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A TAINT IN THE BLOOD

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


 

CHAPTER SIX:

 

Where am I?

Ellen Tarnowski looked around. She was sitting in...

It’s Adrian’s living room!

The great windows showing an endless tumbled stretch of moonlit high desert and mountain, the lights dim, a fire of piñion logs crackling on the fieldstone hearth and scenting the air. Even the faint smell of tobacco she’d found so irritating was comforting enough to make her almost sob with gratitude.

And Adrian, standing gravely by the mantelpiece, taut and elegant as a cat.

“Oh, thank God!” she burst out. “Adrian, I had the most horrible—”

Full wakefulness crashed back. “It wasn’t a dream, was it?”

He shook his head, the silky hair sliding around his lobeless ears.

“I’m afraid not,” he said softly, his face stark with misery. “I’m sorry, Ellie. I am so very sorry.”

“Then—”

She looked down; she was in a long denim skirt and Indian blouse outfit she remembered. She pinched herself, hard. It hurt, but her surroundings stayed just the same. She had never had a dream like this, not complete with every detail of all five senses.

“Where am I?” she said slowly.

“Your... mind is here.”

“Where’s here, Adrian?”

He hesitated. “This is my memory palace. We’re inside... ummm, my mind. I’m on a flight to San Francisco, trying to find you.”

Ellen put a hand to her forehead and clenched it until the fingers dug painfully into the skin.

“And you never thought to tell me any of this before?” she said, keeping her voice from rising dangerously. “We were sleeping together for six months and it just never seemed the right fucking time? No wonder I knew you were lying to me!”

He crossed and knelt before her, taking her hands. “Ellie, I wanted to tell you. But this is dangerous, dangerous stuff, and I was trying to keep you as safe as I could.”

“Keeping me ignorant is not protective! From now on, you will tell me things or I will not... not speak to you at all!”

“I feel guilty as hell than I let us get involved at all, but it had been years, I was supposed to be left alone—Ellie, we don’t have time for me to tell you two hundred years of history. Multi-millennia, some of it. I need you to help me, and I promise I’ll make it as right as I can. Whatever it takes.”

She took a long deep breath and forced a degree of calm on herself. Her fingers closed around his with a strength bred from years of tennis.

“My mind is here? Where’s the rest of me?”

“Where... you were before you went to sleep.”

I’m still in bed with your crazy vampire sister?” she half-screamed. “Get me out, get me out, get me out, Oh, God, the things she did to me—”

Air gasped into her lungs and she forced control on herself and choked down sobs.

“My mind is here? Literally?”

He nodded. “I’ve got your genetic template already loaded. I’m... running you on my hardware. Wetware. Your body is in trance state, like mine—but it’s, ummm, empty.”

She stared at him. “You drank my blood? Without telling me?”

He winced and looked aside. “No. But, ah, it’s really anything with DNA in it, you see, which pretty much all body fluids have. So it doesn’t have to be blood, strictly speaking, for a link.”

“Oh.” Then a thought. “But what she said was true? You wanted to drink my blood? To really hurt me?”

“I didn’t, did I?” he said. “I love you, Ellen. It’s just... hard for me to show that the way normal people can. But I didn’t hurt you.”

The lonely pride in it moved her suddenly; the hot anger she’d felt less than two days ago felt as distant as her childhood.

“You’re not like her. I said that and she laughed, but I think it made her angry.”

“I try not to be like that. I try very hard. Now immediately, darling, you have to tell me where she took you. We might get cut off at any moment.”

“I’m... not sure. California—”

He gave a small hiss of relief and nodded. She continued:

“South of the Bay, I think. North of LA for sure, and near the coast. Someone mentioned Passo something. We landed, there was a car, but I couldn’t see out the windows much. A big place in the country, I think, and everyone was really tired, even Adrienne, we all just went to bed and sacked out. I’m... in her room.”

“Paso Robles? It might be. The Central Coast. That’s very good, that helps a lot. I can put a... block in to conceal your memory of this. You’ll still be able to remember it, but not unless you’ve got reason to. Be cautious about that, be very careful. She’s extremely good at subtle Wreakings... mind-stuff.”

