Blackwood farm, p.38

Blackwood Farm, page 38

 part  #9 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series

 

Blackwood Farm
 



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Chapter38

 

  38

  "I AWOKE once during daylight. I lay on a soft bed on a terrace, and all around me were flowers. There were potted geraniums along the balustrade, and beyond those were white-and-pink oleanders, and I thought in my dizziness and my madness that I could see a distant mountain to my right, which I knew certainly by its shape to be Vesuvius, and when I rose, sick and aching, I staggered to the edge of the oleanders and I looked down on the tile roofs of the town way far below me and saw that I couldn't escape in that way.

  "Far to my left the road wound on with the cars like tiny beetles speeding along it. It was the coast of Italy in all its rugged glory, and beyond the road was the sizzling sea. The sun was high and blinding and it burnt down upon me, and there was no escape from it on this terrace.

  "As for the house, it was locked against me. The dark green shuttered doors had nothing that I could even grasp. I fell back down on the bed and my eyes closed, though I willed them to stay open.

  "My fevered mind said, You must escape here. You must go down the slope somehow. You have to drop to the roofs below. That this creature, Petronia, meant to murder me, I had no doubt.

  "I felt unconsciousness creep over me again, hot and dark and full of desperation. Some drug was working in me still that I couldn't fight.

  "Then, against the blue sky I saw the shadowy outline of a woman and I heard her talking low and fast in Italian and I felt a sharp stab in my arm. I saw the outline of the syringe in her hand as she held it up with a dainty gesture, and I wanted to protest but I couldn't. And next I knew, she was shaving my face with a small electric razor that was like a noisy little animal running all over my upper lip and my chin.

  "She was speaking to another woman in Italian, and though I spoke a little Italian I couldn't tell what it was she was saying, only that she complained. Finally she moved to one side, and I could see her, and she was young and brunette and with an upturn to her eyes.

  " 'Why you, I would like to know,' she said to me with a thick accent. 'Why not me after all this time? I serve and I serve, and she brings you to me and says make him ready. I am nothing but a slave. ¡¯

  " 'Help me to get out of here,' I said, 'and I'll make you rich. ¡¯

  "She laughed. 'You don't even want it, and they're giving it to you!' she said scoffing. 'And why? Because she has a whim. ' Her voice was soft but insistent. 'Everything is a whim with her. To come. To go. To live in this palazzo. To live in that palazzo. ' She laid down the syringe. I heard the clink of metal. She lifted a long scissors. She cut a lock from my hair.

  " 'What did you put into me?' I asked. 'Why did you shave my face? Where is Petronia?¡¯

  "She laughed, and so did another young woman who appeared on the left side of me, opposite. She was also slender, fashionable-looking and pretty of face, just like the one who was trimming my hair. She stood with her back to the light, her shadow falling over me.

  " 'We should kill you,' said the other woman, the new one, 'so that she can't do it. We could tell her that you died. ¡¯

  "They both laughed at this joke uproariously.

  " 'Why do you wish me harm?' I asked.

  " 'Because she chose you instead of us!' said the one who had injected me. She was angry but she didn't raise her voice. 'Do you know how long we've waited? We've been teased by her since we were children. Always she has an excuse, except when she is angry, and then she offers no excuse for anything, and God help those who ask her for one!' She took a comb to my hair. 'You're ready as far as I can see. ¡¯

  " 'Don't worry,' said the other one. She stood with folded arms. Her face was cold. She had beautiful sneering lips. 'We won't hurt you. She would know when she comes. And then she would kill us for certain. ¡¯

  " 'Are you talking about Petronia?¡¯

  " 'You don't know anything,' said the one who had been combing my hair. 'She's just playing with you. She's going to kill you like all the rest. ¡¯

  "I could feel the drug working in me, or was it my imagination? I was so hot, so miserable. I was neither drugged nor conscious.

  " 'Don't try to get up,' said the woman with the comb. But I did try and I pushed her away from me.

  "She fell back, murmuring in Italian. I think she was cursing. 'I hope she tortures you!' she said.

  "I was flat on my back. I imagined myself crawling to the balustrade. I should have dropped down, no matter how low it was. I had been a fool not to try it. My eyes closed. I could hear their voices, their cheap, cruel laughter. I hated them.

