The queen of the damned, p.40

The Queen Of The Damned, page 40

 part  #3 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


The Queen Of The Damned

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Chapter 37



  THE The Queen Of The Damned

  Wings stir the sunlit dust of the cathedral in which the Past is buried to its chin in marble.

  STAN RICE - From "Poem on Crawling into Bed: Bitterness" Body of Work (1983)

  In the glazed greenery of hedge,

  and ivy,

  and inedible strawberries

  the lilies are white; remote; extreme.

  Would they were our guardians.

  They are barbarians.

  STAN RICE - from "Greek Fragments" Body of Work (1983)

  SHE SAT AT THE END OF THE TABLE, WAITING FOR them; so still, placid, the magenta gown giving her skin a deep carnal glow in the light of the fire.

  The edge of her face was gilded by the glow of the flames, and the dark window glass caught her vividly in a flawless mirror, as if the reflection were the real thing, floating out there in the transparent night.

  Frightened. Frightened for them and for me. And strangely, for her. It was like a chill, the presentiment. For her. The one who might destroy all that I had ever loved.

  At the door, I turned and kissed Gabrielle again. I felt her body collapse against me for an instant; then her attention locked on Akasha. I felt the faint tremor in her hands as she touched my face. I looked at Louis, my seemingly fragile Louis with his seemingly invincible composure; and at Armand, the urchin with the angel's face. Finally those you love are simply . . . those you love.

  Marius was frigid with anger as he entered the room; nothing could disguise this. He glared at me-I, the one who had slain those poor helpless mortals and left them strewn down the mountain. He knew, did he not? And all the snow in the world couldn't cover it up. I need you, Marius. We need you.

  His mind was veiled; all their minds were veiled. Could they keep their secrets from her?

  As they filed into the room, I went to her right hand because she wanted me to. And because that's where I knew I ought to be. I gestured for Gabrielle and Louis to sit opposite, close, where I could see them. And the look on Louis's face, so resigned, yet sorrowful, struck my heart.

  The red-haired woman, the ancient one called Maharet, sat at the opposite end of the table, the end nearest the door. Marius and Armand were on her right. And on her left was the young red-haired one, Jesse. Maharet looked absolutely passive, collected, as if nothing could alarm her. But it was rather easy to see why. Akasha couldn't hurt this creature; or the other very old one, Khayman, who sat down now to my right.

  The one called Eric was terrified, it was obvious. Only reluctantly did he sit at the table at all. Mael was afraid too, but it made him furious. He glowered at Akasha, as if he cared nothing about hiding his disposition.

  And Pandora, beautiful, brown-eyed Pandora-she looked truly uncaring as she took her place beside Marius. She didn't even look at Akasha. She looked out through the glass walls, her eyes moving slowly, lovingly, as she saw the forest, the layers and layers of dim forest, with their dark streaks of redwood bark and prickling green.

  The other one who didn't care was Daniel. This one I'd seen at the concert too. I hadn't guessed that Armand had been with him! Hadn't picked up the faintest indication that Armand had been there, And to think, whatever we might have said to each other, it was lost now forever. But then that couldn't be, could it? We would have our time together, Armand and I; all of us. Daniel knew it, pretty Daniel, the reporter with his little tape recorder who with Louis in a room on Divisadero Street had somehow started all of this! That's why he looked so serenely at Akasha; that's why he explored it moment by moment.

  I looked at the black-haired Santino-a rather regal being, who was appraising me in a calculating fashion. He wasn't afraid either. But he cared desperately about what happened here. When he looked at Akasha he was awed by her beauty; it touched some deep wound in him. Old faith flared for a moment, faith that had meant more to him than survival, and faith that had been bitterly burnt away.

  No time to understand them all, to evaluate the links which connected them, to ask the meaning of that strange image-the two red-haired women and the body of the mother, which I saw again in a glancing flash when I looked at Jesse,

  I was wondering if they could scan my mind and find in it ail the things I was struggling to conceal; the things I unwittingly concealed from myself.

  Gabrielle's face was unreadable now. Her eyes had grown small and gray, as if shutting out all light and color; she looked from me to Akasha and back again, as if trying to figure something out.

  And a sudden terror crept over me. Maybe it had been there all the time. They would never yield either. Something inveterate would prevent it, just as it had with me. And some fatal resolution would come before we left this room.

