The queen of the damned, p.25

The Queen Of The Damned, page 25

 part  #3 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


The Queen Of The Damned

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Chapter 22


  "Then as the years passed, I acquired a greater power-to leave my body invisibly and to go to the single mortal whose voice I listened to, to see then through that mortal's eyes. I would walk in the body of this one, or that one. I would walk in sunshine and in darkness; I would suffer; I would hunger; I would know pain. Sometimes I walked in the bodies of immortals as I walked in the body of Baby Jenks. Often, I walked with Marius. Selfish, vain Marius, Marius who confuses greed with respect, who is ever dazzled by the decadent creations of a way of life as selfish as he is. Oh, don't suffer so. I loved him. I love him now; he cared for me. My keeper. " Her voice was bitter but only for that instant. "But more often I walked with one among the poor and the sorrowful. It was the rawness of true life I craved. "

  She stopped; her eyes clouded; her brows came together and the tears rose in her eyes, I knew the power of which she spoke, but only slightly. I wanted so to comfort her but when I reached out to embrace her she motioned for me to be still.

  "I would forget who I was, where I was," she continued. "I would be that creature, the one whose voice I had chosen. Sometimes for years. Then the horror would return, the realization that I was a motionless, purposeless thing condemned to sit forever in a golden shrine! Can you imagine the horror of waking suddenly to that realization? That all you have seen and heard and been is nothing but illusion, the observation of another's life? I would return to myself. I would become again what you see before you. This idol with a heart and brain. " I nodded. Centuries ago when I had first laid eyes upon her, I had imagined unspeakable suffering locked within her. I had imagined agonies without expression. And I had been right.

  "I knew he kept you there," I said. I spoke of Enkil. Enkil who was now gone, destroyed. A fallen idol. I was remembering the moment in the shrine when I'd drunk from her and he'd come to claim her and almost finished me then and there. Had he known what he meant to do? Was all reason gone even then?

  She only smiled in answer. Her eyes were dancing as she looked out into the dark. The snow had begun again, swirling almost magically, catching the light of the stars and the moon and diffusing it through all the world, it seemed.

  "It was meant, what happened," she answered finally. "That I should pass those years growing ever more strong. Growing so strong finally that no one . . . no one can be my equal. " She stopped. Just for a moment her conviction seemed to waver. But then she grew confident again. "He was but an instrument in the end, my poor beloved King, my companion in agony. His mind was gone, yes. And I did not destroy him, not really. I took into myself what was left of him. And at times I had been as empty, as silent, as devoid of the will even to dream as he was. Only for him there was no returning. He had seen his last visions. He was of no use anymore. He has died a god's death because it only made me stronger. And it was all meant, my prince. All meant from start to finish. " "But how? By whom?"

  "Whom?" She smiled again. "Don't you understand? You need look no further for the cause of anything. I am the fulfillment and I shall from this moment on be the cause. There is nothing and no one now who can stop me. " Her face hardened for a second. That wavering again. "Old curses mean nothing. In silence I have attained such power that no force in nature could harm me. Even my first brood cannot harm me though they plot against me. It was meant that those years should pass before you came. " "How did I change it?"

  She came a step closer. She put her arm around me and it felt soft for the moment, not like the hard thing it truly was. We were just two beings standing near to each other, and she looked indescribably lovely to me, so pure and otherworldly. I felt the awful desire for the blood again. To bend down, to kiss her throat, to have her as I had had a thousand mortal women, yet she the goddess, she with the immeasurable power. I felt the desire rising, cresting.

  Again, she put her finger on my lips, as if to say be still.

  "Do you remember when you were a boy here?" she asked. "Think back now on the time when you begged them to send you to the monastery school. Do you remember the things the brothers taught you? The prayers, the hymns, the hours you worked in the library, the hours in the chapel when you prayed alone?"