  " 'Listen to me,' I said. 'Help me to the balustrade. I'll go over it myself. You can tell her that I jumped. I'll probably die, and you'll be happy and free of me, just like. . . just like. . . ' I couldn't make my mouth form the words. I wasn't sure I had said even what I thought I had said.

  "I was swooning. I could no longer see.

  "The bed was moving, and at first I thought it was my disorientation, but then I heard the squeak of the wheels. A coolness came over me and I felt my clothes being ripped from me, and then, down into a pool of warm water, my body was slipped.

  "Thank God for it, I thought. The sweat and the heat were gone. Someone was bathing me and I didn't hear the voices of the young women anymore.

  " 'Listen to me,' said a voice right close to my ear.

  "I tried to open my eyes. In a flash I saw the ceiling painted with murals -- a great blue sky with flying gods and goddesses: Bacchus in his chariot and satyrs around him with wreaths and trails of green ivy, and the maenads with their hair ripped and their clothes in tatters following behind. Brand-new. Too bright.

  "Then I saw the boy who was bathing me. He was one of those extraordinary young Italian beauties with a halo of black curls for hair, and a gorgeous naked chest and muscular arms.

  " 'I'm talking to you,' he said with a thick accent. 'Can you understand me?¡¯

  " 'The water feels good,' I tried to say, but I'm not sure I managed the words.

  " 'Can you understand me?' he asked again.

  "I tried to nod but my head was against a rim of porcelain. I said, 'Yes. ¡¯

  " 'She'll test you,' he said. He went on bathing me, lifting the water in his hands and letting it flow over me. 'If you fail her tests, she'll kill you. That's always her way with those who fail her. There is nothing to be gained from fighting her. Remember what I say. ¡¯

  " 'Help me to get away from here,' I said.

  " 'I can't help you. ¡¯

  " 'Do you believe me?' I struggled to articulate it. 'When I say that I can reward you? I have plenty of money. ¡¯

  "His eyes widened and he shook his head. 'Doesn't matter if I believe you,' he said. 'She would find me, no matter where we went or what you gave me. She's too powerful for me ever to escape her. My life was finished the night that she saw me waiting tables in a caf¨¦ in Venezia. ' He made a short bitter laugh. 'I wish to God that I had never brought her that little glass of wine, that useless little glass of wine. ¡¯

  " 'There has to be a way,' I said. 'She's not God, this woman. ' I was losing consciousness again. I fought it. I remembered the cold air and the stars around me. What was she? What kind of monster?

  " 'No, not God,' he said smiling bitterly. 'Just powerful and very cruel. ¡¯

  " 'What does she want with me?' I asked.

  " 'Try to stand up to her tests,' he said. 'Try to please her. Otherwise you die. She never does anything else with those who fail her. She gives them to us, and we rid the world of the bodies, and for that we are allowed to continue to live. That's our existence. Can you imagine the place the Devil has for us in his inferno? Now, if you believe in God, use this time to say your prayers. ¡¯

  "I couldn't speak anymore.

  "I felt him raise my arms, one at a time, and shave the hair beneath them. It was a strange ritual, and I couldn't understand the desire of anyone for such a thing to be done.

  "He seemed to sense my discomfort.

  " 'I don't k
now what it means,' he said to me softly, 'but for you she has ordered us to take great care. ' He shook his head sadly. 'Maybe it means nothing, maybe it means something. Only in time will we know. ¡¯

  "I think I laid my hand over his and patted him to console him because he sounded so sad.

  "All the while the water of the bath was warm and moving, and then he told me in my ear that he was taking me to a place where I would wake from the drugs I'd been given, but I mustn't make noise.

  "I slept.

  "When I woke, I knew that I was alone. I could hear the silence and stillness around me, and I found myself on a couch and surrounded by golden bars.

  " 'How my friend loves gold,' I whispered, 'but then I have always loved it myself. ¡¯

  "Within seconds I realized I was in a glorified round cage. The door was securely locked, and I wore no boot or even a sandal with which to kick at it, and my fist did little good.

  "As for my clothes, I'd been dressed in a pair of black pants. No shirt.

  "Now, outside of this cage there was a great marble room, precisely what one would expect in a hillside palazzo, and it had its large square floor-length windows open to a long terrace, as one might also expect, and there was the sunset streaking the sky with red, and the violet light simmering as the sun sank into the sea.