“Oh, there aren’t any words for how careful I’ll be!”

Then another thought. “Wait a minute. What happens if I just stay here? She can’t force me back, can she?”

“No. Only I can send you back. If you stay you’d be like this as long as I lived.”

Ellen freed her hands and placed them on her knees.

“But if I stayed here I’d be safe... well, as safe as you... and I could live forever? God, Adrian, that is so tempting. She told me I had all sorts of interesting new sensations and experiences to look forward to! I’m so scared all the time.”

He nodded. “Yes. And that’ll be just as bad as you can imagine. More than you can imagine. But there’s a chance of getting you away from her, and there are drawbacks to staying here.”

The room began to fade. Sunlight appeared overhead, grew bright, reflected off marble columns around a pool. Prussian-blue mountains rose in the distance, against a cloudless sky. Scents of thyme and arbutus drifted on warm dry air under the rustling shadows cast by the leaves of live-oaks arching overhead. Cicadas buzzed as many-colored birds flew among great alabaster pots, and flamboyant bougainvillea spilled down their sides in purple and gold.

“This is Maxfield Parrish!” she exclaimed, distracted into delight. “But real! It’s so beautiful... This is heaven!”

The clear cruel laughter of a young girl came from the bushes. Then the water in the pool rippled. Something passed beneath it in a smooth curve. She could see a glimpse of... tentacles? She stumbled back from the edge of the water with a sudden sick dread.

“This is my mind, Ellen, and it’s not anything like heaven. It’s a Shadowspawn mind, and I’m no more completely in control of it than you are of yours.”

Ellen looked at him and spoke slowly: “Could... she do this to me too? Swallow me?”

Adrian winced and nodded. “We call it... Carrying. Any strong Shadowspawn can.”

She fought not to scream as he nodded again. Bitterly:

“There’s no God, no heaven, we don’t have souls, but we can still go to Hell forever?”

“That’s... probably where the idea of Hell came from in the first place.”

Her hands went over her face. “This just gets worse and worse. All right, Adrian. I’ll go back. But you get me out!”

A deep breath, and she stood and faced him. “She had a videoconference with a man named Dmitri on the flight from Santa Fe. He scared me nearly as much as she did, even on a flatscreen and eight thousand miles away.”

“Dmitri Pavlovitch Usov?”

“Yes. He was in Seversk, in Siberia. There was something about plutonium smuggling, and a man, a very old Shadowspawn, who was assassinated with it.”

“Gheorghe Brâncuşi?”

“Yes. There was something going on I couldn’t tell, some sort of political thing I think, an intrigue, a conspiracy. And they mentioned a Council that was going to meet in Tblisi, in Georgia, to elect new members next year. They were saying things without saying them, by indirection. And—”

“No time!” Adrian said; she could see fear on his face. “You’ve got to go back now; she’s stirring out of REM sleep. You stay alive, you hear me, Ellie? You stay alive. Do not die! No matter what happens, you stay alive.”

He held up a hand before her face, and clenched it into a fist as he spat a word that spun into her ears like buzz-saws. The universe shattered and dissolved.

 

@@@

 

“This town used to be a lot more charming before it realized how charming it was,” Harvey said.

They’d spent the night in a hotel Adrian favored when he had to come here, a 1920’s late-Beau-Arts one on Nob Hill, brick and marble with an attached spa. Adrian paused under the awning; there was a little square of park uphill, and a big church. The sky was bright with a few fluffy clouds, and the temperature just a little brisk. It could have been June as easily as February, in San Francisco. They turned and headed downslope, towards the Mission district.

“I’m not an urban person. Still, I hate it less than most,” Adrian replied.

The streets were busy. More homeless than there had been a few years before, more empty buildings and shops, a little less traffic, but the crowds were still dense and lively on the sidewalks. Adrian detested cities, as a general rule; the sheer crowding grated on his nerves, the smells were bad, and the necessity for pulling in his senses made him feel muffled and thick and half-blind. This was... less bad than most.

