The title, in case anyone cares, is a partial quote from "The Simpsons" ("Tales From the Public Domain", said by Lisa while in the role of Joan of Arc).
Our Beloved Tyrants – Part One
Commander Alexandru Racovita, even more tired and shell-shocked than the quivering wreck of a horse upon which he rode, had known better days.
In spite of the valiant efforts of Prince Vlad Dracula’s army to repel them, the heathen Turks were even now advancing across the Danube and over the corpses of many fine soldiers, including everyone, boyar and peasant alike, who had been under Alexandru’s command. Now, cut off from whatever remained of the prince’s army, all he could do was try to cut an inglorious retreat to Targoviste, and accept the considerable risks faced by a lone, weakened rider in lands infested with wolves, bears, bandits, and outlaw gypsies who would as soon look at any boyar as slit his throat and strip his carcass. Alexandru had, at least, managed to salvage a matchlock arquebus and a quantity of lead shot from the battlefield, and had kept his own sword, which would certainly come in handy if he needed something with which to run himself through before wild animals could maul him to death.
Lost in such miserable thoughts, and close to fainting in the saddle in any case, he paid little attention to his route. He had deviated from the road some time ago, and was now plodding forgotten and overgrown tracks through dense woodland, with no fellow-traffic save the occasional rabbit (although the occasional not-too-distant howl suggested that he would soon have plenty of ravenous company). He was quite oblivious to the slight changes in the scenery, as ivy and moss-clad drystone ruins gradually became a feature of his surroundings, until it seemed that he rode through some long-abandoned city. When he did start paying attention, it had little to do with these magnificent if entirely foreboding shells of temples and sepulchres, which might have dated back to the Dacian empire itself, before even the Roman invaders set their foot on Wallachian soil. Far more interesting to him were the voices – whispering, incoherent, but depressingly audible – coming from up ahead. Well, it’s about time, he grimly conceded, and with fumbling motions took out his tinderbox and lit the taper of his arquebus (which he had made sure to keep loaded from the outset of this wretched journey). Granted, a single shot would profit him very little in the face of an ambush of determined highway robbers, but there was always the hope that these were just a ragtag bunch of cowards who had never seen a firearm in their lives… God willing.
His horse turned a corner of the decaying track, which took him into an open rotunda, surrounded by high walls of crumbling stone (which might once have supported some long-lost roof), with a bowl-shaped, partially-paved floor that curved downwards to a wide altar of solid, unwrought stone. Upon this slab lay the most beautiful woman Alexandru had ever seen, though in her pallor and perfection she might just as easily have been an ivory statue, draped in a sheer white gown. That aside, only the locks of long, wavy blonde hair that snaked over her breasts were providing her with any degree of modesty. She seemed either to be dead or sound asleep, to judge from the lack of reaction she gave not only to the new arrival, but to the three men who were standing around her resting-place, furiously debating in the Roma tongue. They were dressed in dull peasant garb, with wide-brimmed hats, though one of them wore a velvet cloak that had seen better days (and, no doubt, another owner). Gypsies, then, thought Alexandru, but not quite the cutthroat band he had been expecting. They did not even notice his arrival, and he watched curiously from the entrance of the rotunda while they argued with each other, in a language he knew nothing of, but which seemed to place particular priority on the words beng and mullo.
At length, as the light began to fall and the men became more agitated, the cloak-wearer (apparently their leader) seemed to prevail, and took a large dagger from one of his dejected underlings. As they drew back, seeming rather glad to put distance between themselves and the altar, the leader tentatively approached. As he stood beside the slab and its lovely, recumbent occupant, he spoke a few rapid words, like a prayer or incantation, then raised the dagger over his head in both hands, poised for a powerful downward strike into the lady’s heart… whereupon there was a loud, explosive discharge that scattered the birds, sent the other two gypsies running off in a panic, and left a gaping, smouldering hole in the leader’s chest. The dagger fell from his lifeless hands, and he collapsed face downwards upon his intended victim.
Heathen swine, thought Alexandru, holstering the smoking arquebus in his saddlebag. He had heard plenty of lurid tales of gypsy depravity, including rumours of cannibalism and vampirism that he had formerly written off as superstitious peasant gibberish. The act of pagan barbarity he had narrowly averted seemed to call that into question… though to what extent he had averted it, he began to wonder. Having had a muscular gypsy collapse upon her, the lady on the altar had still not moved a muscle, and Alexandru feared that worst had already come to pass. But why sacrifice a corpse? That at least made no sense. She must have been drugged, he decided, and rode down to the altar for a closer inspection.
The last dregs of sunlight were finally outclassed by the light of the full moon, which bathed the clearing in an ethereal, though faintly ghoulish luminescence. As Alexandru approached the slab, the lady opened her eyes – not in a very elegant fashion, with pretty fluttering of the eyelids, but in a single, spasmodic jerk that left them wide open and staring at the sky. That would have shocked him quite sufficiently, but added to that the fact that the colour of her eyes was blood-red, it was enough to make him forget that he had ever been a battle-hardened warrior, and freeze him to the spot like a rabbit realising too late that it had taken a stroll into a fox’s den. She sat bolt upright, casting the gypsy’s corpse away with a casual swatting motion, and turned to look upon the man who had saved her “life” (for want of a better word). The smile she gave him was neither evil nor ironic, but nor was it altogether pleasant: there was a distinct element of hunger in it. In all justice, however, anyone with canine teeth that long and sharp would have struggled to keep that element out of their smile.
