Blood Maidens (Page 28)

TWENTY-EIGHT

Texel took the candle, just – as Ellen would put it – to be bloody-minded.

The moment the door closed Lydia whispered, ‘Do you have anything else in your jacket?’

‘Some twine, the rest of the matches, and about seventy-five roubles.’

‘Can you make a picklock out of the frame of my spectacles?’

‘Not for the lock on that door. Stay where you are for a minute.’ He groped on his knees, feeling in the direction of where Texel had thrown the rags of his jacket, until he found it. Returning to her, he wrapped it around her shoulders, her flesh cold to his touch and her blood sticky on his fingers. Then he took her hand and edged cautiously to the left until his other hand came in contact with a wall, then followed it, passing the niches where the blood maidens slept.

Lydia whispered, ‘Is there anything we can do?’

‘Not much. Stand here, by the door, and hope it’s thick enough that she doesn’t hear us breathing through it. If she doesn’t have Texel with her when she comes back, one of us may have a chance. We slip past her – if we can – and split up—’

‘Here.’

He heard the rustle of her fumbling in the dark, and a moment later she pressed a handful of roubles and half a dozen matches into his hand.

‘We try to find Don Simon,’ said Lydia firmly. ‘He’s out there somewhere, and if he’s on his feet, he’ll be looking for us.’

‘How badly was he shot?’

There was long silence. Then she said in a tiny voice, ‘I don’t know.’

Then silence, dense and endless as the night after Judgment Day, when all the living souls have departed and the dead world is left to its long emptiness. Asher put his arm around his wife, felt her trembling with cold or exhaustion or fear.

Even he could smell their blood.

A voice whispered somewhere in the darkness, ‘Yuri?’

Damn—

‘Sonia?’

‘What is that?’

‘There’s someone here. There by the door.’

‘Blood—’

A girl’s voice said – like the others – in the rough peasant Russian of the slums, ‘Don’t.’ And then, in French: ‘Madame Asher, is that you?’

Besides the voices there wasn’t a sound, but Asher knew, as if he felt it through his skin, that they were moving up the room towards them. Lydia said, ‘Genia, it’s me.’

And then, shockingly close, the voice of Genia said in Russian, ‘Don’t, Alexei, stop it!’ There was a sharp rustle, like moths – Asher felt the stir of air, movement, as if someone had been pushed away.

‘It’s all right,’ whispered a boy’s voice, almost in Asher’s ear. ‘It will save them from their sins, the same way the Lady saved us by drinking our blood.’

‘That’s what she said.’ Another boy, terrifyingly close. ‘In my dream St Margaret said so. She appeared to me, Genia! She had the Lady’s face! They are sinners, they can only be saved through us—’

‘It’s a lie!’ cried Genia desperately, and Asher nearly jumped out of his skin at the brush of a death-cold shoulder against his arm. Another almost soundless rustle, the movement of bodies. He could smell their clothing, old sweat and carbolic soap, though their flesh was odorless. ‘If we drink their blood we’ll be damned!’

‘You’ve got it wrong, Genia,’ said Alexei, and now there was frantic urgency in his voice. ‘You’ve got it backwards. Everyone is damned. It’s the blood that damns – and the blood that saves . . .’

And someone else, another girl, very young by the sound of her voice, echoed fervently, ‘It’s the blood that saves . . .’

Behind them, the door fell suddenly open and lamplight streamed through. Asher barely had a moment to glimpse the ring of white faces, gleaming vampire eyes, less than two feet away from them, before he grabbed Lydia and dragged her through the door, almost stumbling into Sergius von Brühlsbuttel on the threshold. Lydia caught the lamp as von Brühlsbuttel dropped it; Asher slammed the door to, shot the bolt, twisted the key.

The gentle nobleman seemed paralysed with shock at what he, too, had glimpsed in the lamplight beyond the door. Then he seemed to rouse himself, stammered, ‘She’s on her way.’

‘Help Lydia.’ It seemed a safer division of labor than trusting him with the lamp. ‘Do you have the key to the front gate?’

‘Here—’ Von Brühlsbuttel reached out, as if to pluck at Asher’s sleeve as he led the way through the corridor he remembered, up a flight of steps. ‘Those things in the chapel – what are they? What is she? I had never seen her in daylight . . . Herr Gott, when we crossed the courtyard—!’