He’d even been able to enjoy breakfast, buttermilk pancakes and local berries. Mostly he lost appetite for anything but blood quickly in a place this dense, which was another reason to avoid them. Then he had spent the rest of the morning standing on the observation deck of Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill watching the Bay and the gulls over Alcatraz, and pulling the smells of salt water into his lungs.

Nothing like as bad as Cairo. Or Calcutta, where he’d once been trapped for an entire memorable month.

Harvey looked aside at him. “Got a jolt there right through my shields.”

Adrian smiled. “I remembered the Black Hole, Operation Kali. Convinced me I had to get out or go mad.”

Harvey grinned. “That made me feel like going over to the Dark Side of the Force too, ol’ buddy. Of course, the Council wouldn’t have me, these days. Not close enough to pureblood.”

Adrian nodded. “I still think it might be faster to just go down to Paso Robles and look around ourselves.”

Harvey snorted. “Yeah, right. Charge into Adrienne’s security and generations of protections with Wreakings soaked into the bedrock... it’s not as if we could just look things up on Google Earth, you know.”

Adrian sighed in acknowledgment. I am just venting, he thought.

Nothing, not even human memory, was as easy to nudge with a little Wreaking as digital systems. Even hardcopy tended to be burned in fires, or eaten by rats, or mildew... or anything else where luck mattered.

Harvey went on: “When your parents took you for your visits as a kid they didn’t go there, did they?”

Adrian smiled grimly. “No, to Europe.”

“You’ve turned confiding since Calcutta. Getting you to mention this stuff at all was always like extracting teeth with a loop of spaghetti.”

“I’ve been trying not to suppress the memories any more. They are part of me. Yes, we went to castle in the Auvergne, to... get us in touch with our roots, they’d say today. We thought they were our aunt and uncle, of course, come to give us a holiday. Christ, what a pile that place was! Is, I suppose.”

“Yeah, the European branch of the Brézés are a bit conservative.”

“Everything but hanging head-down to sleep,” Adrian said. “And the place was infested with bats, at that. The attics and the caves, at least.”

Then, softly: “We loved it, of course.”

“Bet it was in the summer,” Harvey observed, dodging a pushcart vendor.

“Of course; every summer, longer as we grew older. Green hills, dusty lanes, mountain forests, ponies for us to ride... our aunt and uncle who denied us nothing, and hinted that we were as an exiled prince and princess. Oh, is there a child on Earth who won’t listen to that? The delicious sense of being different, different and better. Great canopied beds, fireplaces ten feet high, Egyptian gods on the walls of crypts below—“

“Egyptian?” Harvey said incredulously. “You never mentioned that before, either.”

“Yes, Egyptian, painted in the 1830’s, when it was the headquarters of the Order of the Black Dawn, before they discovered Darwin and Mendel. When they thought they were sorcerers and loup-garou.”

“Yeah, but they were. Nobody allowed in who couldn’t actually Wreak with the Power. And they married each other’s sisters. Unscientific, but it worked, sorta-kinda.”

Adrian nodded; that had been what kept traces of the ancient, horrible truth alive, there and elsewhere.

His voice went soft: “Then as we grew older, the ceremonies, the first Words in Mhabrogast... little sips of blood from the prisoners, mostly wretched beurs, like letting a child have a tiny glass of wine with his meal to make him feel grown-up. Staring into pools of ink, and... other things. At last one night we saw les vieux arise. My great-grandparents, after a gap of fourteen thousand years the first to survive death. I can remember them en miá chambra, beside our beds, like pillars of mist with bright golden eyes, and then people smiling down at us–“

“Woah, ol’ buddy. You realize you’re not only talking in French, which is OK, you’re talking Auvernhat patois thick enough to chisel into building blocks for one of those fucking chateaux?”

Adrian shook himself and smiled. “Sorry,” he said, shifting back into General American English. “They put Wreakings on us, of course, to keep us from revealing the truth when we were at ‘home’. Some of them still linger down there, twined around the root of my mind. It all seems like a dream, now.”