After a few moments of petrified silence, Alexandru mustered his failing mental resources, pulled on his reins, and was turning to leave (at a gallop, he fully intended), when the lady spoke, in a clear, dispassionate tone of unmistakable authority:
“Wait. Turn back.” As if she had his arms on an invisible line, he found himself pulling on the reins again and turning back to the altar. His panic was slightly mitigated to witness the lady slipping out of her sheer robe to reveal a flawless body, like some beautiful Greek statue come to life, although the lust now building in him was no more conducive to his willpower than the panic had been. “Come down from your horse, Alexandru,” she commanded, and he obeyed promptly, if hardly willingly. Once free of its rider, the horse wasted no time before cantering away into the forest. The lady, meanwhile, slinked gracefully from the altar and took slow, swaying steps towards her panic-stricken prey. With a desperate effort, Alexandru took a single step backwards, but her reaction was immediate and decisive:
“Stop. Don’t resist me. You have nothing to fear. I know of your chivalry towards me, Alexandru, and I mean to reward it. Kneel, my poor, weary knight.” She placed her slender, cold hands upon his shoulders, not that is was necessary for her to force him down: her mere words had sapped all the power from his leg-muscles, and he sank upon his knees, bringing his face within inches of her sweetly fragrant vagina. “Yes, darling,” she continued, in a seductive whisper. “This night I shall be yours… and soon you shall be mine, forever more: a princess, no less. Oh yes, Alexandru; that is well within my power. I shall place you foremost among my daughter-lovers. Men and women alike will be mad with desire for you. You shall dwell in undying beauty and pleasure. The murdering prince who sent you to war would have you believe that you can attain heaven by killing the sons of Mohammed, but that battle is lost to you, even if it was ever worth fighting… but tonight you have saved the life of a daughter of Lilith, and she will give you such a heaven as you can hardly dream of. Come: drink now, my darling.”
She drew his face closer, until his mouth and nose were pressed against her cold, moist womanhood, where he concentrated what little remained of his free will upon the simple act of keeping his jaws clamped tight shut. She stroked his hair and gently urged him to open his mouth and bring pleasure to them both, but in spite of her hypnotically sweet voice and her even sweeter feminine scent, his concentration held fast, and though his jaw-muscles ached and his teeth chattered from the conflicting forces acting upon them, his lips did not part even slightly. Suddenly, her hands ceased their gentle stroking and gripped his hair and scalp like cruel talons, pulling his face away from her. She rapidly descended, and he caught a mere glimpse of her expression – livid with injured pride and thwarted desire – before her teeth closed upon his neck, and the world began to slip away. As darkness and silence encroached upon him, he seemed to hear her voice in his mind, contemptuous and cruel, lingering on even when all of his senses had completely failed:
So be it, my ungracious knight. You refuse my favour? Then you shall have no more than my mercy. But you need not fear, unfit though you are to be my daughter. You will have immortality… as a maidservant. You have denied yourself the true womanhood I had destined for you, but after a century in my service, I think you will still make a pleasingly meek and pretty little thing, though not half of what you might have been. Reflect on that, from now to eternity… my little Alexandreina.
Romania-Moldova border post, 2008
“Passports, please,” said the customs official, holding out his hand to the young, blonde lady in the passenger seat of the Dacia Logan Van parked at the barrier. Slowly, she turned to face him, and slightly lowered her dark glasses. The sight of her eyes shocked him to the point that he very nearly screamed aloud, but something in her stare caused it to stick in his throat.
“I showed you our passports, dear,” she said, very clearly and deliberately. “Don’t you remember? Of course you do… and they were all perfectly valid. Now, may we please proceed?”
With a glazed, bewildered look, the official trudged back to his booth and raised the barrier. The van continued on its journey, across the border into Moldova. As it drove along the road to Chisinau, the dark silhouettes of hills all around and the stars overhead, the driver – a dark-haired girl of about twenty – turned to the woman in the passenger seat and addressed her with semi-humorous amazement:
“Nice one. Didn’t know you were a Jedi as well as a vampire.”
“I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about, Nicoleta dear,” replied the fair-haired lady, “but oughtn’t you to be keeping your eyes on the road?”
Her tone was grim and rather uninviting, so Nicoleta took the advice to heart and drove on in silence for several minutes. Eventually, when there was no traffic in sight, her passenger told her to pull over. When they were stationary, the fair lady emerged into the cold night air, apparently comfortable in spite of her thin lacy dress, and opened the rear doors. Four more young ladies sat within the rear compartment, upon a tangled pile of black satin sheets. Two of them were sensibly attired, in long dark skirts and blouses, and presented quite a contrast to the other two; one of whom was dark-haired, the other red-haired, and who both wore short, flouncy pink dresses, with frilly panties and disposable diapers visible underneath. When they saw the fair lady at the doors, the two in the baby outfits looked upon her lovingly, and made incoherent but joyful cooing noises. The other two remained silent, and sullen of disposition.
“And how are my little darlings?” simpered the fair lady, pointedly ignoring the sensibly-dressed women, who did not in any case seem eager for her attention. “How’s my little Miki? Diaper need changing yet, sweetie?” The dark-haired girl in pink assumed a proud, though rather silly expression.
Miki good girl. Miki good, clean girl, not need change. Silly Lisa, though, go stinky in diaper.
This apparently referred to the red-haired girl, whose vacantly contented expression betrayed no evidence of shame. At the fair lady’s orders, the other two women assisted her in removing her “baby daughters” from the van, and with an air of utmost benevolence she set to work removing Lisa’s soiled diaper on the grass verge.
