Blood Maidens (Page 2)
The shadows of the stairwell swallowed up the sound of her name, and in the silence of the house – death-still but not empty – Asher thought, This is a dream.
Anger flooded him, at the knowledge that he had stood here once before.
A foggy evening in the autumn of 1907. The house chill. The clip of hooves in Holywell Street loud in the silence. Standing in the front hall in his dark academic gown, Asher knew that if he went downstairs to the kitchen he’d find Mrs Grimes, Ellen the maid, and Sylvie the tweeny – who had married the butcher’s son last year and been replaced by the equally feckless Daisy – crumpled asleep at the table, like a tableau in a cheap melodrama . . .
And upstairs, Lydia would be lying unconscious on the divan in the upstairs parlor, fingers clasped around her spectacles where they rested upon her breast and hair hanging in a pottery-red coil to the floor. Don Simon Ysidro would be sitting at Asher’s desk, just out of the line of sight of the door, long hands folded, like a skeletal white mantis awaiting his prey. ‘My name is Don Simon Xavier Christian Morado de la Cadeña-Ysidro, and I am what you call a vampire.’
And despite half a lifetime of research into the folklore of a dozen cultures, Asher had not believed him until he had listened to his chest with Lydia’s stethoscope and satisfied himself that his uncanny guest had neither heartbeat nor breath.
He whispered, ‘Damn you—’ and strode up the stairs.
But when he threw open the door of the upstairs study, the divan – though it was back in the same position it had been in, that evening four years before, visible through the half-open connecting door – was empty. No whispered suggestion, as there had been on that occasion: I can kill your wife, your servants, and all those you care for, if I choose . . . if you do not do as I say. The lamp on his desk was lit, but no slender gentleman sat there, with his long white hair hanging to his shoulders and his eyes like crystallized sulfur, and the faint lilt of archaic Spanish still lingering in his soft voice.
The papers at the desk had been splattered with droplets of blood.
And in blood was written – on Lydia’s stationery, damn his effrontery! – in a sixteenth-century hand:
We must speak.
It took Asher a day to find the court he had seen in dreams.
He knew it would be near the river, in the medieval tangle of streets that had been spared by the Great Fire. He knew it would be towards the east, between Whitechapel Street and the filthy, sprawling mazes of the docks. He knew to look for the half-ruinous spire of a pre-Wren church and a small, oddly-angled square surrounded by houses of blackened brick and ancient half-timbering: homes that must once have been the pride of wealthy Elizabethan merchants, but were now given over to sailors’ boarding houses and the tenements of the poor.
The March afternoon was arctic, and by three – when he finally identified the place – fog was rising from the river, mingling with the mephitic stinks of coal smoke and outdoor latrines. Shadowy figures stumbled on the worn cobblestones of the alleys, or clustered around the glowing stoves of the chestnut vendors, their coughing like that of the restless ghosts Odysseus had encountered on the banks of the Styx—
Bodiless, until you gave them blood.
Ysidro wouldn’t make his appearance until the sun was out of the sky.
Having located the square, Asher repaired to the nearest public house for a surprisingly good dinner of bangers and mash. The stevedores, thieves, whores and toughs who populated the Fish and Ring on Marigold Walk neither troubled Asher nor indeed seemed to notice him. Oddly for a man who was routinely shown off by his students to visiting Americans as the quintessential Oxford don, Asher had perfected the appearance of the equally quintessential out-of-work laborer. Had he not been a chameleon, he supposed, he would not have lived to the age of forty-six as a Secret Servant of the King.
When full dark came, he paid his two bob and made his way back to Felmonger Court.
In his dream that narrow, crooked space had been empty – to say nothing of awash with a lake of blood. In waking reality, at six o’clock on a raw spring evening the place swarmed with ragged children, rolling hoops and throwing rocks and calling to one another with piping ghostly voices in the fog. Slatternly women spoke to Asher from the darkness of alleyways as he passed. Men jostled past him, reeking of tobacco and gin and garments years unwashed, seeking only the relative shelter of overcrowded rooms and a few hours’ kip before returning to their work. Somewhere an old man’s quavery voice wailed, ‘Scissors, brollies, fix ’em all, fix ’em up—Scissors, brollies . . .’
Contrary to the assertions of Bram Stoker (Ysidro had informed him) and most other writers on the subject, vampires lived primarily on the poor, whom no one would seek to avenge or even locate if they should disappear. As he crossed the court, Asher scanned the darkness (the street lamp really was broken), wondering which whore, which child, which gin-fuddled drunkard would fail to come home that night, always supposing he or she had a home. Wondering if Grippen – the Master Vampire of London – or one of his fledglings was watching those huddled bundles of rags from the shadows right now, choosing a victim . . .