“Nightmare. OK, we’re here.”

The restaurant was so discreet that it didn’t even have a sign; just a big Victorian gingerbread, like so many others that had survived the earthquake and the fire. And generations of vandalism in the dangerous period between being new and fashionable and old and venerable, when a building was just out of date and shabby. The maitre d’ was just as polished, fitting into the darkly rich interior like a piece of the mahogany furniture or one of the old Persian rugs.

“Ms. Polson is waiting for you and your friend, Mr. Brézé. This way.”

Sheila Polson was scowling at the menu as they were ushered into their private nook. She glanced up sharply as Adrian extended his senses; no electronic ears tickled at his consciousness. Just because you had the Power didn’t mean you had to use it.

Adrian inclined his head slightly. He hadn’t met the chief of the Brotherhood’s California section before; he’d mostly operated in Europe and Asia when he and Harvey were a team, and the organization was tightly compartmentalized.

She was a medium woman—medium height, medium build, medium unmemorable navy business suit, dark-brown skin and wiry hair cropped short. Only the eyes struck in the mind, and that was because of something in them; otherwise she might have been a paralegal or middling bureaucrat. Though most of those would not have the weapons he sensed, a spring-loaded gun with silver darts in the attaché case leaning against her chair and an inlaid blade in a scabbard sewn into her jacket. And her shoes were made for fast movement, not style.

Her looks said mid-thirties. From what he felt, she could have been that, or possibly a decade or more older. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, after all, and she smelled of the Power too. Not nearly as much as he, but considerably more than Harvey. Her mind was tightly warded under a wash of patterned no-thought, so tightly that he couldn’t even feel the dislike he was certain was there.

“Hello, Ms. Polson,” Adrian said. “A pleasure to meet you.”

She looked at his hand as if it were a cobra, or decayed, or both, and then shook.

“This place is a waste of money,” she said as they sat. “There isn’t a lunch entrée under thirty dollars!”

“It’s Adrian’s money, Sheila,” Harvey pointed out. “And since he gives a couple of million of it a year to us, you really can’t complain about how he spends the rest of it.”

The rangy, graying man glanced at the menu. “No BBQ or hamburgers? Damn. Had my mouth set for a double bacon cheeseburger. Guess I’ll have to settle for the Lapin A La Moutarde Et Au Romarin.”

Adrian hid a smile; Harvey’s French was much less accented than his Texan-flavored English. He could have passed for someone from Tours on the telephone, in fact, as opposed to Adrian. Any Frenchman listening to him would have heard some village in Puy-de-Dôme under the overlay of Paris and Sorbonne. With a very old-fashioned tinge at that.

Of course, I spent much time in my childhood with Auvergnats born in the nineteenth century. Granted they were dead, but they were quite talkative.

Magret De Canard Au Porto,” Adrian said; he was partial to duck breast anyway, and the port sauce, celery root and apple puré sounded interesting.

“I’ll have the sliced lamb on mixed greens,” Polson said with malice aforethought.

Adrian gave the order to the waiter, and added: “A glass of the Ronceray for me, thank you. Anyone else? No?”

She waited in tight silence until privacy returned. Then:

“You resigned from the Brotherhood, Brézé,” she said. “Nobody resigns from the Brotherhood. Why should we help you?”

“Sheila,” Harvey put in. “Remember those millions? As in millions of bucks? As in, weapons, transportation, living stipends, bribes, special equipment, safe houses, research? Hell, the organization runs on silver and it ain’t cheap.”

“Stolen money,” she said. “Blood money.”

Adrian hid his annoyance with a raised brow he knew was intensely annoying in itself.

Fanatic, he thought. Then again, who else would wage a failing struggle all their lives long?

Aloud he went on: “No. Directing money to investments that will increase in value harms nobody. And before I resigned from the Brotherhood—which, despite your statement, I did successfully do—”

Polson’s frown said all any of them needed to know: Because you had no way to punish me except at a cost you weren’t prepared to pay.

