Blood Maidens (Page 27)

TWENTY-SEVEN

‘I met Madame Ehrenberg in Berlin three years ago.’ Von Brühlsbuttel settled back into the cushions of the cab as it jolted along the Sadovaia towards the river, folded his long, awkward hands on his bony knees. ‘At the Opera. She was alone, and I invited her to my box – not out of any impropriety, please understand, but because I feared she was lonely. She was in mourning, and I observed she had no son or brother or friend . . . She said she had almost lost interest in music, though once, she said, she had loved it very much. I asked her to join me again a week later . . . and so our friendship grew.’

Friendship? Asher wondered. Or simply seduction, which Ysidro had said the vampires engaged in as frequently as they could. This was not often – the Long Game, they sometimes called it. Luring over months, indulging in dinners, meeting at balls. Establishing the semblance of a romance, getting to know their victim – as Jacoba of Köln had gotten to know him – to increase the excitement of the final kill. To add the ‘kick’ of shock and betrayal to the savor of despair and death.

Maybe it had begun that way. For the most part the vampires lived upon the poor, whose families would not miss them; one reason the masters were so jealous of keeping interlopers out of their territories. The Long Game was a treasure, a treat, indulged in seldom because one time too many would endanger the whole nest.

And, of course, if Petronilla Ehrenberg were particularly fond of that particular game, she might very well slip away from her home territory, to hunt elsewhere . . . like Berlin.

‘She said that she suffered a nervous disorder, which made it impossible for her to endure sunlight,’ the nobleman went on. ‘I felt deeply for her, for of course such a disability would cut her off, almost completely, from the normal joys of human existence. When she came to Berlin – she is a native of Köln – I would do all that I could to accommodate her infirmity; and we began a correspondence. I had retired by then from the Army – I was myself only relearning the pleasures of civilian life.’

Asher glanced at his hand. The mark of a wedding ring was barely a ghost on the tanned flesh, visible only by the strength of the late-afternoon sunlight through the window of the cab. Five years at least since he’d taken it off, and who knew how long before that, that his wife had died? Prussian Junkers, Asher was well aware, did not get divorces.

Hesitantly, the former Colonel continued: ‘I suggested a number of nerve specialists, both in and out of Germany, who might help her. The fact that she suffered from this affliction, I said, did not mean that it could not be somehow helped. Medical science has made great strides in the past decade. At first she seemed to think that nothing could be done for her, but I begged her not to lose heart. I would love her—’ He stopped himself, his cheekbones staining a little pink at the admission.

‘I would love her both in daylight and in darkness. Yet, I said, where there is life, there is hope.’

He showed Asher the telegram he had received, sent from St Petersburg on Sunday, the 7th of May – April 23, by Russian reckoning:

Petronilla Ehrenberg Benedict Theiss engaged in murder in Petersburg stop they are monsters stop you must come

It was in German, but there was no signature.

‘I don’t even know what this means. Madame Ehrenberg—’ He paused, groping for words. ‘It is simply not possible. She is a strong woman, a passionate one, but . . . This is inconceivable. Benedict Theiss – the doctor, she said, who is effecting the cure of her condition – has a clinic here in Petersburg. It was the first place that I sought news of her this morning. It was closed up, locked . . . Yet only last week she wrote to me to say that they had made great strides towards a complete cure. When she is cured, we have talked of coming here to Petersburg to live permanently.’

‘Do you dream of her?’ asked Asher.

‘I beg your pardon, sir!’

‘No, I have a reason for such a question,’ he said quickly. ‘It is none of my business, and I would not ask otherwise: do you dream of her?’

Von Brühlsbuttel frowned, casting back in his memory . . . In a way that he would not, Asher knew, if Petronilla Ehrenberg were trying to seduce him, lure him, as vampires lured their victims to them. ‘I have,’ he finally said slowly, ‘once or twice. Foolish things, you know . . .’ He ducked his head shyly. ‘About six months ago I dreamed she was helping me tie fishing-flies, although we already had a mountain of them. Then I think, one other time, I dreamed she took me along when she was buying shoes.’ He shook his head, smiling at a private memory. ‘My sisters used to do that – take me along when they shopped for shoes . . .’

For a moment more he savored that small recollection, gazing out the window at the gray Neva, glittering a little in the late slant of the sinking sun as they crossed over the bridge. Anything or anyone farther from the sinister spymaster of Asher’s imaginings could hardly have been conceived. Not war at all, he thought, but simple love . . .

‘Nothing out of the ordinary.’

Above the water a flock of gulls circled, dark against the red and yellow glare of the factory smoke in the sky.