  "Italy, so glorious, on the flank of the great mountain, and not very far no doubt from the ruins of tragic cities it had destroyed.

  "I sat back on the couch, watching the windows fill up with early stars and the room darken before me, which only proved to put it in a gentler light.

  "There was something so very decadent and perverse about the cage in which I was imprisoned that I loathed it intensely, yet it had an odd calming effect on me because I knew that in a monstrous game with Petronia I might have some chance. That had been the implication of the boy who had bathed me. At least that had been the inference which I drew. Nevertheless, I was revolted by everything around me. This was a completely new emotion for me.

  "The lights came up slowly, revealing scattered lamps along the inner walls of the room and murals which somewhat mimicked those of Pompeii -- that is, rectangular paintings framing in Roman red various goddesses who danced with their backs turned to the room.

  "And as these lights filled the space with a golden illumination there entered not the proud arrogant Petronia whom I expected but two other creatures equally strange.

  "One was a black man, so black indeed that he looked like polished onyx, and though he was at the very far end of the marble room, away from me, I could see the gold earrings in his ears.

  "He had very delicate features and he had yellow eyes. His hair was very curly and short-cropped and not totally unlike my own.

  "The other man was a puzzle. He appeared old. Indeed, he had heavy jowls and receding temples and his hair was silver, but he appeared to be without blemish, as if he were made not from old flesh and blood but from wax. His eyes sagged slightly at the outside edges as if they were going to slide down his face, and his chin jutted, which gave him a firm look.

  "This one, the old one, reminded me of someone, but I couldn't think who it was.

  "Neither of these creatures looked human and there settled over me the certainty that they weren't.

  "I flashed on the stars I'd seen last night, or whenever it had been as we'd risen into the air, and I felt a dreadful fatality -- indeed, an awful sense that everything I'd known and loved was about to be taken from me and there was little really that I could do to prevent it. The test, the fight, the contest, whatever, would be a matter of form.

  "I was mutely horrified and I sought to adjust my emotions. To be tantalized was my only hope. There was no time for wonder or curiosity.

  "These two men came towards me but purely by accident. Though they looked at me, they seated themselves at a table in the center of the room. And there they began to play chess and to talk to each other, their profiles turned to me, which meant that the silver-haired man with the waxy jowls had his back to the star-studded sky and the black man looked out.

  "Both of these creatures wore immaculate evening dress of a sort. They had on shining black dinner jackets and trousers and patent leather shoes. But they wore white turtlenecks of some very glossy material rather than shirts and black ties.

  "They were soon laughing and joking with each other, and the language was Italian, so I couldn't follow what they said. But when I'd had a bellyful of it, I spoke up.

  " 'So neither of you will enlighten me,' I asked, 'as to why I'm held captive here? You don't think I'd be in this predicament of my own free will?¡¯

  "It was the elderly-looking gentleman who answered me, his chin jutting even more as he did so. 'Well, now,' he said in clear English, 'you know you did something to be here. Now, what did you do to Petronia? She wouldn't have brought you here if you were innocent. Don't claim to be that with us. ¡¯

  " 'That's exactly what I claim,' I said. 'I was brought here out of her caprice, and I ought to be released. ¡¯

  "The black man spoke to the other. 'I do tire of her games, I swear it. ' His voice was mellow and sweet, as though he was used to power.

  " 'Oh, come, you know you enjoy it as much as I do,' said the elderly one. His voice was deep. 'Why else would you be here now? You knew she had this boy. ¡¯

  " 'All I ask is to be released,' I said sharply. 'I can't send the authorities after you because I don't know who you are, and as for Petronia, all attempts in the past by me to have her discovered or arrested have failed, and they'll fail in the future. I won't attempt any such thing. What I ask is to be let go!¡¯

  "The black man rose from his armchair and he came towards me. He was the taller of the two. I didn't stand up to measure my height against his. He reached through the bars and laid his cool hand on my head. He looked into my eyes. I hated him. It took all my self-control to remain still.

  " 'You've done no wrong to anyone,' he said under his breath, as though he had read it from my mind. 'And across the world she brings you for her blood sport. ' He sighed. 'Oh, Petronia, why the cruelty, always the cruelty? Why, my beautiful pupil? When will you ever learn?¡¯

  " 'You'll let me go?' I asked. I looked up at him. What a splendid being he was. His features were sublimely chiseled and his face looked kind.