  "I remember, of course. " I felt the tears coming again. I could see it so vividly, the monastery library, and the monks who had taught me and believed I could be a priest. I saw the cold little cell with its bed of boards; I saw the cloister and the garden veiled in rosy shadow; God, I didn't want to think now of those times. But some things can never be forgotten.

  "Do you remember the morning that you went into the chapel," she continued, "and you knelt on the bare marble floor, with your arms out in the form of the cross, and you told God you would do anything if only he would make you good?"

  "Yes, good. . . . " Now it was my voice that was tinged with bitterness.

  "You said you would suffer martyrdom; torments unspeakable; it did not matter; if only you were to be someone who was good. "

  "Yes, I remember. " I saw the old saints; I heard the hymns that had broken my heart. I remembered the morning my brothers had come to take me home, and I had begged them on my knees to let me stay there.

  "And later, when your innocence was gone, and you took the high road to Paris, it was the same thing you wanted; when you danced and sang for the boulevard crowds, you wanted to be good. "

  "I was," I said haltingly. "It was a good thing to make them happy and for a little while I did. "

  "Yes, happy," she whispered.

  "I could never explain to Nicolas, my friend, you know, that it was so important to . . . believe in a concept of goodness, even if we make it up ourselves. We don't really make it up. It's there, isn't it?"

  "Oh, yes, it's there," she said. "It's there because we put it there. "

  Such sadness. I couldn't speak. I watched the falling snow. I clasped her hand and felt her lips against my cheek.

  "You were born for me, my prince," she said. "You were tried and perfected. And in those first years, when you went into your mother's bedchamber and brought her into the world of the undead with you, it was but a prefigurement of your waking me. I am your true Mother, the Mother who will never abandon you, and I have died and been reborn, too. All the religions of the world, my prince, sing of you and of me. "

  "How so?" I asked. "How can that be?"

  "Ah, but you know. You know!" She took the sword from me and examined the old belt slowly, running it across the open palm of her right hand. Then she dropped it down into the rusted heap-the last remnants on earth of my mortal life. And it was as if a wind touched these things, blowing them slowly across the snow-covered floor, until they were gone.

  "Discard your old illusions," she said. "Your inhibitions. They are no more of use than these old weapons. Together, we will make the myths of the world real. "

  A chill cut through me, a dark chill of disbelief and then confusion; but her beauty overcame it.

  "You wanted to be a saint when you knelt in that chapel," she said. "Now you shall be a god with me. "

  There were words of protest on the tip of my tongue; I was frightened; some dark sense overcame me. Her words, what could they possibly mean?

  But suddenly I felt her arm around me, and we were rising out of the tower up through the shattered roof. The wind was so fierce it cut my eyelids. I turned towards her. My right arm went round her waist and I buried my head against her shoulder.

  I heard her soft voice in my ear telling me to sleep. It would be hours before the sun set on the land to which we were going, to the place of the first lesson.

  Lesson. Suddenly I was weeping again, clinging to her, weeping because I was lost, and she was all there was to cling to. And I was in terror now of what she would ask of me.


  THEY MET AGAIN AT THE EDGE OF THE REDWOOD forest, their clothes tattered, their eyes tearing from the wind. Pandora stood to the right of Marius, San-tino to the left. And from the house across the clearing, Mael ca
me towards them, a lanky figure almost loping over the mown grass.

  Silently, he embraced Marius.

  "Old friend," Marius said. But his voice had no vitality. Exhausted, he looked past Mael towards the lighted windows of the house. He sensed a great hidden dwelling within the mountain behind the visible structure with its peaked and gabled roof.

  And what lay there waiting for him? For all of them? If only he had the slightest spirit for it; if only he could recapture the smallest part of his own soul.

