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A TAINT IN THE BLOOD

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER FIVE:

 

“Still nothing definite?” Harvey Ledbetter said.

“No,” Adrian said.

He worked his shoulders; all that tension there would get him would be a headache.

Cold. I must be cold. Do not think of what Ellen is suffering. My feelings will not rescue her, only my strengths, my abilities, my wits. Think only of chances, strategies.

They rode the escalator nearly alone; Albuquerque’s airport was a hub, but not a big one, and air travel hadn’t picked up fully again anyway with the economy still limping. There were more people arriving than catching departing flights at nine in the evening, as well.

“No,” he went on. “I can’t just guess. Not with someone like Adrienne involved.”

“Yeah, that screws the probabilities well and good. Just west, eh?”

“Just west.”

“Hell of a lot of territory in that direction. You want to do the honors at Security, or shall I?” Harvey said, as they walked past the shuttered bookstores and by-generous-definition restaurants.

9:45 San Francisco blinked at them from the Departures screen. On time.

“Oh, I’ll do it,” Adrian said. “I’m bored, anyway.”

Harvey put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “She’s counting on you getting frazzled,” he said gently.

“Yes. So I won’t. I shall not be comfortable or easy, either.”

Not as easy as you, my friend, he thought; he could feel the other’s cool hunter’s patience.

You do not know Ellen. It is not that you do not care, but this is one more encounter in a long war. And you have gotten that which you wished; you have forced me back into this doomed fight.

He didn’t resent that—not much. If you could read the truth of men’s emotions without effort, you learned to make allowances that those who could take comfort from illusion and ignorance did not. Or else you had no friends.

But Adrienne must also have desired this. And that is very much a concern.

They heaved their carry-on luggage onto the conveyer belt as they came to the head of the airport security line, amid the smell and feel of tension and boredom and throttled anger. Harvey walked jauntily into the glass enclosure.

Adrian put the knuckles of his fists together and let the simple electronic nervous system of the machines vibrate in his consciousness. That was hardly a Wreaking at all, no need for glyphs or the diamond-shard syllables of Mhabrogast that cut your mind bloody from the inside. He didn’t have to touch anything but electrons in semiconductors, and when your brain held a decryption center intended to break the unique codes inside a human skull, computers were child’s-play.

The metallic taste put his teeth on edge for a moment, but the scanner showed nothing except the simple form of a man, and harmless underwear and magazines in their carry-ons. The same for him...

They collected their gear, stepped into their shoes and walked out through the slowly-revolving door into the main concourse; behind him someone’s mind muttered:

Kill them all, kill them all—

With a vivid image of a nuclear fireball cracking above a city, the blast-wave throwing aside buildings like confetti and turning bodies to shadows against walls...

“Woah!” Harvey said. “Someone really doesn’t like goin’ through the mill!”

The Sunport had a great bronze statue where the concourse met the two wings of gates; a shaman twice man-height running full tilt, with an eagle headdress and a live eagle or an eagle spirit just at the edge of his outstretched fingers. Two decades of travelers had known it as Chief Trips And Falls or Shaman Destroys Endangered Species. Adrian smiled grimly at it; there was less charm to legends when you knew their sources. Or to religions, come to that.

“Do you know why I really hate drinking human blood?” Adrian said.

He forced himself not to snarl and turn his mind into a lethal razor as a man bumped into him, walking with his head in a copy of the New York Times.

Election Will Be Close; Democrats Confident, read the headline. Knowing who was really in charge also took the interest out of politics, for the most part.

“Moral qualms?” Harvey asked.

“No. It is no crime to abstract a little from the Red Cross; people donate it to help others, and they are helping me, and I give them a lot of money. What I hate is the way it makes everyone smell more appetizing. I really should not be around people.”

They turned into one of the washrooms on the B concourse, went into adjacent stalls for privacy and opened their carry-ons across the toilet seats. Adrian checked the magazine, snapped it back into his Glock, and holstered it. The knife he slipped into loops on the other side of his jacket; wearing it across the small of the back wasn’t comfortable in an aircraft seat, even a first-class one.

