Blood Maidens (Page 4)
At seven Asher changed his shirt, donning beneath it the little forearm-sheathe he’d had made for him in China, though instead of the hideout knife he’d worn in those days, he equipped it with a silver letter-opener, sharpened carefully to as much of an edge and point as the soft metal would take. He found a café near the Engineering Academy that served a dinner of zakuski, borscht, and smoke-flavored caravan tea for a rouble. An old-style porcelain heating-stove blazed at one end of the little room, but near the windows it was like sitting outside on a sharp spring morning in Oxford – yet Asher chose one of the small tables there and watched the passers-by in the square before the Mikhailovsky Palace in the chilly evening light. Schoolgirls with long fair hair hanging out from beneath hats and scarves brushed elbows with the ragged women who worked in the sewing factories and cigarette factories and factories that made boots for the army. North of the river – what was locally called the Vyborg-side – and east of the handsome houses of St Petersburg’s eighteenth-century core, these factories ringed the city, turning out guns, battleships, uniforms, tents, and buttons for the biggest army in the world. Between, behind, around the factories lay the slums: the largest, the filthiest, and the poorest in Europe.
Asher wondered if they had changed as little as the city’s center had, in the seventeen years since he had been here last. Street after unpaved street of squalid tenements, the slums sprawled into what had been the countryside, the air above and the dirty snow underfoot reeking alike of coal smoke and sewage. Even here you could smell it.
And within that ring of squalor were all the offices of the government’s thousand petty bureaux – offices of the Church, offices of the regulation of each province, offices of the railroad and of Army procurement and of the regulation of schools and the regulation of finances and the regulation of Jews. Clerks in tight-buttoned coats shivered like Bob Cratchit as they scurried to catch trams, trailing banners of smoky breath. Students lurking along the pavement pushed crudely-printed handbills into their hands, for a rally or a revolution. Elderly men hawked hot pies, cups of tea, aprons, scissors, umbrellas, second-hand shoes. Gray-faced shadowy men from the Third Section took surreptitious notes on everything they saw.
Daylight dwindled. By ten it was dark, and Asher made his way to the chilly electric glitter of the Nevsky Prospect, which led towards the river.
‘I have spoke with the Master of Petersburg,’ stated Ysidro’s quiet voice at his elbow. ‘Neither he nor any of his fledglings has seen the Lady Irene since the full moon of February.’ His words laid no cloud of steam in the ghostly bluish light of the street lamps, and he spoke as if of a stranger.
As if he had not come eighteen hundred miles, at risk of his life, to learn her fate.
‘And the man she saw at the Obolenskys’, before she disappeared?’
‘Count Golenischev – the Master of Petersburg – was certain that none of his fledglings would have the poor taste to do anything with a jumped-up German tradesman but drink his blood, if that, nor the temerity to attend a ball at the Obolenskys’ or anywhere else without him – Golenischev – at their side. And he knew of no living man or woman, he said, with whom she associated, as the Undead sometimes do. Like us all, she was a watcher in the shadows.’
‘Do you believe him?’
Ysidro considered the matter. ‘I do not disbelieve,’ he said at length. ‘There is very little, you understand, that the Kaiser or any other monarch can offer a vampire master that it would be safe for that master to accept, and he seemed ready enough to tell me what he knew. I did not say ’twas a scientist or a doctor that we sought.’
‘Have we permission to visit her residence?’
‘We have.’ With a gray-gloved fastidious finger, Ysidro touched the lap robe in the smelly little box of the cab they hailed, but forbore to take advantage of it. Asher suspected that the same would have been true even had the vampire not been impervious to the freezing night.
‘When she had been missing a week,’ Ysidro went on, slipping one narrow shoulder from beneath the strap of his heavy satchel, ‘Golenischev broke into her house, but found, he said, no trace of violence or misfortune or indeed of anything amiss. He holds it more probable that she has simply gone to the Crimea, as many of the Petersburg nobility do, both living and Undead.’
‘But he does not know this for certain?’
‘She is not his fledgling then either?’
‘The Lady Irene was something of an outsider here.’ Ysidro’s yellow gaze rested on the distance beyond the frost-rimmed window-glass, as if it could follow those shadowy forms that hurried, late and shivering, along the wide thoroughfare. ‘She came to Russia after the defeat of Napoleon and was made vampire by the former master of this city, who had the misfortune to perish while in the Crimea some sixty years ago. The peasantry there are more primitive than the inhabitants of Petersburg or Moscow, and more ready to act upon their suspicions.’ He did not sound particularly grieved at this circumstance.