“—I carried out many missions. But most of all, you should help me because I propose to kill a powerful Shadowspawn who ranks high beneath the Council of Shadows. Specifically, my sister, Adrienne Brézé.”

“Ah, there we get to it,” she said. “You’ve left each other alone ever since the last time you locked horns. Why should she come for you? We know the Council didn’t send her.”

Their meal came. Adrian thanked the man, threw his card onto the tray and added a fifty-dollar bill; these were hard times, and a lot of restaurants had taken to raking back a share of tips. Then he took a sip of his wine; the cabernet-merlot-petite Verdot combination had just enough acidity to go with the fatty richness of the duck.

“Why is abstract at this point. She... there are personal reasons. In any case, she abducted a young lady I’m very fond of. We know she’s taken her somewhere in California, probably the central coast. I need information; all the Brotherhood files on the Brézé properties there, their defenses, layout, everything.”

“Specialized weapons, too,” Harvey put in.

Adrian nodded. “And since this was a personal vendetta on Adrienne’s part, aiding me won’t bring the Council down on you any more than usual.”

“We should help you get your lucy back?” Polson asked.

The air went still. Harvey’s hand made a slight gesture towards his coat before his conscious mind controlled it, prompted by decades of experience with the bubbling edge of violence. Adrian carefully finished chewing and swallowing, laid down his knife and fork, and leaned forward. His gold-flecked eyes met Sheila Polson’s, and locked. After a long moment she looked aside, a slight sheen of sweat on her forehead.

“Ms. Polson, I will say this only once. Ellen Tarnowski was my friend—yes, we were lovers. She was not my lucy. I don’t force blood from living humans, and I don’t compel their minds except at urgent need. My sister does. I resigned from your war but I didn’t resign from the personal obligations of a human being. I’d be a pretty poor specimen of a man if I didn’t do what I could for her. Living with myself is... hard enough as it is.”

She looked away for an instant, nodded as if to herself, then turned back to him:

“I apologize, Mr. Brézé.” At his surprise, she smiled very slightly. “I actually am sorry. You... must know how disturbing a pureblood is to someone who can sense the Power.”

“He don’t bother me none,” Harvey said, returning to his rabbit.

“You’re a loose cannon, Ledbetter, and you bent every rule to breaking point haring off to New Mexico that way.”

“I’m also the best field team leader in the Brotherhood, so you’re not going to do anything but scold me.”

She shrugged and went on to Adrian: “Please describe your encounter in Santa Fe, if you would.”

Adrian did; Harvey nodded approval. “He can still do a damn nice after-action report,” he added.

“That Wreaking on the apartment building... that is... not good news,” Polson said.

“You could say that,” Adrian replied grimly. “If I hadn’t turned it in on itself, when the cascade fell it might have taken out everything within blocks. Driven dozens catatonic for the rest of their lives, at least.”

“It gets harder and harder to fight...” Polson half-whispered to herself. Then: “You were using stored blood?”

Adrian nodded, and spoke with careful precision:

“I drink blood only when I must for major Wreakings with the Power. As do you, do you not? What is your rating on the Alberman Scale?”

She forced her eyes back to his. “Yes. Red Cross supply. I’m... thirty-eight percent.”

“Then you will have some idea of how absolutely horrible an experience drinking cold, dead blood is. It is much worse for me. Dog-piss would be more fun.”

Polson nodded, stopping her fork halfway to her mouth. Then she visibly put the memory out of her mind and ate.

“We’re preoccupied right now,” she said. “Believe me, I sympathize with the girl. I’ve done field work. But right now, the whole world is about to come down on our heads. You’ve heard about the Council meeting that’s been called for next year in Tiflis?”

“No, I had not,” he said. “Well, not until last night.”

“You heard that Gheorghe Brâncuşi was executed? Formally the meeting’s to elect his successor.”

Executed, Adrian thought as he nodded. Or assassinated, depending on your viewpoint.

“Harvey told me yesterday,” he said.

“Christ, Brézé, don’t you follow anything?”

