Blood Maidens (Page 23)

TWENTY-THREE

Lydia dreamed of twilight. Somewhere near at hand men argued drunkenly, children cried. She smelled smoke, sewage, dirty clothing. All the stinks of the clinic. People weary, with the blind weariness of frustration and exhaustion, shouting at one another . . . in Russian, which she thought was most curious, since she didn’t know any Russian except, I will not be back for dinner.

She dreamed about a grandmother. Evgenia’s grandmother? Somebody’s – and certainly nothing like the well-starched matriarch of the Willoughby family. A tiny bent woman with white hair, moving painfully about the filthy streets of the slum with a basket of scarves to sell. She had a tall staff, like a mast with five crosspieces, also decorated with scarves: red, purple, blue, pink, like a gaudy tree with all its leaves fluttering in the wind. This she used to support her steps, and Lydia felt the pain in her legs and her back as if it were her own.

For some reason Lydia knew her name was Ekaterina, and that she’d been beautiful when she was young.

Ekaterina had a regular route, like the peddlers in Oxford and London – up the Samsonievsky Prospect, along the Putilov railroad spur (how do I know all this?), back by way of the canal. Other vendors, pushing carts of old shoes or carrying trays of hot pies, greeted her: Zdravstvooytye, babushka. She’d had four sons, two of whom were in the Tsar’s army and the other two were dead, killed in accidents at the Navy Yard, but their widows – and her many grandchildren – called to her outside the tenements where they lived. One of her daughters had saved a little bread for her.

Only on this day – and it was daylight now, Lydia saw, the gorgeous golds of the long arctic dawn and not the deepening twilight of evening – Ekaterina followed the tracks past the steelworks, moving like a small gray fish against the jostling groups of men who passed wearily through the gates for another day’s toil. Before her, the walls of an old monastery rose, soot black and somber among the wooden tenements. Somehow the old woman knew that she must walk a circuit around its walls and along the path of the old Putilov canal, and on the side that faced the waste ground – the side overlooked by the broken windows of the old chapel – something pale fluttered among the new little weeds; something pale that, as it moved, revealed the gleam of gold.

Ekaterina crossed herself and kissed her knuckle for luck. Witches and demons haunted St Job’s these days. Her daughter’s friend Tonya had seen one, flitting about the ruins of the stables on that side . . .

Yet an angel stood beside that fluttering scrap of paper; an angel with a thin scarred face like a skull, framed by long colorless spiderweb hair.

God wishes you to send a telegram, Grandmother, said the angel to Ekaterina.

The old woman crossed herself again. ‘I cannot read, Master Angel; I cannot write. I am an old poor woman . . .’

This is why God asks this of you and no other, replied the angel. Take – obey. And he pointed with a long thin forefinger to the paper lying on the ground. His nail was as long as a claw and gleamed like polished glass. You see that he will pay you, for he has heard your prayers and given you this way to earn your due reward.

Then the angel smiled, warm and gentle as spring sunlight after bone-racking cold – a smile that would lead anyone to do anything for him, even perhaps go down a dark alleyway with him in the night, believing that they would come to no harm.

Ekaterina hobbled forward, steadying herself on her staff of bright scarves, and the angel seemed to drift off a little distance in his garments of light. She saw that the paper did indeed contain several lines of writing in some foreign tongue, (it’s German, thought Lydia, why am I dreaming about telegrams in German?), and that the paper was rolled up and thrust through a fire-blackened gold ring, which bore in its bezel a heat-cracked pearl.

‘Where is he?’

Lydia plunged from the dream as if falling from a height into a vat of pain. Hands crushed her shoulders, jerked her upright – she had never felt pain like the pain that ripped through her skull, and she cried out as she was shaken like a doll in the grip of a demented child.

‘Madame, stop—!’ Lamplight tumbled into the room from the open chapel door, making all the frowning saints on the walls seem to fling up their hands in alarm. Behind silver-barred windows the night was not black, but royal blue.

Petronilla struck her, brute viciousness in the blows; shook her again as her consciousness reeled. ‘Little slut! Carrot-headed whore! Where—?’

‘Madame—’ Theiss caught the vampire’s wrist, and Petronilla threw Lydia to the floor, turned upon the physician like a mad beast.

‘You helped her!’ Her voice shrilled into the thin wild registers of madness. Gold hair fell undone around her shoulders, and her eyes threw back the lamplight like a rat’s. ‘You came back, unlocked the door . . . You hoped she would come to you!’