‘Some masters will feel it, when a fledgling is destroyed,’ he went on after a moment, and his voice, thought Asher, hesitated fractionally over the words. ‘Not all; certainly Grippen does not. And Golenischev is young in his domination of this city and was chosen by his own master for his money and connections rather than his brains. The Lady Irene, though the elder, never challenged him for supremacy. Nor has she had the temerity to make fledglings of her own.’
‘As you have never challenged Grippen for mastery of London?’
The yellow eyes regarded him for a moment behind straight white lashes, then moved: a dismissal. ‘Grippen is a Protestant.’ The contempt in his voice implied that this explained everything – or anything, reflected Asher, exasperated. That question settled, Ysidro went on, ‘The Petersburg nest is in any case not a large one, owing to the awkwardness of there being two months of the year wherein it is impossible to hunt, and two more in which one hunts at one’s peril. Here we are.’
They stepped from the cab in a handsome street of town houses and small town-palaces, not far, Asher judged, from Ysidro’s own temporary residence. A row of town houses graced one side of the street, as in a London court; on the other side, a couple of small free-standing villas stood in their own walled gardens. Lamps burned in a porter’s lodge at the far end of the way. The others stood dark.
The vampire shouldered his satchel, crossed the pavement to the end house of the row, and drew from his coat pocket a modern brass Yale key. The house was set high above what seemed to be a shallow basement, owing – Asher guessed – to Petersburg’s marshy water-table. The steps ascending were marble, alternating black and pink. A woman passed on the pavement, huddled in the skimpy and faded clothing of the poor, and looked up as Asher happened to turn his head. He saw her make the horned sign for the aversion of evil, followed up quickly with the Sign of the Cross. She was still crossing herself as she hastened away.
Ysidro closed the door behind them. Unshuttered vestibule windows let through a daub of reflection from the gas lamps on the pavement as the vampire produced two small bullseye lanterns and a box of matches. ‘Would the Lady Irene not have shuttered the windows if she were going to the Crimea?’ Asher inquired as he followed Don Simon into the hall.
‘Given the numbers of the poor in Petersburg – curse or no curse—’
Asher hadn’t thought the vampire had noticed the woman on the street.
‘—I would assume she would have taken such a precaution. Irene was most assiduous in the protection of her property, particularly of her jewels.’ The vampire shut the slide on his lantern and held it low, careless of the beam of its light, but Asher raised his, so that the narrow shaft of brightness gleamed across a suggestion of porphyry inlay, colored marbles, gilded atlantes along the wall. Oriental carpets scattered the floor: Persian and Turkish and Aubusson stacked one on the other, so that the exquisite Chippendale furniture seemed to wade hock-deep in the colored pile. The drawn curtains were moss-colored velvet, tasseled and corded with plum and gold. A silver samovar the size of a steam-engine boiler caught the light, its surface thinly frosted.
‘And what are the chances that it was the Count himself that Lady Irene saw at the Obolenskys’?’
‘Slender.’ Ysidro crossed the hall, passed through the dining room that opened from it. A mahogany table that could have seated fifty. Flowers only a day or two old: she must have some arrangement with day servants that had not been cancelled. ‘He was at a masked ball at the opera that night, he says, with two of his fledglings – who might also have been lying, ’tis true. Yet something in the way he spoke of Germans – whom he holds in contempt, as many Russians so sapiently do – sounded genuine.’
Evidently, the day help’s ministrations didn’t extend to the kitchen quarters. These had been disused for decades, every shelf and cupboard bare. The front of the house was for show, Asher thought, or perhaps to satisfy the desire of its inhabitant for an echo of what it had been to be human. There was a boiler, and coal enough that My Lady could bathe. ‘There is little, as I said, that the Kaiser can offer a master vampire, particularly of a city like Petersburg, where the slums are vast and neither the government nor the owners of the factories themselves inquire what becomes of the poor.’ Asher’s footfalls echoed like the drip of far-off water. Like Virgil’s in the Inferno, Ysidro’s weightless tread left no mark upon the silence. ‘The Russians of the countryside believe in the vampire. Here in town, they are told that there is no such thing, and indeed they have learned that to complain is to bring oneself to the attention of the Third Section, which is never a good idea.’