  "I'm weary," he said to Mael. "I'm sick from the journey. Let me rest here a moment longer. Then I'll come. "

  Marius did not despise the power to fly, as he knew Pandora did, nevertheless it invariably chastened him. He had been defenseless against it on this night of all nights; and he had now to feel the earth under him, to smell the forest, and to scan the distant house in a moment of uninterrupted quiet. His hair was tangled from the wind and still matted with dried blood. The simple gray wool jacket and pants he had taken from the ruins of his house barely gave him warmth. He brought the heavy black cloak close around him, not because the night here required it, but because he was still chilled and sore from the wind.

  Mael appeared not to like his hesitation, but to accept it. Suspiciously he gazed at Pandora, whom he had never trusted, and then with open hostility he stared at Santino, who was busy brushing off his black garments and combing his fine, neatly trimmed black hair. For one second, their eyes met, Santino bristling with viciousness, then Mael turned away.

  Marius stood still listening, thinking. He could feel the last bit of healing in his body; it rather amazed him that he was once again whole. Even as mortals learn year by year that they are older and weaker, so immortals must learn that they are stronger than ever they imagined they would be. It maddened him at the moment.

  Scarcely an hour had passed since he was helped from the icy pit by Santino and Pandora, and now it was as if he had never been there, crushed and helpless, for ten days and nights, visited again and again by the nightmares of the twins. Yet nothing could ever be as it had been.

  The twins. The red-haired woman was inside the house waiting. Santino had told him this. Mael knew it too. But who was she? And why did he not want to know the answers? Why was this the blackest hour he had ever known? His body was fully healed, no doubt about it; but what was going to heal his soul?

  Armand in this strange wooden house at the base of the mountain? Armand again after all this time? Santino had told him about Armand also, and that the others-Louis and Gabrielle- had also been spared.

  Mael was studying him. "He's waiting for you," he said. "Your Amadeo. " It was respectful, not cynical or impatient.

  And out of the great bank of memories that Marius carried forever with him, there came a long neglected moment, startling in its purity-Mael coming to the palazzo in Venice in the contented years of the fifteenth century, when Marius and Armand had known such happiness, and Mael seeing the mortal boy at work with the other apprentices on a mural which Marius had only lately left to their less competent hands. Strange how vivid, the smell of the egg tempera, the smell of the candles, and that familiar smell-not unpleasant now in remembering-which permeated all Venice, the smell of the rottenness of things, of the dark and putrid waters of the canals. "And so you would make that one?" Mael had asked with simple directness. "When it's time," Marius had said dismissively, "when it's time. " Less than a year later, he had made his little blunder. "Come into my arms, young one, I can live without you no more. "

  Marius stared at the distant house. My world trembles and I thinkofhim, my Amadeo, my Armand. The emotions he felt were suddenly as bittersweet as music, the blended orchestral melodies of recent centuries, the tragic strains of Brahms or Shostakovich which he had come to love.

  But this was no time for cherishing this reunion. No time to feel the keen warmth of it, to be glad of it, and to say all the things to Armand that he so wanted to say.

  Bitterness was something shallow compared to his present state of mind. Should have destroyed them, the Mother and the Father. Should have destroyed us all.

  "Thank the gods," Mael said, "that you did not. "

  "And why?" Marius demanded. "Tell me why?"

  Pandora shuddered. He felt her arm come around his waist. And why did that make him so angry? He turned sharply to her; he wanted to strike her, push her away. But what he saw stopped him. She wasn't even looking at him; and her expression was so distant, so soul weary that he felt his own exhaustion all the more heavily. He wanted to weep. The well-being of Pandora had always been crucial to his own survival. He did not need to be near her-better that he was not near her-but he had to know that she was somewhere, and continuing, and that they might meet again. What he saw now in her-had seen earlier-filled him with foreboding. If he felt bitterness, then Pandora felt despair.

  "Come," Santino said, "they're waiting. " It was said with courtly politeness.

  "I know," Marius answered.

  "Ah, what a trio we are!" Pandora whispered suddenly. She was spent, fragile, hungering for sleep and dreams, yet protectively she tightened her grip on Marius's waist.

  "I can walk unaided, thank you," he said with uncharacteristic meanness, and to this one, the one he most loved.

