Blood Maidens (Page 29)

TWENTY-NINE

There were ampoules of silver nitrate in Dr Theiss’s laboratory. Asher injected the nine maiden fledglings he found asleep in the crypt with it before he dragged them, one by one, out of the darkness. They all caught fire at the top of the steps, without waking up, the moment he pulled them through the door into the vestibule where the gorgeous brightness of the dawn sky glimmered. Ysidro had been right about how fragile they were.

Lydia said, ‘It isn’t fair. They never harmed anyone.’

‘No,’ agreed Asher. ‘Can you guarantee that they would not?’

She, too, seemed to hear again the whispering voices in the dark of the crypt and said no more, even offering to help him drag them. He refused. Exhausted as he was himself, Asher did not like the whiteness of his wife’s lips and the way she sat down quickly on the steps. When he had dragged out the last of them she said, ‘That’s only nine. There were ten in the crypt.’

‘I know.’

‘I didn’t see Genia. The girl who tried to keep the others from us. She was the one who escaped and came to Razumovsky’s izba Friday night – who inadvertently led the others to me.’

‘We need to find her,’ said Asher wearily. ‘But first let’s deal with the laboratory. The police will be here—’

‘Actually, they won’t,’ said Lydia. ‘Petronilla was paying someone high up in the police for protection. But you’re right. Let’s not push our luck.’

It was full daylight by that time, and Asher worked quickly, breaking up the equipment and piling it in the sinks. Lydia poured away every phial she found – blood, serum, filtrates – and combed both the laboratory and Theiss’s little office in the chamber next door for notes. These she heaped in another sink and set fire to them.

‘I’d rather we didn’t have the Fire Brigade to deal with,’ said Asher.

Lydia didn’t ask him why. By her silence, she knew.

They took lamps and searched the crypt, and around noon they found Ysidro.

He’d taken refuge in one of the inner catacombs, where the bones of long-dead monks still occupied the low brick niches along the walls; skulls grinned from ossuary lofts overhead. Through the torn black robe he wore, Asher could see the bullet-wound in his shoulder, black, burned-looking, and oozing, but because he had not – unlike Madame Ehrenberg – been accumulating the effects of repeated exposures to sunlight in his flesh, the damage seemed to have gone no further. Nearby Asher found a gold penknife monogrammed IE, clotted with blood, and the silver bullet he’d removed with it before sleep had claimed him.

His face was relaxed, enigmatic in sleep as in waking. He had taken off his gold signet-ring and laid it on the stone beside his head, as if he knew they would come.

And so here we are, Asher thought.

There were two syringes of silver nitrate in his jacket pocket, and he carried a hammer and two hawthorn stakes he had found in a lower drawer of Theiss’s desk.

Where we all three of us knew we would one day be.

He glanced sidelong at Lydia’s face, white with exhaustion, spectacles reflecting the lamplight like insectile eyes and hiding whatever she felt.

Were it not for Ysidro, she would be dead. And with her – she had said – the child she carried.

Lydia’s child. My child.

He tried not to hope, or to feel the delirious joy he’d felt last time and the time before . . . and failed in the attempt. It was apparently the province of the living to hope.

It seemed that the Dead did indeed have gifts to give to the living . . .

He will kill when he wakes. Asher looked down at the calm, sleeping face, the straight white eyelashes, the waxen, awful scars that nobody saw when the vampire was awake to trick their minds. He would have to kill, to speed the healing of his wound; to renew those mental powers that gave him mastery over the minds of the living. That let him seduce through dreams.

Asher knew what needed to be done, as if he had sworn an oath to that old man in Prague. Yet – feeling stupid even as the words came out of his mouth – he asked, ‘What do we do?’

Lydia turned her face away. In a small voice she said, ‘He didn’t kill Margaret Potton.’ As if, out of so many, that mattered.

‘I know.’

She looked back at him, lips parted to speak, and he went on, ‘He asked me not to tell you.’

She didn’t ask why, but he saw her brown eyes swim with tears.

‘He is what he is, Lydia. He cannot be other than that. More than anyone, he knows that that door is shut.’


It was her turn to say, ‘I know. But more than anyone – of all the vampires, and I think of anyone still living as well – I think he was the only one who understood – or would have understood – that Petronilla Ehrenberg did what she did because she was in love with a living man. That she wasn’t working out of . . . of loyalty to the Kaiser or desire for an unlimited supply of trussed-up German Socialists or whatever the Kaiser would have paid her with. Simon was the only one who knew that the way to stop her was to break the tie between her and her dream. Her hope of being able to live with the man she loved.’