He led the way down the stairs from the kitchen. Lantern held high, Asher followed, though he did not expect to see anything but a hidden chamber and an empty coffin – the first things the Master of Petersburg would have checked, notwithstanding his certainty of an early departure for the Crimea.
Estimating the dimensions of the basement by those of the house above – something one did a lot of, working for the Department – Asher guessed where a chamber had been walled off it even before Ysidro went to the entrance, which was concealed behind stacked boxes that it took a vampire’s preternatural strength to shift. When Ysidro pushed them aside – they had frozen to the floor, owing to the swampy dampness of the semi-subterranean room – and unlocked the narrow door they covered, the coffin was seen to be open and empty when the lantern beams pierced the utter darkness of the bricked-shut room.
No sign of burning or of blood on the extravagant white satin of the lining. Nothing in the room, save the ice that sheeted the floor bricks. No surprises and no information, though Ysidro stood for a time, running his hand along the satin, as if he would have asked a question of the darkness, or looked for some message written upon it.
Then he turned and soundlessly left the room.
Asher followed. ‘Was Lady Eaton the wife of a diplomat? Or simply an unfortunate traveler, such as yourself?’ Ysidro’s sidelong glance reflected the lantern light like a cat’s. ‘I don’t imagine,’ Asher went on, ‘that when you left Madrid in 1555 to attend your King’s wedding to the Queen of England, you counted on meeting a vampire in London and finding yourself obliged to remain there for the next several centuries.’
‘No.’ The tiniest ghost of an expression – wry? half-amused? – pressed itself like a needle scratch into one corner of the vampire’s lips, and the shadow that had settled on him as he stood beside the coffin seemed to retreat. ‘No, I did not.’
In the drawing room, Ysidro opened the drawers of the baroque desk – a stupendous confection of ebony and mother-of-pearl – and turned one thin shoulder, very slightly, to block Asher’s view as he drew forth packets of letters. He went on, ‘I have since learned that there were vampires aplenty in Madrid, and in Toledo also, which was my home. I could as easily have been taken there, given my carelessness at walking abroad nights. Perhaps in Madrid and Toledo it was guessed that I should be missed.’
Past his shoulder Asher glimpsed the handwriting, a fine sixteenth-century court-hand. Packet after packet of letters, carefully bound in ribbons. Now and then Don Simon would glance at a date: April of 1835. November of 1860. Asher himself had not yet been born. He glimpsed his birthday, of the first year he’d been sent to that horrible school in York, the year his parents had died: like the scent of old patchouli unexpectedly encountered. Ysidro had been writing a letter on that night.
‘She was the wife of a diplomat, yes,’ went on the vampire, flipping open one drawer after another, like a man seeking some further prize. Smaller packs of letters, with addresses in different hands, he dropped on the corner of the desk for Asher to take: bills, invitations, a memorandum book, household expenses. ‘She was not happy in her marriage and so took a good deal of pleasure, I think, in making her husband the first among her victims. This is not uncommon. Nor is it uncommon to take – or to ask one’s master vampire to take – the bereaved husband or wife or lover as a fledgling also, under the mistaken impression that they will provide one with company in eternity.’
‘Mistaken?’ Asher stowed the correspondence in the pockets of his heavy black greatcoat, sat on the edge of the desk as Ysidro moved around the study’s rose-and-gilt Louis XVI paneling, tapping and probing for sliding panels or other secret caches. While he watched Don Simon, he kept an ear towards the stairway and the street. The last thing he needed was to be taken up by the Petersburg police for burglary.
‘The husband or wife or lover in question seldom truly wishes to become vampire.’ Ysidro finished his circuit of the room, glanced back over his shoulder as he picked up his lantern again by the door. ‘Usually they have not the will to survive the transition – the giving over of their soul, their consciousness, to the master vampire, to be held within the embrace of his mind –’ his long hand closed illustratively on itself, like some strange colorless plant devouring insect prey – ‘and returned to the body after the body’s death. Or else they simply do not make good vampires and get themselves killed very quickly. By that time –’ and his dry, soft whisper was dust falling in a room long closed – ‘the vampire who wished to bring them with him – or her – into Eternity has usually lost interest in them. Love might conquer Death, but it seldom transcends the selfishness necessary to accept killing others to prolong one’s own life.’
He passed through the door into the oval central hallway of the main floor, mounted the curving stairway to the dark bedrooms above.