  " 'I can't do that, my child,' he said in an even voice. 'I wish that I could, but I believe your fate is decided. I'll try to make your agony short. ¡¯

  " 'Why does my life mean so little to you?' I asked. 'I come from a world where every life is precious. Why is it so different for you?¡¯

  "The old man had approached by this time, walking in a sprightly manner completely out of keeping with the appearances of age in him, and he was peering through the bars at me too.

  " 'No, you're not innocent, don't tell us that,' he chortled. 'You're the Evil Doer in some guise,' he protested. 'She wouldn't bring you here otherwise. I know her too well. ¡¯

  " 'Not well enough,' said the coal black one. 'She does what she pleases and it's never enough for her. ¡¯

  "I stared at the old man. 'The old man,' I said aloud, and then I realized it. 'The Old Man,' I said again. 'It's you. The portrait on the living room wall! It's Manfred Blackwood, that's who you are. ¡¯

  " 'And who are you to say my name so boldly to me?' he demanded. He puffed himself up.

  " 'You're demons, all of you. God, this is Hell. ' I laughed. I felt the drug in me again. There was no escape. My words came in a rush. 'If it weren't for Julien Mayfair, you'd be my ancestor. I'm Tarquin Blackwood, that's who I am. She took me from the Hermitage, the Hermitage you built for her, and that I refurbished for her. Blackwood Manor's in my hands now. Your granddaughter, Lorraine, is still living, living to mourn for me and tear out her hair that I've disappeared from Blackwood Farm. Didn't Petronia tell you what she was up to?¡¯

  "He went into a fury. He tried to shake the bars but he couldn't. He pounded upon the lock. No
w he was an old man in all his parts, his jaw trembling, his eyes tearing. 'Abomination!' he roared.

  "The black one tried to calm him. 'Now, let this matter be in my hands,' he said. 'We have an order here of authority. ¡¯

  " 'Do you see what she means to do?' the Old Man shouted. His jowls trembled. All of him trembled. His eyes were inflamed as he gazed at me. 'Who told you about Julien?' he demanded, as if such a thing were important now.

  " 'Julien himself told me. I'm a seer of spirits,' I retorted. 'But what does it matter? Get me out of this place. Your granddaughter Lorraine needs me. Blackwood Farm needs me. I have flesh and blood that need me. ¡¯

  "Suddenly Petronia herself appeared. Clad in a black velvet tunic and pants with a belt of cameos, she came striding across the long room and up to the two men, declaring as she did:

  " 'What is this, the convocation of the cage?¡¯

  "As Manfred tried to seize her by the throat she threw him backwards, so that his body went yards across the marble floor and slammed into the wall, his head snapped back in a blow that would have killed an ordinary human and out of his throat came a deep and terrible roar.

  " 'Don't dare to question me,' she said.

  "The black one, as though nothing could perturb him, reached out for her and slipped his arm around her neck. He was taller than her by some inches. Probably he was my height. He brought her head down onto his shoulder and I saw her hand tremble as she let him do it, and he whispered to her,

  " 'Petronia, my dearest, why, why always the rage?¡¯

  "He held her and she allowed herself to be held, and the Old Man wept as he collected himself, came forward, wounded, furious, helpless, shaking his head.

  " 'My own,' wept the Old Man, 'and your pledges to me are worthless, your bond is worthless --. ¡¯

  " 'Leave me alone, you fool,' she said, raising her eyes and turning her head to look at him. 'I've kept my pledges to you ten times over. I've given you immortality! What in hell do you want? And then on top of it riches undreamt of. This boy is nothing to you but something sentimental, like the photographs you keep of your precious Virginia Lee and your son William and your daughter Camille, as if these people were anything to you in the dust of time. They are not. ¡¯

  "The Old Man sobbed. Then he spoke, blubbering.

  " 'Stop her, Arion,' he said. 'Don't let her go on. Stop her. ¡¯

  " 'Wretched, miserable, old man,' Petronia said. 'Old forever. Nothing could give you youth. I despise you. ¡¯

  " 'And that's your reason for what you've done to me?' I asked. It would have been wiser perhaps to say nothing, but in some way this case was being tried before Arion, the black one, and I had to make some effort or die full of regret.