‘At first she did not seem to mind it,’ he went on after a moment, ‘that we could meet only by night. Yet I think – because of my own love for riding, for the woods, for the beauty of the daylight world . . .’ Years fell from his lined face, giving him the appearance of a handsome schoolboy. ‘It sounds childish in a man of my age, does it not? Yet the beauty of the world has always been a touchstone to me, everything in it: a blade of grass, the difference between frog and frog, bird and bird . . . I would like to think that my love for these things drew her back towards the world on which she had long ago turned her back. Like music, she said she had almost forgotten what it was like to care about the world of the light. The world that she would share with me, if she could.’

Where there is life, there is hope.

And so Petronilla Ehrenberg had started on her private quest to have it both ways. Letting nothing stop her . . . No wonder, thought Asher, as they climbed from the cab under the gray walls of St Job, the Auswärtiges Amt sent someone to watch Theiss’s clinic, if a private citizen of Köln sent fifty thousand francs to a man as outspoken against the German government as everyone says he was.

And once the German agent had arrived, he would have remained . . .

Asher paid off the driver, led the way around the corner of the building to the wasteland of weeds and cinder-piles and disused railway sidings along the canal, which would shelter burglars from investigation. The body had been found in the canal, the paper had said . . . He wondered if Hugo Rissler – the thin and drooping Herr Texel – had murdered Theiss.

Why? Because he was no longer of use? Or had there been orders of some kind from Berlin?

Or had it been one or the other faction of the divided Petersburg vampires, seeking to cripple whatever advantage La Ehrenberg might be offering to their competition?

He descended the low areaway behind a buttress, examined the lock on the deep-set door. New, like the sheeting behind the ironwork of the front gate.

If Theiss had been working on some kind of serum that would allow a vampire to walk in daylight – for whatever reason – it was well that he had been stopped. Was that what they had been testing, those two who had gone to ground without even checking to see that their refuges were windowless? Yet it seemed absurd and foolhardy. But if Theiss had succeeded in his quest—

Beside him, von Brühlsbuttel turned sharply and looked up to ground-level. ‘Petronilla!’ he cried, a lover’s joy in his voice.

With a sharp clack, the lock inside was thrown, the door before Asher opened from within to reveal Texel with a revolver in hand. ‘Do not even think,’ said Texel, ‘of putting your hand anywhere near your pocket.’ Daylight showed his face; the ghastly, marble white of vampire flesh gleamed shockingly in his reflective eyes. ‘Inside – both of you . . .’

When he spoke, Asher could see the length of his fangs.

Only when they were within the lamplit vestibule did the woman who must be Petronilla Ehrenberg descend the outside steps down into the areaway and follow them inside, locking the door behind her.

For a moment she stood, gazing into von Brühlsbuttel’s eyes. Then she whispered, ‘Oh, my darling . . .’ and the two of them stepped together, wrapped tight in one another’s arms.

There was a burial chapel in the crypts, with a dais at one end; the walls down its narrow length were lined with niches in which – to judge by the filthy tangles of bones and half-rotted black robes that lay beneath them on the floor – the bodies of the monks had once been laid. Even now, decades or centuries after the last corpse had rotted to its component bones, the walls stank of decay.

Each niche held a sleeping youth or maiden, wax-white faces stained a little with deceptive warmth by the orange flare of Texel’s oil-lamp as the German led the way down the length of the room. Asher counted ten of them, dressed in the faded hand-me-downs of the poor. Clawed hands folded on motionless breasts. Here and there a mouth had fallen open, to show the fangs.

Lydia lay on the dais before the altar, clothed in a grimy nightshirt, gentleman’s black trousers, and, over all, a man’s white linen shirt. Her face was scarcely less pale than those of the other sleepers against her tangled red hair. Her wrists were bound. She bore no wound.

Completely disregarding Texel and his gun, Asher ran to her. He was half the length of the chapel when he heard his captor laugh nastily, and the lamplight disappeared, followed by the clank of the closing door. Asher cursed, dug in his pocket for the candles and matches he’d gotten from Razumovsky, strode the rest of the distance, and dropped to his knees. ‘Lydia!’ She was warm. He felt her breath as he brushed back her hair, looked first at her throat and then at her wrists. She stirred when he touched her face.

‘Jamie? Ow!’ she added. ‘I hit my head—’

‘Are you all right?’

She started to laugh, weakly but with genuine amusement. ‘As compared with what? Oh, you darling!’ she added, as he fished her spectacles out of his other pocket. ‘I’m better than I was . . .’

He was already tearing at the knots in the cord on her wrists.

‘And Texel gave me veronal – a lot of it – and told Don Simon he wouldn’t give me oxygen or digitalis, or anything to keep me from dying of it, unless he made him a vampire . . . I gather he’d already asked Madame and she’d refused.’

