.’ Thanks to the government’s sincere and widespread education program over the past few decades, large numbers of young Russians could speak French, an accomplishment particularly valued among the girls who hoped for employment as maids. One might have to put up with the Madame Muremskys of the world, Lydia reflected, but having seen the St Petersburg slums – having heard from Ivan, and Razumovsky, about the conditions a young girl would encounter in the average factory – Lydia could understand the attraction of picking up someone else’s stockings and cleaning someone else’s chamber pots if it meant a decent meal every night.

‘I’m sorry.’ Lydia stood up, realizing she had a headache from missing the supper that Rina had said she’d set out for her . . . Good heavens, when was that?

The windows were inky dark. Drat these endless afternoons, one never had the slightest idea of what time it really was . . .

‘Time got away from me. Please apologize to Rina for me.’

The maid grinned quickly, ‘Oh, Rina knows not to put food on the table until Madame is actually sitting down . . . It is not that. There is a young lady to see you. It is urgent, she says.’

‘A young lady?’ Lydia gathered her spectacles inconspicuously into one hand, followed the maid into the long front room. Tried to think of which members of the Circle of Astral Light Alyssa wouldn’t already know . . .

The girl in the lamplit parlor dipped a curtsey as Lydia came through the bedroom door. Nothing about the heart-shaped face or thick mass of dark hair seemed familiar, so Lydia put on her spectacles again for a better look: dark eyes, full lips, delicate features that spoke of some southern strain in the blood . . .

‘May I help you?’ Lydia asked, in French. ‘I am Madame Asher . . .’

‘Yes, ma’am, I know.’ The girl looked up at her, and with the motion of her head the lamplight flashed in her eyes, like yellow mirrors.

Lydia felt for a moment that she’d stepped from the warmth of the room back into winter. Cold and disoriented . . .

‘I heard you say so in the crypt at the monastery,’ the girl went on, ‘when you called out to Kolya. And they said in the street that your coachman’s livery was that of Prince Razumovsky. Someone said, there was an English lady staying with him . . .’

For all their sweet fullness – even in the warmth of the oil lamp’s golden glow – the girl’s lips were not so much as a half shade darker than her marble-white face. When she spoke, Lydia could see her fangs.

Oh, dear God . . .

‘Madame, please . . .’ The girl held out her hand. ‘My name is Evgenia,’ she added quickly, seeming to remember her manners. ‘Evgenia Greb. I live on Politov Court, near the railway works – that is, I did, I used to . . . That is . . .’ Grief twisted her face for a moment, grief and terror that it took her the space of a few breaths to master. But Lydia could see already that this girl did not breathe.

‘Madame, what’s happened to me? What’s happened to us? You said to Kolya that you could help him. I . . . I know we’re not supposed to leave the monastery, I know God will strike us down, but Kolya . . .’

‘Kolya was the boy at the door of the crypt?’

Evgenia nodded. She was trembling; her dark eyes, with their eerie reflectiveness, swam with tears. Lydia swiftly assessed the girl’s clothing: faded hand-me-downs spruced up with cheap ribbon, itself already starting to discolor and fray. She’d seen the same on hundreds of girls as the carriage had passed through the slums, in Petersburg, in Paris, in London.

‘He’s changed,’ the girl whispered. ‘And now I’m starting to change. Look.’ She pulled off her mended gloves, held out her fingers to show the claw-like thickening and lengthening of the nails, shiny as glass and harder than steel.

‘Madame said—’

‘Madame who?’

‘Ehrenberg. Madame said that we were chosen, we would be transformed through our faith, that we would be fitted by God to battle demons.’ She put her hands momentarily to her mouth, to still the shaking of her lips – maybe to cover what she’d seen already in a mirror. If Madame Ehrenberg let them have mirrors . . . ‘But Kolya . . . and Kolya isn’t the only one. I’ve been there three weeks, and Madame and Dr Theiss swear that all will be well, that we are in God’s hands, but some of us . . .’

The girl’s voice sank lower, as if to hide from the very shadows of the room. ‘She says that we will be able to fight demons. That we will be able to save our families and make the world whole again. But, Madame, I think that some of us are becoming demons ourselves. Do you know what has happened to us? What we have become?’

‘You don’t know?’

Tears running down her face, Evgenia shook her head.

