Blood Maidens (Page 20)

TWENTY

Evgenia whispered, ‘It isn’t true.’

‘What did she tell you,’ asked Lydia, ‘that you would become? And what did she do to you, to make you this way?’

The servants had gone. Lydia had sent them up to the main house, not daring to let even a whisper be heard. Gossip in the streets had directed this girl here. Clearly, the woman she thought of as the Daytime Petronilla – the one everyone in Petersburg knew – knew enough people to eventually hear of it, if servants started whispering about a vampire visiting the English lady at Razumovsky’s izba.

The girl pressed her hands to her face, shook her head violently. ‘It isn’t true. I am not a vampir, I have killed no one—’

‘Have you drunk blood?’

She looked up, from the peasant bench where she sat, her dark eyes desperate. ‘The blood of rats and mice only, Madame. Madame would bring them in, show us how to slit their throats with our nails and drain the blood into a silver cup. Later, she said – when we had grown, nurtured in the darkness as God nurtures up seeds in the ground – she said we would be as the angels are, able to live upon nothing but air and God’s light.’ Her whole body trembled as she spoke, and she gazed at Lydia’s face as if seeking some clue there that what Lydia had told her was a lie, or a test of some kind.

God, please make it be all right . . .

Lydia closed her eyes, breathed for a moment, trying to find some tactful way of saying what she had to say and knowing, firstly, that there wasn’t one, and secondly, that if there had been, she, Lydia Asher, who for all her social adeptness was as tactless as the average house-pet, was the wrong person to entrust with the task.

She opened her eyes at the cold touch of those dead hands upon her own – cold as Ysidro’s were – and saw that Evgenia had sunk to her knees in front of Lydia’s chair, clasped her hands—

And flinched back in pain, rubbing her fingers even at the proximity of the silver chains Lydia wore on her wrists.

‘Madame Ehrenberg was lying to you,’ Lydia said, keeping her voice steady with an effort. ‘Madame Ehrenberg is a vampire. She lied to you – probably sent you dreams or visions in your sleep—’

The horrified widening of the girl’s eyes told her she’d guessed right about that.

‘—and now she has made you a vampire, too. Tell me about—’

But, with a cry, the girl flung her arms around Lydia’s skirts, buried her head in her lap, and Lydia fumbled the chains free from her wrists, dumped them in a deadly, gleaming pile on the stool beside her chair and stroked the dark, thick hair.

‘It can’t be!’ Evgenia sobbed. ‘It can’t be, I have killed no one! I didn’t want it – and now you tell me I have lost my soul! I am damned, and I will go to Hell, and I have done nothing! Nothing! I didn’t want it—’

Did Ysidro want it, when his long-vanished master had taken him, in the dark of some London churchyard? Did Ysidro consent, as his life ebbed away, knowing what lay beyond the gate through which he was being drawn?

‘I will go to Hell—’

‘You won’t.’ Lydia wondered if she herself would go to Hell – always supposing there was such a place – for telling the girl this. ‘You say yourself, you have killed no one – you are a maiden still in this respect.’

‘It’s what she calls us,’ whispered Evgenia, her voice breaking on the words. ‘Her maidens.’

Lydia did not say that this was how Ysidro had referred to fledglings who had been made vampires, but had not yet made their first kill. They were most vulnerable then, he had said, lacking the psychic powers that were fueled by their victims’ deaths, and utterly in the command of their masters. Instead, she urged, ‘Tell me about her. Tell me what happened.’

Like Ysidro, Petronilla Ehrenberg lured her prey through their dreams.

She clearly – Lydia thought – didn’t have the Spanish vampire’s skill in reading the dreams of those he sought to manipulate, but her methods were similar. Evgenia’s poverty, her pity for her family and friends in the bleak slums, the deep Slavic mysticism that provided the only comfort that the poor could afford: these were answered in dreams of voices, of a radiantly beautiful woman who said, You can strike down this evil. You can save and remake the world.

‘She said, it isn’t mankind that does these terrible things to their fellow man. God made man good – even my father admits that – so how could men be truly behind the evil of the factories and the foremen and the landlords? They are demons, she said, that wear the form of men. Demons that whisper to men and make them do the terrible things they do. Papa said this was ridiculous, but the dreams did not cease. Usually, I never dream about the Vyborg-side; I dream about the village where I was born, before Papa came to Petersburg. We were cold so often, and so hungry, but I could walk in the fields there, and in the birch woods . . . But in my dream I could see exactly where she would be found, at Dr Benedict’s clinic. It’s just along the Prospect from my school. I went there looking for her, three, four times . . . The others say the same.’