The hypodermics with their solution of silver and radioactive waste went cautiously into steel-and-lead lined tubes sewn into a pocket. A load of that would kill him just as permanently and irrevocably dead as the wickedest member of the Council of Shadows. The chalks and markers were, ironically, the most dangerous part of his equipment and the ones he could let the authorities see.

Or perhaps it is my mind that is dangerous. Yes, without doubt, for the glyphs only focus it. Perhaps the Mhabrogast too, though there I am less certain.

“Ol’ buddy,” Harvey said meditatively—there was a chunk sound as he checked and closed his massive coach gun. “How many people do you figure could mind-fuck the scanner the way you did?”

“Oh, anyone the Council would recognize as Shadowspawn,” he said absently. “Half the sworn members of the Brotherhood; you could, it would just be harder, eh? Plenty of independents who think they are magicians or witches or psychics or whatever.”

Harvey chuckled as they exited the washroom; Adrian wrinkled his nose as the smells of urine and disinfectant fell away. A hypersensitive sense of smell was another of the disadvantages of his heritage. Not as bad as the cravings, but it added its mite of discomfort.

Of course, dogs and wolves and leopards are more sensitive still, but they seem to mind it less. I wonder why?

“Makes you confident about how Homeland Security’s got your ass, don’t it?” Harvey went on.

Adrian laughed as well. “Harvey, what do you think would happen to a hijacker who tried to take over an aircraft with one of us on board?”

“It happened. I looked it up last year, had the same thought when we were pulling our team out of Bucharest after we turned Gheorghe Brâncuşi’s hideaway into a tanning salon. 1972, flight out of Beirut. A Shadowspawn enforcer working for Ibrahim al-Larnaki. That was before he took over Abdul the Damned’s Council seat.”

“What happened?”

“They hushed up the bodies, the usual. Tell you the truth, I think they got what they deserved. And it isn’t often I think people deserve what a bored Shadowspawn mook does when he’s turned loose with time to be inventive.”

Adrian gave a sour snort. “Have you ever tallied the arguments against... what’s the current term? Intelligent Design?”

“Can’t say as I’ve bothered since I got over a Baptist upbringing. And I was about fifteen when that happened—decided that anything which said I shouldn’t get into Julie-May McBell’s pants behind the bleachers after the football game was bound to be wrong about everything else, too. Lost my faith with her legs wrapped around me and a bare tit in my hand. But tell me.”

“Here’s the Power, OK? With enough of it, you can work wonders.”

“Yeah. How’s that show it wasn’t intelligently designed?”

“Because—by sheer accident, by a fucking evolutionary kludge—the genes which let you use the Power are tightly linked to traits which make you into a solitary megalomaniac serial-killing monster who has to drink human blood and finds the taste of pain addictive. If that isn’t proof of the randomness of evolution, what is?”

Harvey chuckled. “But it could be evidence for Malevolent Design on the part of the Big Fellah, right? Monsters with the powers of gods?”

Adrian opened his mouth, then closed it. After a moment he said: “And most of the time I think I’m a cynic and a pessimist!”

They came to the desk at B5. Adrian put on his charming smile; he also let his accent thicken until it was as strong as his sister’s. For some reason most people in this country found a bit of Parisian soothing and impressive from a handsome young man, unless you met a chauvinist at a time of international tension.

“Mademoiselle, you have two vacant first-class seats to San Francisco, is it not? For stand-by passengers Adrian Brézé and Harvey Ledbetter.”

The harried woman had dark circles under her eyes; he could pick up a little of her weary resentment at the cascade of demands that were always more than she could meet, a life spent trying to do three people’s work. She glanced down at the computer:

“I don’t think—why, I do! Here’s your boarding passes. We’re boarding first class and Gold Pass customers right now.”

“And we aren’t the droids you’re looking for anyway,” Harvey muttered as they went into the boarding tunnel. “So move along, now.”