They took the night train for Bebra, where they would arrive at two thirty in the morning, Asher and the vampire woman Jacoba. She had been a moneylender’s wife and a scholar in her own right in the days when Köln had been a Free City under the Empire. From the jail they’d taken him to a tall half-timbered town house, where they’d left him chained in a sub cellar; among the boxes and barrels around the walls there, before they’d taken away the lamp, he’d seen wall niches, as in a catacomb. They were empty, but he’d wondered how many vampires used the place as a nest. Sitting with his back to the wall in the darkness, he had not dared to sleep, which was just as well. Had he dozed off, he knew he would quite likely have seen the dead Frenchman lying in the jail cell, with a slashed throat in a pool of not quite enough blood, and the knife that did it left curled in the sleeping German’s hand.

I couldn’t have saved them . . .

He knew this to the marrow of his bones, but the fact remained that if he hadn’t been in the cell with them, they would both have lived.

‘Is that part of the hunt?’ he asked, when she took her seat on the hard bench in the third-class railway carriage at his side. ‘Part of the game?’

Jacoba raised her eyebrows, surprised that the matter still troubled him. ‘Bread without salt will keep you from dying,’ she said, in a marvelous alto that was like an intimate caress. ‘One savors chocolate, and French cheeses, and good wine.’ Her smile was sleepy and amused. She’d woken up the gray-haired French prisoner before she’d killed him and had made sure he’d known that he was about to die. He had not died well.

The way her eyes rested on Asher in the rattling dimness of the smelly train-car, he guessed she was looking forward to killing someone she had come to know.

‘I hope I come up to your expectations, when the time arrives,’ he said politely, and she was surprised into laughing, which changed her whole stern face. ‘One would hate to find oneself no more than a vin ordinaire. Tell me about Petronilla Ehrenberg.’

And, because he had amused her, she complied. ‘A little bitch,’ she said, ‘as Brom – Todesfall – called her. Always her eye was upon the main chance.’ Her German was old-fashioned and echoed, more than a little, the native Kolensh that the workmen had spoken on the tram three – or was it four? – days ago. The words she used for simple things like salt and wine were not German at all, but a Gothic Rhineland French. ‘Had I known he was going to bring her into our circle, I would have killed her myself. Shallow as a donkey’s hoof print, but very good with money and credit – her husband was high in the Deutsches Bank – and with a mind for investments. Brom respects that. And pretty, in that pink-and-golden candy-box fashion . . . something, alas, Brom is also a trifle too taken by.’

She folded her hands, square and short-fingered in soiled and mended gloves. At Asher’s insistence, they had disguised themselves in the shabby garments of the poor. ‘Why take the trouble to avoid the German police by a ruse, when I can turn their eyes away with a thought?’ she had asked him, when after his deliverance from the Köln jail he’d asked for workman’s clothes and boots, and a razor and basin to trim the whole of his head down to the stubble that now fuzzed his crown.

But his reply, ‘Because if the Kaiser is recruiting the Undead you may not be able to turn away all eyes,’ had brought results, and on the night train there were few enough to share the accommodations. In faded black, with a shawl over her head, Jacoba looked like any other Jewish matron, unless she smiled, or the flicker of station lamps through the windows happened to catch the unholy luminosity of her eyes.

‘Once she understood what Brom could do for her,’ she went on now, ‘of course she was a lover of Jews. But that was a lie, and she and I have never gotten along. I thought at the time, it was why she left Köln. That she sought only another city, where the master would allow her to hunt. I should have known there was something else afoot.’ The dark eyes narrowed to an ugly flicker.

‘What would she get from it?’ asked Asher, hoping that he could remember the way her speech wrapped around the words, somewhere between German and French. He wondered if, before they reached Berlin, he could get this woman to speak to him in the language of her long-ago childhood . . .

Or was that something else, as Ysidro had said, that had faded with the preoccupation with the hunt?

‘What could the Kaiser give her?’

‘Give her?’ The beautiful dark brows arched, barely glimpsed in the sickly wisp of moonlight that penetrated the unlighted carriage. ‘Power, of course. And Brom.’

‘Does she love Brom?’

Jacoba sniffed. ‘Brom has power,’ she said. ‘Power over her . . . which she cannot abide. So she convinced Brom that she loved him, in order to get him to make her vampire – I think she may have convinced herself at the same time. She is that sort of woman, who needs to think “love” exists. We – the Undead – we do not love one another, Herr Vin Ordinaire, but we do understand one another, better than the living could ever hope to do. As for that woman—’

Asher could almost hear the capital letters in her voice, more pronounced in German – That Woman – and was hard put not to smile.

‘—I suspect that even in her lifetime, for all her romantic moonshine, she loved nothing, and no one, that did not in the end somehow profit herself.’