‘Others? Like Kolya?’

Evgenia nodded. ‘They would see her at a place in their dreams and go to seek her. And one day she was there at the clinic. She was standing on the steps as I came up the street. Our eyes met, like they do in books . . . I knew it was she, when I was still a block away. It was like meeting someone I had known all my life, someone who loved me . . . Someone I had forgotten. She said she had been waiting for me. That she needed me. That God needed me.’

Of course. Lydia shut her eyes again, this time with anger at the woman – the same flush of fury she had felt at Ysidro, when first Margaret Potton had come up to her in the dining room of the – of all things! – Hotel St Petersburg in Paris. Don Simon told me I’d find you here . . .

Lydia thought, That’s why she targets girls and boys of fourteen, fifteen . . . A younger child probably couldn’t survive the transition to the vampire state. An older one would not be taken in by so simple and comprehensive a lie.

Lydia had seldom hated anyone in her life. But for this thing, this terrible lie, this theft of life and hope and faith – this is what it is, to be a vampire . . . to take these things from a well-meaning child because they suit your convenience – she hated Petronilla Ehrenberg with a hatred that made her tremble.

‘It is the blood of the saints, you see,’ explained Evgenia, sitting on the floor at Lydia’s feet, her arm resting confidingly across Lydia’s knees. ‘Papa says, the saints were all just busybodies who poked their noses into other peoples’ affairs, but there’s more to it than that. I know there is! There has to be! And Madame said that St George – the slayer of devils – came to her in a dream and opened the vein in his arm, as she did to me, and had her drink of his blood, as I did hers . . . His blood became hers, she said. As hers became mine. She held me . . .’

Tears flooded the girl’s eyes again. ‘She held me in her arms, and it was as if she held my soul inside her soul. I felt her mind in me, through me, like a burning light, terrifying and beautiful and filled with love. I was like the clearest water, inside a crystal vase, only the vase was a living heart that loved me. I thought my old body died, and a new one was born, with the blood of St George in its veins, that would transform me and let me see which men were actually demons. Let me battle these demons, these evil things that bring sorrow and pain to the world.’ She raised her face to Lydia’s, and the light of the hearth lent a deceptive whisper of color to skin that Lydia knew was like white silk.

‘Afterwards, she said I had to stay at the old monastery, because we had to grow in the darkness, like wheat or roses grow, until we were strong enough to come forth and live on light. But that isn’t going to happen—’ Her voice faltered like a child’s. ‘Is it?’

Lydia said, ‘No. That’s how vampires are made.’

There was an old hunting-lodge in the wooded hills behind Bebra. The cab from the railway station – as the hub of a dozen railway lines Bebra was amply provided with cabs – reached there as the fragile sliver of the new moon set. ‘The train for Eichenberg leaves at ten minutes of ten tomorrow night.’ Jacoba steered Asher across the pitch-black hall – her hand cold on his wrist, her arm across his back, gripping his other elbow – to the door that led to the cellars below. This was, he knew, for guidance rather than restraint, though he could no more have broken free of her grip than he could have broken the chains that he carried in their mutual carpet-bag. An attempt to flee, either here or on the station platform, would have been plain and simple suicide. Her interest in escorting him was marginal at best, a task she would cheerfully abandon, if he gave her the excuse to do so, to kill him out of hand.

‘Tonight, I should say,’ she added, and then stopped. Asher heard door hinges creak, smelled the moldering rankness of a cellar. ‘It will be dawn in less than two hours. There are stairs here.’ She guided him down. He could feel the coldness of her hands through her gloves, of her body through their clothing. At the bottom the floor was brick, so worn and pitted as to be like a broken honeycomb of dents.

‘Listen to me, my friend,’ said her voice out of the darkness. ‘We will remain here for a day, and then travel to Eichenberg tomorrow night and remain there also for a day. But the train that leaves Eichenberg in darkness does not reach Berlin until the sky is growing light. So this is what you will do. Tonight I will give you the address of where you are to go in Berlin. You will go straight from the station; I have ways of learning where you go and how. Remember that the Master of Berlin knows you are coming; maybe the police as well. When dark falls I will meet you, and you and I together will go calling on this man that La Ehrenberg is using, to connect her with those on the Wilhelmstrasse. You will not go sooner.’

She released him, stepped away, but he did not move. He knew she was very close, somewhere in the abyssal dark. Had she breathed, he thought, he would have felt it on his cheek.

Her voice went on, ‘Do as I say, and afterwards we will go our separate ways. Cheat me, and we will find you, wheresoever you may hide.’

‘I won’t cheat you.’