‘My darling—’ He retreated before her, his whole body stooped, silhouetted against the lamplight from the door, ready to dodge or flee—

Does he REALLY think he can outrun her?

Lydia wondered with a sense of detached calm whether Dr Theiss had ever considered wearing silver around his throat and wrists. With that many vampires under the same roof, maidens or not, it might be something to consider. If I live through this I’ll have to suggest it to him . . .

‘Don’t speak words of love to me!’ She almost spit the words at him. ‘Not when you’ve been making eyes at that skinny red-haired bitch – I’ve seen you! And that tramp Genia as well!’

‘You know that’s not true.’ Theiss’s voice was completely steady. Floating like a grass blade on top of a blood-lake of pain, Lydia didn’t know how he faced her . . . except that he must really love her.

‘Liar!’ Her hands flexed open into claws. Her back was to Lydia – what her face must be like, Lydia could barely imagine.

Theiss walked forward calmly, his eyes – Lydia thought – holding those of the vampire. When he came near enough, he took Petronilla’s hands.

‘My beautiful one, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. The man cannot escape. Every window is barred with silver, as are the grilles over the outer doors. We have Madame Asher—’

‘Kill her!’

‘He will come out, if we have her.’

‘Kill her!’ Petronilla jerked her hands from his. ‘Or do you think you’ll keep her for yourself?’ She swung back around to where Lydia lay, half-propped against the wall like a broken rag-doll, and her fangs glinted in her drawn-back lips. ‘Show me how much you love me, Benedict—’

‘I am showing you.’ He took her hand again, turned her to face him, hazel eyes calm and filled with love. Suddenly, the tension went out of Petronilla’s body, as if her soul had been hamstrung. She almost staggered against him, put her hand to her head—

‘Petronilla,’ he whispered in that deep strong voice. ‘You know you don’t mean it.’

‘No,’ she whispered. ‘No. You’re quite right, Benedict – forgive me . . .’

She stepped back a little, so that the lamplight fell on her, face veiled in hair like a shimmering cloud. A beautiful face, vulnerable and delicate as a young girl’s. Theiss brought up her hand to kiss, frowned, and asked, ‘What’s this?’ and she drew her hand from him. But he turned it, so that the palm faced the lighted door. ‘Did you burn it?’

‘I – yes, in the kitchen,’ she said, in a voice that told Lydia that she had no idea where or how she had burned her hand. ‘It was clumsy of me . . .’

But Lydia knew that no vampire is clumsy.

She’s having blackouts.

And doesn’t want him to know.

Theiss came over to Lydia, gently lifted her back onto the bed. ‘Are you all right, Madame?’ he asked, and Lydia thought it would be politic to burst into tears again – not difficult, considering how badly her head hurt.

‘I didn’t do anything,’ she sobbed, showing the very genuine terror she had felt a few moments ago. ‘I was asleep—’

‘Don’t lie, little bitch.’ Petronilla stepped forward, and Lydia cringed down behind Theiss, clinging to his arm.

He rather quickly disengaged her hand, turned to Petronilla. ‘Please—’ And to Lydia, ‘Who is he? The man we found you with.’

She almost said, I don’t know, then realized that anything she would say could be checked against Evgenia’s story, and she couldn’t recall enough of the attack on the izba to know what Simon might have told the Russian girl. She remembered only his hands, cold on her forehead, and how light his claws had felt. He didn’t kill Margaret . . .

Did I dream that?

Did he tell me that because he thought I was dying?

Because he thought HE would die?

Did he tell me because it was a lie, or because it was the truth?

She stammered, ‘He is – he is a vampire—’ and wilted artistically back against the wall, her hands to her head, as if in a faint, which was not far from being the truth. She heard the violent rustle of Petronilla’s silk petticoats and braced herself for another blow.

But Theiss said, ‘No, Petra, please. She needs to rest. You can speak to her in the morning. You must forgive her,’ continued Theiss softly, as Petronilla’s shadow momentarily blotted the lighted doorway into the gaudy chapel beyond. ‘She isn’t like this as a rule. The strain of what she is going through, coming back from the darkness, learning once more to live in the daylight—’

Lydia whispered, ‘Is that possible?’ and put her hand over Theiss’s wrist. ‘How?’