She wrapped her arms around herself – it was cold in the catacomb – and looked down at Ysidro’s face again.

Asher wondered if the vampire could hear them, sunk in the sleep that he had often said was not like the sleep of the living. And what, he thought, does HE hope?

‘’Twere best the dead were dead utterly, he said, and life left to the living,’ she went on after a moment. ‘It was he who telegraphed poor von Brühlsbuttel, you know. Or, anyway, he got some poor beggar-woman to do it . . .’

‘The way he got me to come with him here.’

They are seducers . . .

Every kill he makes henceforth will be upon your head . . .

A lake of blood indeed.

Asher felt numb inside, and cold to the core of his bones.

‘You decide,’ Lydia whispered. ‘I’ll be upstairs.’

‘Will you be—?’

‘I’ll be all right. It’s not far.’

It wasn’t. It was the searching that had taken time, backtracking with the aid of Asher’s twine, seeking out the hidden crypt.

She picked up one of the lamps, the shadows moving over Ysidro’s sleeping face like half of a ghostly smile. ‘There’s nothing in the darkness now.’

She was sitting in the covered walkway around the courtyard when he came up half an hour later, in a patch of sunlight, like a ragged beggar-child in her grimy nightshirt, his bloodied jacket, and Ysidro’s trousers and shirt. Her arms clasped about her thin knees, she gazed through the nearest archway into the courtyard, where two grisly piles of ashes still smoked.

I should never have dragged her into this. Asher leaned against the archway, shivering with fatigue, wondering how it was that they had both survived this. It was inexcusable, to expose her to this. To put her in danger as I did.

Even the Department never asked me to use those I loved.

In fact, it discouraged us from loving anyone at all.

You cannot serve God and Mammon . . . and if someone could identify which of those two one serves in the Department, would any of us be happier?

Nights without sleep, days without rest or food, had left him feeling bludgeoned, weary beyond reckoning, and he knew that down in the dark of the crypt there had been no right choice. He owed Ysidro Lydia’s life, and the life of their child. Lydia had put the decision into his hand, loving them both, knowing what Ysidro was, and accepting whatever his choice would be. But it was one thing to accept, and another, what she would feel, and dream, and wake up sobbing out in the dark of the night. The Germans weren’t the only ones who gave no thought to what the world would be like after the battle that they so much wished to win. He remembered the pale stillness of her days of grieving for their lost child, knowing it could have been no other way, but so frighteningly distant . . .

If she cannot forgive me my choice . . .

He had literally no idea what he would do then.

Lydia raised her head as he came towards her, got shakily to her feet. She was always thin; now she looked as if he could pick her up in one hand, like a red-and-white lily. I could have returned to Petersburg and found her gone, dead . . .

There was more than one gate through which one could pass, never to return.

He said, ‘I couldn’t.’

And Lydia flung herself into his arms, kissed him feverishly on the mouth, and burst into tears of relief.

When Asher returned to the monastery two days later – twenty-four hours after notifying the Okhrana that he had ‘heard’ of fearful things done there, and on the same day he got Razumovsky’s order to destroy the contents of Theiss’s laboratory at the clinic – Ysidro was gone from the crypt. Nor did the smallest whisper of the vampire’s presence trouble his dreams, though for weeks – as he and Lydia journeyed back through Europe – his dreams were not pleasant ones. They stopped in the smaller towns – Minsk and Cracow and Brno – for Asher had found himself uneasy at the thought of spending the night in cities such as Prague or Warsaw.

Of the girl Genia, no trace was found.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: THE RUSSIAN CALENDAR

When Pope Gregory XIII mandated the switch from the old Julian calendar to the astronomically more accurate reckoning of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, because of religious enmities neither Protestant nor Orthodox countries would follow suit. England and the British colonies in America did not switch over to the Gregorian calendar until 1752 (with the result that most of America’s Founding Fathers have two recorded birth dates, one ‘old-style’ and one Gregorian about eleven days later); Sweden did not make the change until 1753, and Russia did not start using the Gregorian calendar until after the 1918 Revolution that ended the rule of the Tsars. Thus, in 1911, when this story takes place, all dates are different depending on whether the action is taking place inside or outside of Russia, the Julian date being two weeks behind the Gregorian.

Greece did not switch to the Gregorian reckoning until 1924, and many Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar to calculate the date of Easter.