The cold hand rested on the side of his neck, ungloved, so that he could feel the claws. ‘And what else will a man say, who is alone in the darkness with Death? Just see you don’t.’

She put her hands on either side of his face and kissed him, her body pressed to his, and such was the power of the vampire that he yielded, as if to a drug – knowing in any case that it was impossible for him to physically thrust her away. Then she pinched his ear, hard enough to draw blood, and chained his wrists together and drew him back to what felt like a pillar. The chain clinked coldly as she locked it around the stone. ‘There’s water and bread to your left, a bucket to your right,’ she said. ‘I’ll return, when it is time for us to depart.’

‘I shall count the hours,’ said Asher politely, though the kiss had left him shaking. It was, he knew, what vampires did, to cloud the minds of their victims . . . and it certainly worked, at least for a time. He wondered if he dared sleep, not so much from fear of other vampires – he couldn’t imagine a town as small as Bebra would support them, even with the constant stream of birds of passage that the railways brought through – as from fear that she might remain close enough to read in his dreams precisely how he planned to get away.

He did not hear her leave.

‘I wrote a letter to my parents,’ Evgenia said softly, after a long time of silence. ‘Telling them that I was well. She said she’d see they got it . . .’

‘They never did.’ Jamie had told her about his conversation with the Okhrana, and about the missing young people. ‘Were there others there, besides you and Kolya?’

‘About six of us. Maybe more. Tasha Plek – she was in the room next to mine, and we could sometimes speak – said there had been others before. Dr Theiss looks after us, or M’sieu Texel. It is Dr Theiss who will come in and take some of our blood in a syringe, to study it, I think. If Madame Ehrenberg is a vampir, why would Dr Theiss – who is a good man, and gives of his time and talent to work with the poor – why would Dr Theiss be helping her?’

‘If she lied to you,’ said Lydia slowly, ‘and sent you dreams to make you believe her lies, I’m sure she lies to Dr Theiss as well. God only knows what she’s told him.’ She got to her feet, helped Evgenia up; the girl seemed calmer, but still dazed, as if she had only begun to take in what had happened to her, which could never be undone. ‘Come,’ said Lydia. ‘We need to find a place for you to sleep . . . Do you sleep in the daytime?’

‘I don’t know, Madame. In the dark of the crypts one cannot tell.’

And when the sun didn’t set until ten at night, and twilight lingered for hours, what constituted ‘night’ anyway?

Lydia took her by the hand. ‘Vampires burn up in the sunlight,’ she said. ‘Your flesh will catch fire, at even the tiniest ray of its light—’

‘Then how can Madame Ehrenberg be a vampire?’ Evgenia pulled back against her leading. ‘Are you lying? Have you been lying? I’ve seen her outdoors, in full daylight—’

‘I don’t know. I think there must be two of them – that the real Madame Ehrenberg has gotten another woman to pose as her during the day—’

‘No!’ Evgenia shook her head so violently that her dark curls bounced. ‘The woman who met me at the clinic, she is the same one who . . . who drank of my blood, who gave me hers to drink! There was no trickery! There were many lamps in the room, the light was good, I saw her. And I know her voice . . .’

And if she has a vampire’s ability to subtly distort human perceptions, could she make you think her almost-double was herself?

Or was it . . .? The alternative possibility turned her almost as cold inside as the girl beside her.

But it makes more sense . . .

Shock flooded her; not with panic, but with a queer icy calm as she understood at last what it was that Petronilla Ehrenberg had done. ‘He needed vampire blood,’ said Lydia, speaking almost to herself. ‘Dr Theiss . . . Heaven only knows what he thinks he’s doing. But he needed vampire blood, to distill in some way to make a serum or a medicine that allows Madame to walk about in the daytime.’

After all, she thought, wasn’t that what Horace Blaydon was trying to do? Wasn’t that the sort of thing that poor Dennis was supposed to become? A day-walking vampire, loyal to the British Empire? The thought of the horror that he had turned into still gave her nightmares.

‘Instead of trapping vampires for their blood,’ she said slowly, ‘she simply made them. He must be testing his serum on them as well. I think that must be what happened to Kolya. One of the experiments went wrong. Maybe more than one . . .’

‘No.’ The girl’s voice was pleading. ‘No, you’re lying to me . . .’

‘Why would I lie?’

‘You might be a demon yourself. The demons Madame told us about, that one day we’ll be able to defeat—’

Lydia put her hands on the girl’s shoulders, looked into those tear-filled, reflective eyes. ‘Do you think that’s true?’

For answer, Evgenia only sobbed and turned her face away.

