Merrick, p.18

Merrick, page 18

 part  #7 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series



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Chapter 17



  ON THE EVENING of the appointed meeting, the sky was very clear except for a few distinct and brightly white clouds. The stars were small but I could see them, faint comfort that they were. The air itself was not so terribly humid, yet it was delightfully warm.

  Louis came to meet me at the carriageway gate in the Rue Royale, and in my excitement, I noticed very little about his appearance except that he was uncommonly well dressed.

  As I've mentioned before, his clothes are not usually very well chosen, but he had of late been enjoying a certain improvement, and on this evening he had clearly gone out of his way.

  To repeat, I was too interested in our meeting with Merrick to pay it much attention. Having observed that he was not thirsting, indeed that he seemed quite flushed and human¡ªa confirmation that he had already fed¡ªI set out with him at once for Merrick's house.

  As we made our way through the desolate and godforsaken old neighborhood, neither of us spoke a word.

  Many thoughts tumbled through my mind. My telling of the tale of Merrick had brought me much closer to her than I had been on the night of our meeting in the caf¨¦ in the Rue St. Anne, and my desire to see Merrick again, under any and all circumstances, was more powerful than I cared to admit.

  But the subject of Merrick's recent spell tormented me. Why had she sent visions of herself to dazzle me? I wanted to ask her directly, and felt that it must be settled before we could go on.

  When we reached the restored house, with its high black picket fence, I insisted that Louis wait patiently for a moment until I walked around the place.

  At once I surmised that the little houses on either side of Merrick's large property were in utter ruin. And the property itself, as I've mentioned, was bounded on three sides and in part of the front by very high brick walls.

  I could see a thick forest of trees in Merrick's yard, of which two were immense oaks and another a high sprawling pecan tree, trying to free itself of the rampant yew trees which crowded against the walls. There was a shuddering light emanating upwards against the foliage and its entanglement of branches. I could smell incense and the wax of candles. Indeed, I caught many scents but not the scent of an intruder, and that is what mattered just now.

  As for the rear upstairs apartment of the caretaker, it was empty and locked up. This pleased me mightily, as I did not want to deal with this mortal at all.

  With regard to Merrick, I could easily sense her presence, walls or no walls, so I quickly made my way back to Louis, who stood before the iron gate which separated the front garden from the street.

  Merrick's oleanders were not in bloom yet, but they created a mighty evergreen shrubbery, and many other flowers were growing wild, especially the brightred African hibiscus and the purple Althea with its stiff branches, and thick rampant white calla lilies with waxy spearshaped leaves.

  The magnolia trees which I scarcely remembered had grown hugely in the past decade, and they now composed a group of impressive sentinels for the front porch.

  Louis stood patiently, staring at the leaded glass of the front doors as though he was madly excited. The house was entirely dark except for the front parlor, the room in which Great Nananne's coffin had been set so long ago. I could detect the flicker of candles in the front bedroom, but I doubt a mortal eye could have seen it through the drawn drapes.

  Quickly we went in the gate, rattling the ominous shrubbery, and up the steps and rang the bell. I heard Merrick's soft voice from the interior:

  "David, come in. "

  We found ourselves in the shadowy front hall. A great shiny Chinese rug covered the polished floor in flashy modern splendor, and the large new crystal chandelier above was dark, and looked as if it were made of so much intricate ice.

  I escorted Louis into the parlor, and there sat Merrick clothed in a shirtwaist dress of white silk, quite relaxed, in one of Great Nananne's old mahogany chairs.

  The dim light of a standup lamp fell wonderfully upon her. At once we locked eyes, and I felt a rush of love for her. I wanted her to know somehow that I'd revisited all our memories, that I'd chosen the prerogative of confiding them in one whom I trusted completely, and that I loved her as much as I did.

  I also wanted her to know that I disliked intensely the visions she'd so recently sent after me, and if she had had any doings with the pesty black cat, that I was not amused!

  I think she knew it. I saw her smile faintly at me as we moved further into the room.

  I was about to take up the subject of her evil magic. But something stopped me.

  It was, very simply, the expression on her face when her eyes fell upon Louis as he stepped into the light.

  Though she was as poised and clever as always, there came about a complete change in her face.