  "Petronia looked at me, and, as if seeing me for the first time, she smiled. And as always happened when she smiled, she looked serene and lovely. She was still in the arms of Arion, and Arion was stroking her loose full hair. It was utterly loving the way that Arion held her. Her breasts were against him, and he seemed to adore her.

  " 'Don't you want to live forever, Quinn?' she asked me.

  "She slipped gently out of the embrace of Arion, and she took from underneath her black velvet tunic a gold chain, and on the end of this chain was a key, and with this she unlocked my handsome prison.

  "She opened the door. With the meanest fingers imaginable she grabbed my left arm and yanked me from the couch and out into the room, slamming me up against the bars. It sent a shudder of pain through me.

  "Arion remained close, staring at me, and the Old Man was some distance away. He had taken a small picture from his coat and he looked at it piteously. I wondered if it was of Virginia Lee. He was whispering to himself insanely.

  " 'Are you prepared to fight for immortality?' Petronia asked of me.

  " 'Not at all, not one wit,' I said, 'nor for my life. Not against the bully that I know you to be. ¡¯

  " 'Bully!' She mocked me. 'You call me that? After you had your familiar attack me with flying shards of glass?¡¯

  " 'He did what he could to protect me. You were in Blackwood Manor. You meant to do me harm. ¡¯

  " 'And why isn't he here?' she asked.

  " 'Because he can't be. You know this,' I said. 'I'm no match for you. I saw what you did to Manfred a moment ago. You play an unfair game with me. You always have. ¡¯

  " 'Stubborn,' she said as she smiled, cruelly this time, and shook her head. 'Always your way. Pride, that's your sin. ¡¯

  "Arion reached out for me and took my head in both his hands, and I felt his soft silky thumbs against my cheeks. 'Why don't you let him go?' he asked. 'He's innocent. ¡¯

  " 'But that's the best kind,' said Petronia.

  " 'Then you mean truly to do it,' said Arion, stepping back, 'not merely to kill him?¡¯

  " 'I mean to do it,' she said nodding, 'if I find him fit for it, if I find him strong. ¡¯

  "Before I could protest, before I could mock, before I could sneer or plead or whatever might have come into my head, she picked me up and threw me, as she had done with Manfred, against the far wall. The blow to my head was terrific, and I thought, This death is not going to take very long.

  "At the same time I became enraged as I always do by such hurt, and, falling down on the floor, I sought to get up immediately, and I flew at her, missing her and falling on my knees.

  "I heard her cruel laughter. I heard Manfred weeping. Where was Arion? I looked up and caught a glimpse of the two men seated in their chairs at the table. And where was she?

  "She slipped her hand under my shoulder and yanked me to my feet and slapped me hard on the left side of my face and then threw me across the floor. I went sprawling. It was pointless to try to fight. It was everything to keep to my word. To give her no sport at all. But I couldn't keep to it. Again, I tried to get up.

  "Now, I knew nothing of fighting. Or I should say all I knew of it was what I had watched in boxing, which was my favorite spectator sport. And there was no way to apply what I knew in this situation, and I had never acquired any skill at fighting myself.

  "But as I rose to my feet this time I saw Petronia standing right before me, and it seemed commonsensical that if I ran low at her I could topple her, and so I did this, tackling her right below the knees, and over me she went.

  "The men laughed at this, which was unfortunate. I would rather have had cheers. But spinning round I came down on her before she could rise, and I tried to put my thumbs into her eyes. She caught me around the throat with both her hands, and now, fully enraged, she threw me over and back on the floor and then dragged me across it until she had come to the balcony, at which point she grabbed both my wrists in one hand and slung me over the white railing and asked me if I would like to be dropped to my death.

  "I could see the lights of the traffic far below on the winding road. I could also see the ocean boiling on the rocks just beyond it. I gave her no answer. I was dazed. I also thought I was doomed. I knew Manfred didn't have the power to stop her. And I didn't think that Arion would.

  "That I had thrown her over only made things worse.

  "Next I knew she had drawn me up and thrown me onto the floor again and was kicking me and dragging me about the room. I thought of her as a giant cat again, as I had in the Hermitage, and of myself as her prey.