“It hasn’t been on CNN, nor on the Internet,” he said dryly. “The Brotherhood has me on their shit-list, and pretty well all the Council’s Shadowspawn would kill me if they could and deceive me just for the pleasure of it if they couldn’t. Ms. Polson, what part of retired don’t you understand?”

“Then you wouldn’t have heard that they’re going to implement Plan Trimback?”

He looked at her, drank the last of his wine, and said: “No.”

Harvey tore a piece off the baguette and buttered it.

“Usually they couldn’t organize an orgy in a Bangkok whorehouse and they put everything off and off and off because they’re planning on living forever ‘n figure they’ve got time,” he said, biting into the bread with a crackle. “This time it’s different.

Polson nodded. “We’re trying to figure out a counter-strategy—”

“Bullshit,” Adrian said crisply.

She glared at him; Harvey grinned and continued methodically demolishing the loaf and mopping his plate.

“I quit because the Brotherhood isn’t a threat to the Shadowspawn,” Adrian said. “It’s a nuisance. You kill a few lower-level types—”

“We got Brâncuşi,” she said.

“That was me, actually, and Adrian’s right,” Harvey said. “Two members of the Council in thirty years. And that’s... what... less than half of the number of Council heads who’ve died in faction-fights or family coups. We’re never going to be able to kill our way to victory, Sheila. There are just too damned many of them now. And they’ve got the Power.”

“You want to give up too, Ledbetter?” she rasped.

“No. I think we should admit that the Power is here to stay. Sure, if you gave me a magic I’d push ‘till my thumb got sore. But even the Power can’t undo the past.”

Harvey went on:

“So we need to use the Power. Y’know, you could have gotten into the Order of the Black Dawn if you’d been around back then. Hell, I might have made it. And we’re not evil... well, not most of the time.”

“The Order were evil,” Sheila said with flat certainty.

“Yeah, but that’s ‘cause they were demon-worshipping shits who figured out they could become demons. They’d have been just as evil if all they’d had was knives and bad attitudes.”

He pointed his fork at Adrian. “Guys like Adrian are our hope. The Power isn’t evil either; it’s just a... technology.”

Polson took a long breath. “That’s a policy question. We’re here to talk about this one instance. OK... I’ll see what I can do. We do have a lot of information about the Brézé family. We’ll get it to you as fast as we can; some of it will have to be dug out of hiding places. But I’m not going to clear everything off our plate just for this.”

“We won,” Harvey said, when she had gone.

Adrian methodically finished the last of his duck. He would be needing his energy, and ordinary food had its part in that too.

“And Ellen is... wherever she is,” he said.

He snarled, then controlled the sound. A glimpse at his face in the beveled glass mirror stopped it more effectively. The sharp teeth showed between the drawn-back lines of his lips, and his eyes might have been glowing from a Pleistocene night by the reflected light of a frightened tribe’s campfires.

“Christ, Harvey, I don’t want to do this.”

“You’re going at it awful hard for a reluctant man,” Harvey said.

His blunt fingers made pills from the last of the bread. Adrian gripped the edge of the table until rims of white stood out in his fingernails, welcoming the pain of it.

“Do you know why I’ve spent these years sitting on a mountaintop, Harvey? Running, meditating, swimming, talking to people at safe remove through a keyboard. Playing tennis when I felt daring? Because that life... life on an even keel... is one I can control. I don’t like what this... walking armed towards a fight, thinking in terms of threats and counter-threats and strategy—does to me.”

“It ain’t all that much fun, I grant you.”

Adrian shook his head violently. “No. It is entirely too much fun, at some levels. I know myself. I was made for this.”

“You don’t like you nearly as much as I do, ol’ buddy,” Harvey said quietly, looking away. “Think you might reconsider? You’d be a happier man.”

Adrian felt himself smile; the expression in the mirror was worse than the snarl had been.

“Consider my sister, my friend. She has an excellent sense of self-esteem, feels comfortable in her skin, and enjoys her life.”

Softly: “And she has Ellen. For a whole day now. What has been happening, there, in that creature’s nest?”

 

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Copyright © 2009-2010 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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