A velvet-festooned cavern of a bedroom, then a dressing room nearly as large – cupboard after cypress cupboard, mirrors dimmed with frost. Ysidro opened them, one after another, checking shelves and corners. Still searching. And to judge by the places he looked, it was for something small.
All the gowns were this year’s style, subdued pinks and silvers succeeding the dim mauves and mosses of a few seasons past. Such detail was something else one learned in the Department, even if one had not the delirious privilege of being married to Lydia. The hats on the shelves were the newest monstrosities from Paris. The colors – as far as Asher could tell by lantern light – favored an English rose. ‘If she was going to the Crimea,’ he remarked, ‘she didn’t pack anything suitable to wear there, unless she had a completely separate summer wardrobe beyond what’s here. Will there be luggage in the box room upstairs?’
‘I misdoubt Golenischev gave the matter a thought.’
Absorbed in his search, Ysidro did not turn. Seemingly out of nowhere, it crossed Asher’s mind that there might be a photograph of Lady Eaton in the bedroom and he went to look – later he could not imagine he could have been that stupid. As he crossed the dark chamber to the dressing table beyond the bed something in the air oppressed him: not a smell, but a sense of suffocation that made him pull his scarf from his throat despite the cold. Even so that sense of heaviness did not leave him, but grew. Not giddiness, but—
A cold hand clamped over his mouth and jerked his head back, while another ripped his collar aside; the grip that closed over his arms was like a machine in its strength. Had the vampires that closed in around him been less greedy – or less determined to teach Ysidro a lesson – he knew they could have slit his throat with their claws and left him dead on Lady Eaton’s pastel Axminster carpet in less time than it would take for Ysidro to know what had happened . . .
But they wanted to feed.
And Asher had walked into vampire nests before.
He jerked his hand hard, dropping into his palm the silver blade from its arm-sheathe, and struck backward with it into the vampire who held him from behind, even as he felt the cold touch of an icy forehead against his jaw. A woman screamed in pain. The triple and quadruple coils of silver chain around his throat under his collar were enough to burn any vampire’s lips and hands. For a blurred second he fought to keep his mind clear, and he twisted – more by instinct than by thought – against the grip on his elbows as it loosened. Someone struck him across the face with a violence that nearly broke his neck, and he slashed again with the knife, knowing the unhuman speed of his attackers—
‘Drop him!’ Ysidro’s voice was a silver whip.
Asher hit the floor, too stunned for a moment to breathe.
They stepped aside, shadows in the crooked reflection of his fallen lantern, eyes like animals shining out of the dark. Asher managed to get onto one knee and set the lantern upright – no sense in bringing the St Petersburg Fire Brigade to complicate matters. He pressed his hand to his throat, then pulled off his glove and did so again. Attack, defense, release had occupied seconds. It was only now that he began to shake.
‘And did Count Golenischev neglect to mention my visit this evening?’ asked Ysidro in his deadly-soft voice.
‘Golenischev can go fuck himself,’ retorted a young man in a rough jacket. He wore a straggly beard and the rather nautical-looking cap of a student, and he held his hand pressed in agony to a bloody stab-wound in his thigh. Ysidro had spoken in French, but the student had snapped his reply in the proletarian Russian of the factories and the streets.
There were three of them. One – a woman of the same student type, short and thickset with a mouth like an iron trap – turned towards the dark door at the far side of the room, and Ysidro said, ‘Stay.’ He neither raised his voice nor moved, but she turned back, as if he had laid one of those steel hands on her shoulder. Asher could see where the silver of his neck chains had welted her lips. Her eyes mirrored the lantern light. Asher had never seen such an expression of sour hate.
Even with his life hanging in the balance, Asher couldn’t imagine either her or the student being invited to a party at the house of the highest aristocrats in Russia.
The other girl with them might have been though. She was tall and slim and fragile-looking, with fair hair coiled on the top of her head like a dancer and a dancer’s way of holding herself. It was she who said, ‘Golenischev has no command over us,’ and there was shaky defiance rather than confidence in her voice.
Ysidro said nothing for a time, only regarded them with that cold calm. The male student almost shouted, ‘Golenischev is an aristocratic pig, a bourgeoisie fat-cat who lives from the sweat of the working man.’
Asher was tempted to inquire when had been the last time the young man had either worked or lifted a hand to assist the Revolution, but didn’t. Nor did he dare move a finger towards the sharpened silver letter-opener, which lay on the blood-daubed carpet a yard away.
‘I take it,’ said Ysidro at last, ‘that there are two masters in Petersburg?’