  "Walk, then," she answered. And just for a second, he saw her old warmth, even a spark of her old humor. She gave him a little shove, and then started out alone towards the house.

  Acid. His thoughts were acid as he followed. He could not be of use to these immortals. Yet he walked on with Mael and Santino into the light streaming from the windows beyond. The redwood forest receded into shadow; not a leaf moved. But the air was good here, warm here, full of fresh scents and without the sting of the north.

  Armand. It made him want to weep.

  Then he saw the woman appear in the doorway. A sylph with her long curly red hair catching the hallway light.

  He did not stop, but surely he felt a little intelligent fear. Old as Akasha she was, certainly. Her pale eyebrows were all but faded into the radiance of her countenance. Her mouth had no color anymore. And her eyes. . . . Her eyes were not really her eyes. No, they had been taken from a mortal victim and they were already failing her. She could not see very well as she looked at him- Ah, the blinded twin from the dreams, she was. And she felt pain now in the delicate nerves connected to the stolen eyes.

  Pandora stopped at the edge of the steps.

  Marius went past her and up onto the porch. He stood before the red-haired woman, marveling at her height-she was as tall as he was-and at the fine symmetry of her masklike face. She wore a flowing gown of black wool with a high neck and full dagged sleeves. In long loose gores the cloth fell from a slender girdle of braided black cord just beneath her small breasts. A lovely garment really. It made her face seem ail the more radiant and detached from everything around it, a mask with the light behind it, glowing in a frame of red hair.

  But there was a great deal more to marvel at than these simple attributes which she might have possessed in one form or another six thousand years ago. The woman's vigor astonished him. It gave her an air of infinite flexibility and overwhelming menace. Was she the true immortal?-the one who had never slept, never gone silent, never been released by madness? One who had walked with a rational mind and measured steps through all the millennia since she had been born?

  She let him know, for what it was worth, that this was exactly what she was.

  He could see her immeasurable strength as if it were incandescent light; yet he could sense an immediate informality, the immediate receptivity of a clever mind.

  How to read her expression, however. How to know what she really felt.

  A deep, soft femininity emanated from her, no less mysterious than anything else about her, a tender vulnerability that he associated exclusively with women though now and then he found it in a very young man. In the dreams, her face had evinced this tenderness; now it was something
invisible but no less real. At another time it would have charmed him; now he only took note of it, as he noted her gilded fingernails, so beautifully tapered, and the jeweled rings she wore.

  "All those years you knew of me," he said politely, speaking in the old Latin. "You knew I kept the Mother and the Father.

  Why didn't you come to me? Why didn't you tell me who you were?"

  She considered for a long moment before answering, her eyes moving back and forth suddenly over the others who drew close to him now.

  Santino was terrified of this woman, though he knew her very well. And Mael was afraid of her too, though perhaps a little less. In fact, it seemed that Mael loved her and was bound to her in some subservient way. As for Pandora, she was merely apprehensive. She drew even closer to Marius as if to stand with him, regardless of what he meant to do.

  "Yes, I knew of you," the woman said suddenly. She spoke English in the modern fashion. But it was the unmistakable voice of the twin in the dream, the blind twin who had cried out the name of her mute sister, Mekare, as both had been shut up in stone coffins by the angry mob.

  Our voices never really change, Marius thought. The voice was young, pretty. It had a reticent softness as she spoke again.

  "I might have destroyed your shrine if I had come," she said. "I might have buried the King and the Queen beneath the sea. 1 might even have destroyed them, and so doing, destroyed ail of us. And this I didn't want to do. And so I did nothing. What would you have had me do? I couldn't take your burden from you. I couldn't help you. So I did not come. "

  It was a better answer than he had expected. It was not impossible to like this creature. On the other hand, this was merely the beginning. And her answer-it wasn't the whole truth.