“I expect you’ll be wanting to feed, though, my good little Miki,” asked the fair lady, while gently wiping down her other fully adult baby daughter’s bottom. Miki, who was sitting on the verge and toying idly with the hem of her ludicrously-short dress, reacted with only a brief, indifferent look. The fair lady’s confusion quickly gave way to suspicion, then outrage as she turned to face the other women. “Which one of you did it? Which one of you fed her? Answer me. Andreea… She may be your sister, but she is my daughter now, and that is mytask and mine alone, so-”
“It wasn’t Andreea. It was me,” interrupted the other: a pale, twenty-something girl with a slender, boyish frame, long brown hair, and a humbled yet not quite defeated air. “She started to cry while we were in traffic. I couldn’t think what else-”
“You are never to feed my daughter, Antonia. Not under any circumstances. If I ever hear of you doing that again, I swear to God-”
“Why? What are you afraid of?” asked Antonia, with a distinct tremble in her voice, yet a fair measure of resistance. “That you might lose control of her? That someone else might develop a bond with her? Someone who knows you for what you really- argh!” she concluded, appropriately enough given the powerful slap the fair lady had given her, sending her into a brief spin and a tangled collapse upon the asphalt. Casting a quick, hateful glance at the fair lady, Andreea knelt beside Antonia, and frantically checked her for signs of injury.
“She’ll survive,” declared the fair lady, “though I begin to regret that I let you talk me into making her one of us. But from now on, she is your responsibility, Andreea. I wash my hands of the ungrateful little creature, but if you can’t keep your pet in order, I shall be compelled-”
“Ungrateful?” replied Andreea, incredulously. “You may have seduced Nicoleta and me into this life. You just tricked her… him… as he was, poor Anton.”
“Actually, dear, you tricked ‘him’, as I recall the event.”
“Yes! Because you said you’d turn him into another mindless, drooling infant unless I- argh!” she exclaimed, which seemed an apposite expression considering the heavy swipe she had just received to her face.
“You will not speak of my daughters so,” ordered the fair lady, in a dangerous hiss. “How dare you… you… What are you, anyway, but an illiterate gypsy peasant? Yet you question how I – whom your kind would once have worshipped – choose to distribute my favours? I warn you, Andreea, do not provoke-”
Why Mummy hurt sister? Not like. The fair lady turned back to the grass verge, where Miki had ceased her playing and was staring back at her, with an unmistakably disapproving expression. Not hurt nice sister Andreea. Must stop. Not hurt. Not shout.
“She’s learning,” said Antonia, with malicious satisfaction, as she climbed slowly and painfully to her feet. “Starting to see you for what you are.”
“And what am I, pray?” asked the fair lady, with assumed indifference and her back turned, as she hastily finished the task of replacing Lisa’s diaper.
“At best, a generous tyrant, always eager to give people what they never asked for but what you think is best for them. I wonder how many others you’ve done this to, over the years. And how many of them you grew tired of.”
“Suffice it to say, Antonia, that at this rate you will be adding to their number before long, but think carefully before casting aside my protection… my ‘tyranny’. It may be all you have. The gun-toting agents who hounded us out of Sibiu are a fair measure of what treatment you can expect to receive from mortals, and the God you once bowed and scraped to has cast you aside like the spoiled goods that you are.”
“That isn’t true!” replied Antonia, forcefully but desperately.
“Really, dear? Didn’t I see you trying to read your Bible yesterday? Wearing thick gloves, and dark glasses, and you still couldn’t look at the pages for more than a second without averting your eyes in pain. What message do you suppose you are intended to draw from that?”
“It’s… a cross to bear. Just like all pain is,” she answered, with a determined effort at confidence. “A reminder… not to get too comfortable and complacent in this worldly life. A spur to faith. A-”
“You are not God’s daughter, you little fool! You are disowned! In your theological jargon, I believe the term is ‘anathema’. You are a daughter of Lilith, and I am her rightful heir. Without me, you have nothing.”
“That’s not true,” said Andreea, getting to her feet and taking Antonia by the hand – a gesture she gratefully accepted, and lay her head upon Andreea’s shoulder. The fair lady watched them, somewhat uneasily, but kept every trace of it out of her calm, scornful voice:
“Oh of course. I was forgetting: you do have each other: an ignorant gypsy and a pitifully pious theology student. What a formidable pair you make. If you wish to try surviving by yourselves, be my guests. Otherwise, I strongly suggest that you help me get Miki and Lisa back into the van, get in there yourselves, and remain silent for the duration of this little exodus. Oh, and do not attempt to turn my daughter against me, Antonia, or you will soon be wishing for the tender mercies of those murdering agents. I trust that is all perfectly clear.”
Thus, in a dejected and distrustful silence, they boarded the van again. The fair lady returned to the passenger seat, and asked Nicoleta to drive on, which she did, but otherwise gave her no acknowledgement. It was hard to judge her expression behind the dark glasses, but mere empathy was enough to alert the fair lady to the hostile vibes in her vicinity.
“And what, pray, have I done to offend you, Nicoleta?”
“Nothing… I guess,” replied Nicoleta, unconvincingly, while keeping her gaze very determinedly fixed on the road. “It’s just… I heard all that ‘ignorant gypsy’ stuff. I had no idea you felt that way about my people.”
“I… don’t,” she answered, momentarily taken aback. “I’m sorry. I was angry with your sister, and with that wretched lover of hers. I wasn’t thinking.”
“I see. That sort of insult just comes naturally, then?” asked Nicoleta, with totally deceptive calm and indifference.
“Well… we are superior beings to all mortals, Nicoleta. As for the mortal races, I think no more ill of any one in particular than of all the rest. Now, would you kindly make this wretched contrivance move faster, if it can?”
“We’re at the speed limit.”
“Be that as it may, I would prefer to get to Chisinau well before sunrise. Another day sleeping on the roadside in this thing would not only be most unpleasant for us all: it would also make us a very inviting and vulnerable target, if those agents have managed to track us yet. In any case, we have a clear road ahead, so I would appreciate it if, in modern parlance, you would ‘step on’.”