  She rose to her feet to meet him, which surprised me, and her countenance was smooth and open with utter shock.

  It was then that I realized how skillfully Louis had attired himself in a finely tailored suit of thin black wool. He wore a shirt of a creamcolored silk with a small gold pin beneath his rosecolored tie. Even his shoes were deliberately perfect, buffed to a high luster, and his rich black curly hair was combed neatly and entirely. But the glory of his appearance was, of course, his keen features and his lustrous eyes.

  I need not repeat that they are a darkgreen color, because it was not the color of his eyes which mattered so much. Rather, it was the expression with which he gazed at Merrick, the seeming awe that setfled over him, and the way that his wellshaped mouth slowly relaxed.

  He had seen her before, yes, but he was not prepared to find her so very interesting and comely at the same time.

  And she, with her long hair brushed straight back to the leather barrette, looked utterly inviting in her sharpshouldered white silk dress, with its small fabric belt and its loose shimmering skirt.

  Around her neck, over the fabric of the dress, she wore pearls, in fact, the triple strand of pearls that I myself had long ago given her, and in her ears were pearls, and on the ring finger of her right hand she wore a stunning pearl as well.

  I recite these details because I sought to find some sanity in them, but what I was experiencing, what humbled me and made me livid was that the two of them were so impressed with each other, that, for the moment, I was not there.

  It was undeniable, the fascination with which she stared at Louis. And there was not the slightest question about the overwhelming awe in which he held her.

  "Merrick, my darling," I said softly, "let me present Louis. " But I might as well have been babbling. She never heard a single syllable I uttered. She was silently transported, and I could see in her face a provocative expression which up until this time I had never beheld in her except when she was looking at me.

  Quickly, obviously struggling to disguise her immense response, she reached out for his hand.

  With a vampire's reluctance, he met her gesture, and then, to my complete consternation, he bent down and kissed her¡ªnot on the hand which he gripped so tenaciously¡ªbut on both her lovely cheeks.

  Why in the world hadn't I foreseen this? Why had I thought that she would not see him except as an unapproachable wonder? Why hadn't I realized that I was bringing into her presence one of the most alluring beings I've ever known?

  I felt the fool for having not foreseen it, and I also felt the fool for caring so very much.

  As he settled in the chair closest to hers, as she sat down and turned her attention to him, I found a place on the sofa across the room. Her eyes never left him, not for a second, and then I heard his voice come low and rich, with his French accent as well as the feeling with which he always spoke.

  "You know why I've come to you, Merrick," he said as tenderly as if he was telling her that he loved her. "I live in torment thinking of one creature, one creature I once betrayed and then nurtured, and then lost. I come because I believe you can bring that creature'
s spirit to speak with me. I come to you because I believe I can determine through you whether that spirit is at rest. "

  Immediately she answered.

  "But what is unrest for spirits, Louis," she said familiarly. "Do you believe in a purgatory, or is it merely a darkness in which spirits languish, unable to seek a light that would lead them on?"

  "I'm not convinced of anything," Louis said in answer. His face was full of vehement eloquence. "If ever a creature was earthbound, it's the vampire. We're wed, soul and body, hopelessly. Only the most painful death by fire can rip that bond. Claudia was my child. Claudia was my love. Claudia died by fire, the fire of the sun. But Claudia has appeared to others. Claudia may come if you call her. That's what I want. That's my extravagant dream. "

  Merrick was lost to him, utterly lost to him. I knew it. Her mind, insofar as I could read it, was ravaged. She was deeply affected by his seeming pain. Nothing of her sympathies was reserved.

  "Spirits exist, Louis," she said, her voice slightly tremulous, "they exist, but they tell lies. One spirit can come in the guise of another. Spirits are sometimes greedy and depraved. "

  It was quite exquisite, the way that he frowned and put the back of his finger to his lip before he answered. As for her, well, I was furious with her, and saw not the slightest physical or mental fault in her. She was the woman to whom I'd surrendered passion, pride, and honor a long time before.

  "I'll know her, Merrick," said Louis. "I can't be deceived. If you can call her, and if she comes, I'll know her. I have no doubt. "

  "But what if I doubt, Louis?" she responded. "What if I tell you that we've failed? Will you at least try to believe what I say?"