‘They are vampires,’ said Asher grimly, counting doorways, counting turnings, as he had counted them when Texel had brought him down. At least, as a Junker – a country aristocrat – von Brühlsbuttel would have grown up with the legends. ‘She is a vampire—’

‘And is making a damn good attempt,’ added Lydia thoughtfully, ‘at taking over the position of Master of St Petersburg. I’m Mrs Asher, by the way, sir . . . Jamie, I don’t imagine any interloping fledgling has ever come up with the idea of creating ten fledglings of her own all at once before. They’ll immediately outnumber both local nests put together, even if Golenischev and Prince Dargomyzhsky weren’t gone for the summer—’

Von Brühlsbuttel halted in his tracks, staring in horror at this matter-of-fact recital, and Asher caught the man’s arm in his free hand, dragged him on. ‘We know the Undead,’ he said. ‘We’ve fought them for years.’ Which sounded better, he supposed, than saying, We’ve had a vampire friend since 1907 . . .

‘Du Gott almachtig . . .’

Wide stairs debouched into the covered walk that surrounded the courtyard. The silver-barred grille that guarded the archway stood open. Even in the lamplight Asher could see Lydia’s face was chalky under the streaked blood, and von Brühlsbuttel looked scarcely better. The German whispered, ‘How could I have been deceived in her?’

Checking the courtyard, watching for signs of movement – not that anyone could see a hunting vampire move – Asher replied, ‘Deceit is what they do.’

‘And even they, like everyone else,’ said Lydia, ‘have two sides to their souls. You were her friend in Berlin?’

‘I was.’ Von Brühlsbuttel let his breath go in a little sigh. ‘I thought . . . She has changed. She was not like this a year ago.’

‘It’s the serum, I think,’ said Lydia, and she leaned back against the frame of the arch, struggling to get her breath. ‘Dr Theiss said so, anyway. The serum they were working on, so that she could walk around in the daylight. It’s why she made new vampires – to get vampire blood. I think it affects her mind. And it’s had some shocking effects on some of the maidens he tested it on. Texel keeps away from it, but he’ll go back and get some if he has to, to pursue us into daylight. I’m all right now.’

She was lying, thought Asher, but it was a gallant lie. The moon had set. The sky above the walls was not black, but a velvety blue, a few shades lighter than royal, and pinned with stars that barely showed against the atmosphere’s ambient brightness. She was right. Dawnlight wouldn’t save them.

He took her hand. ‘Let’s go.’

The courtyard was about sixty feet by a hundred, and from where they stood in the arch it seemed like a mile and a half to the gate.

They ran.

And Petronilla Ehrenberg dropped from the balcony above the outer gate, weightless, like a great pale bird.

For a moment she only stood facing them, the lamplight glowing back from her eyes. Then she stretched forth her hand and said, ‘Get away from them, Sergius.’

‘And what?’ Sergius von Brühlsbuttel stepped out from between Asher and Lydia and stood before them, between them and the vampire. ‘Watch you kill these people? Petra—’

‘You don’t understand.’ She flinched, clutched at her arm again as if the pain there had returned. In the wavery lamplight Asher saw the small red spot he had noticed on her neck had widened to the size of an American dollar, and her whole body gave off a strange, sulfurous smell. ‘I swear to you I don’t do this often . . .’

‘Petra,’ said von Brühlsbuttel gently, ‘I think I do understand. Your heart longs for the daylight – you remember what it was like, to love. As I remember. You wanted to open up the door again into the world of the living, and to pass freely back and forth. To have sunlight and love in the world of the living . . . and power in the world of the night.’

She turned her gleaming eyes on him, and Asher saw something change in them, as she looked back through the door of which he spoke. Tears of regret filled her eyes, for all that she had lost, and she cried, ‘Is that too much to ask?’

‘Yes,’ said von Brühlsbuttel, his voice infinitely sad. ‘Yes, my love, I think it is.’

Lydia shouted, ‘Look out!’ and Asher saw movement in the central doorway of the monastery: Texel raising his gun. Who his target was Asher never knew; von Brühlsbuttel gasped, ‘Petra!’ and seized her, thrusting her out of the line of fire, just as the sound of the shot split the night. The German let out a cry and crumpled into Petronilla’s arms.

‘Sergius!’ Petronilla held him up easily, but Asher could see the wound was mortal. He caught Lydia’s hand, ran two steps towards the gate, but Texel was suddenly in front of him, covering the distance with a vampire’s eerie, floating speed. Blind to everything around her, Petronilla sank to her knees on the pitted brick pavement, Sergius von Brühlsbuttel’s body in her arms. ‘Sergius!’ she called again, pressing her hands to the wounds where the silver bullet had torn through his body, blood pouring out over her white fingers.

Blood streamed down her shoulder where the exiting bullet had struck her as well, but for that first moment she seemed to feel nothing – as I would feel nothing, thought Asher, if Lydia had been hit . . .