  " 'This is not the way to do such a thing,' Arion said to her. I heard it near me as though he had come up to her, but where we were in the room, I didn't know.

  "Petronia said, 'We choose our own way, don't we? We must do it the way we want to do it. In a fraction of a second, all his wounds will heal. He'll know the power of the Blood when that happens, and it will be all the finer for him. Let me have what I need. ¡¯

  " 'But why, my darling, why do you need it?' Arion said. 'I don't understand, my precious one, why the rage, always the rage?¡¯

  "They went on talking but they had switched back into Italian. I sensed that he was talking about the passage of t
ime and that she had once been different, but that was all I could divine. The Old Man continued to cry.

  "I tried to move and then I felt Petronia's foot on my throat. I was choking. She let up on the pressure and I saw her face above mine, her hair pouring down and tickling me as she drew me up to her with both her hands. My weight meant nothing to her. She came in close to me as though she meant to kiss me on the throat.

  "I lay back on a couch, and she had her arms behind my back, and her mouth was open against my skin, and then I felt two sharp pinpricks on the side of my throat, and the world and all my pain went dim. I heard her heart beat.

  "Teach me, she said. I will not have my kiss be quiet.

  "That she was sucking my blood from me I knew, and that I was getting weaker and weaker I knew as well. And it did seem that all my life fled from me, that image after image of childhood, young manhood and the last few years of love and ecstasy and wonder fled from me with my blood -- uncontrollably, unstinting and pure. What this intimacy meant in the greater scheme of things I was helpless to understand, and then she drew back and I went limp in her arms. I sank down, free, onto the floor.

  "Petronia had hold of my arm. She was dragging me again. I felt the sharp kick of her foot in my ribs. I could no longer see. I could hear the Old Man cry out. I knew it was for me that he cried. But she merely cursed under her breath. The marble felt cold beneath me. I lay sprawled against it.

  "Suddenly the scene changed. I was no longer in my body but looking down on it, and down on all the occupants of the room. I was at the entrance to a long dark tunnel, and a roaring wind surrounded me, a frightening wind, and at the end of the tunnel there appeared a wondrous light, a light truly beyond description, and in that light, huge gold-and-white light, I could see the figures of Pops and Sweetheart gazing at me. Lynelle was also with them. I wanted desperately to join them, but I couldn't move. Some hideous fascination with Petronia and Manfred and Arion prevented me from moving. Some putrid ambition kept me from turning and reaching out for those I so loved. There was no clarity in me. There was only turbulence. Then, as suddenly as this vision had come, it was gone. I had made no decision.

  "I was back in my aching and bruised body. I was on the marble floor again.

  " 'You're dying,' Petronia said. 'But I know you now, I know you from the Blood, and I won't let it happen, Tarquin Blackwood. I claim you as my own. ' Again, her arms lifted me.

  " 'Ask him what he wills,' said the black one named Arion.

  " 'What do you will?' she demanded. She held me up on my knees in front of her. I could feel her velvet pants against me. 'Speak to me,' she said. 'What do you will?¡¯

  "Helpless and clumsy I fell against her crotch, grabbing for her leg and then recoiling, and near collapsing, as she jerked my shoulder and held me on my knees.

  " 'What do you want!' she demanded again. What was I to say? To die? In this place, around the world from Aunt Queen, from Mona, from all I loved, to die without a trace?

  "I raised my fist, trying to hurt her. I hit her but my fist had nothing behind it. I clawed at her velvet clothes. I tried to hit her again. I struck at her private parts.

  " 'Oh, you want to see it, do you? You want to see what they all laughed at!' she said. 'Come now, pay me homage,' she said. I heard the snap opening, and then my hand was placed upon the short, very thick stub of her erect cock, then down lower, between two pendulous labia, the shallow crevice that was her vagina, then back again to her cock. 'Take it in your mouth,' she said to me angrily. I felt the pressure against my lips. 'Take it!' she demanded.

  "I did the only thing I could do. I opened my mouth, and when she shoved her cock into it I bit down with all my might and main. I heard her howl but I hung on. And there came into my mouth a copious flow of electrifying blood such as I never expected -- and madly I hung on.

  "I bore down with my teeth and the blood, this liquid fire, streamed into me. It poured down my throat. I swallowed without meaning to swallow. It was as if my body, once drained by her, could not resist it, and suddenly I realized that her hands were cradling my head and her howling was laughter and that the blood was not blood as I knew it but a great rush of stimulating fluid that seemed to come from her heart and her brain.

