Blood Maidens Chapter One

Author: Barbara Hambly

Series: James Asher #3

Genres: Historical , Horror


Fog muffled the sound of screaming.

James Asher lengthened his stride, keeping close to the gray wooden wall of the workers’ barracks. The smell of churned dust and cordite – the smell of burning – grated in his nostrils, drowning those other smells that told him where he was: latrines, curry, chickens . . . Where is the fog coming from? The answer held the key to what was happening that night, if only he could find it. The Molopo River never fogs like this . . .

The ground underfoot jerked with the impact of artillery shells.

He was in a part of Mafeking he’d never seen before, and he would have taken an oath he knew every block and street of that dusty mining-town. Close to the slums where the families of the Boralong workers lived, he could hear them screaming: children and women terrified by the rain of death from the night sky. I have to get there. I have to find . . .

He couldn’t recall what or who he had to find this time.

I have to stop them . . .

He turned a corner, felt pavement underfoot. Tall brick buildings now hemmed him in: the offices of the mining companies, the first-class stores where their ladies shopped for British fashions. He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten there, it was nearly impossible to orient himself, but through the gritty gloom he saw buildings burning ahead. A lapdog scuttled by him, crying in terror. Another shell hit, closer, shaking the world. Fire in a window nearby showed Asher something on the pavement of the alley ahead of him: a thin glistening stream of flowing blood.

The breath seemed to lock in his lungs. Dear God, how many are dead? The coppery reek penetrated even the choke of the smoke. The blood lapped thickly against his boot toe, widening as it flowed, ruby reflections in the flame. He looked up the alleyway and saw gruesome little lakes among the fog-wet cobblestones, losing themselves in that inky canyon.

He followed, keeping to the wall. The screaming, and the earth-shaking hammer of the Boer artillery, swelled, then faded as the fog grew thicker. He could still smell the river and the smoke of the city burning, but as the alleyway narrowed around him he thought, This isn’t Mafeking. This is London.

I’m dreaming.

The reflection brought him no comfort. It only meant that anything could lie beyond the darkness. All the things he had seen and done, in Africa during the fight against the Boers, in the Balkans, in China – in all those places where his Queen had sent him in the course of twenty years’ clandestine service – gave him no reason to think that whatever awaited him would be anything but appalling.

In waking life he’d seen blood flow down streets like this, and not in single modest gleaming ribbons barely an inch wide.

He turned a corner, his hand to the wall to guide him. This was definitely London, a small square somewhere near the Tower and the docks. Against the firelit brume he could just make out the tower of a crumbling pre-Wren church; the spire had been damaged, and he dimly descried darker night through the holes. There was a street lamp – not the new electric, but the outmoded gas variety – but its glass was broken, its flame quenched. Before one of the houses a candle-lantern hung on a rusted bracket, and its feeble light somehow showed him that a lake of blood extended most of the way across the square.

In the doorway of the tall and lightless house, Don Simon Ysidro stood beneath the lantern, waiting for him.

‘James.’ The vampire’s habitual half-whisper still came to him, clearly audible above the falling of the shells, the screams of the dying. ‘We must speak.’

Asher said, ‘Go to hell.’

His eyes opened in the dark. His face was washed in sweat and he was trembling.

Go to hell . . .

He didn’t even need to hear what he knew Ysidro had replied to that remark, because he knew that the dream had been the vision of exactly that.

Not the Boers shelling Mafeking. Germans bombing London. He’d seen the stately Zeppelin airships, silent as clouds above Lake Constance, and the plans to convert them to aerial transports to dump high explosives on cities. He’d seen the stockpiles of weapons – those of the Germans, the Austrians, the French and the Russians and the Turks. He’d seen the Kaiser’s armies on review, rank after gray goose-stepping rank marching down Unter den Linden, and the way the eyes of the German officers had glittered at the thought of leading their unbeatable forces to carve themselves ‘our proper place’ in Europe and the world.

The lake of blood was a puddle. The stream, only the drip of a pinprick, compared to what was coming.

I have to get there. I have to stop them. I have to find . . .

He made himself draw breath; made himself let it out. For his superiors in the Department, there was always one last thing to find, so that he – James Asher, New College Lecturer of Philology – could stop whatever horror was next around the corner . . .