  "No?" she asked him. Her face revealed a tracery of subtle lines for an instant, the glimpse of something that had once been human. "What is the whole truth?" she asked. "That I owed you nothing, least of all the knowledge of my existence and that you are impertinent to suggest that I should have made myself known to you? I have seen a thousand like you. I know when you come into being. I know when you perish. What are you to me? We come together now because we have to. We are in danger. All living things are in danger! And maybe when this is finished we will love each other and respect each other. And maybe not. Maybe we'll all be dead. "

  "Perhaps so," he said quietly. He couldn't help smiling. She was right. And he liked her manner, the bone-hard way in which she spoke.

  It had been his experience that all immortals were irrevocably stamped by the age in which they were born. And so it was true, also, of even this ancient one, whose words had a savage simplicity, though the timbre of the voice had been soft.

  "I'm not myself," he added hesitantly. "I haven't survived all this as well as I should have survived it. My body's healed-the old miracle. " He sneered. "But I don't understand my present view of things. The bitterness, the utter-" He stopped.

  "The utter darkness," she said.

  "Yes. Never has life itself seemed so senseless," he added. "I don't mean for us. I mean-to use your phrase-for all living things. It's a joke, isn't it? Consciousness, it's a kind of joke. "

  "No," she said. "That's not so. "

  "I disagree with you. Will you patronize me? Tell me now how many thousands of years you've lived before I was born? How much you know that I don't know?" He thought again of his imprisonment, the ice hurting him, the pain shooting through his limbs. He thought of the immortal voices that had answered him; the rescuers who had moved towards him, only to be caught one by one by Akasha's fire. He had heard them die, if he had not seen them! And what had sleep meant for him? The dreams of the twins.

  She reached out suddenly and caught his right hand gently in both of hers. It was rather like being held in the maw of a machine; and though Marius had inflicted that very impression upon many young ones himself over the years, he had yet to feel such overpowering strength himself.

  "Marius, we need you now," she said warmly, her eyes glittering for an instant in the yellow light that poured out of the door behind her, and out of the windows to the right and to the left.

  "For the love of heaven, why?"

  "Don't jest," she answered. "Come into the house. We must talk while we have time. "

  "About what?" he insisted. "About why the Mother has allowed us to live? I know the answer to that question. It makes me laugh. You she cannot kill, obviously, and we . . . we are spared because Lestat wants it. You realize this, don't you? Two thousand years I cared for her, protected her, worshiped her, and she has spared me now on account of her love for a two-hundred-year-old fledgling named Lestat. "

  "Don't be so sure of it!" Santino said suddenly.

  "No," the woman said. "It's not her only reason. But there are many things we must consider-"

  "I know you're right. " he said. "But I haven't the spirit for it. My illusions are gone, you see, and I didn't even know they were illusions. I thought I had attained such wisdom! It was my principal source of pride. I was with the eternal things. Then, when I saw her standing there in the shrine, I knew that all my deepest hopes and dreams had come true! She was alive inside that body. Alive, while I played the acolyte, the slave, the eternal guardian of the tomb!"

  But why try to explain it? Her vicious smile, her mocking words to him, the ice falling. The cold darkness afterwards and the twins. Ah, yes, the twins. That was at the heart of it as much as anything else, and it occurred to him suddenly that the dreams had cast a spell on him. He should have questioned this before now. He looked at her, and the dreams seemed to surround her suddenly, to take her out of the moment back to those stark times. He saw sunlight; he saw the dead body of the mother; he saw the twins poised above the body. So many questions . . .

  "But what have these dreams to do with this catastrophe!" he demanded suddenly. He had been so defenseless against those endless dreams.

  The woman looked at him for a long moment before answering. "This I will tell you, insofar as I know. But you must calm yourself. It's as if you've got your youth back, and what a curse it must be. "

  He laughed. "I was never young. But what do you mean by this?"

  "You rant and rave. And I can't console you. "

  "And you would if you could?"

  "Yes. "

  He laughed softly.
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