Shut up, Harv. It’s easier—”

“—if nobody notices anything’s screwy, yeah.”

As they settled into their seats he went on: “Damn, I wish I could always travel this easy. Brotherhood makes us fly coach these days, would you believe it? And no jumping the queue.”

Adrian looked out the window at the moonlit slopes of the Sandias, still with a tiny dusting of snow on their gullied peaks. They wheeled as the engines of the Boeing whined and the plane began to roll, the night-lights of the airport a galaxy of colors.

“It’s cheating,” he said. “I can’t afford to give in to temptations. I know what’s at the bottom of the slippery slope. Yes, a vodka sour, miss, s’il vous plaît.”

“Buddy, you are too good for this wicked world.”

“No. Ellen is, and now she’s in a world a lot worse.”

Decision firmed. “Watch my back, Harv.”

He let the seat back and arranged himself in as close to the hands-crossed-on-shoulders trance position as he could inconspicuously.

“You sure about that?”

“Judgment call. But we need information if we’re not going to waste time. If they’re landing in this continent, they’ll be where they’re going by now. I’ll try and grab-link as soon as she’s asleep; I can tell that easily enough.”

A Word, and his mind drifted down through layers of darkness.

 

@@@

 

“I driiiink youurrr miiiiilkshake,” Adrienne’s voice crooned in her ear.

Ellen gave an involuntary gasp of terror as the teeth touched her throat. Then Adrienne whirled her away.

“No, not yet. Not this time.”

Instead she turned and leapt, like a black-haired cat. The young Chinese man who’d played guard in the limousine went down with a startled scream; Adrienne’s face was locked into the angle of throat and shoulder. Ellen swallowed and turned her eyes away at the liquid sounds and the scrabbling. She lurched as the big Airbus CJ sped into its takeoff run. When she made herself look again the metallic coppery-iron-salt scent was strong. Adrienne raised her head, blood wet on her chin and her eyes glittering with joy.

God, this is hell. It’s absolute hell! Ellen thought.

Adrienne laughed, her teeth red and one hand on the young man’s throat.

“Yes, it is. Nor are you out of it,” she said as she rose. “Theresa, take care of David. I’m going to freshen up.”

“Well, give me a hand, lucy,” the briskly efficient middle-aged Latina said.

Ellen did. The Asian man—David, she reminded herself—was half-conscious, a limp weight as they lifted him into one of the recliners. His slack grin made her a little queasy, but he came back to himself as the older woman taped a bandage to his neck, went into the kitchenette and then came back and handed him a mug of what smelled like chicken broth.

“Tsk,” she said. “The maintenance staff will complain about the upholstery, again. Gracias, lucy. Would you like a drink? The bar is available to us.”

“You’re welcome,” Ellen said uneasily. “Yes, a Bloody Mary.” That produced a chuckle, and she flushed a little. “But... my name is Ellen, not Lucy.”

She sank into a chair, uneasily conscious of how grubby her white silk dress was becoming. That was absurd under the circumstances—there was a spray of blood droplets across the hem now too—but the crisp business suit Theresa wore had that effect. So did the ambience of the jet; there was a compartment forward that was probably a bedroom, a central lounge-dining-office area, and the galley and a shower-bathroom at the rear. It was all pale and elegant, curved lines and blond wood and slightly nubby fabrics. The noise of the engines was very faint, and if it hadn’t been for the windows and curved ceiling she wouldn’t have thought it was an aircraft at all.

Theresa reminded Ellen of the attendants who hovered around the very highest echelon of clients at the gallery. The ones who were sent back later to deliver checks with a lot of zeroes in them. She handed Ellen the drink and sank onto a sofa, sipping her own; it looked like something with tequila.

David’s laugh was a little weak still. He felt gingerly at his throat. She noticed a cuff-bracelet on his hand, and a small gold bangle, obsidian and jet, a rayed sun black-on-black with a jagged-looking trident spearing up through it.