But somehow it always turned out to be just something that the Army thought it needed to get a few points ahead of the Germans, in that endless competition for who had the most powerful weaponry, the most enormous battleships, the most terrifying strength.

Why Ysidro?

Asher lay in the darkness, listening to the rain. As if the deafening blasts of the artillery had been real – real tonight, not real twelve years ago – Lydia’s peaceful breathing seemed loud in the stillness. She lay curled against his side like a child, her head on his shoulder, the thick braided silk of her long hair dark in the night light’s tiny glow; it was red as henna in the sun. She had not resumed her nightdress after making love, in spite of the chill of the spring night, and around her bare throat glinted the links of the silver chain that she never took off.

Because Ysidro is a vampire?

Asher dared not shut his eyes again, fearing he would slide back into the dream at the point at which he’d jerked free. Fearing he would see that slight form again, standing in the doorway beneath the lantern bracket; the thin face that had once been handsome, the long colorless hair, wispy as spider silk. The curious, bleached-yellow eyes that caught reflection like a cat’s.

Do I dream of him because Ysidro has killed – in the course of three hundred and fifty-plus years of hunting the living for sustenance – without remorse and without hesitation probably enough men, women, and children to populate Mafeking two or three times over?

Asher’s hand moved to touch, above the points of his collarbone, his own chain. The smooth silver links seemed to bind him – and Lydia – to secret knowledge, secret dread. As his fingers brushed the metal they also touched the scars that tracked his jugular and carotid from ear to shoulder, as they marked his arms to the elbows.

Because to my subconscious mind – as this Freud fellow in Vienna would say – Don Simon Christian Xavier Morado de la Cadeña-Ysidro represents Death?

Asher hoped so.

He didn’t want to consider the alternative explanation that might be true.

Wanwei Village. The Shantung Peninsula. Night’s humidity a stifling cloak; thrumming cicadas and croaking frogs a mask for those other sounds he thought he heard, in the scrim of trees that bordered the rice paddies.

The not-quite-audible creak of felt boots on broken branches. Voices breathing a dialect he only barely understood. The vertiginous uneasiness at being unable to interpret those unspoken signals that he saw pass from peasant to peasant during the day – impassive faces, non-committal bows – because he understood only isolated fragments of the fathomless culture that lay beneath the surface.

The Germans who were building a naval compound in Tsingtao thought he was a German and would shoot him out of hand if it came to their attention that he wasn’t. But outside the compound it didn’t matter if he was German or English or American or French.

He was fan quai, a Long-Nose devil. With the fall of darkness, those silent, dutiful peasants rose as one, to close in on a lone foreigner like sharks.

Wanwei village had been deserted for years. The largest of the two-room huts still had the shutters to its windows, though the roof was half gone. Barred moonlight through the rafters showed him the cold brick platform that had been the stove, some broken baskets and jars. Everything smelled of mold and rats’ mess . . . and blood.

He was dreaming again.

Asher looked around him, knowing how the actual night in 1898 had ended and not wanting to go through it again. In moments – he knew – the shadows of men would appear above the rafters: local adherents of the Society of Harmonious Fists, dedicated to the elimination of the whites who had raped the Chinese way of life, sold them drugs at gunpoint, insulted their faith and their families and now sought to carve up their country in the name of Christianity and progressive civilities of modern trade. If he could find some way to get out over the hut’s rear wall before they came . . .

But the moonlight faded, turning a ghastly greenish-yellow. Instead of guerrilla fighters, something like a mist began to ooze into the hut with a thick movement not like other mist. Wisps of it burned Asher’s throat and eyes, gagging him with a smell like concentrated mustard. He’d heard of this at the Foreign Office, this new weapon the Germans were developing, poison gas that would leave a man paralysed and blind . . .

There was a door at the rear of the hut, (why wasn’t it there in June of 1898? he wondered), and when he dodged through it he found himself at the base of what appeared to be a stone stair, winding up into a tower that was certainly no part of the hut he’d just come from. The gas trickled in under the door into the tower, and he didn’t hesitate, fled up the stone stairs where the smell of blood grew stronger and stronger. A sliver of moonlight showed him a running line of blood, trickling down the stairs.

It has to be coming in from somewhere . . .