  "Know me. Know who I am! This she said to me, and there came a rush of knowledge into me which I couldn't deny. I would have turned away from it if I could. I hated her that much. But I couldn't turn away, and now I couldn't let go.

  "Long, long centuries ago she had been born to an actress mother and a gladiator father in the Rome of Caesar, a freakish child, half male, half female, a thing to be destroyed by ordinary parents but kept by hers for the theater, in which she grew to be a gladiator of great strength by the age of fourteen.

  "Before that point, a thousand times she'd been shown privately to those who could pay for it, for those who wanted to touch her and have her touch them. Never had she known love for her own sake, or privacy, or a moment of delicacy, or a scrap of clothing that wasn't for show.

  "In the arena she was fierce and murderous. I saw the spectacle -- the huge crowds roaring for her. I saw the sand red with the blood she shed. She won every match, no matter how heavy or great her opponent. I saw her in her shining armor, her sword at her side, her hair tied back, her eyes on Caesar as she made her regal bow!

  "Years passed during which she fought, her parents commanding ever higher and higher fees. At last, when she was still a girl, she was sold to a merciless master for a fortune, and he sent her into the ring against the fiercest of wild beasts. Even these could not defeat her. Nimble and fearless she danced against lions and tigers, thrusting her spear deep and true to the mark.

  "But she grew tired in her heart, tired of combat, tired of lovelessness, tired of misery. The crowd was her lover, but the crowd was nowhere in the dark of night when she slept chained to her bed.

  "Then Arion had come, Arion had paid to see her as had so many. Arion had paid to touch her, as had so many. Arion had bought dresses to pose her. Arion had embraced her. Arion had liked to comb her long black hair. Then Arion had bought her and set her free. Arion had given her a heavy purse and said, 'Go where you please. ' But where could she go? What could she do? She couldn't bear the sounds of the circus during the games. She couldn't bear the thought of the gladiatorial schools. What was there for her? Was she to be pimp and whore at the same time? She had tagged after Arion, loving him.

  " 'You are my life now,' she had told him. 'Don't turn your back on me. ' 'But I gave you the world,' he had answered her. Unable to bear her tears, he had given her more money, a house in which to live. But still she came to him weeping.

  "And finally he took her under his wing. He brought her to his city. He brought her to beautiful Pompeii. His was the cameo trade, he told her. He had three shops of cameo makers, the finest in all of the empire. 'Can you learn this art for me?' he asked her. 'Yes,' she said. 'For you I would learn anything. Anything at all. ' She set to work with a passion she'd never known. She wasn't fighting for multitudes, she wasn't fighting for her own worthless life. She was fighting to please Arion, a fragile and total thing. Her enemies were clumsiness, impatience, anger. She studied with all the masters in his shops. She watched. She imitated. She worked in shell, in stone, in precious jewels. She mastered the chisel, the small drill. She learned all that she could.

  "Finally, at the end of two years, she had her specimens to show Arion, fine and perfect things. She had done gatherings of gods and goddesses like unto the friezes on the temples. She had done portraits like unto the finest in the Forum. She had made art out of a craft. Never had he seen such work, he told her. He loved her. And such happiness she'd never known.

  "Then came the terrible days of Vesuvius, the eruption of the mountain and the death of the idyllic little city where they had all known such happiness. Arion had fled the night before to the far side of the Bay of Naples. He'd sensed early on the evening before the eruption what was to
happen. It had been her duty to see that the slaves of the shops escaped. But only a few would listen to her.

  "And when it was all over and the air was full of ash and poison and the sea was full of bodies, when nothing remained where Pompeii had once stood, she had come to Arion's villa -- the very place where we were now -- weeping and with only a handful of followers, to tell him that she had failed.

  " 'No, my beloved,' he said. 'You have saved my finest prize, you have saved your own life when I thought that all was lost. What can I give you for this, my sweet Petronia?' And in time he had given her the Blood that she was giving me. In time he had made her immortal as she was making me.

  "She let me go. My lips stroked her cock as I withdrew.