He must have lost about a pint. No more than you give at the donor’s clinic. Even counting—her eyes skipped over his soaked t-shirt, stuck to a sculpted chest—the spillage. Christ, it was awful to watch, though. Or hear. I though she was going to rip him right open. And she might. Or do it to me, anytime. I need this drink.

“Lucy is really a job description,” David said. “You’re a lucy. It’s not even gender-specific, in English.”

Una lucy,” Theresa amplified. “O un lucy.

We’re renfields,” he finished.

“You?” Theresa said, with a half-scornful smile. She put out a hand palm-down, and waggled it back and forth. “Masumenos. Now I am a renfield for the Brézé familia, like my parents and grandparents before me. You were a lucy to start with, and half one even now.”

“As if you’ve never been bled,” David snorted.

“Not since I was a girl, as initiation. And I did not like it as you do, putito. I endured it. A good manager who can handle IT systems as well as I is much harder to find than someone who can only scream and bleed. Or twitch and moan.”

“Lucy? Renfield?” Ellen asked, bewildered.

“An old joke,” the woman in the business suit said. “From the time of my grandfather. A joke so old it has become merely the way we speak among ourselves. We renfields are those who serve the Shadowspawn, knowing what they are. A lucy is... you are... food and amusement for them.”

Well, thank you! Ellen thought. Bitch!

“Though one may become the other.”

Ellen took a sip of her drink. The vodka beneath the tomato juice added to the wine from dinner to make her feel...

Dutchly brave? But I have to learn whatever I can. My life depends on it. I’ve got to stay alive until Adrian comes for me. I can’t die like this. I can’t!

“How is it, being a renfield?” she asked, trying for cool nonchalance. “As a job. I can see it might be an improvement on what I’m pulling now.”

The two laughed again, but with a little more respect.

“It’s a little like working for the Mafia,” David said. “The money’s very good, but you can’t quit.”

“And a little like selling your soul to the devil,” Theresa amplified. “Half and half, perhaps. There is no God, and no Devil... but there are devils, and we serve them.”

“The health package is really good,” David said; he had a neutral Californian accent.

“Full coverage?”

Theresa smiled; there was something about it that made Ellen feel a little uneasy.

“Mostly, you just do not become sick. They lay their hands upon you, as saints were said to do. My grandparents lived past a hundred years.”

Both the others snickered; Ellen had an uneasy sense that they were thinking of her life expectancy.

“So you get a long life. Unless they kill you first,” she said, testing.

That brought shrugs. “Lucy, they can kill anyone anytime,” David said. “Where do you think missing persons go? Or those faces on milk cartons? Besides, in any job, sometimes the boss goes for your throat.”

Theresa nodded. “We have only one Shadowspawn to fear, one who has a use for us. The cattle would fear them all... if they knew. Perhaps someday they will; and we their faithful servants will be masters over the herd. We know the truth.”

Us and we not including me, Ellen thought. I don’t think empathy is high on the list of renfield qualities.

“They’re very territorial about poaching on their preserves,” David amplified. “And you don’t have to worry about taxes, police, any of that. As long as you’re off the reservation, don’t piss off the boss or do the sort of big showy shit that’s difficult to make vanish, it’s pretty well anything goes.”

“Sounds like a good gig,” Ellen said.

If you’re completely fucking crazy, she added to herself. And have the morals of a rabid weasel.

“There are some things you should know,” Theresa said.

David looked at her; she shrugged. “I am household manager,” she said. To Ellen:

“There is no privacy from them, not even in your thoughts. And no safety or protection from them anywhere. Once they have tasted of your blood you are linked, linked forever. They can find you if you flee to the ends of the earth and hide in the deepest cave. And whatever they do to you, even a very painful death, embrace it rather than disobey.”

David smirked and glanced at the older woman. “There’s one other downside to being a renfield,” he said. “Your colleagues are going to be the sort of people who are cool with joining the Mafia, or selling their souls to the Devil.”

He levered himself up. “Going to go hit the bunk. We’ll be home in an hour and a half. Thanks for the chicken soup. Man, I’m looking forward to my own bed!”