“Yes ma’am,” replied Nicoleta, with a sigh, and shifted into the next gear.
A procession of beautiful, seemingly luminous figures in flowing white garments half-walked, half-glided along a forest path, flanked by the overgrown ruins of an ancient colonnade. Most of the weather-beaten, lichen-encrusted stone columns could have passed for tree-stumps but for the regularity of their positioning. A few still bore fragments of entablature, carved mainly with images of strange, serpentine, wolf-headed creatures. At the end of this ancient walkway was a ruined mausoleum, now no more than a small, square “grove” of pillars, regularly-spaced but of uneven height, and long-deprived of their roof. At the centre was a stone sarcophagus, covered with a massive slab. The beautiful figures moved around this coffin-like structure, forming a circle.
There were men and women among them, although the differences may not have been immediately apparent to a casual observer, as they all wore long hair and similar garments. The men, by and large, had slender but less shapely figures, a humbler mien, and less radiant faces than the women, who bore themselves proudly: especially their leader, who was fair-haired and positively statuesque. At a sign from her, four of them set to work removing the stone lid from the sarcophagus – not an easy task even for beings of supernatural strength.
“How long has it been?” the leader asked one of her attendants, as the work proceeded.
“Six months, my lady. The longest punishment you have ever ordered… in your wisdom,” she added, as a cautious afterthought.
“Attempted desertion threatens us all,” she replied, sternly, “though it grieves me to have to be so severe. My responsibility is to the community, nevertheless. Had she escaped as she planned, and fallen into the hands of mortals, she might have betrayed us. Hopefully, she will have learned her lesson.”
“Indeed, my lady… if she has survived.”
“I once survived for over twenty years without blood, centuries before your time, sealed beneath the temple of Inanna by the soldiers of Gilgamesh. I do not recommend it… but she will have survived, at all events. Bring her out.”
As the attendants lifted the naked, chained figure from the sarcophagus, several members of the assembly had to suppress gasps of horror. Even the fair lady’s impassive face took on a slightly softer aspect, but she kept all evidence of pity or weakness out of her voice, as she ordered another pair of attendants to come forward with a long mirror of polished bronze.
“There is a rumour among peasants,” she said, dispassionately, mainly for the benefit of the chained wrongdoer. “A silly superstition, that is, that our kind cast no reflection, neither in water nor in glass. Presently, my poor… my foolish Alexandreina, you will wish that superstition was true.”
The chained prisoner was placed before the mirror, and saw “herself”: Alexandru Racovita was a far cry from the strong, vigorous knight who had rode out to do battle with the Ottoman forces five years ago. The creature that stared back at him from the mirror with its bulging, opaque eyes was like a solid image from the Dance of Death: the bones were hideously prominent; the skin parchment-like and translucent; the shrunken lips were unable to conceal those demonic fangs; and the long hair and beard were matted, wispy, and colourless. The only hard evidence of life, in fact, were the tears it had begun to shed upon beholding itself. The lady suffered this to continue for a few seconds – long enough for him to fully appreciate his horrible state of atrophy and degradation – then ordered the attendants with the mirror to move away, while another pair took their place. These two carried an object of similar size and shape, but of a quite different character: a frame of delicately-carved wood, containing the portrait of a lady (to all appearances), wearing a white dress and a melancholy though not unattractive expression, seated with her hands folded upon her lap. Though the work was exquisitely executed and very true to life, its resemblance to the former knight of Vlad Dracula’s court was not much more marked than that of the corpse-like being, who gazed upon the portrait with mixed, though chiefly negative emotions.
“Do you remember, Alexandreina?” asked the lady. “I had our sweet, talented little Cosmina,” (at which one of the male attendants – a demure little brunette thing – blushed deeply) “paint this as a token of your first year with us. Weren’t you pretty? And so accomplished, my dear. You came here as a warrior, skilled only in violence. We taught you a new life, and better skills to dedicate yourself to. Why, this very dress I am wearing was made by you… my very own royal seamstress. And were you not well beloved? Did not your sisters give you many sweet pleasures? More pleasures than you would ever have dared to experience, had you remained among mortals, with their foolish, timid prejudices. All this… yet you could not be happy with us. Or would you not allow yourself to happy? Was it stupid guilt that drove you to attempt escape, my poor child? Well, Alexandreina: you have had six months’ of penance to come to terms with that guilt, so now how do you feel? Look at the painting, child. Look at her. Wouldn’t you like to be her again? That can be arranged. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to do so… but you must swear to me, Alexandreina, upon your honour, that you will never try to leave us again. If you cannot promise me that… It would be against our law to have you killed, so it would have to mean another six months confinement, to reflect upon your future. What do you say, dear?”
“I… I swear,” spoke the cadaverous figure, in a voice somewhere between a wail of despair and a death rattle. “Whatever you say… I swear… Can’t bear it… The hunger… Please… I’ll do anything… Anything you want… I swear… please…”
At a swift gesture from the lady, an attendant came forward bearing a silver decanter, and poured blood into Alexandru’s mouth. The time when this would have disgusted him was long past, and he swallowed it eagerly. The agony and emptiness that had been his only sensations for what seemed an age were washed away in a flood of euphoria, while other attendants set to work removing his chains, and out of the corners of his eyes he saw others approaching with combs, brushes, scissors, bowls of water, silken clothes, and jewellery. The sight gladdened him… yet a small, defiant part of him still managed to hate the rest of him for having given in, albeit nowhere near as much as it hated that affectionate, regal, insufferable voice that spoke above those of the attendants, as they busied themselves in restoring and beautifying him:
“Welcome back to your people, my sweet, my beloved little Alexandreina.”