‘There are not.’
Asher had heard nothing in the house below, but in the dark of the doorway he saw gleaming eyes and the blur of faces untouched by sun. He knew which of the four newcomers had to be Count Golenischev, for the man had the calm arrogance of one who has ruled over the lives of peasants on his estates from infancy. There is little the Kaiser can offer the master vampire of any city. This man clearly considered the lives that he traded for his own survival his due – and had, just as clearly, been made vampire by his own master, as Ysidro had said, for his money and connections rather than his brains – a criterion he seemed to have used to select his own fledglings in his turn. Three more of them followed Golenischev into the room like hunting dogs.
‘Ippo,’ said the Count to the student. ‘You will beg Monsieur Ysidro’s pardon.’ He looked young – no vampire Asher had ever seen appeared more than forty – and as suave and soigné as a Frenchman in his well-cut London suit. ‘You, also, Marya, Olyusha—’
‘I spit on Monsieur Ysidro!’ proclaimed the student. ‘And I spit on you.’
For a moment Golenischev only stood looking at the fledgling, anger blazing in his pale-blue eyes, and his beautiful lips in their gold frame of Prince Albert twisted with fury. Then – with a violent motion, as if dragged by some unseen hand – the student Ippo dropped to his knees, then to all fours. Sobbing curses, he crawled forward and lay on his belly to kiss Ysidro’s boot. The three fledglings who had come in with Golenischev only watched this humiliation, but there was something deadly in their silence, volatile anger shimmering on the edge of open defiance. As silently as humanly possible, Asher edged away from the remaining two rebels. If any of the newcomers joined their rebellion – if the situation snapped suddenly out of control, as situations had a way of doing – the rebels probably wouldn’t strike either the Count or Ysidro . . . but they would certainly turn on him.
And as his back touched the wainscot of the wall behind him, he felt the panel sink slightly and shift.
The two women repeated Ippo’s performance, the dancer Olyusha weeping with anger, the student Marya screaming obscenities and thrashing her head back and forth like an unwilling dog on a chain. Ysidro watched them both without even an expression of boredom, as if nothing in the human world touched him any longer. Perhaps, thought Asher, it did not – though he wondered if the Lady Irene Eaton’s master had ever forced her through a performance like this. And whether she had written to Ysidro about it.
‘You would like to bite him, wouldn’t you, Marya?’ mocked Golenischev. ‘Ah, look at her! What a face, eh? Go bite Ippo, Marya. Go on.’ Her face demonic, the woman crawled inch by inch to the student – had they been lovers? Asher wondered – seized Ippo by the ears and began to tear and worry at his face and hands with her teeth.
‘Bourgeoisie scum!’ Ippo screamed at the Count. ‘Lackey of the ruling classes—’
‘Don’t give us that “ruling classes” drivel, Ippoliton Nikolaivitch.’ One of the fledglings who had followed Golenischev into the bedroom spoke up, a stooped man with a face of ground-in sourness. ‘You care no more these days about the workers than I care about the Russian Empire anymore. I think the last time I saw you at a Party meeting you killed a shop girl as she came out and went down an alley on her way home.’
‘Now hear me,’ said Count Golenischev, when the last of the three rebels had done their homage and knelt, heads to the floor, in the near darkness of the failing lantern-light. In a single move – the terrifying movement of a vampire, that blanks the mind until the cold grip falls – the Count was beside Asher, catching his arm and pulling him to his feet like a policeman manhandling a beggar child. ‘Your friend Prince Dargomyzhsky cannot protect you, and when I catch that wretched traitor I will show you just how powerless he is. If you touch this man –’ he pushed Asher a little towards them – ‘if any harm comes to him – you will find out just what that traitor’s protection is worth. I have given my word as a nobleman of the Empire that it shall be so.’ He inclined his head graciously to Ysidro, then thrust Asher in his direction with a force that – had Asher not been determined and ready for something of the kind – would have thrown him to his knees.
The Count turned back to the culprits, Asher already forgotten – a side issue in what was clearly an ongoing contest of wills. ‘Whatever the Prince has told you, you three are mine. And if you need that proved again –’ he stepped forward to chuck the furious Marya under the chin, to flick his claw-like nails over Ippo’s torn and gory face – ‘I will be most happy to oblige.’
Asher woke – suddenly and with the sensation of having fainted, though he knew this was not the case – standing outdoors in the bitter night alone.