Blood Maidens (Page 21)

TWENTY-ONE

‘Don’t let them take me.’ Evgenia’s hands clutched Lydia’s arm. Lydia could feel her body trembling, pressed against her in the dark doorway. ‘They’ll make me one of them. And then I will be lost indeed.’

‘I won’t let them take you.’ Even as she spoke, sleepiness rolled over her mind like a drug. She backed into the cottage, bolted the door, and ran to the bedroom. From her luggage she yanked the spare garlands she’d woven, garlic and wild roses, as if she were a peasant girl in the sixteenth century instead of a scholar and a physician and a modern young woman of the twentieth. ‘Put these—’ she began to say, but stopped herself, as Evgenia backed away, face twisted with repulsion and fear.

‘It hurts . . .’

‘Good. It’ll hurt them, too.’ Lydia wrapped one of the garlands around the door handle, hung another over the door. There weren’t enough of them, so she ran into the bedroom again and pulled in half the garlands that she had hung above her bedroom windows every night she had slept in the cottage, so that there would be enough for a little to hang over every window in the place. She was so sleepy she blundered into the walls as she moved, her brain fighting the relentless pressure of the vampire minds.

How can I be this terrified and still fall asleep? ‘Who is it out there? Is it Madame?’

‘I don’t know who it is.’ The girl pressed her hands to her temples, her eyes. ‘Voices – it isn’t her. When she held me – when I changed – it was as if she was a part of my thoughts, a part of my heart . . .’

Lydia staggered into the kitchen, pulled open the drawers of the sideboard. Thank goodness His Excellency would be ashamed to have less than the best silver in the izba for his guest. She fumbled with the kitchen string, dropped the silver forks and spoons as she bound them onto the ends of the broom handle and the poker from the stove. ‘Take this . . .’

‘It burns!’ cried the girl. ‘It burns my eyes, like smoke—’

‘It will burn them where it touches their flesh,’ said Lydia. ‘Can you endure it?’

‘I think so.’ Evgenia looked disoriented, her eyes starting to wander, as if she were having trouble understanding.

‘Listen to me,’ said Lydia. ‘Focus your mind. Try to push past the voices, try to close the door on them.’ She yawned hugely, shook her head in a vain attempt to clear it. ‘This may be your only chance. Remember, it’s not for long.’ She threw a glance at the very un-peasant-like clock in the ‘red corner.’ It was just past two. She took a deep breath. Whoever these were – Golenischev or his rival or those angry young rebel fledglings Jamie had told her about – they would have to leave soon, if they were themselves to reach shelter before the first stain of dawn in the sky. If they were only here to observe, to keep an eye on—

Glass shattered with a splintering tinkle in the bedroom. Lydia dashed in to see shadowy forms draw away from the window sill, unable to bear the proximity of the garlic. At the same moment she heard windows break in the parlor behind her . . . four rooms, eight windows, two defenders . . . and Evgenia screamed. A long pole – from the boathouse, Lydia thought – probed through the bedroom’s broken window, the hook on its end groping and scratching for the garlic wreath. Lydia strode up to the window, stabbed into the darkness with her own silver-ended makeshift weapon, and as the boat pole drew back she snatched down the swags of herbs from that window and the other, threw herself back through the door into the parlor.

‘Gospozha!’ Evgenia was jabbing and thrusting through the window with her own weapon, trying to parry another boat pole. She was too far away to use the weapon effectively – Lydia wound one of the half wreaths around the bedroom doorknob, snatched up her heavy skirts, and crossed the parlor in two bounds. In the dark beyond the window she glimpsed a white face, like a corpse’s, but mobile and soft . . . A woman’s, she thought, as the reflective eyes caught the light.

‘Bitch!’ yelled a voice from the darkness, and another called out something in Russian; Evgenia fell back behind Lydia, clinging to her – another window shattered, at the far end of the parlor, from a billet of firewood thrown like a spear. Lydia ran to the place, jabbed into the darkness, struggling with the near-conviction that this was all a dream and it didn’t matter if she defended the house or not.

‘You have to get close!’ she shouted back at Evgenia.

Grimly, the girl ran to parry the groping boat-hook when it came in again, first jabbing with her silver weapon, then reaching up to grab the boat hook, to try to pull it away from the attackers. The force with which it was jerked back made her cry out.