The gas was rising behind him. The Foreign Office reports said that the gas was heavier than air, and he told himself he had to be able to out-climb it eventually. But the moonlight blinked out around him, and he was groping his way in blackness, choking on the stench of blood and poison. The stairs ended, and there was no door after all, only a stone wall. He could see nothing and didn’t know whether this was because the tower was windowless or whether the gas had blinded him. He dropped to his knees in the darkness, pawed at the edge of the floor – the blood has to be coming in from somewhere . . .

He could find no crack, no join. Only the stickiness gumming his hands, hot and fresh as if just pumped from a wound. The gas seared his throat, and he stood, groping desperately at the wall in the blackness—

And very softly, a voice whispered in his ear. ‘James,’ it said. ‘We must speak.’

‘He can do that.’ Lydia returned to the breakfast table with a cup of coffee, an egg and toast on a pink-and-green china plate and a second muffin for him. The note of remote disinterest in her voice didn’t fool Asher for one single second. ‘When he decided I needed a chaperone, if I was going to travel with him to Vienna to find you last year, he – he used dreams to summon one.’

And killed her when he was done with her, Lydia did not add, though she kept her wide, velvet-brown eyes on her egg as she tore her toast into tiny fragments and dabbled them in the rummelled-up yolk – fragments that she set on the edge of her plate, uneaten.

Asher knew the signs and wished he had not needed to bring up the vampire’s name with her.

She had loved him.

Asher suspected – watching how his young wife now carefully arranged her coffee spoon, egg spoon, and knife so that they made a precisely symmetrical pattern where they rested on the edge of the plate – that she loved Don Simon Ysidro still.

It is our lure to be attractive, Ysidro had told him, when they had parted in the stillness of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It is how we hunt. It means nothing.

This Asher knew. His own emotions had been scalded by his relationship with the vampire Countess of Ernchester: he knew what Lydia had gone through. Though she was no longer the sheltered girl who’d scandalized her family by marrying a man a dozen years older than herself – and an impoverished lecturer at that! – he knew that in many ways, her absorption in medical research had continued the emotional insulation that her father’s fortune had begun. She was still far more conversant with the endocrine systems of human beings than she was with their behavior, lives, or souls.

Loving Ysidro – and finding the body of that poor companion lying drained of blood on her bed – had torn her apart inside. For nearly eighteen months now Asher had watched her shut herself into the dissecting rooms of the Radcliffe Infirmary, retreat into the Radcliffe Camera’s shelves of medical lore, and conceal herself in her study here on Holywell Street as she penned concisely-reasoned articles about experimental procedures and pineal secretions. He had thought she was coming out of it last September – not quite a year after they had returned from that terrible journey to Constantinople – when, he suspected, she had conceived a child . . .

A suspicion confirmed when she had miscarried at the end of October, returning to her silence and, for a time, passing into a remoteness that had terrified him. She had done her best to comfort his grief, and had seemed to be forcing herself through the motions of being comforted, but he knew there was a part of her that had retreated too far to be touched.

Only at Christmas – at long last – had he heard her laugh unaffectedly for the first time; had he heard her get into an argument, as she’d used to, with one of her stuffier Willoughby cousins about whether or not cats had souls. Christmas night, she had woken up in the darkness and wept in his arms. At New Year’s, on the way home from dinner with her uncle, the Dean of the College, she had asked him, ‘What will you do with this year, Jamie?’ and he’d heard in her voice that she didn’t mean his students or his research into obscure legends or Serbian verb-forms.

For three months, it had seemed to him that he watched green shoots peeping hesitantly from the cracks in a sheathing of stone.

Now, at the mention of the vampire’s name, the guarded silence was back.

Speaking carefully – as if she were carrying fragile glass – he replied, ‘I know. It doesn’t mean I’m going to obey him.’

Her spectacled glance touched his very briefly, then dropped quickly to the rearrangement of the silverware. ‘Not even to see what he wants?’

‘I know what he wants. He wants me to do something for him that he cannot do himself because of what he is.’