Adrienne came out of the bathroom a minute after he’d wobbled to the rear. Her hair was damp, slicked back in a ponytail, and she wore a long loose colorful West African m’boubou robe with wide sleeves, printed in what Ellen thought of as a dashiki pattern.

She and Adrian even walk a lot alike, allowing for the difference in the hips, Ellen thought.

That flowing dancer’s grace was one of the things that had attracted her to him in the first place.

Oh, God, Adrian, come get me! And I hate waiting for someone to rescue me, but what else can I do?

Though the walk had an unpleasantly catlike quality to it, now that she thought of it. A sense of creeping menace came with Adrian’s sister, a fear that she hadn’t noticed until it returned.

 “Five minutes to the Seversk call, Ms. Brézé,” Theresa said. “Do you want me to cancel it?”

“No, no, it’s important. Hmmm. There’s an idea. He makes a great noise about his progressive attitudes but is fond of high Shadowspawn attitude... A pity David isn’t photogenic right now.”

She looked at Ellen. “Take off your clothes.”

“What?” Ellen said. Then an involuntary yelp of: “Ouch!” as her neck twinged.

“That wasn’t a request, chérie. This is business. The underwear too. My, that dress is quite ruined, isn’t it?”

She tousled Ellen’s pale-blond hair, studied the results and nodded.

“Theresa, your pendant for a little.”

The manager compressed her lips, but reached behind her head. The slim gold chain held a disk with the same black sun and golden trident that she’d noticed on David’s wrist. Adrienne dropped it over Ellen’s head, and gave it a twitch so that the sigil was visible just above her breasts.

“Excellent,” she said. “Now, I will be talking with an associate named Dmitri Usov. He’s an able man but has some quirks. Ah, well, don’t we all, eh? Don’t speak unless spoken to; if he does speak to you, answer him quickly. Theresa, bring coffee and brandy. Ellen, stand by my chair within the pickup angle and serve them if I move my hand, so.”

The chair was a deep lounger. Adrienne lay back in it and touched a clearpad control surface in one arm. A sixty-inch screen swung down from the ceiling with a very faint whir of servos, and lit. After a moment it cleared with the pellucidly sharp outlines that meant a high-bandwidth dedicated satellite link.

Ellen blinked. The room that showed in it looked like a set from a Bakst ballet, with samovars and Persian rugs and colorful drapes and icons, clashing horribly with a tumble of electronic equipment. A man in an open embroidered caftan and loose drawstring pantaloons sat on a chair that wasn’t quite thronelike—it looked too comfortable—but came close. Two naked teenagers stood on either side; the boy holding a tray with small glasses, a bowl of caviar and strips of toast, the girl the mouthpiece of a water-pipe. They looked Oriental, with the extremely high cheekbones, ruddy skin and flat faces found from Mongolia northward.

The man was quite different, sharp-featured, with long pale hair and grey eyes and a thin pointed nose, his torso lean but the muscles sharply defined.

What Vladimir Putin wishes he looked like, Ellen thought. What he’d look like if he were in his thirties and not ugly.

She flushed as his eyes slid over her. She’d thought she knew what it was to have a man look at her like a piece of meat.

But I didn’t. That’s a flip-her-over-and-fuck-her glance, all right, but it’s also a literal piece-of-meat look. Or a bottle-of-good-hooch look. Oh, Jesus this is scary. I wish I could wake up!

Dobry den’, Dmitri Pavlovitch,” Adrienne said. “Kak vashi dela?”

“I’m in fucking Siberia in February, Adrienne Juliyevna,” he said in good English, only about as accented as hers. “It’s cold, and that is how I am, and to make matters worse I am in fucking Seversk, which is not even the arsehole of Siberia. It is a chancre upon the lower intestine of Siberia. And I am stuck here until the Council relents. Where are you?”

“On my jet, bound for California.” She smiled. “Just think how much better it would be if you were in a castle without central heating or plumbing, and I was traveling by coach or rowed by galley slaves, talking to you by telepathy.”

He laughed. “The galley slaves would have their points.”