‘It is a series of injections.’ The tone of his voice, full of grave joy, told her worlds about his love for research, his dedication to what he was doing. ‘Distilled from the blood of vampires whose systems have never been polluted with human blood. Who are in their pure state, as Nature made them. Madame Asher, you must rest—’

‘Please—’ She clung to the warm hands that tried to bring up blankets over her again. ‘What will happen to Evgenia? She said – she said Madame told her they would become angels.’

‘Not become angels,’ he corrected her gently. ‘What she said was probably that they are helping the angels – that their lives were saved so that they can help in the battle against evil. I’ll explain later,’ he said kindly, tugging the blankets into place. ‘But Petronilla Ehrenberg is engaged on one of the great crusades against evil in this world: a soul dragged halfway to Hell, she has turned her back on the world of the Undead, dedicated herself not to their eradication, but to their salvation. Please believe me, Madame Asher. If your friend should speak to you – should try to return to you – please assure him that he has nothing to fear from us. Nor have you,’ he added, and he pressed her hands.

Lydia, whose neck had almost been broken by the violence of Petronilla’s rage, widened her eyes and did her best to look as if she believed him. ‘Truly?’

‘Truly. She is . . . The injections have irritated her, made her short-tempered – as you must know, the Undead have a truly fearsome strength. But the effect is temporary. In time, I know, she will grow used to the daylight – will learn to come back to the world of the living. As will they all,’ he said softly. ‘As will they all.’

Bebra to Eichenberg, a journey of barely ninety minutes. Then nearly twenty-four hours, chained in the blackness of another cellar. Asher slept the sleep of exhaustion on the stone floor, but kept waking in panic, thinking he felt Jacoba’s cold hand on his face, the touch of her fangs on his throat. Then he would sleep again and dream of his old friend Horace Blaydon, bluff and arrogant and confident in his research and his skills, reduced to uneasy terror as he saw the fearful changes that a serum of vampire blood had made in his son.

I had to do what I did, what I am doing, for the common good.

Other times he would dream of Lydia and would wake in a sweat, wondering if she were all right. If she were guarding herself, keeping her distance from Theiss and Ehrenberg . . .

If Ysidro had gone to her, or if he were waiting in Berlin.

But remaining in Berlin until nightfall to look for him was out of the question. Tired as he was, it was going to be difficult enough, to do what he had to do.

The train left Eichenberg for Berlin at ten, with full dark barely settled on the land. Jacoba, in the faded dark dress of a workingman’s wife, sat beside him in the third-class compartment without speaking, through hours of darkness with Prussia’s endless pine-forests flashing past under the light of the waxing moon. The compartment – indeed, most of the third-class car – was empty; only at the far end had a child cried, on and off, for the first part of the night, barely audible over the thrumming of the wheels and the small clatter of the window glass. In the swaying orange stain of the oil lamps, he’d seen Jacoba’s lips curl a little, smiling with no kindness at the thought of that infant in its mother’s arms.

She stayed where she was, however, and made conversation about the inconveniences of rail travel in her medieval-tinted German, until the moon set and the linked pentagons of the Maiden hung low over the dark wall of trees. Then she rose from the hard bench and opened the compartment door. Night wind whipped away the scarf she wore over her dark hair; she seemed to hang in the doorway for a moment, weightless as a demon, colorless lips smiling in the dirty light. ‘Do not betray me, Asher,’ she said, and then let go. The night whirled her away.

She would find, Asher guessed, a root cellar or a trunk in someone’s attic in which to pass the daylight hours, and would come on to Berlin once darkness fell. He had seen vampires run and knew their speed: tireless, inexorable, like monstrous half-glimpsed moths.

She would reach Berlin well before dawn. And he, James Asher, had better not be anywhere in that town.

It had been well over a decade since he himself had had occasion to drop out of a moving train-car, and he wasn’t looking forward to the experience. But he had a good idea of how Jacoba intended to keep him where she could find him in Berlin, and knew – as he watched the dawnlight slowly strengthening beyond the windows of the car – that it was jump or die. Wantzig flashed by, Beelitz, Potsdam – little platforms never touched at this hour of the morning, though the first workmen were already to be seen moving about in the early light.

And if I break my leg, Asher reflected, gauging the thickening agglomerate of sheds, warehouses, disused rolling-stock and piles of spare ties and extra cinders that trail like dirty spoor along rail lines everywhere as they near their termini, it really WILL be all up for us. And for England – and the world – as well. He did not want to think what the world would be, if governments got into the habit keeping and paying coteries of vampires in the only currency they would value.