‘They’re stronger than you!’ Lydia fell back, grabbed the second fragment of wreath and wrapped it around the door handle of the study. ‘We only have to hold them off for a little while—’

A man’s voice called out in Russian again, close this time – he must be standing on the veranda. Evgenia shouted something back, then whispered over her shoulder, ‘He says that you will betray me. That, because I’m already vampire, you’ll wait till I fall asleep . . . He says I must, I will, soon. And then you’ll drag me outside, to burn up when it gets light . . .’

‘I won’t.’

Tears were running down the girl’s face, crumpled with grief in the dark frame of her hair. ‘Even though I’m damned? He says, nothing can save me.’

‘You don’t know that,’ said Lydia desperately. ‘A priest will know—’

Another jeering shout from outside. Lydia almost didn’t need the translation.

‘He says, priests lie. All of them.’

‘Do you believe—?’

Something crashed against the door from the bedroom behind them; Lydia swung around. A woman’s voice cursed, cold and silvery – in Russian. Then a third window broke, and Lydia rushed to parry the long hooked pole that came through—

She didn’t know how it happened – true accident or clumsiness engineered, like the sleepiness, from outside – but her feet caught on one of the low peasant stools and she fell. Her head hit the corner of the table with a sickening crack on the way to the floor. At the same instant she heard more glass break somewhere – the attic, she thought, the windows upstairs, but she seemed to be viewing the room and herself through the wrong end of a telescope. Get up! Get up!

She managed to roll over, and the pain that axed through her head brought on a spasm of vomiting, excruciating in her corset. Gray swam down over her senses, and she heard Evgenia scream despairingly. Then cold hands dragged her up; she saw eerily glowing vampire eyes as claws ripped at the collar of her blouse.

‘Vyedyma!’ The vampire – thin and cold-faced with a cruel slit of a mouth – threw her down, clutching his hand where the welts were already ballooning on his fingers from her protective silver chain. Beyond him, Lydia could see Evgenia backed into a corner by two others, woman and man; the cold-faced man drew back his foot to kick her. ‘Gryazn—’

Wait, no, don’t I at least get to see Jamie again before I die?

Something – a shadow – flickered in the deeper shadows of the parlor, and as Lydia’s vision fractured away to nothing she saw what seemed to be a pair of disembodied white hands appear out of the darkness behind her attacker. One – connected by a wrist like whalebone to a grimed and smutted shirtsleeve – wrapped neatly around the vampire’s jaw, while the other molded itself over temple and forehead, but she wasn’t sure.

She recognized the ring on one finger, as with a neat twist Ysidro snapped the other vampire’s neck.

That scene repeated itself for her a half-dozen times, it seemed, in various forms of dream, until she came to in blackness illumined by a single tiny flame. Damp chill lay clammy on her skin, where her torn blouse exposed her throat. She smelled coals and wet earth. Her feet were raised and lay on what felt like someone’s lap – Evgenia’s, she realized, when she heard the girl speak. We must be in the cupboard in the cellar, in the safety of the darkness . . .

‘Then there is no hope for me?’ the girl pleaded.

Ysidro’s voice – light and soft and disinterested – replied from just behind her head. ‘It depends upon how you define hope, child. Can you become human again? No. No more than you can by effort of will return to the flesh you wore as a child of two. This is not possible.’

‘Am I damned? You who are one of them – you who are vampir – you would know—’

‘I regret to say that I do not, Evgenia. I have been vampire for three hundred and fifty-four years now, and never have God or any of His angels appeared to me to inform me of whether I am damned or saved, or if I am able to alter my state, or even if they care, about me or anyone else. There is no way for any of us but forward, and none – living or Undead – can see through any gate before its portals are passed.’

Very light, very chilly hands passed across Lydia’s forehead. She was lying, she slowly came to know, with her neck and shoulders propped on something – a folded coat? – and her head resting against, but not directly on, Ysidro’s narrow thigh. She groped for his fingers, even as Evgenia whispered, ‘And the one you killed?’ Her voice was thick with sleepiness, already drifting away. ‘Is he now in Hell?’

‘Mistress?’ Ysidro’s grip tightened gently around Lydia’s fingertips.

Silver, she thought. I still have silver on my wrists . . . Or did I take it off?

‘No, child,’ Ysidro went on, ‘my strength is enough to snap our friend’s neck, but not tear his head off – at least, not quickly. But it rendered him unable to move, giving his colleagues the choice of carrying him away to safety – they had bare minutes of true darkness left – or leaving him to burn up where he—’

Ysidro’s voice broke off. Moving her head – Lydia felt as if her own neck had been broken, and she fought to keep from throwing up again – she saw that Evgenia had slumped over in the corner of the crowded little cupboard where they huddled. The girl’s eyes were shut, her pale mouth hanging slightly ajar, like any sleeping fifteen-year-old’s, except for the fangs.