‘I don’t blame her,’ muttered Asher grimly. ‘That’s a man who’d betray you for the price of a tram ticket. And did he?’ Asher recalled Ysidro’s words on several occasions, about the making of fledglings. ‘Completely aside from the fact that Texel wouldn’t want to place himself in the position of being her fledgling—’

‘I don’t think it was that.’ Lydia sat up – rather carefully – and held her wrists steady. ‘He doesn’t seem to know a great deal about being a vampire, except that he wants to be one to assist the Fatherland . . . and to get on the Kaiser’s good side. He thinks it’s all like in the penny dreadfuls, that they’re just like the living. They held Lady Eaton here for a time, before they killed her, but Madame Ehrenberg seems to be the only vampire he’s spoken more than a few words to. Nobody seems to have told him that once he actually became a vampire, he’d probably lose all desire to help the Fatherland or anybody else . . .’

She pulled her hands free of the ropes, threw her arms around Asher’s neck, and kissed him, her body shivering against his in its thin habiliments. ‘What happened to you?’ she whispered. ‘Simon said he woke up in Berlin and couldn’t find you anywhere in the city—’

‘I was arrested in Köln. I think someone must have recognized me. It happens. The town’s filled with Foreign Service men, on account of the new fortifications.’

She drew back, put on her spectacles, and studied his face and cropped head. ‘I don’t see how they could have, but all right, if you say so. Jamie—’

She gripped him again, tighter, more desperate, and for some minutes they clung together like drowning swimmers in the candle’s wavering glow. Then the light jerked and dipped with a sudden draft, and Petronilla’s rich contralto laugh shivered the darkness. ‘Well, ’tis an evening for journeys’ ends and lovers’ meetings, isn’t it?’ Asher saw their eyes flash in the gloom.

‘Herr – Filaret, I think you told Sergius your name was? Though I imagine it’s really Asher, isn’t it, unless our good little English virgin is a great deal naughtier than she’s painted herself. Whoever you are, if you’ll be so good as to take off those silver chains you’re wearing. And don’t make Texel shoot you,’ she added. ‘The fact that the bullets in that gun are silver doesn’t mean they can’t kill you just as dead as lead— Verdammung!’ she added, clutching at her wrist as if at the bite of an insect.

She fell back a pace, kneading at her arm as if in sharp pain. Texel did not take his eyes – or the gun – from Asher. After a moment, unwillingly, Asher complied.

‘Have the lovely Frau Asher put them in my pocket,’ ordered Texel. ‘Silver doesn’t burn the way it did – poor old Theiss really was onto something there. Not that anything would induce me to take that filthy serum four times a day the way Madame does—’

‘It’s only the after-effects of the first batches,’ Petronilla retorted, with a glance of contemptuous loathing. ‘Benedict told me it would fade.’ She rubbed her shoulder, kneading as if at a violent itch.

‘But what did he know about it, really?’ demanded Lydia. ‘The man wasn’t running any sort of controlled tests. For all you know, you could start turning into one of those things like that poor boy Kolya, and I don’t think even your poor sweetheart is going to be able to overlook that—’

‘You,’ said Petronilla quietly, ‘keep your tongue between your teeth, girl. There’s a little debt owing to you – and to your sweetheart – that it will be a pleasure to pay out.’ She moved forward, and Asher fell back a step, shielding Lydia with his body. ‘Oh, don’t be melodramatic. What on earth do you think you can do against us?’

She was perfectly right about that, but at that point Asher could think of very little he had to lose. He dove at Texel, twisting sideways to avoid the gunshot that echoed like thunder in the crypt, hoping Lydia had the good sense to run for the door that the vampires had left open behind them. It was, he knew, madness to take on a vampire physically; the strength of Texel’s blow sent him sprawling against the wall, stunning him, and he heard the tiny pat-pat-pat of Lydia’s bare feet stumble, heard her cry out.

Texel caught him by the throat, and he felt the rake of the vampire’s claws, on his chest, on his hands; Texel tore away his jacket, thrust him against the wall, and clawed him deliberately, back and forth across his ribs and on his back. Then he stepped away, and Lydia was flung down beside him, gasping, bleeding where her flesh, too, had been gashed.

Petronilla licked the blood from her nails. ‘I’m going to enjoy this.’ She glanced around her at the half-seen forms, sleeping in their niches in the darkness. ‘In an hour they’ll be waking. My little blood maidens. They usually don’t open their eyes until it’s full dark outside. If we can ever locate that beschissen Spaniard –’ she threw another murderous glare at Texel – ‘I shall have to ask him if that’s an effect of their maidenhood.’

‘I think we’ll find that out,’ responded the German, ‘a good deal quicker than we’ll be able to flush him out of hiding. I put one of these into him.’ He gestured with the pistol. ‘He can’t stay hidden forever. And in a few days –’ he gestured, as she had, back towards the unseen niches, the pale sleepers – ‘these will be strong enough to help us bring him in. Do you think they’ll know by instinct how to kill? Or will you have to show them?’

She smiled. ‘I look forward to finding that out.’