In the outskirts of Chisinau, at the far north end of Strada Alba Iulia, stood an old block of flats: a grey, weather-stained concrete box in that particular Stalinist style that seemed to flaunt its sheer ugliness with a sort of architectural reverse snobbery. This once achieved an even more pronounced ugliness by virtue of its boarded-up windows, giving it an air of abandonment. Whilst this was, in the case of all but one of the flats, accurate, should anyone have been bored, brave, or stupid enough to have sneaked a glimpse behind the boards flat of 10a, their curiosity would have been rewarded with a truly surreal image:
“Good Miki,” said the fair lady to her adult “baby daughter”, who lay beside her on an antique divan, eagerly suckling at her breast. “Who’s a good, sweet little girl, then? Have all you want, darling, and forget what that nasty woman tried to make you believe. You know I love you more than anything, don’t you? That I would never do anything to hurt you?”
Miki know. Love Mummy too. Not listen nasty Antonia. Miki sorry let nasty Antonia give her milk. Mummy forgive?
“Of course I do, you silly darling,” answered the lady, kissing and nuzzling the cooing, gurgling twenty-something year-old woman in her arms. Nicoleta, lounging on the opposite divan next to a very full ashtray, looked on with some distaste, and was only distracted when the maid, who had entered the living-room as stealthily as a commando cat, leaned over her to empty the tray. Yanlin, the live-in maid, was another of their kind: a very pretty, long-haired Chinese boy who had been initiated at seventeen. He wore a uniform consisting of high heels, sheer black stockings, and pink panties with black lace ruffles that were, on the whole, not brilliantly concealed by his black latex minidress and white lacy apron. Having collected Nicoleta’s small toxic waste dump of cigarette ends in a plastic bag, he replaced the tray, curtseyed, and meekly asked if they required anything else.
“Anything at all, dear?” asked the fair lady, with a sly grin. “Don’t think I’m not drawn to the idea… but I am rather busy tonight. What about you, Nicoleta? How would you like our sweet little serving-maid to wait upon you personally?”
“No thanks,” replied Nicoleta, will little attempt at feigning gratitude. If Yanlin was offended, he expertly concealed it as he curtseyed again, and drifted elegantly from the room. Nicoleta shuddered slightly, and lit another cigarette.
“What’s the idea behind him?” she asked, scornfully.
“Leila prefers boys… albeit in their proper station,” answered the fair lady, as she stroked the “baby” now sleeping in her arms. “You weren’t very kind though, dear. Even I thought he was quite adorable, and you know my predilections.”
“How is it that you can be so calm? What sort of place is this for us to be hiding out in? We’re on the main road, for Christ’s sake; this friend of yours is God only knows where… we certainly don’t, but she knows where we are.”
“Leila would never betray me… but I take your point. I do wish that she would get less involved in the world. Such conduct has only ever led to danger and death for our kind. But she will be back from her business trip in a week, and then we can move on. She’ll help us arrange air passage to Iraq, and then-”
“Iraq? I thought the idea was to settle somewhere where there was less chance of us being shot. Why the hell-?”
“For one thing, it’s my native land, though it’s been many, many years since I was last there. For another, it barely signifies if we are shot with ordinary bullets. Most importantly, however, it is greatly to our advantage to be in an environment of chaos, where the mortals have far greater worries than vampires to contend with. A ‘safe’ society for mortals is far more likely to be a death-trap for us, Nicoleta.”
“I guess… So, you definitely think those agents were sent by the government.”
“I can’t say for sure. I did try reading their thoughts, but one of them – the one we killed – was just a hired gun, who didn’t know anything about his employer. The other one – who I think was in charge – I found much harder to read… except for his hatred of our kind, which was clear enough. He will keep hunting us, of that I have no doubt, unless we make every effort to disappear.”
“You’re starting to convince me, I’ll admit. Have you mentioned this lovely plan to Andreea and Antonia yet?”
“Not yet,” replied the fair lady, her expression suddenly tightening a little, and a hint of forced calm in her voice. “To be honest, I had the impression that they were none too keen on following me any further, and far be it from me-”
“You’d leave them here, would you? Someone to take the bullets for us when those murderers pick up our trail? That’s the idea?”
“I wouldn’t have put it in those terms, but-”
“Well pardon me, but fuck that. You think I’d leave Andreea? The only reason she ended up this way is because she… because he tried to save me from you, if you recall.”
“Yes… and as I recall, you showed no great inclination to be saved from me.”
“Yeah. Well my brother didn’t know that, did he? Anyway, I don’t know what it’s like among gadje, but we ‘ignorant gypsies’ actually care about our families, you know? At any rate, there’s no way I’m abandoning my own… sister, or using her as some scapegoat.”
“Then do feel free to invite her along, my dear. And Miki would probably miss her, of course. Would that we could contrive some way of leaving the other one… but I fear Andreea will never go without her.”
“You hate her so much, I wonder you haven’t just killed her yourself.”
“Alas, my dear, the ancient laws of our kind prohibit it, though it has occasionally been a struggle for me to observe them. Go and tell them of my plan, if you must, only do ask that darling little maid to come back in here, while you’re about it. I’m rather afraid your little sister here has had an accident in her diaper. But that’s what little baby girls have been doing since time immemorial, isn’t it pwecious?” she asked Miki, affectionately nuzzling her while Nicoleta left the room with a nauseated expression.
Presently, Yanlin returned to the living-room with talcum powder, wipes, and a fresh diaper, and the pair of them quickly got Miki changed and back into the playpen with Lisa. The two “baby” girls were incoherently overjoyed to see each other again, and so eager to express their affection that the fair lady and Yanlin helped them out of their frilly dresses and left them to hug, touch and play with each other clad only in their diapers. The lady was thanking the maid for his services with a lingering kiss, holding him in a close embrace, feeling a distinct firmness developing in the region of his panties, and considering other ways in which she might break down a few class barriers, when Nicoleta hurried back into the room, panic-stricken and in tears.