‘Is vampire sleep that much like real sleep?’ she murmured.

‘No, Mistress.’ Ysidro moved the candle. ‘How many flames do you see?’

Lydia flinched, turned her head away, the light painful. ‘Too many.’

‘Then how many fingers?’

‘How do I know?’ she said, her mouth feeling like it belonged to someone else. ‘I don’t have my spectacles. My head hurts.’

‘I have no doubt of that, Mistress, and had I a spare one for you in my pocket you should surely have it. Did you take any other hurt?’

‘I don’t know.’ Lydia groped for fragments of recollection about the last minutes of the fight. Moving her hand was an agony – any movement, in fact – but she felt at where her shirtwaist had been torn, touched the skin of her throat. The chain was still there. ‘I wasn’t bitten, was I?’

‘No.’

‘Is Jamie all right?’

For a moment he was silent. Then: ‘Was he with you?’

It took Lydia a few moments to reason out this question, wondering why he would ask that . . . Her mind seemed to be moving very slowly, and her memory would not release that last image, of Ysidro’s strong white hands wrapping themselves like some sort of prehensile sea-life around the face of the cold-eyed slender vampire who had called her a vyedyma, whatever that was . . . She’d have to ask Razumovsky . . .

As if putting the words together from several different notebooks, one at a time, on a table, she managed at last to say, ‘He wasn’t with you?’

Did I miss something?

Another long stillness. Then: ‘I had not thought him a man to betray me, yet I knew he had plans of his own. I woke in the lodging I had arranged in Berlin, but when I went to his, he was not there. I thought the way the luggage was laid down was not as he was accustomed to do it. There was neither note, nor message . . . I walked about Berlin until nearly dawn and found no trace of him, not even in the jail or the offices of the Foreign Service in the Wilhelmstrasse. What became of him, I know not.’

‘Jamie—’ And because her head was pounding, and dizziness was making the room rock beneath her in wide, sickening arcs, she clung to Ysidro’s thin hand and began to cry.

It wasn’t like Ysidro to offer comfort – in three hundred and fifty-four years it seemed to have faded away, along with all expression and most gestures, and perhaps he had learned that, contrary to the usual assurances in times like this, everything would not be all right . . .

But he did brush gently at the hair that trailed over her forehead, his claws light as butterfly feet on her skin, and said, in a voice no louder than the flicker of wind, ‘Now, Mistress . . .’

Weeping still, she asked him, ‘Why did you kill her? Why couldn’t you just let her go?’

Silence again, longer, and so deep she wondered in terror if he, too, had been struck by the vampire sleep. If she would have to lie here, buried in this grave with him until—

Judgment day?

At last he said, ‘And where would she have gone, Mistress?’ It was as if he had known whom she meant – had known for the past eighteen months, that this was the question she was going to ask when next they met. Slowly, and only after long silence, he went on, ‘In truth, I think it was one of the vampires from the old Harem in the palace, who saw Margaret – perhaps spoke to her – when she became lost there, the night of the rioting in the Armenian quarter. I do not say I would not have killed her in time,’ he added, as Lydia clung harder to his hands, sobs shaking her as if all the griefs since that time – the child she had lost, the wrenched and wretched sense of having been betrayed not by the world, but by her own heart – were cracking apart. ‘But another was before me . . . There, there, Mistress, what is this? James is a man of great resource—’

‘Why did you lie to me?’

‘Because no good can come,’ said Ysidro, ‘from the friendship of the living and the dead.’

Lydia blinked, struggling to bring his face into focus. His smudged and filthy shirt, open at the collar to show sinew and collarbone, told its own tale, of hiding and dodging – how had he traveled, without the watchful protection of a living man? Or had he lured another to him in Berlin and convinced him – through dreams or money or blackmail or all the other methods the vampire employed – to act as his bodyguard and baggage handler, until Ysidro was done with him?

In the frame of his long white hair, the vampire’s thin face was calm, but filled, she thought, with infinite regret.

‘It is best that their ways remain apart. When one or the other attempts to cross that barrier, there is always pain, and sometimes evil worse than pain. Mistress—’

She opened her eyes with a start, aware that she’d been drifting into darkness that she sensed was deeper than sleep, an abyss from which she could not surface.

‘Do not sleep yet,’ he said gently. ‘Someone will be here soon.’

‘What time is it?’