  "I fell back on the floor. But I could see with new eyes all around me. And I felt the bruises all over my body healing. I felt the pain leave my head. I sat up as though waking from a dream and I looked out the open window over the railing, and the pure azure of the evening sky caught me and held me and I didn't hear the voices of the room.

  "Arion came. He took hold of me and lifted me just the way she had done it, without effort, and then he reached up to his throat, and he said to me to Drink.

  " 'No, wait please,' I whispered. 'Let me savor what she taught me of herself. If you will. ' I meant it reverently.

  "But she flew at me and knocked me to the floor again and there came her foot against my ribs. 'Trash!' she said. 'You dare answer that way to the Master, and who are you to savor what you know of me!¡¯

  " 'Petronia!' said Arion to her. 'Enough. ¡¯

  "He picked me up. 'My blood will give you added strength,' he said. 'Take it. It's far older than hers, and you won't be bound to her so very much. ¡¯

  "I could have cried at her savagery. I had so loved her in the Blood, and I had been a fool for it, such a fool, but as he said now to drink, I ran my tongue over my teeth, why I didn't know. And I discovered the eyeteeth were fangs, and with them I kissed his throat, as he had directed me, and there came a new stream of images and blood.

  "These images I can't claim to remember. I think that somehow, through some skill, he guarded his generous and older heart. I think he gave me the Blood and its strengthening power without all his secrets. But what he did give me was inexpressibly glorious and it filled my hurt soul after her rebuff.

  "I saw Athens in him. I saw the famed Acropolis thronged and thriving. I saw it with temples and images brilliantly painted as I had been taught it was painted, not as we now see Greek art, as white and pure, but done in vivid blues and reds and flesh tones, oh, the marvel of it! I saw the Agora filled with people! I saw the whole town spread on the gentle slopes of the mountain. My head teemed with priceless visions, and where he was in all this I couldn't guess. I felt the language of the people all around me, and I saw the hard stone street beneath my sandals, and felt his blood pumping into me, washing my heart and my soul.

  " 'Only the Evil Doer, my child,' he said to me as the Blood pounded. 'Feed only on the Evil Doer. When you hunt, unless you take only the Little Drink, pass by the innocent heart. Use the power you will have from me to read the minds and hearts of men and women and ferret out the Evil Doer everywhere, and only from him take the blood. ¡¯

  "Finally, he pulled me back. I licked the blood from my lips. I sighed. This was to be my only nourishment. I knew it. The knowledge had come to me instinctively. And much as I had loved the taste of his blood and the taste of Petronia's blood, I hungered for a base human so that I would know that taste as well.

  "He stroked my forehead and hair with his silky hands and he looked into my eyes.

  " 'Only the Evil Doer, you understand me, young one? Oh, the innocent beckon. They do it unwittingly. And how savory they seem. But mark my word, they'll lead you straight to madness whether you have an educated soul or no. You'll come to love them and to despise yourself. Mark my words, it's the tragedy of Petronia. For her there is no innocence and therefore no conscience and therefore no happiness. And so in misery she goes on. ¡¯

  " 'I follow your rules,' Petronia said. I heard her nearby.

  " 'You did not with this one,' said Arion emphatically.

  " 'My grandson, my very grandson,' cried the Old Man to himself in his misery. 'You blaspheming wretch. ¡¯

  " 'And so he will live forever,' said Petronia solemnly. She laughed. 'What more can I do? What more can I give?¡¯

  "I turned to look at her. With these precious eyes I saw her harsh loveliness as though it were a miracle.

  "And I knew what had been done to me. Of its history, of its commonness, of its rules, of its limits I knew nothing. But I knew what had been done. Immortality. I knew it but couldn't grasp it. Where was God? Where was my faith? Had the whole edifice collapsed in this monstrosity?

  "I began to feel a wrenching pain. Was I deluded?

  "Arion said:

  " 'This is human death. It'll take a few short moments. Go with the attendants into the bath. They'll dress you afterwards, and then you'll learn how to hunt. ¡¯

  " 'So we are vampires,' I said. 'We are the legend. ' The pain in my gut was intolerable. I saw the male attendant I had known before. He was waiting.

  " 'Blood Hunters,' said Arion. 'Defer to me with these words, and I'll love you all the more. ¡¯

  " 'But why do you love me at all?' I asked.

  "Placing his hand on my shoulder, he said,

  " 'How could I not?' "
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