Von Brühlsbuttel’s hand groped for a moment; Petra’s met it, clung to it. He whispered, ‘I am sorry, my love.’

She called out his name one more time, then her whole body shuddered, and she let him slide to the pavement as she clutched at the wound in her own shoulder, sobbed once – twice—

Then screamed, as the stench of burning suddenly filled the court.

Asher caught Lydia, dragged her a step back from the vampire and her lover; Texel only stood, staring in shock. It seemed to Asher that the flame started from the dark sore on Petronilla’s neck and from the one on her hand, as much as from the wound in her shoulder where the silver bullet had gone in, as if all the stored combustion of weeks and months of accumulated daylight were reacting at once. Petronilla screamed again and tried to rise, beating at the flame with her hands, and this time Texel leaped back, face aghast—

Another thing, Asher found himself thinking, that he hadn’t bothered to learn about the vampire state, the powers of which he had so coveted.

What it was like when they died.

Her skirt was burning – beneath it her legs must have erupted into flame – and she fell, crawling, rolling on the courtyard bricks. Oily smoke and the abominable stench of roasting flesh. Even when her sinews were consumed to the point that she was unable to crawl she was still conscious, screams transmuting into noises more horrible . . .

Did the ancient man who first invented the concept of Hell do so after seeing a vampire burn?

Somewhere the men and women she has killed down through the years are watching.

When at last she was silent, Asher looked up and met Texel’s eyes across the flickering pile of ash.

The German’s face hardened, and he gestured back towards the monastery door with the gun. ‘Get inside,’ he said. ‘Herr Gott, that I only took one dose of the stuff . . .’

‘Yes,’ said a quiet voice from the dark archway of the monastery door. ‘Do come inside James, Mistress. I think it would be best, though, Hugo, if you remain outside till daylight – drop the gun. Drop it—’

Hugo Texel stood trembling, the pistol leveled at Lydia’s head; then with a clatter the weapon fell to the ground, as if his hand had opened of its own accord. Asher stooped at once to pick it up. In the archway he could just make out Ysidro’s pale face and colorless hair, and the cold gleam of his flesh where it showed through the holes of the decaying black robe.

‘She didn’t tell you about this part of being a vampire, did she?’ Ysidro’s voice was so soft that Asher, when he and Lydia reached the Spaniard’s side beneath the dark archway, could barely make it out, but Texel screamed at him:

‘Teufelschwanz!’

‘I don’t suppose she was ever willing to admit that that old Jew in Köln had the power over her, to make her come and go at his bidding . . . or stand still.’

Texel’s face worked indescribably, his mouth like some gaping theatrical mask. He tried to move, clawing all around him with his widespread hands, but when he took a step he fell to his knees, as Ippo the student had in Lady Eaton’s house, when his master had so commanded. ‘When the light comes up you’ll burn, too, you devil!’

Ysidro only folded his thin arms, never taking his eyes from the man in the courtyard – and Asher knew that Ysidro, in fact, would have several minutes in which to find shelter in the dark of the crypts. The new-made fledglings were fragile, as he had said.

‘I’ve taken the serum as well! The sun will do nothing to me . . .’

Ysidro made no answer.

Softly, Lydia said, ‘He’s bluffing. I don’t know how long a single dose lasts—’

‘Then be sure to make notes, Mistress. Yet I would ask of you, whatever else you choose to do here after full light comes, destroy this serum that Dr Theiss has made. All of it, every drop. Burn his notes. Fascinating as it may be for you to study his experiments, yet I have a grave mistrust of fate. Only in the flame is there safety.’

‘For God’s sake, man, come to Germany with me!’ Sheer panic at what was coming – at what he had seen coming – edged Texel’s shriek. ‘The Kaiser will cherish us both! Anything we ask for, out of the world that will be Germany’s—’

Ysidro lifted his voice just slightly, still without change of expression. ‘Think you I do this for power alone?’ He asked as if he genuinely expected an answer, and as if surprised at his fledgling’s naivety. ‘Friends among the Undead are rare enough, in all the centuries of living in darkness. You have killed one of mine. I expect you to make her your apologies, when you see her.’

There was a scent in the air, the wind turning over the Gulf of Finland; seagulls set up a great yammering in the paling sky.

Texel screamed, ‘I am of you! I am in your soul as you are in mine! You will feel it – inside, you will burn if I burn!’

Whether he spoke true or not, Asher didn’t know. When Texel’s flesh first spotted with flame, then surged into a blazing torch, his eyes were drawn to the shrieking, staggering thing in the courtyard; it was some moments before he thought to look back to see Ysidro.

And when he did, Ysidro was gone.