‘Listen, Genia. Two of Madame Ehrenberg’s maidens escaped her: one last year, the other just a little more than a week ago. She hadn’t told them anything, they didn’t know enough to take refuge from the sun’s light. One of them – a girl – went to sleep in an attic on Samsonievsky Alley . . .’

The girl stared at her with horrified eyes, filled with shock and despair. ‘The girl in the attic. The girl who burned up—’

‘You heard about that?’

The cold hands clutched her, their desperation giving them the first forerunners of the terrible vampire strength.

‘I think that has to have been one of them,’ said Lydia. ‘We have a cellar here.’ She guided the girl to the kitchen and opened the half-width door of the narrow stair. ‘There’s a cupboard; it’s not large, but you can remain there, during the daylight hours. Tomorrow – today,’ she added, realizing that it had to be well after midnight, ‘I’ll—’ She stopped, the words sticking in her throat at the sight of those terrified eyes. What on earth CAN I do today?

I need to speak to Jamie.

I need to speak to Simon.

I need to find some way to help this poor child . . .

CAN a vampire remain a maiden? She recalled how Ysidro’s powers to influence dreams, to blind and alter the awareness of the living, even to keep people from seeing his extremely disturbing true appearance – everything a vampire could do, to protect himself as well as to hunt – had waned, during the weeks they had traveled together and he had fasted from human kills. Was it the sheer accumulation of centuries of kills that let Simon – the oldest vampire she knew about – linger awake a little longer before the deathly day-sleep overcame him? Endure for a few seconds the pallid whisper of earliest dawn?

New-made fledglings, he had once told her, were fragile. Most – even those willing and eager to hunt – didn’t survive their first half-century.

Standing behind her on the stair, Evgenia gazed at the dark doorway of the cupboard, hand pressed to her mouth like a frightened child. ‘It’s like a grave.’

‘I’ll find somewhere else that you can go,’ Lydia promised. Razumovsky would return the day after tomorrow. Could she trust him not to ask questions?

She didn’t know.

As they reascended the stairs, Evgenia ventured, ‘Can you bring me a priest?’

Lydia winced at the thought. To bring a priest to comfort this poor child would be to sign the man’s death warrant, if the Petersburg vampires – when do they all leave on holiday? – came to hear that the living had proof of their existence. As it was, she knew that Evgenia’s continued presence at the izba would put the servants – and herself, for that matter – in terrible jeopardy.

I need to speak to Jamie . . .

There had been no word from him for three days, and panic twisted somewhere behind her sternum; adrenalin flow increased by anxiety, she noted automatically, and glanced at her watch to time the duration of sensation . . .

For that matter, she reflected as she knelt to prod the coals in the parlor stove back to life, there was no guarantee a priest wouldn’t compound poor Evgenia’s wretchedness by recoiling from her in horror and telling her that yes, indeed, she was damned. Many years ago, Lydia had protested in disbelief when her friend Josetta had said that, by and large, most men would blame a woman for being raped. Getting herself raped, was how they’d put it . . . A normal woman WANTS to be dominated . . . And fairly recently, she recalled, one of Jamie’s scholastic colleagues had broken off his engagement with his fiancée on precisely those grounds. She could easily see one of those bearded, solemn Orthodox prelates – men who not only didn’t speak against the periodic pogroms that the government encouraged, but approved of them – reacting to the news of Evgenia’s hideous situation exactly as Evgenia had.

That she was damned, through no doing of her own.

Simon will know what to do.

The thought came to her unwillingly, but she had to admit that she had never seen the Spanish vampire at a loss.

But if Jamie is . . . is in trouble of some kind – she refused to look at the darker alternative – would Simon not have written to me? Or let me know . . .?

How far away did he have to be, not to be able to read her dreams?

Or was that not something he would do, after their parting in Constantinople?

She walked to the door and opened it, letting the cold flow over her face and trying to gauge by the thin wedding-ring of the new moon how much of the night was left. At this time of the year – it was the twenty-second of April by the Russian calendar, and the sixth of May (if her calculations were correct) in England – barely any actual darkness lay between the last fading-out of brightness from the sky and the first glimmers of dawn. In a few weeks the sky would be soaked with eerie radiance all night. Evgenia had been here—

‘Do you hear that?’

Such was the terror in Evgenia’s voice that Lydia swung around, to see the girl standing by the stove.

‘Calling to me,’ whispered Evgenia. ‘Like the voices in my dreams. Coming for me . . .’

Oh, God . . .

Lydia turned back to the door, her heart in her throat.

Motion in the starlit screen of trees.

The gleam of eyes.