  For a moment I was paralyzed. I reached out suddenly and took Akasha's hand, I felt her fingers close delicately around mine.

  "Be quiet, my prince," she said, unobtrusively and kindly. "What you feel in this room is death, but it is the death of beliefs and strictures. Nothing more. " She looked at Maharet. "The death of dreams, perhaps," she said, "which should have died a long time ago. "

  Maharet looked as lifeless and passive as a living thing can look. Her violet eyes were weary, bloodshot. And suddenly I realized why. They were human eyes. They were dying in her head. Her blood was infusing them over and over again with life but it wasn't lasting. Too many of the tiny nerves in her own body were dead.

  I saw the dream vision again. The twins, the body before them. What was the connection?

  "It is nothing," Akasha whispered. "Something long forgotten; for there are no answers in history now. We have transcended history. History is built on errors; we will begin with truth. "

  Marius spoke up at once:

  "Is there nothing that can persuade you to stop?" His tone was infinitely more subdued than I'd expected. He sat forward, hands folded, in the attitude of one striving to be reasonable. "What can we say? We want you to cease the apparitions. We want you not to intervene. "

  Akasha's fingers tightened on mine. - The red-haired woman was staring at me now with her bloodshot violet eyes.

  "Akasha, I beg you," Marius said. "Stop this rebellion. Don't appear again to mortals; don't give any further commands. "

  Akasha laughed softly. "And why not, Marius? Because it so upsets your precious world, the world you've been watching for two thousand years, the way you Romans once watched life and death in the arena, as if such things were entertainment or theater, as if it did not matter-the literal fact of suffering and death- as long as you were enthralled?"

  "I see what you mean to do," Marius said. "Akasha, you do not have the right. "

  "Marius, your student here has given me those old arguments," she answered. Her tone was now as subdued and eloquent of patience as his. "But more significantly, I have given them a thousand times to myself. How long do you think I have listened to the prayers of the world, pondering a way to terminate the endless cycle of human violence? It is time now for you to listen to what I have to say. "

  "We are to play a role in this?" Santino asked. "Or to be destroyed as the others have been destroyed?" His manner was impulsive rather than arrogant.

  And for the first time the red-haired woman evinced a flicker of emotion, her weary eyes fixing on him immediately, her mouth tense.

  "You will be my angels," Akasha answered tenderly as she looked at him. "You will be my gods. If you do not choose to follow me, I'll destroy you. As for the old ones, the old ones whom I cannot so easily dispatch"--she glanced at Khayman and Maharet again-"if they turn against me, they shall be as devils opposing me, and all humanity shall hunt them down, and they shall through their opposition serve the scheme quite well. But what you had before-a world to roam in stealth-you shall never have again. "

  It seemed Eric was losing his silent battle with fear. He moved as if he meant to rise and leave the room.

  "Patience," Maharet said, glancing at him. S
he looked back at Akasha.

  Akasha smiled.

  "How is it possible," Maharet asked in a low voice, "to break a cycle of violence through more wanton violence? You are destroying the males of the human species. What can possibly be the outcome of such a brutal act?"

  "You know the outcome as well as I do," Akasha said. "It's too simple and too elegant to be misunderstood. It has been unimaginable until now. All those centuries I sat upon my throne in Marius's shrine; I dreamed of an earth that was a garden, a world where beings lived without the torment that I could hear and feel. I dreamed of people achieving this peace without tyranny. And then the utter simplicity of it struck me; it was like dawn coming. The people who can realize such a dream are women; but only if all the men-or very nearly all the men-are removed.

  "In prior ages, such a thing would not have been workable. But now it is easy; there is a vast technology which can reinforce it. After the initial purgation, the sex of babies can be selected; the unwanted unborn can be mercifully aborted as so many of both sexes are now. But there is no need to discuss this aspect of it, really. You are not fools, any of you, no matter how emotional or impetuous you are.

  "You know as I know that there will be universal peace if the male population is limited to one per one hundred women. All forms of random violence will very simply come to an end.

  "The reign of peace will be something the world has never known. Then the male population can be increased gradually. But for the conceptual framework to be changed, the males must be gone. Who can dispute that? It may not even be necessary to keep the one in a hundred. But it would be generous to do so. And so I will allow this. At least as we begin. "

  I could see that Gabrielle was about to speak. I tried to give her a silent signal to be quiet, but she ignored me.