She moved the coffee spoon to a more precise angle, as if she would not even think of what they both knew. For all their powers over the human mind, the Undead were powerless to save themselves from daylight. They both had seen the blazing horror when the first touch of sun ignited vampire-flesh. For all their great strength – Asher had watched Don Simon Ysidro bend forged steel in his skinny fingers – vampires could not touch silver without sustaining corrosive blisters and sometimes weeks of illness. And for all their conditional immortality, the Undead were at the mercy of their need to hunt, their need for the physical nourishment of blood, and for the psychic rejuvenation that could only come with the death of their victims.

‘At a guess,’ said Asher in a more normal tone of voice, and scratched one side of his mustache, ‘he either wants me to use my connections in the Foreign Office to learn something for him, or he wants me to accompany him on a journey. Almost anything else, he can trick or buy or blackmail the living into doing, as he tricked poor Miss Potton into being your companion, and blackmailed me back in ’07. And I resent having my personal nightmares used as set decorations for his threats.’

Her long, slim fingers hesitated over a millimeter’s alteration in the placement of the egg spoon. Then her mouth quirked and she scooped the silverware together, set it in deliberate disarray on the edge of the plate, and looked back at him again, her old matter-of-fact self. Against the wan, wet daylight of the windows – it was bitterly cold that March of 1911, and the wind whipped the bare branches of the garden willows – her carnelian hair had the ruddiness of the fireplace coals, and her round spectacle-lenses glinted as bright as the silver toast-racks. ‘Are you expecting a threat?’

It was Asher’s turn to look aside from what he did not wish to see. Was Ysidro fishing in the nightmares that had pursued him for a dozen years only because the vampire knew how to twist compliance from unspoken fears? Or did those visions spring from his own too-informed knowledge of what a modern war would bring?

He didn’t know.

‘If it weren’t important,’ she went on, with the calm logic that sometimes made her such a disconcerting companion, ‘he would never have tried to contact you, you know.’

Asher knew she was right. Knew, too, that his first instinct – to protect her from her memories of the vampire – had been, at least in part, a smokescreen. The other person he wanted to protect was himself.

Tiredly, he said, ‘It’s always important, Lydia. Every time the Department chiefs asked me to risk my life for Queen and Country, it was always because it was the most vital thing in the world and they were relying on me. And it always ended in death, or betrayal, or me doing something to someone that I would never have done – would never have considered doing – if it were not the most vital thing in the world.’ He sighed bitterly, as if trying to flush from his lungs the smells of blood and mustard gas. ‘I got tired of it, Lydia. And I grew frightened because I was starting not to mind. And now my tea is cold,’ he added, and she laughed and went to the sideboard for the pot. ‘I didn’t mean you should fetch it—’

‘Josetta and I are going to a lecture on ancient Egyptian medical texts after I’m done at the dissecting rooms.’ She named her closest friend, who had been the Literature mistress at one of her very expensive boarding-schools, and poured his tea. ‘So this is the last you’ll see of me till evening.’ She set the teapot back on its little spirit-lamp and shook down the layers of lace-edged sleeve-ruffles to cover her hands, like a thin red-haired marsh-fairy inexplicably playing dress-up in a Worth suit of hunter-green wool. Hesitantly, she added, ‘You aren’t angry at Don Simon, are you, Jamie?’

He raised one eyebrow. ‘Should I not be angry at a man who has murdered hundreds of people, only that he himself might continue to live beyond mankind’s allotted span? No,’ he added, seeing the troubled look that returned to her eyes. ‘I’m not angry. He’s helped us in the past – and whatever he wants of me may be desperately important – but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t dangerous in himself. Every time I or you or anyone crosses his path – crosses the path of any vampire – we take our lives in our hands.’ He removed the cup from her grip, and his fingers closed around hers. ‘If I knew where to write to him, I would send him a polite note telling him I’m not for hire this week.’

She smiled, her quicksilver beauty piercing his heart as it had when she’d been sixteen and he, her academic uncle’s guest at croquet parties at Willoughby Towers, with not the slightest hope of ever being more than a family friend who might one day be invited to see her wedded to someone else. Then she sobered. ‘Just be careful, Jamie.’ She removed her spectacles – God forbid cab drivers, or her best friend, should see her in them – and stowed them in their silver case. ‘If it’s important, I don’t think he’s going to take no for an answer.’

‘He’ll have to.’

But, with a sinking heart, Asher guessed that his wife was, in fact, correct.

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