“Please… help me,” she said, frantically though not very informatively. However, she dispelled the curiosity she had raised with the following words: “They’ve left.”
Deep within the primeval woodland, in the catacombs beneath a ruined city, by the feeble light of a single candle, clad in a fine linen shift and exquisitely-woven stockings of spider-silk (both of which she had made herself), royal seamstress Alexandreina added the finishing touches to her new silver brocade dress and looked over her handiwork with great satisfaction. Tonight was the Summer Solstice, there would be dancing and celebrations until dawn, and she would be the envy of her fellow servants. Having made the final stitch, she took the pins out, hastily stowed her materials away, and laced herself into her gorgeous masterpiece, savouring every swish and rustle of its beautiful, embroidered fabric. It was (of course) a perfect fit, and the bodice was padded in just the right places to enhance her slender, girlish, but (alas) flat-bosomed figure. She then added a silver necklace and a tiara of white gold, finely worked in a delicate tracery of flowers and leaves, and looked in the mirror. The girl who looked back at her, in spite of her red eyes and sharp teeth, was lovely by any fair standard. Almost as lovely, even, as the Queen herself, or one of her ladies. Alexandreina sighed wistfully and shed a few tears, as a memory stirred: I once had the chance to become one of them. A real lady of the court. A princess. Me… and I refused it. I shall never have that chance again. Never. What could I have been thinking? At this reflection, a different, long-forgotten voice resurfaced in her mind: You were thinking of duty, and honour, and courage, and decency, and all the noble values you have forsaken, you sorry, degenerate excuse for a knight. She dried her eyes, and did her utmost to ignore the cruel taunts of the super-ego she had suppressed for the better part of a century, while applying delicate shades of make-up to her clear, pale skin – another art at which she excelled.
What did it matter now? True, she could not become a princess any more than she could return to being a knight, but if I can do nothing else, I’ll show them all how beautiful I can be. I’ll outshine the lot of them. Even that was a lofty ambition, but having some vaguely attainable victory to aim for seemed to pacify the ghost of the crusading warrior still raging deep within her. Not to mention that the subtle enhancements of the make-up had indeed made it likely that the court ladies would mistake her for one of their own before the evening was out. She took one last look at herself in the mirror, felt much happier, picked up the candlestick, noticed how low the candle had burned down, and hurried out of her quarters and into the subterranean passageways. The celebrations had almost certainly begun, and after having gone to so much trouble it seemed an awful shame to have to arrive any later than necessary, and deprive her sisters the sight of her vanity-inducing loveliness.
As she tripped through the catacombs, at first mainly concerned with keeping her dress free of dust and cobwebs, it gradually dawned upon her that there were graver issues to occupy her fear: the stairway was close – not close enough for candle to illuminate, but her supernaturally sensitive eyes could easily discern the faint, sickly rays of moonlight that shone through the small entryway – but no sounds of music, nor singing, nor laughter came from the surface. The sounds of activity she could make out were less encouraging – at least to the pretty serving-maid, although the bitter, suppressed warrior heard them with mixed emotions, including a grim pleasure: shouts, screams, explosive discharges, and the clash of metal.
Alexandreina continued to approach the stairway, but more stealthily then before, and keeping her back to the wall, in spite of the dust and cobwebs. From close at hand there was a voice; deep, imperative, and in a language and accent she could not place, though they were familiar. Then the rays of moonlight were suddenly blocked out and she heard steps descending. Crouching in the shadows, she watched as a man – unmistakably so, and definitely not one of the servants – came down the steps, carrying a scimitar in one hand and a small book in the other. He wore a distinctive uniform, with a loose-fitting red tunic and breeches, and a tall white cap bearing a golden badge, adorned with stars, and although he had no beard, his moustache was both thick and long. A Turkish Janissary, curse the heathen filth. It had been a long time since Alexandreina had thought of the war, though what this signified it was hard to say. Were the infidels so well settled in her nation that they felt able to explore its most distant corners and clear them of such unwelcome inhabitants as vampires, or was this merely the foraging or scouting party for a new Ottoman invasion force, that had blundered into these woods by unlucky chance?
An interesting conundrum… that would have to wait, as the Janissary had caught sight of her, which is hardly to be wondered at, in this ridiculous glittery get-up of yours, and was now advancing on her with his little book held open at the last page. Alexandreina had no knowledge of Arabic script, and the meaning of the words…
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
Say: I seek refuge in the Lord of the Daybreak
From the evil of what He has created;
From the evil of darkness when it gathers;
From the evil of the conjuring witches;
From the evil of the envier when he envies.
From the evil of what He has created;
From the evil of darkness when it gathers;
From the evil of the conjuring witches;
From the evil of the envier when he envies.
…was thus altogether lost on her. However, the mere sight of the script caused her such an intense sense of nausea coupled with self-loathing, she would soon have been skewered upon his scimitar had her frustrated warrior instincts not taken this opportunity to come into their own: almost reflexively, she seized a handful of dirt and pebbles from the floor and cast them full in her attacker’s face. He did not stumble very much, but there are few mistakes one can afford to make when attacking even a weak vampire, and in that mere second it took him to recover his footing, her teeth were already in his throat, her slender arms had his muscular arms pinned helplessly to his sides, and his world was rapidly fading into non-existence…
…while hers was changing as rapidly. The servant vampires were sustained entirely on the blood of small birds and animals, which kept them well nourished, but weak and susceptible compared to the ladies of the court, who regularly drank the blood of predators, birds of prey, and unlucky bandits. The blood of a young warrior would have been a rare delight even for the Queen herself, and for Alexandreina, it was the drug to end all drugs. Power and euphoria coursed through her, and a sense of superiority such as she had never felt before: not even when Prince Vlad had personally appointed her… appointed him as boyar. Nor was this a mere hallucination of power: the life-energy gathered in his soft, diminished muscles, where he willed it to become matter. The seams at his shoulders were strained and ruptured, and his whole bodice became uncomfortably tight as his upper body increased in stature, but he continued until the last iota of life had been sucked from his victim. Then, having wiped his face clean of both blood and make-up, Alexandru tore off his ruined garments and replaced them with those of the dead Janissary. He left the copy of the Qu’ran, which proved extremely painful to the touch, but he gladly took the scimitar, and cautiously ventured out into the night air.
