Blood Maidens (Page 3)

THREE

They reached St Petersburg in two days.

Asher had been clean-shaven during his earlier visits to Germany, and bearded in South Africa. The night before his departure for London he shaved the top of his head and dyed his remaining hair and mustache a streaky black, which sent Lydia into fits of giggles. Still, it made him feel a little safer when they changed trains – with a mountain of luggage including Ysidro’s double-lidded coffin-trunk – in Berlin.

Abroad, men in the Department called it.

In enemy territory, even if the King has a treaty with whoever’s in charge where you are. To the Department, Abroad was, by definition, always enemy territory.

And many, many people knew him in Berlin as the Herr Professor Ignatius Leyden . . .

Some of whom might have been wondering why the Herr Professor had so suddenly dropped out of sight after the South African war.

Ysidro left their first-class compartment some miles outside of Berlin – it was dark by that time, the train drumming full speed through the dreary wastes of Prussian pine-forests and gray little Prussian farm-villages – and it wasn’t until after the cab ride from the Potsdamer Bahnhof on Königsgrazerstrasse to the Settiner Bahnhof on the other side of the river, the inspection of travel papers, and the St Petersburg train’s departure shortly after midnight, that he came silently into the compartment again and settled down with a copy of Le Temps.

‘Was the Master of Berlin aware of you?’ Asher set aside his own paper, the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, remembering the masters of other cities he had met: the brittle and vicious woman who ruled the Paris nest; the dark and frightening shadow he had so narrowly escaped in Vienna.

The bleached horror in Constantinople that still sometimes burned in his dreams.

Compared with those, the chance of a brush with someone in the Auswärtiges Amt who might remember his face paled into a momentary contretemps.

‘I spoke with none.’ Ysidro turned a page. ‘And as I am not such a fool as to hunt upon ground not my own, I think that the Master of Berlin only watched my passage, if so much. He has the reputation of remaining like a spider in his cave, unless one draws his eye. All know this to be unwise.’ He folded the newspaper. ‘I was not aware of his attention.’

‘And your friend in Petersburg,’ asked Asher, after a long hesitation – did one speak words of reassurance to the Dead? – ‘will you be able to find her through her dreams, once we’ve reached that city? Learn what happened to her, and why she has not written?’

Ysidro was silent for so long that had he not known the vampire as he did, Asher would have taken the lack of reaction as a snub. The vampire absorbed the newspaper as he would have savored a zabaglione at the Savoy, with a delicious slow sensuality, as if he could taste the minds and hearts of those whose stories he pieced together. At length he said, ‘I don’t know.’

‘She was not vampire when you knew her in England, then?’

‘No.’

‘Then she is not your fledgling?’

Ysidro looked up for a brief instant, and it seemed to Asher as if – for the space of a single wingbeat of the Angel of Death – he might have replied. Then he only said again, ‘No,’ in a voice remote as the arctic ice.

So we may not have her help in learning WHICH German scientist is allying himself with the Undead, Asher thought. Nor in knowing how far things have progressed, and in what direction.

A few hours later, blackness still lying over the Baltic forests, Ysidro handed Asher a slip of paper bearing two addresses, and a draft on the Crédit Lyonnais for five thousand francs, then silently vanished into the corridor again.

At five minutes to eight in the morning, with dirty snow still blotching the streets and breaking ice bobbing in the steely canal below a rampart of dreary apartments, Asher stepped off the train at the somewhat confusingly-named Warsaw Station in the Russian capital. Cab drivers and porters swaddled in sheepskin clustered around bonfires built on the street corners; the air reeked of charcoal, burnt bread, and the frowst of unwashed wool. Little drifts of Russian, French, German, and Polish seemed to move like clouds above the muffled figures hurrying along the station platforms, and Asher felt the queer bristling surge of excitement that was only half fear.

Abroad.

Where everything was brilliantly focused, every color vivid and every scent the scent of peril. Where every sound was significant and the blood in the veins felt charged with electricity – only in fact, reflected Asher ruefully, what the blood was charged with was adrenalin, which Lydia had informed him was a common glandular reaction to stress.

He recalled what it had felt like to love being Abroad.

For two days he’d been reading War and Peace, so that enough of his rusty Russian had come back to him to engage porters and summon a cab. It was Lent – not, Asher knew, that that would slow St Petersburg society down much, with the exception of the Tsar and his pious Empress. As the porter’s wagon slithered and skidded its way towards the first of the addresses, a small town house near the Smolny monastery, the carriages and motor cars of the rich passed them in the foggy dawn-light, homeward bound from the usual very un-Penitential Petersburg parties. Against the silvery morning grayness, the painted plaster of the town’s buildings stood out like spring flowers – pale greens, lemon yellows, cerulean blues – all trimmed with white like the frosting on Rococo pastries. Bureaucrats, clerks, and middle-ranking Army officers already clogged the flagways, hurrying – Petersburgers were always hurrying – with the purposeful stride of men who fear to be seen by their superiors as less than passionately dedicated to the welfare of their pettifogging departments, bearing from one office to another an endless round of Russian paperwork. Overhead, the seagulls mewed eerily in the raw mists.

The city hadn’t changed.

Asher had the trunks disposed in the rather shallow – but pitch dark and windowless – cellar of the town house, locked the house thoroughly, summoned another cab, and betook himself to the second address, Les Meublées L’Imperatrice Catherine on the Moyka Embankment. There he took from his carpet bag garlands of dried garlic and wild roses – plants universally recognized as causing severe discomfort to the Undead – done up in netting, wreathed the windows in them, and slept until ten, when he had arranged for the concierge’s servant to bring up breakfast and draw a bath. He did not sleep particularly well.