  "It's all settled, isn't it?" I blurted out. "We mean to do it, then, don't we?"

  "Yes, oh, yes," Louis answered, looking across the room at me considerately enough, though his large inquisitive eyes shot right back to Merrick. "Let me beg your forgiveness, Merrick, that we've troubled you for your power. I tell myself in my most awful moments that you'll take away from us some valuable knowledge and experience, that perhaps we'll confirm your faith¡ªin God. I tell myself these things because I can't believe we've merely ruptured your life with our very presence. I hope it's so. I beg you to understand. "

  He was using the very words that had come to my mind in my many feverish ruminations. I was furious with him as well as her, suddenly. Detestable that he should say these things, and the hell he couldn't read minds. I had to get myself in hand.

  She smiled, suddenly, one of the most magnificent smiles I'd ever seen. Her creamy cheeks, her dramatic green eyes, her long hair¡ªall her charms conspired to make her irresistible, and I could see the effect of her smile upon Louis, as if she'd rushed into his arms.

  "I have no doubts or regrets, Louis," she told me. "Mine is a great and unusual power. You've given me a reason to use it. You speak of a soul that may be in torment; indeed, you speak of long, long suffering, and you suggest that we might somehow bring that soul's torment to a close. "

  At this point, his cheeks colored deeply and he leant over and clasped her hand again tightly.

  "Merrick, what can I give you in exchange for what you mean to do?"

  This alarmed me. He should not have said it! It led too directly to the most powerful and unique gift that we had to give. No, he shouldn't have said it, but I remained silent, watching these two creatures become ever more enthralled with each other, watching them quite definitely fall in love.

  "Wait until it's done, and let us talk then of such things," she said, "if we ever talk of them at all. I need nothing in return, really. As I've said, you are giving me a way to use my power and that in itself is quite enough. But again, you must assure me, you will listen to my estimation of what happens. If I think we have raised something which is not from God I will say so, and you must at least try to believe what I say. "

  She rose and went directly past me, with only a faint smile for me as she did so, into the open dining room behind me to fetch something, it seemed, from the sideboard along the distant wall.

  Of course, Louis, the consummate gentleman, was on his feet. Again I noticed the splendid clothing, and how lean and feline were his simplest gestures, and how stunningly beautiful his immaculate hands.

  She reentered the light before me as if reentering a stage.

  "Here, this is what I have from your darling," she said. She held a small bundle, wrapped in velvet. "Sit down, Louis, please," she resumed. "And let me put these items into your hands. " She took her chair again, beneath the lamp facing him, the precious goods in her lap.

  He obeyed her with the open radiance of a schoolboy before a miraculous and brilliant teacher. He sat back as though he would yield to her slightest command.

  I watched her in profile and nothing filled my mind so much as pure, utter, base jealousy! But loving her as I did, I was wise enough to acknowledge some genuine concern as well.

  As for him, there was little doubt that he was completely as interested in her as he was in the things which had belonged to Claudia.

  "This rosary, why did she have it?" asked Merrick, extracting the sparkling beads from her little bundle. "Surely she didn't pray. "

  "No, she liked it for the look of it," he said, his eyes full of a dignified plea that Merrick should understand. "I think I bought it for her. I don't think I ever even told her what it was. Learning with her was strange, you see. We thought of her as a child, when we should have realized, and then the outward form of a person has such a mysterious connection with the disposition. "

  "How so?" Merrick asked.

  "Oh, you understand," he said shyly, almost modestly. "The beautiful know they have power, and she had, in her diminutive charm, a certain power of which she was always casually aware. " He hesitated. It seemed he was painfully shy. "We fussed over her; we gloried in her. She looked no more than six or seven at most. " The light in his face went out for a moment, as if an interior switch had shut it off.

  Merrick reached forward again and took his hand. He let her have it. He bowed his head just a little, and he lifted the hand she held, as if saying, Give me a moment. Then he resumed.

  "She liked the rosary," he said. "Maybe I did tell her the prayers. I don't remember. She liked sometimes to go with me to the Cathedral. She liked to hear the music of the evening ceremonies. She liked all things that were sensual and which involved beauty. She was girlish in her enthusiasms for a long time. "

  Merrick let his hand go but very reluctantly.