“Not as a means of transportation.”

“Certainly not here! If you spit, it freezes before it hits the ground. Though the long nights have been convenient. I have gotten in some excellent hunting.”

“What game?”

“Bears by day. Chechens or Tartars by night, mostly. And the odd wandering tourist. Nobody misses them, and they look so surprised. One had but the guidebook said tigers are extinct here as her last words, I swear to God.”

He smiled. “But we are impolite. First we should honor our ancient heritage with the traditional signs.”

He made a gesture with his left hand. “Hail to the Dread Empire of Shadows and the Secret Reign that is to come!”

Adrienne raised her right hand, divided the first and second fingers from the fourth and fifth to form a V, and solemnly intoned:

“Live long and prosper!”

Ellen bit back a startled snort. Then they both stuck their index fingers in their ears, waggled the little fingers and chanted:

“Uga-Chuga... Uga-Chuga... Bow! Wow! Wow!”

With both fists in the air: “Goooooo TEAM!”

Both dissolved in laughter. “Ah, Adrienne, it does me good to speak with you again, after dealing with the Gheorghe Brâncuşi matter for so long. If you knew how many times I had to actually go through those pseudo-medieval rituals, as if I was some legend-besotted Victorian secret-society occultist like our ancestors...”

“You haven’t had to deal with the Demon Daimyo of the West Coast as long as I have, Dmitri. Any real progress?”

“Yes,” he said. “Progress that can be laid before the Council. Let us toast success!”

He made another gesture, one that seemed natural; forefinger to thumb, like the sign for ‘OK’, and a finger tapped to the neck. Then he reached for the tray, dipping a strip of the dark toast into the caviar, and taking one of the small glasses.

Ellen almost missed Adrienne’s signal. She turned and took the service from Theresa and bent to put it on the sideboard and pour; it had a dark rich aroma, different from anything she’d smelled before. Her flush grew deeper as her full breasts swayed with the gesture; the whole thing made her feel horribly like an extra glimpsed in some obtrusive pop-up ad for an Internet pornsite.

Za vashe zdorovye!

He downed the whole glass, Russian-style.

Á votre santé,” she answered and sipped the cognac, following it with black coffee.

“The plutonium was definitely from here,” the man in the screen went on. “The cattle who sold it to the Brotherhood agents thought they were selling it to the Iranians; I suspect a small, subtle Wreaking on their memories. They have all been dealt with, but the successors... I do not know if they will be any better.”

Adrienne hissed a little between her teeth. “We really have to do more about this, Dmitri. We are... vulnerable.”

“Tell me. In my opinion we should never have closed down the Communists, at least their security around closed sites was competent and we only had to control a few key men to control all. That there are so many to deal with now is why I’ve been trapped here, like some exile in the days of Stalin or the Czars.”

His face darkened a little. “As if I were responsible for Gheorge’s final death! Have you seen my report on his security? A farce! Tzigani with knives and shotguns and bandanas around their heads. All that they needed was violins and balalaikas. Maybe their grandfathers were at least formidable savages, but these were merely drunken louts putting on a show, as if for tourists! You expected to see the movie cameras and fog made from dry ice at any moment!”

“Yes, one must move with the times,” she said.

There was a short significant pause; they met each other’s eyes and then looked away.

I missed something there, Ellen thought.

“I use Gurkhas, as you know,” Adrienne said into the brief silence. “They stay bought, too.”

“And how was your visit to Santa Fe?” Dmitri went on, taking the mouthpiece of the hookah and drawing a deep bubbling lungful. “You spoke hopefully of it last week.”

“Rather productive.” Another short pause. “In more ways than one.”

“Ah, ochen’ horosho,” he said. Then he looked at Ellen.

“Either you are developing a sense of style, Adrienne, or this is some sort of subtle mockery of mine.”

“I? Mock? Impossible, Dmitri. Oh, well, possibly a little of both. I acquired her in Santa Fe, yes. Previously my brother’s. Perhaps that explains my desire to show off a little, although he got surprisingly little use out of her. Guilty, I suppose. Such a grubby human emotion, guilt.”