It is not often that we travel, Ysidro had told him once; we whom the sun’s slightest ray will ignite to unquenchable fire. A vampire traveler is always the portent of disturbance and change. Claims to territory among the masters aside, we all of us hate change.

Hence, Asher reflected, the dispatch with which Ysidro had parted company with him in Berlin. His own experiences with the master vampires of Paris and Vienna had taught him that they were likely to kill an interloping vampire’s human companion out of hand – either to limit the information about their existence that might be spread abroad, or merely to let the interloper know that no intruders would be tolerated.

With luck, Ysidro would locate the Master of St Petersburg and square things before the sun rose tomorrow.

For himself, Asher had his own masters to locate.

His time in St Petersburg had been too long ago for him to be sure of finding any of his old contacts at the Embassy itself. Given the current state of international affairs, that elegant mansion on the Neva Embankment would be watched, as a matter of routine, by German eyes – and, in any case, after the South African fiasco he was never quite certain what the Embassy boffins would do with any piece of information he gave them. Instead, after a late breakfast of coffee and rolls, he made his way to the rather seedy district north of the canal, where a man allegedly named Hervieu kept a tobacco shop on a side street.

‘Good Lord, Asher, it’s never yoursel’!’ the allegedly Swiss proprietor exclaimed, after the only other customer had left and the usual preliminaries of enquiries for Virginia cigarettes had been exchanged and vetted.

Asher winked at him behind his pince-nez. ‘The years have been hard ones . . .’

‘Hard years, my arse,’ retorted Hervieu, whose baptismal name had actually been McAliester. ‘Not so hard, or they’d have made you near as bald as mesel’.’ He ran a hand over his slick pink dome. ‘Here’s you wi’ a head of hair a schoolboy would envy! I heard ye’d quit the Firm.’

Asher looked him straight in the eye. ‘You heard correctly,’ he replied, putting great significance into his tone. ‘I have had nothing further to do with Whitehall, nor do I wish to.’

‘Ye’ve come to Petersburg for your health, then?’

‘I have.’

‘Aye, well, winter in the Arctic circle’s a good time for that. Where you staying?’

‘You can leave a message for me at Phlekov’s.’ Anyone who worked St Petersburg quickly learned that half the stationers’, cafés, and news-stands in the city were operated by petty bourgeoisie who for a few kopecks would act as mail drops for the Devil. Phlekov’s on the Voznesensky Prospect was far enough from the Imperatrice Catherine to give Asher a good chance of observing if he’d picked up a follower. But even the Germans hadn’t the money to keep an eye on every letter drop in the city. ‘I’ve told them my name is Weber.’

Hervieu didn’t trouble to ask what name he’d told his landlords. He’d been in the Department a long time.

‘Who’s in charge at the Embassy?’ Asher asked, and for a few minutes he slipped comfortably back into the old shorthand: what’s the new chief like? Who have the Germans got in town these days? Are the Russians any more efficient than they were back in ’94? (What a hope!) Secret police as much a nuisance as ever? Is a Revolution still being plotted, or did that fizzle out when they got a Duma? He dared not ask after German scientists – God knew what ham-fisted enquiries would be launched by the Department or what the results would be – but it was good at least to check the territory.

‘What do things look like from London?’ the tobacconist asked in return. ‘I get word from the Embassy, but wi’ censorship, an’ all the diplomats bound and determined not to speak a word agin’ the Old Country, I’ve always got it at the back of my mind to wonder if I’m bein’ lied to.’

‘They’re idiots,’ said Asher harshly. ‘And you are being lied to. We all are. Britain builds a new class of battleships, so Germany’s building them too. Germany gets nine-inch guns, so France must have them or die. And to everyone who points out that a war between our coalition and their coalition is going to be Armageddon – like no war ever seen before – we get only, Well, we must protect our interests abroad, and – God help us – Dem Deutschen gehört die Welt . . . The world belongs to Germans. It’s the Germans who’ve said, We want territory even if it belongs to foreigners, so that we may shape the future according to our needs, but it might as well have been Asquith and those imbeciles in Parliament. War makes mankind strong, and God save us from a world without the manly training of combat! And if you want peace – or talk about how to avoid this manly training – you’re a Socialist or a degenerate, or in German pay. Sorry,’ he added, shaking his head. ‘Coming through France and Germany always affects me—’

‘It’s readin’ all them newspapers.’ Hervieu laid a comforting, red-furred paw on Asher’s hand. ‘Of course the lot of ’em are barkin’ daft, but you’ll never convince ’em of it . . . and lied to or not, as long as the Germans are comin’ at us, for whatever reason, you know we’ll fight. So what can we do?’

Asher whispered, ‘What indeed?’ He grasped Hervieu’s hand. ‘Thank you.’

‘Anythin’ else I might need to know?’

‘Not that I can tell you right now.’

The bright-blue eyes looked sharply into his for a time, hearing the gaps in his information, but understanding as only the Crown’s Secret Servants could or did. ‘For King and Country, then.’

‘For King and Country.’ Asher sketched a salute at the older man, pulled his fur-lined hat close over his naked scalp, and stepped out of the frowsty little shop into the cold, silvery glitter of the street.

What can we do? Asher stepped out of the way of a peddler like a giant ball of old clothes, who bore like a battle standard a pole bedecked with gaily-colored mittens. The words were the wheel on which Asher’s soul had been broken. Yet it was good to know that at least someone from the old Department knew he was in town – and would make enquiries if he didn’t report himself in. In an odd way, he felt himself again.

The distaste at traveling with Ysidro – at knowing who and what he was – shifted its perspective, though did not become any easier to understand. Did the fact that the vampire took his victims singly while the governments of Germany and England and France proposed to do so wholesale alter the sin of their deaths?

Or make partnership with this man more, or less, foul than partnership with the Foreign Office?

He didn’t know.

For King and Country.

Asher hated the words.