‘Not long past four.’

‘I have a concussion,’ said Lydia, ‘don’t I? Is that why I must stay awake?’

‘For a time.’ He stroked her forehead again, cold flesh and claws like steel and glass. ‘I would have left you in the cottage above, save that I misliked how you breathed. It were best that you were watched for a time. The vampire princes have both left Petersburg; those who remain here are the scaff and raff – students, and a man who was a priest, and another who worked for the Third Section. Fledglings who hate both the master who made them, and the other master who would take power in this impossible city where only the weak take refuge.’

‘Would you have made me a fledgling,’ asked Lydia, feeling a little as if she were drifting in a dream, ‘to keep me from dying?’

‘No.’ Don Simon gathered the thick pottery-red swags of her hair in his hand, ran them through his fingers as if savoring the touch. ‘James would not thank me for it; nor would you.’

‘Because vampires do not love?’

‘I have known those who do,’ he said. ‘No, Mistress. I do not make fledglings because of what fledglings are: the hand of your hand, the heart of your heart. What the fledgling was in life, the master understands, as if the events – joy or sorrow, coupling or cheating or the glazing-over of the heart – had happened to him, over and over again. There are masters who enjoy this. To them it is a triumph akin to the kill. Myself I find it distasteful, both to hold that kind of power, and to partake of that . . . knowledge.’

Lydia felt her eyes slipping closed, and she struggled to remain awake, as she had earlier in the night – not against the vampires now, but against the velvet weight of pain. Her head throbbed as if her skull had cracked, and she feared to move, knowing movement would bring on nausea again. It was a comfort, she thought – looking at the tiny flicker of reflected yellow light on the narrow wooden shelves, the glass jars and pottery crocks of Rina’s faithful housekeeping – to have Ysidro with her, when she felt so cold and dizzy and frightened.

‘I’ve missed you.’

‘And I you, Mistress.’

‘I thought of you,’ she murmured. ‘When I was ill last year. I miscarried. I wanted – I thought I was dying, those first few days, and I wanted to speak with you . . . because if I was dying, what I said wouldn’t matter. It was silly . . .’

‘Not silly at all, Mistress. It only grieves me, to hear that you were ill.’

‘Jamie—’ she began, and then fell silent again. Then, ‘It’s been three days since he’s written. Four, if nothing comes today. Tonight – when the sun sets – will you come back here? We have to—’

She moved her head a little – at the cost of vise-like agony – but found that his fingers had slacked in her grip. She saw that he sat back against the corner of the wall, his eyes closed, his face relaxed in sleep. And as with Evgenia, the illusion of humanity was so strong – as if the care and grief that had been washed away were only the care and grief of a day – that she wondered how much of a soul remained to him, even after all this time.

What WAS a soul, anyway? The child she had lost – the child she was trying so hard not to hope too much that she might be carrying now, Jamie’s child . . . Who WERE they?

Who was he, this young man who’d died before Queen Elizabeth had come to the throne? Who if he hadn’t been Undead and damned she’d never have met, never have known, never have . . .

Footsteps creaked on the floorboards overhead. Her heart leaped. Jov, Ivan, Rina . . .

‘We’re here,’ she called out, and even the effort of speaking was like having the bones of her skull pried apart with iron and wheels. ‘Close the door, close the cellar door—’

She heard it close, and footfalls descended the stair. All right, she thought, through a thickening fog, just how are you going to explain who these two sleepers are, and why they have to remain here, and how can I find some other place for them to stay when even moving my head hurts so much . . .?

I mustn’t fall asleep now. I have to make Jov and Rina believe me . . . What if they think I’m delirious . . .?

The thought of further explanation – of any further effort of any kind – brought on another wave of feeble nausea and the desire simply to sleep and let things take what course they would.

Splinters of gold lamplight shone beneath the cupboard door, in the darkness seeming to go through her optic nerves and straight to the back of her brain like needles. A woman’s voice – Rina’s? – said, quite close by, ‘We have to hurry. They’ll wake at the house soon.’

Shadow moved across the lamplight. Lydia called out weakly, ‘Is the door closed?’

The cupboard door opened. Lamplight outlined the three who stood in the narrow opening. They’d closed the door at the top of the cellar steps; no flicker of the rising dawn filtered through.

The gold light outlined the grave countenance of Dr Theiss, the restless, bony face of Hugo Texel framed in his ridiculous whiskers. And highlighted the curved pale lips, the triumphant smile, of Petronilla Ehrenberg, holding aloft the lamp.