He had trained himself, years ago, not to think of Lydia while Abroad, rationing the vision of her to those times when it was safe to relax, the way he would have rationed liquor. But he thought of her now, as the tracks and sidings doubled and quadrupled in the clear new sunlight and the train neared the Potsdamer Bahnhof, and he prayed that Ysidro had had the good sense to go on to St Petersburg from Berlin, without even stopping to kill Colonel von Brühlsbuttel in passing . . .

Whatever was going on, Asher wanted a word with the man before he killed him.

And he knew in his heart that if von Brühlsbuttel was Madame Ehrenberg’s connection to the Kaiser, killing him wouldn’t matter. She’d only find someone else whose whereabouts they didn’t know.

The train was slowing. Beyond a doubt, a welcoming committee of police waited for him on the platform, alerted by a telegram from the Lady Jacoba that the man whom the Köln police had arrested as Professor Ignatius Leyden, otherwise known as Mr Jules Plummer of Chicago – dressed in such-and-such a fashion and minus the mustache and extravagant American whiskers – would be on the 7:49 from Eichenberg.

Damn her.

She probably assumed she could retrieve him from the jail that night – not knowing that he’d be immediately transferred to a military prison, prior to being hanged as a spy.

Ysidro, he thought, if I ever see you again I will drive a stake through your heart for getting me into this . . .

He opened the door, estimated his speed, tossed out the small bundle of his possessions, and dived.

He made a rolling landing down the cinder hill of the tracks, taking the impact diagonally across his left shoulder and back; he scrambled to his feet (good, I didn’t break my leg . . . ), and jogged towards the nearest shelter, a tool shed by a siding. When he’d got his breath back, he jogged down the track to pick up his bindle, as American hoboes called it – a change of linen almost as dirty as what he had on, and the shaving kit Todesfall had procured for him back in Köln – then headed, at once and by the most circuitous route possible, for a bookstore in the Dorotheestrasse. It was in the opposite direction to Charlottenstrasse, but he knew that if he wasn’t to be found on the train, the police would immediately figure out what he’d done and begin the search for him, and he’d better not look like his description. Auf Golden Tintenfaβ was – thank God! – still in its old location – as far as Asher knew the place had been a bookstore since the time of Fredrick the Great – and still under the proprietorship of old Bickern, a little grayer and more stooped than he’d been when Asher had last seen him, but reassuring as the gates of Heaven.

The little bookseller looked up as Asher limped in – probably the least prepossessing-looking traveler since Odysseus had woken up on the beach at Scherie – but said, politely, in his heavily Saxon German, ‘Might I help you, sir?’

Working for the Department, one never knew which storm-battered tramp might turn out to be the King of Ithaca, down on his luck.

In English, Asher said, ‘I’m looking for a copy of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. I’m afraid it’s rather urgent.’

Bickern’s green eyes widened, but as there was no one else in the shop he said, in the same language, ‘I may have one here in the back.’

Asher said, ‘Thank you,’ and meant it as he seldom had in his life.

‘Mother Mary, that’s never you, Asher?’ The bookseller pulled a wooden chair up to the table of the little rear parlor that lay behind the shop’s second – inner – room. ‘McAliester said as how you were back in the game—’

‘I’m not.’ Asher winked.

‘Oh, yeah.’ Bickern nodded. ‘Now you speak of it, Mac told me that.’

‘Good. And I’m not being followed, by the way – or, if I am, the Berlin police department has improved mightily since the last time I was in town . . . And I’m not going to sit in your chair until I’ve had a bath, if you can provide me with the facilities for such a thing?’

‘Christ, yes, help yourself.’ He waved to the old-fashioned stove, beyond which – through the spotless windows – could be seen a pump in the narrow yard. ‘Bath’s under the stairs—’

‘I remember.’ Asher had availed himself of the facilities at the Golden Inkstand before.

‘Where’ve you been sleeping, man?’ Bickern flipped open the door of the stove, thrust half a shovel-full of coal into the grate as Asher collected the pail from behind the door. ‘You look like a fugitive from the soup line.’

‘I would commit murder,’ replied Asher, ‘for the privilege of a soup line at the moment . . . Do you have the doings to get me up in a full beard and some decent clothes? They’re looking for me as I am – I’ll need money, too. I have to be out of Berlin by nightfall . . . And I need to see a man about a dog.’