  "And this?" she asked. She lifted the small white leatherbound diary. "A long time ago, this was found in the flat in the Rue Royale, in a hiding place. You never knew that she kept it. "

  "No," he said. "I gave it to her as a gift, that I well recall. But I never saw her write in it. That she kept it came as something of a surprise. She was quite the reader of books, that I can tell you. She knew so much poetry. She was always quoting this or that verse in an offhanded manner. I try to remember the things she quoted, the poets she loved. "

  He gazed at the diary now as if he were reticent to open it, or even to touch it. As if it still belonged to her.

  Merrick withdrew it, and lifted the doll.

  "No," Louis said adamantly, "she never liked them. They were always a mistake. No, that doesn't matter, that doll. Although if recollection serves me right, it was found with the diary and the rosary. I don't know why she saved it. I don't know why she put it away. Maybe she wanted someone in the far distant future to find it and mourn for her, to know that she herself had been locked in a doll's body; wanted some one lone individual to shed tears for her. Yes, I think that's how it must have been. "

  "Rosary, doll, diary," said Merrick delicately. "And the diary entries, do you know what they say?"

  "Only one, the one Jesse Reeves read and related to me. Lestat had given her the doll on her birthday and she'd hated it. She'd tried to wound him; she'd mocked him; and he'd answered her with those line
s from an old play which I can't forget. "

  He bowed his head, but he wouldn't give in to his sadness, not entirely. His eyes were dry for all the pain in them as he recited the words:

  Cover her face;

  mine eyes dazzle;

  she died young.

  I winced at the recollection. Lestat had been condemning himself when he'd spoken those words to her, he'd been offering himself up to her rage. She'd known it. That's why she'd recorded the entire incident¡ªhis unwelcome gift, her weariness of playthings, her anger at her limitations, and then his carefully chosen verse.

  Merrick allowed for a small interval, and then, letting the doll rest in her lap, she offered Louis the diary once more.

  "There are several entries," she said. "Two are of no importance, and for one of these I'll ask you to work my magic. But there is another telling one, and that you must read before we go on. "

  Still Louis did not reach for the diary. He looked at her respectfully, as before, but he didn't reach for the little white book.

  "Why must I read it?" he asked Merrick.

  "Louis, think of what you've asked me to do. And yet you can't read the words she herself wrote here?"

  "That was long ago, Merrick," he said. "It was years before she died that she concealed that diary. Isn't what we do of much greater importance? Yes, take a page if you need it. Take any page of the diary, it doesn't matter, use it as you will, only don't ask that I read a word. "

  "No, you must read it," Merrick said with exquisite gentleness. "Read it to me and to David. I know what is written there, and you must know, and David is here to help both of us. Please, the last entry: read it aloud. "

  He stared hard at her, and now there came the faint film of red tears to his eyes, but he gave a tiny, near imperceptible, shake of his head, and then he took the diary from her outstretched hand.

  He opened it, gazing down at it, having no need as a mortal might to move the page into the light.

  "Yes," said Merrick coaxingly. "See, that one is unimportant. She says only that you went to the theater together. She says that she saw Macbeth, was Lestat¡¯s favorite play. "

  He nodded, turning the small pages.

  "And that one, that one is not significant," she went on, as though leading him through the fire with her words. "She says that she loves white chrysanthemums, she says she purchased some from an old woman, she says they are the flowers for the dead. "

  Again he seemed on the very brink of losing his composure utterly, but he kept his tears to himself. Again he turned the pages.

  "There, that one. You must read it," said Merrick, and she laid her hand on his knee. I could see her fingers stretched out and embracing him in that ageold gesture. "Please, Louis, read it to me. "

  He looked at her for a long moment, and then down at the page. His voice came tenderly in a whisper, but I knew that she could hear it as well as I.

  "September 21, 1859

  It has been so many decades since Louis presented me with this little book in which I might record my private thoughts. I have not been successful, having made only a few entries, and whether these have been written for my benefit I am unsure.

  Tonight, I confide with pen and paper because I know which direction my hatred will take me. And I fear for those who have aroused my wrath.

  By those I mean, of course, my evil parents, my splendid fathers, those who have led me from a long forgotten mortality into this questionable state of timeless 'bliss. '

  To do away with Louis would be foolish, as he is without question the more malleable of the pair. "

  Louis paused as though he couldn't continue.