He was well aware that with his chalky complexion, long hair, and clean-shaven face, he looked nothing like a Janissary to anyone who would bother to look for longer than a fraction of a second, but he was in luck: he could hear the voices of the soldiers around him, scattered throughout the old ruins, but none were in sight, and with both his warrior and vampire instincts to depend upon, avoiding them should be eminently possible, if not exactly as easy as falling off a log… but let’s be thankful for small mercies, he thought, tightening his grip on the scimitar and creeping along the broken and overgrown flagstone pathways. He met no Janissaries, but he did encounter a fair few vampires. Overwhelmingly, they were of the servant class, and all were dead and mutilated by impalement on stakes, decapitation, dismemberment, massive gunshot trauma, extensive burns, and even a couple who had been sliced completely in half. Unsurprisingly, the Queen was not among them, and it appeared that she and most of the court ladies had survived, evidently leaving their male population – once Alexandru’s fellow serving-maids – to fend for themselves… and fail spectacularly. Had it not been for his late arrival, Alexandru himself would no doubt have been one more among that party of mangled corpses.
He found this exhilarating, as it finally allowed him to take all of his self-hatred – which had been the only kind he had known since that fateful day when he had sworn away his honour and manhood to that demonic Queen – and direct it against the true author of all this carnage. How many of these poor wretches – humiliated, emasculated, and finally slaughtered by infidels and left to rot – had once been brave, true Christian warriors like him? Like me… He felt, and rejoiced in his sense of recovered strength, but did not allow himself to get carried away in the feeling. That would most likely be fatal until he was far away from this gruesome scene, but as soon as that time came he knew full well what to what purpose he was duty-bound to dedicate that strength: to the destruction of she who had taken it from him, had promised him protection in exchange for every last vestige of his honour and masculinity, yet at the last had abandoned him to his fate. Not that he had the slightest idea how or where to begin searching for her, nor even how to survive as a lone vampire save by murder, banditry, and such acts as even now still inspired him with horror. Still, by whatever means it required and however long it took, he would not rest until he had paid her back for this night – to say nothing of the past century – with interest.
Moldova, Chisinau All Saints Church, 2008
“You can wait outside, Andreea,” offered Antonia, gazing down the nave to where the altar stood, faintly illuminated by the moonlight that filtered through the windows. Her voice trembled, and terror was in her expression, but she did a creditable job of not sounding completely panic-stricken.
“No thanks,” replied Andreea, doing her utmost to keep her eyes averted not only from the altar, but from all of the gorgeously-painted and gilded images of angels and saints that glared at her from the walls and ceilings. “The only reason I came at all is because if you’re set upon doing this damn fool thing, I won’t let you do it alone. I don’t suppose you’ve changed you mind yet?”
“Sorry. I must try. But thank you, Andreea. I love you, you know?”
“I know. Good luck, dear.”
They exchanged a quick, though passionate kiss, after which Antonia turned back to face the altar and began a slow, halting advance up the nave. She kept her eyes open and fixed to the front, although they stung viciously and wept red-tinged tears. After she had covered a few yards, a wave of nausea racked her, and she only kept her footing by steadying herself upon the nearest pew.
Abomination… Begone from my sanctuary.
Dismissing that less than comforting reflection, and mustering her failing resources, Antonia continued her progress, and did not disdain the occasional support offered by the pews and pillars as she passed them. She still did her best to keep looking upon the altar, which was now somewhat easier for her to bear – primarily because her eyes were full of bloody tears, and all she could make out was a golden blur. Nevertheless, as this began to look within attainable distance, more sickening spasms twisted her innards, despair gripped her heart, and as she collapsed to her knees, she heard the accusing voice once more:
Traitor… Whore… You would be false to your vows, fornicate with demons, then presume to come crawling to me in your hypocrisy? You have your reward, daughter of filth. Leave here, or even those sordid pleasures you have will be taken from you.
“Antonia! Please come back!” shouted Andreea, who had begun to follow her, feeling her way along the nave with her eyes tight shut. The sound of her voice, full of love and concern, caused Antonia’s despair to lift ever so slightly… but enough for her to question whether or not the loving God she had once devoted herself to would address even his worst enemy in such terms. Steeled even more by that thought, though still under great physical duress, she continued on her way, crawling on her hands and knees. Her fingers could feel the first step of the altar… then a crushing agony, like a cardiac arrest or an electric shock, caused her to collapse full-length, jerking uncontrollably, paralysed by the intensity of the pain, and hearing that abominable voice again, each word a dart loaded with the venom of doubt and self-contempt:
You think you know me? Only the pure and righteous know me. Your foul sin and degradation has put a permanent barrier between you and I. You shall not pass this point without being destroyed. You know that. You-
“Antonia, come back!” pleaded Andreea, who, blind to everything except the distress of her friend, had caught up and seized her by the hand. It cost her dearly: Antonia’s pain seemed to diminish by about half, the other half being conducted into poor Andreea, who collapsed alongside her, but still she did not release her grip. As the sense of oppression lifted from Antonia, she realised what she had not done before: the voice, hateful and accusing though it was, was also desperate, and she knew then that she was on the verge of a hard-fought victory. Gritting her teeth and clenching Andreea’s hand tightly, she heaved and kicked her prone body onwards, reaching out with her free hand until her fingertips brushed against the altar itself… then an astonishing sensation, painless but disconcerting, as if she had hit the most almighty air pocket. Lightness, emptiness… then just dull aching, weariness, thirst, hunger…
Hunger? She had not felt hunger (as such) since becoming a vampire. She looked up from the floor to behold Andreea, who was still holding her hand, lying on her back, and moaning softly. Something was distinctly different, however. Her face and skin seemed slightly darker than before, though it was hard for Antonia to be sure, as her vision seemed somewhat less acute. Then Andreea moaned again, opening both her mouth and her eyes, and the difference became clear: her eyes were no longer red, but a delicate shade of hazel, and her teeth were all of normal length. Frantically, Antonia’s tongue darted around the inside of her mouth, measuring her canine teeth and discovering, to her joy, that they had experienced a similar reduction.