“Not just human. Petit bourgeois, which is worse,” Dmitri said. Then to Ellen: “You are some sort of Slav, girl?”

“I... Polish, German, some Scots-Irish, a little Cherokee, sir,” Ellen replied.

“And she has the most intriguingly complex psyche, too,” Adrienne said. “Childhood trauma, I think. Odd pleasure-pain links.”

He replied in Russian, and probably to her. Ellen searched her memory and managed to produce what she thought was a polite disclaimer of ability to speak the language, learned when they had some clients from St. Petersburg:

Ya poka ne govoryu po russki, Gospodin.

“I said, you have nice tits, too, to go with the psyche,” he replied with a smile.

What the hell am I supposed to say to that? she wondered, feeling her throat lock on the words. Fuck off, you posturing moron? Oh, Christ! I can’t even think it! Or bite me, maybe?

Adrienne sighed. “Dmitri, your lucies have tits. Or even boobs. Mine have breasts. Or at least the females do.”

“What happened to the Chinese boy with the delectable arse, then?”

“Still delectable, useful in several ways, and currently resting after—”

Adrienne turned her head and snapped aside just short of Ellen’s thigh, a biting gesture with an audible click of white sharp teeth.

Dmitri snorted. “What a collector you are! Don’t you ever just kill them, Adrienne? It’s like endless foreplay with no fucking!”

Ellen swallowed. She thought the boy holding the tray did too, with an almost imperceptible quiver in his hands.

Adrienne sighed again. “Dmitri, Dmitri, what a... gourmand you are. I suppose you even like Béchamel sauce.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“That it makes everything taste the same, Escoffier’s original sin? There’s nothing wrong with agony and death, but you miss out on so much if you hurry, experiencing the direct mental overtones as well as the actual blood. Emotional degradation, despair, self-loathing, transferal...”

He snorted. “Girlie stuff.”

“Dmitri, I am a girl! When I’m corporeal, at least, and most of the time night-walking too.”

“Quantity can have a quality all its own, even for drinking emotions. In mass, they can be overwhelmingly potent. Ah, if you had only been at Srebrenica when the massacre began—”

“Dmitri, I was a child. Besides, my old, do you realize how many times you’ve told your Srebrenica story?”

“Oh.” He winced. “Tell me I’m not as bad as von Horst with the Hindenberg.”

“Nearly as bad as McFadden with the Titanic! And he’s transitioned successfully to post-corporeal so he’ll never shut up. You’d think with a potentially infinite span ahead of him he’d focus on the future sometimes.”

They laughed again. Adrienne touched the controls.

“I’ll do what I can with Tōkairin Hajime,” Adrienne said. “He has not any dog in this fight, so he may be reasonable. Michiko listens to me, and she has his ear. She’s of our generation. You’ve earned release, Dmitri. There’s definitely going to be a meeting in Tiflis next year, the full Council and all candidate-qualified purebloods. They have to elect a successor to Gheorge, after all.”

“I shall be forever in your debt. And the more so if I can get to Tiflis and a decent climate. We will have to remind Putin of who he really works for, so there are no disturbances.”

“Good. There’s talk that they may select a corporeal this time, which would be the first since... when? 1932, I think.”

“Ah. A younger voice on the Council. That would be... progressive.”

“Yes, it would. Possibilities, eh?”

The screen died and hummed upwards. Adrienne smiled like a lynx. “That went smoothly, very smoothly. Theresa, you’ve earned a visit to Jean-Charles.”

Ellen cleared her throat.

“Yes, yes, chérie,” Adrienne said. “Get dressed, and let Theresa have her pendant back. You did very well, putting Dmitri in a good mood. Yes, dangled in front of him like a piece of steak is one way to put it, and no doubt you’ll feel better with... what’s that thought there? Without my ass bare to the breeze? We’ll be landing soon, anyway.”

She smiled and linked her hands behind her head.

“Life is good.”

 

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