  I saw Merrick's fingers tighten on his knee.

  "Read it, please, I beg you," she said gently. "You must go on. "

  Louis began again, his voice soft as before, and quite deliberately smooth.

  "Louis will do as I wish, even unto the very destruction of Lestat, which I plan in every detail. Whereas Lestat would never cooperate with my designs upon Louis. So there my loyalty lies, under the guise of love even in my own heart.

  "What mysteries we are, human, vampire, monster, mortal, that we can love and hate simultaneously, and that emotions of all sorts might not parade for what they are not. I look at Louis and I despise him totally for the making of me, and yet I do love him. But then I love Lestat every bit as well.

  "Perhaps in the court of my heart, I hold Louis far more accountable for my present state than ever I could blame my impulsive and simple Lestat. The fact is, one must die for this or the pain in me will never be scaled off, and immortality is but a monstrous measurement of what I shall suffer till the world revolves to its ultimate end. One must die so that the other will become ever more dependent upon me, ever more completely my slave. I would travel the world afterwards; I would have my way; I cannot endure either one of them unless that one becomes my servant in thought, word, and deed.

  "Such a fate is simply unthinkable with Lestat's ungovernable and irascible character. Such a fate seems made for my melancholy Louis, though the destroying of Lestat will open new passages for Louis into the labyrinthian Hell in which I already wander with every new thought that comes in my mind.

  "When I shall strike and how, I know not, only that it gives me supreme delight to watch Lestat in his unguarded gaiety, knowing that I shall humiliate him utterly in destroying him, and in so doing bring down the lofty useless conscience of my Louis, so that his soul, if not his body, is the same size at last as my own. "

  It was finished.

  I could tell this merely by the blank expression of pain on his face, the way that his eyebrows quivered for one moment, and then the way he drew back in the chair, and closed the little book, and held it idly as if he'd forgotten it altogether, in his left hand. He looked neither to me nor to Merrick.

  "Do you still want to communicate with this spirit?" Merrick asked reverently. She reached for the small diary, and he gave it over without objection.

  "Oh, yes," he said in a long sigh. "I want it above anything else. "

  I wanted so to comfort him, but there were no words to touch such a private pain.

  "I can't blame her for what she expressed," he resumed in a frail voice. "It always goes so tragically wrong with us. " His eyes moved feverishly to Merrick. "The Dark Gift, imagine calling it that, when it goes so very wrong in the end. " He drew back as if struggling against his emotions.

  "Merrick," he said, "where do they come from, the spirits? I know the conventional wisdom and how foolish it can be. Tell me your thoughts. "

  "I know less now than I ever did," answered Merrick. "I think when I was a girl I was very sure of such things. We prayed to the untimely dead because we believed they hovered close to earth, vengeful or confused, and thereby could be reached. From time immemorial, witches have frequented cemeteries looking for those angry, muddled spirits, calling upon them to find the way to greater powers whose secrets might be revealed. I believed in those lonely souls, those suffering lost ones. Perhaps in my own way, I believe in them still.

  "As David can tell you, they seem to hunger for the warmth and the light of life; they seem to hunger even for blood. But who knows the true intentions of any spirit? From what depth did the prophet Samuel rise in the Bible? Are we to believe Scripture, that the magic of the Witch of Endor was strong?"

  Louis was fastened to her every word.

  He reached out suddenly and took her hand again, letting her curl her fingers around his thumb.

  "And what do you see, Merrick, when you look at David and at me? Do you see the spirit that inhabits us, the hungry spirit that makes us vampires?"

  "Yes, I see it, but it's mute and mindless, utterly subordinate to your brains and hearts. It knows nothing now, if it ever did, except that it wants the blood. And for the blood it slowly works its spell on your tissues, it slowly commands your every cell to obey. The longer you live, the more it thrives, and it is angry now, angry insofar
as it can choose any emotion, because you blood drinkers are so few. "

  Louis appeared mystified, but surely it wasn't so difficult to understand.