“You… You’re warm,” mumbled Andreea, bewildered, and slowly working herself into a sitting position. When she had done so, she caught sight of Antonia’s face, and did a double take. “Your eyes… What the hell-?”
“What colour are they?” asked Antonia, excitedly.
“They’re… blue… but how… ?”
“I don’t know, darling,” she replied, kissing her friend’s hand and rejoicing in the warmth of the sensation. “It wasn’t anything I expected… I didn’t really expect anything… but I guess we managed to do something right, between us. I could never have managed it without you… and now we’re free… of her.”
“I guess… How come we’re still girls, though?”
“I don’t mind if you don’t,” she replied, slightly cheekily, whereupon the girlfriends both laughed, and exchanged the most affectionate and lingering kiss that had ever been seen before that altar, notwithstanding one hundred and seventy-eight years worth of wedding ceremonies. When they could finally bear to tear themselves away from each other, Andreea had a pensive look about her.
“What’s the matter?” asked Antonia. “It’s isn’t that… ? You didn’t… want to be that way, did you? I’m sorry if you did. I didn’t think about that. I-”
“No, it’s not that. Quite the reverse, in fact: it’s just… if this is possible… we have to get my sister away, and help her to do the same. Michal, I mean. I’ve no doubt that Nicoleta does like being the way she is, and I wish her joy of it, but you were right about Michal: the only thing that’s wrong with her is that mullo keeping her brainwashed, feeding her nothing but its milk. If we could get her away, and let her recover her mind, I know this is what she’d want as well.”
“Get her away from them? Just the two of us?” asked Antonia, notes of fear and sickness making a dramatic resurgence in her voice. “I really don’t mean to be insensitive… but what sort of chance would we stand? Especially now.”
“A better one than you might think, and especially now. We couldn’t fight her with her own weapons, because she was a much stronger vampire than we’d ever be, but now we don’t have to. Just look around us: crosses, angels, Bibles, prayer-books… we’re in a self-service weapons shop, for heaven’s sake!”
“Steal from a church?”
“Well… in a very good cause. You don’t have to come with me, though. That would hardly be fair. It’s my fault, mainly, that you became a vampire, and she’s my sister; not yours. If you’d prefer to-”
“You realise the pair of us could make a fortune in emotional blackmail, if we can’t make an honest living,” interrupted Antonia, with a fair attempt at a brave smile. “At any rate, I certainly hope that was emotional blackmail, and that you’d never really think I’d let you take on our mutual friend alone.”
“Of course not,” replied Andreea, then added, on account of the sarcasm and loathing in her friend’s mentions of the fair lady, “One other thing, though: I don’t want to kill her. Not if we don’t have to. She isn’t exactly… that is… she wants to do good… even if she doesn’t do it very well. If you know what I mean.”
“I know, and believe it or not, I’ve no desire to be a ‘slayer’ myself. It’s not our place to decide who or what is beyond redemption. Mind you, I don’t see much in the way of stakes and hammers about this place, in any case.”
“Well, that settles it, then,” quipped Andreea, and by mutual consent they began their search for portable holy objects. By the time they left the church, they were each in possession of a pocket-sized Bible, a small box of communion wafers, and a bottle of communion wine – the latter being the only conspicuous object – which made them appear not very strikingly different from several other young women going to and from parties and other such inebriated social events that same night. Nevertheless, they were distinctive enough to catch the attention of the man with the satellite phone, lurking in the shadows across the street. When they were a fair distance away, he trailed them in almost total silence, broken only by the whispered report he was making:
“Yes, Mr. Rakovic, sir. They answer the description, right enough, but I don’t reckon as how it can be them. I mean to say… they’ve just come out of a damn church, of all places. Wouldn’t you have thought-”
“You would,” replied Alexander Rakovic, from his isolated home on the outskirts of Bucharest, “and it’s got me confused, I can’t deny. But they are the ones. Follow them. Find out where they’re staying. But don’t take any action until I have arrived. I want to be there when we find her. Expect me tomorrow night. Over.”
Alexander switched off his phone, and turned to his mirror. The trouble he sometimes had to go to for the benefit of his employees… but no sense in taking foolish risks in this oh-so prejudiced world, or in alienating potentially useful allies. Having concealed his red eyes behind brown contact lenses, he filed down his canine teeth by the small but noticeable length they had re-grown since last week: a nasty process, though no longer as excruciatingly painful as it had been for him when he had first attempted it, centuries ago. After that, it was an easy and pleasant task for him to apply his false scars, and blend them naturally into his face with a layer of skin-coloured foundation, wonderfully concealing his own deathly pale complexion in the process. Well, after all: he excelled at the art of make-up.
End of Part 1.