Though, of course, it was no more possible to see Grippen when he hunted, than it was to see smallpox or cholera or starvation, before they struck.
And it crossed Asher’s mind – not for the first time – to wonder if it was Ysidro at all who had put those images in his dreams, and not Grippen or one of the others, who considered that one mortal who knew how to find vampire lairs – one mortal who truly believed that such creatures existed – was one mortal too many.
Then beside him a gentle voice said, ‘James. ’Twere good of you to come.’
He felt the hair on his nape rise as he turned. ‘Had I a choice?’
‘My dear James.’ The vampire regarded him without change of expression, a stillness that had nothing in it of the immobility of a corpse. The death was inside and had happened long ago. ‘One always has choices.’ They passed from beneath the dim and greasy glow of a window; shadow veiled Ysidro’s thin face once more. The hand that closed on Asher’s elbow was light as a girl’s, though the fingers could have crushed the bone. In the mouth of an alleyway, rank with sewage and dead fish, a woman’s voice purred, ‘’Ere, gents, ever ’ad the two of you turned off at once?’
Ysidro responded politely, ‘There is nothing we have not had, Madame, my friend and I,’ and they kept moving, deeper into the darkness.
Asher felt icy water slop against the outside of his boots, and then the plank of a makeshift bridge vibrated underfoot. He caught a glimpse of water below them in the shadows. They turned twice right, then left, Asher counting strides. He felt Ysidro’s mind press on his own, a sort of sleepy uncaring, and he fought it . . . three, four, five, six . . . Another right, the creak of a hinge, and a cold up-rushing stench of mice and mold.
Stairs going down. An old kitchen at the bottom. A lamp on a wooden table, its dim glow barely outlining a dusty rummage of burst sacks and broken bins around the wall. A door on the facing wall; the smell of more water beyond.
‘Not my primary residence.’ Ysidro brought a slat-backed chair for Asher and perched himself, straight as if with the boning of a court doublet, on the table beside the lamp. ‘Mistress Lydia is entirely too clever in the study of deeds of conveyance. I trust she is well?’
‘She is well, yes.’
Ysidro’s silence lasted a few moments longer than it had to, the only indication that he had met – much less traveled with, or loved, or deliberately deceived – Asher’s young wife. It was only with careful attention – vampires relying as they did upon the misdirection of human perception – that Asher could see the frightful scars that Ysidro had taken on his face and throat in Lydia’s defense and his own. Undead flesh healed slowly, and differently from that of living men. After eighteen months, the marks still stood out like ridges of dried sticking-plaster on the colorless flesh. How long would it – did it – take vampire flesh to heal?
Lydia would have asked outright.
He remembered her silence and the words she would sometimes cry out in sleep.
Or maybe not.
‘I’m well,’ said Asher. ‘You?’
‘Is this politeness?’ Ysidro’s head tilted a little to one side. ‘Or do you truly wish to know?’
Asher considered for a moment, then said, ‘I don’t know.’ And after another moment, ‘I truly wish to know, Don Simon.’
‘Another time, then.’ Ysidro drew a folded paper from the pocket of an immaculate gray coat – only a vampire could have worn such a garment in the East End and remained unnoticed – and passed it across.
It was in English:
3 February 1911
Forgive me my long silence. At this season of the year one is much abroad, and a letter filled with the minutiae of ballet and opera, scandal and politics, creeps towards its conclusion on my secretaire . . . but this is a matter that cannot wait.
Some few years ago you wrote of a scientist named B—, who sought to learn what wasn’t his business for the benefit of King and Country—
Asher glanced sharply at the vampire’s inscrutable face. ‘Does she mean Horace Blaydon?’ He named the researcher who, four years before, had sought to distill vampire blood in order to produce the powers of the Undead in a living man: to create a hybrid, able to walk in daylight as well as darkness and to touch silver as casually as steel. A man who held vampire powers without vampire limitations. A man who would use these abilities in the fight that all men knew was coming, against Germany and its allies.
An immortal who would strive selflessly for King and Country. As Asher had striven, not caring who suffered in consequence.
Ysidro’s assent stirred nothing more than the lids of his yellow eyes.
Without your account of the matter I doubt I would have attended to what I heard – who DOES listen to scientists when they prose on about their research at soirées, for Heaven’s sake? But there is a German doctor here whose studies strike me as remarkably similar, and last night at a Venetian breakfast at the Obolenskys’, in flight from the Grand Duke George (the most SHOCKING bore in the Empire, I assure you) I entered the conservatory to see our Teutonic student of blood and folklore in deep conversation with one of us.