  "The massacres, Louis, the last here in New Orleans. They clear away the rogues and baseborn. And the spirit shrinks back into those who remain. "

  "Yes," said Merrick, with a passing glance at me. "That's precisely why your thirst now is doubly terrible, and why you are so far from being satisfied with the 'little drink. ' You asked a moment ago: what do I want from you? Let me say what I want of you. Let me be so bold as to answer you now. "

  He said nothing. He merely gazed at her as if he could refuse her nothing. She went on.

  "Take the strong blood David can give you," she said. "Take it so you can exist without killing, take it so you can cease your heated search for the evildoer. Yes, I know, I use your language, perhaps too freely and too proudly. Pride is always a sin with those of us who persevere in the Talamasca. We believe we have seen miracles; we believe we have worked miracles. We forget that we know nothing; we forget that there may be nothing to find out. "

  "No, there is something, there's more than something," he insisted, gently moving her hand with his emphasis. "You and David have convinced me, even though it was never your intention, either of you. There are things to know. Tell me, when can we move to speak to Claudia's spirit? What more do you require of me before you'll make the spell?"

  "Make the spell?" she asked gently. "Yes, it will be a spell. Here, take this diary," she gave it over to him, "rip a page from it, whatever page you feel is strongest or whatever part you are most willing to give up. "

  He took it with his left hand, unwilling to let her go.

  "What page do you want me to tear out?" he insisted.

  "You make the choice. I'll bum it when I'm ready. You'll never see those particular words again. "

  She released him, and urged him on with a small gesture. He opened the book with both hands. He sighed again, as if he couldn't endure this, but then he commenced to read in a low unhurried voice:

  " 'And tonight, as I passed the cemetery, a lost child wandering dangerously alone for all the world to pity me, I bought these chrysanthemums, and lingered for some time within the scent of the fresh graves and their decaying dead, wondering what death life would have had for me had I been let to live it. Wondering if I could have hated as a mere human as much as I hate now? Wondering if I could have loved as much as I love now?' "

  Carefully, pressing the book to his leg with his left hand, he tore the page with his right hand, held it under the light for a moment, then gave it over to Merrick, his eyes following it as though he were committing a terrible theft.

  She received it respectfully and placed it carefully beside the doll in her lap.

  "Think well now," she said, "before you answer. Did you ever know the name of her mother?"

  "No," he said at once, and then hesitated, but then shook his head and said softly that he did not.

  "She never spoke the name?"

  "She spoke of Mother; she was a little girl. "

  "Think again," she said. "Go back, go back to those earliest nights with her; go back to when she babbled as children babble, before her womanly voice replaced those memories in your heart. Go back. What is the name of her mother? I need it. "

  "I don't know it," he confessed. "I don't think she ever¡ª. But I didn't listen, you see, the woman was dead. That's how I found her, alive, clinging to the corpse of her mother. " I could see that he was defeated. Rather helplessly he looked at Merrick.

  Merrick nodded. She looked down and then she looked to him again, and her voice was especially kind as she spoke.

  "There is something else," she said. "You're holding something back. "

  Again, he seemed exceedingly distressed.

  "How so?" he asked abjectly. "What can you mean?"

  "I have her written page," said Merrick. "I have the doll she kept when she might have destroyed it. But you hold on to something else. "

  "Oh, but I can't," he said, his dark brows knotting. He reached into his coat and brought out the small daguerreotype in its gutter perche case. "I can't give it over to be destroyed, I can't," he whispered.

  "You think you'll cherish it afterwards?" asked Merrick in a consoling voice. "Or you think our magic fire will fail?"

  "I don't know," he confessed. "I know only that I want it. " He moved the tiny clasp and opened the small case and looked down until he seemed unable to bear what he saw, and then he closed his eyes.

  "Give it to me for my altar," said Merrick. "I promise it will not be destroyed. "

  He didn't move or answer. He simply allowed her to take the picture from his hands. I watched her. She was amazed by it, the ancient image of a vampire, captured forever so dimly in the fragile silver and glass.

  "Ah, but she was lovely, wasn't she?" asked Louis.

  "She was many things," said Merrick. She shut the little gutter perche case, but she did not move the small gold clasp. She laid the daguerreotype in her lap with the doll and the page from the diary, and with both hands reached for Louis's right hand again.

  She opened his palm beneath the lamplight.

  She drew up as if she was shocked.