What should I do, dear friend? As you know, King and Country has not been a matter of concern to me for many years, and yet . . .
The Kaiser is such a NOXIOUS little toad, I find I cannot stomach the thought of him stamping into Whitehall in his big boots after all, shouting orders. One must draw the line somewhere.
Is this Professor A— of yours still alive somewhere? Might he be persuaded to give his assistance again? Or did Grippen kill him?
And if so, what course do you advise?
Asher still had nightmares about Blaydon’s son Dennis, and what injections of that distillate had done to him.
As he had said to Lydia, it was always because it was the most vital thing in the world . . . And he had meant what he said.
But, to the marrow of his bones, he knew immediately that he would – he must – go to St Petersburg and find that Teutonic student of blood and folklore . . .
Carefully, he said, ‘And what did you advise?’
One of us, she had said. Is this Professor A— still alive somewhere, or did Grippen kill him?
He knew he had come within a hair’s width of it.
‘I telegraphed her at once, for more information.’ Ysidro took the paper from his fingers, refolded it. Like everything else about him his gloves were expensive and perfect: gray French kid at half a crown a pair.
‘What did she say?’
‘I have had no reply. This was over five weeks ago – their third of February being what we know as the seventeenth. Lady Irene Eaton disregards all things in this life that touch not upon her comfort, her toilettes, or her safety . . . yet as much as her own comfort, she prizes her opinions. And though she has not set foot upon English soil in nine decades, she disdains the Prussians as upstart barbarians well deserving of a putting-down. I do not think she would neglect a reply that would bring about their discomfiture.’
In the silence that followed, the only sound was the hissing of the lamp wick as it burned, and once, the scrabble of a rat in some upper chamber.
One of us . . .
I entered the conservatory to see our Teutonic student of blood and folklore in deep conversation with one of us.
Against red anger as Asher recalled the friends he had betrayed – or killed – for his country’s sake, he remembered clearly Horace Blaydon’s unshakeable conviction that he understood enough about vampires to be able to control the thing he had made. The unshakeable conviction of every Foreign Office official Asher had ever met: that they knew exactly what they were doing and could guide the results at will. Presumably, those who worked for the Auswärtiges Amt in Berlin felt the same.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?
The lake of blood he’d seen in his dream had not been from Ysidro’s kills, he realized, but his own. Kills he had undertaken at the behest of men who’d sworn they knew what they were doing. And he, poor fool, had believed them.
He looked up, to meet cold unhuman eyes. ‘I take it you want me to go to St Petersburg?’
‘My dear James, the Master of Petersburg would devour you between the station and your hotel,’ the vampire replied. ‘I would have you accompany me.’
‘Monday, if all can be ready.’
Willoughby would be livid at the thought of having to find someone to cover the final lectures in folklore and philology with the end of term coming up. On the other hand, the Dean of New College had always irritated Asher with his constant winks and nudges, and hints that he understood that his Lecturer in Philology had not really severed his mysterious ties with the Foreign Office . . . The man was going to get him killed one of these days.
He was aware he was being regarded, beneath those straight white lashes – Curiosity? Had Ysidro thought he would refuse in the end? That he would put up more of a fight?
Or had the vampire merely expected him to display more anger, on Lydia’s behalf?
‘I’ll leave it to you to make the arrangements,’ Asher said. ‘You know what you’ll need – and I am given to understand that there are . . . accommodations in every city for those who hunt the night.’
What could have been a smile touched one corner of Ysidro’s fanged lips. ‘I would not go so far as to say so. You yourself must know that every city contains accommodations for any with specialized requirements – and a good deal of money. It is merely our business to know what these are. We who hunt the night must needs know all we can about those with whom we share our domain: killers and lovers, thieves and spies. Do you know Petersburg?’
‘I was there about seventeen years ago. Yourself?’
Ysidro made a move of his head – No. ‘It is far to travel, for the Undead, and perilous.’ He looked as if he would have said something else – spoken of why it was that Lady Irene Eaton had called him ‘Dearest Simon’, and how an Englishwoman had come to be made a vampire in that gilded arctic Venice—
—And in that moment’s inattention, the vampire reached out and touched his mind, and Asher came to himself again, breathless with shock, on the pavement of Praed Street across from Paddington Station. He looked around him, a little wildly, though he knew perfectly well that he wouldn’t see Ysidro walking away through fog and gaslight and jostling crowds . . .
But late that night, when the scene replayed itself for him in dreams, it seemed to him that, the moment before he woke up again, in his open-eyed trance he saw Grippen, the Vampire Master of London, watching him from a mist-choked alleyway, with his fledglings gathered around him, their eyes gleaming in the dark.