  "Never have I seen a life line such as this," she whispered. "It's deeply graven, look at it, there is no end to it really," she turned his hand this way and that, "and all the small lines have long ago melted away. "

  "I can die," he answered with a polite defiance. "I know I can," he said sadly. "I shall when I've got the courage. My eyes will close forever, like those of every mortal of my time who ever lived. "

  She didn't answer. She looked down into his open palm again. She felt of the hand, and I could see her loving its silky skin.

  "I see three great loves," she whispered, as if she needed his permission to say it aloud. "Three deep loves in all this time. Lestat? Yes. Claudia. Most assuredly. And who is the other? Can you tell me that?"

  He was in a state of complete confusion as he looked at her, but he hadn't the strength to answer. The color flared in his cheeks and his eyes seemed to flash as if a light inside them had increased its incandescence.

  She let his hand go, and she blushed.

  Quite suddenly, he looked to me, exactly as if he'd suddenly remembered me again and he needed me desperately. I had never seen him so agitated or seemingly vital. No one entering the room would have known him to be anything but a compelling young man.

  "Are you for it, old friend?" he asked. "Are you ready for it to begin?"

  She looked up, her own eyes watering faintly, and she seemed to pick me out of the shadows and then to give the smallest, most trusting smile.

  "What's your counsel, Superior General?" she asked in a muted voice, filled with conviction.

  "Don't mock me," I said, because it made me feel good to say it. I was not surprised to see the quick flash of pain in her eyes.

  "I don't mock you, David. I ask if you're ready. "

  "I'm ready, Merrick," I said, "as ready as I ever was in all my life to call a spirit in whom I scarcely believe, in whom I have no trust. "

  She held the page in both hands and studied it, perhaps reading the words herself, for her lips moved.

  Then she looked at me again, and then at Louis.

  "One hour. Come back to me. I'll be ready by that time. We'll meet in the rear of the house. The old altar's been restored for our purpose. The candles are already lighted. The coals will soon be ready. It's there that we will execute this plan. "

  I started to rise.

  "But you must go now," she said, "and bring a sacrifice, because we cannot proceed without that. "

  "A sacrifice?" I asked. "Good Lord, what manner of sacrifice?" I was on my feet.

  "A human sacrifice," she answered, her eyes sharpening as she glanced up at me, and then back to Louis, who remained in his chair. "This spirit won't come for anything less than human blood. "

sp; "You don't mean it, Merrick," I said furiously, my voice rising. "Good Lord, woman, would you make yourself a party to murder?"

  "Am I not that already?" she answered, her eyes full of honesty and fierce will. "David, how many human beings have you killed since Lestat brought you over? And you, Louis, they're beyond count. I sit with you and plot with you to attempt this thing. I'm a party to your crimes, am I not? And for this spell, I tell you I need blood. I need to brew a far greater magic than anything I've ever attempted before. I need a burnt offering; I need the smoke to rise from heated blood. "

  "I won't do it," I said. "I won't bring some mortal here to be slaughtered. You're being foolish and naive if you think you could tolerate such a spectacle. You'll be changed forever. What, do you think because we're pretty to look at that this murder will be fancy and clean?"

  "David, do as I say," she replied, "or I won't do this thing. "

  "I will not," I responded. "You've overreached yourself. A murder there will not be. "

  "Let me be the sacrifice," said Louis suddenly. He rose to his feet and looked down upon her. "I don't mean that I shall die to do it," he said compassionately. "I mean, let the blood that flows be mine. " He took her hand again, locking his fingers around her wrist. He bent and kissed her hand, then stood erect, his eyes lovingly fastened to her own.

  "Years ago," he said, "you used your own blood, did you not, in this very house, to call your sister, Honey in the Sunshine. Let us use my blood to call Claudia tonight. I have blood enough for a burnt offering; I have blood enough for a cauldron or a fire. "

  Her face was quite tranquil again as she looked at him.

  "A cauldron it shall be," she said. "One hour. The rear yard is filled with its old saints, as I've told you. The stones on which my ancestors danced are swept clean for our purpose. The old pot sits on the coals. The trees have witnessed many such a spectacle. There's only a little more that I need do to prepare now. Go and return to me, as I've said. "
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