  "All right, the effects are obvious," she said. "But when you speak in terms of wholesale extermination, then questions of peace become ridiculous. You're abandoning one half of the world's population. If men and women were born without arms and legs, this might be a peaceful world as well. "

  "The men deserve what will happen to them. As a species, they will reap what they have sown. And remember, I speak of a temporary cleansing-a retreat, as it were. It's the simplicity of it which is beautiful. Collectively the lives of these men do not equal the lives of women who have been killed at the hands of men over the centuries. You know it and I know it. Now, tell me, how many men over the centuries have fallen at the hands of women? If you brought back to life every man slain by a woman, do you think these creatures would fill even this house?

  "But you see, these points don't matter. Again, we know what I say is true. What matters-what is relevant and even more exquisite than the proposition itself-is that we now have the means to make it happen. I am indestructible. You are equipped to be my angels. And there is no one who can oppose us with success. "

  "That's not true," Maharet said.

  A little flash of anger colored Akasha's cheeks; a glorious blush of red that faded and left her as inhuman looking as before.

  "You are saying that you can stop me?" she asked, her mouth stiffening. "You are rash to suggest this. Will you suffer the death of Eric, and Mael, and Jessica, for such a point?"

  Maharet didn't answer. Mael was visibly shaken but with anger not fear. He glanced at Jesse and at Maharet and then at me. I could feel his hatred.

  Akasha continued to stare at Maharet.

  "Oh, I know you, believe me," Akasha went on, her voice softening slightly. "I know how you have survived through all the years unchanged. I have seen you a thousand times in the eyes of others; I know you dream now that your sister lives. And perhaps she does-in some pathetic form. I know your hatred of me has only festered; and you reach back in your mind, all the way back, to the very beginning as if you could find there some rhyme or reason for what is happening now. But as you yourself told me long ago when we talked together in a palace of mud brick on the banks of the Nile River, there is no rhyme or reason. There is nothing! There are things visible and invisible; and horrible things can befall the roost innocent of us all. Don't you see-this is as crucial to what I do now as all else. "

  Again, Maharet didn't answer. She sat rigid, only her darkly beautiful eyes showing a faint glimmer of what might have been pain.

  "1 shall make the rhyme or reason," Akasha said, with a trace of anger. "I shall make the future; I shall define goodness; I shall define peace. And I don't call on mythic gods or goddesses or spirits to justify my actions, on abstract morality. I do not call on history either! I don't look for my mother's heart and brain in the dirt!"

  A shiver ran through the others. A little bitter smile played on Santino's lips. And protectively, it seemed, Louis looked towards the mute figure of Maharet.

  Marius was anxious lest this go further.

  "Akasha," he said in entreaty, "even if it could be done, even if the mortal population did not rise against you, and the men did not find some way to destroy you long before such a plan could be accomplished-"

  "You're a fool, Marius, or you think I am. Don't you think I know what this world is capable of? What absurd mixture of the savage and the technologically astute makes up the mind of modern man?"

  "My Queen, I don't think you know it!" Marius said. "Truly, I don't. I don't think you can hold in your mind the full conception of what the world is. None of us can; it is too varied, too immense; we seek to embrace it with our reason; but we can't do it. You know a world; but it is not the world; it is the world you have selected from a dozen other worlds for reasons within yourself. "

  She shook her head; another flare of anger, "Don't try my patience, Marius," she said. "I spared you for a very simple reason. Lestat wanted you spared. And because you are strong and you can be of help to me. But that is all there is to it, Marius. Tread with care. "

  A silence fell between them. Surely he realized that she was lying. I realized it. She loved him and it humiliated her, and so she sought to hurt him. And she had. Silently, he swallowed his rage.

  "Even if it could be done," he pressed gently, "can you honestly say that human beings have done so badly that they should receive such a punishment as this?"

  I felt the relief course through me. I'd known he would have the courage, I'd known that he would find some way to take it into the deeper waters, no matter how she threatened him; he would say all that I had struggled to say.

  "Ah, now you disgust me," she answered.

  "Akasha, for two thousand years I have watched," he said. "Call me the Roman in the arena if you will and tell me tales of the ages that went before. When I knelt at your feet I begged you for your knowledge. But what I have witnessed in this short span has filled me with awe and love for all things mortal; I have seen revolutions in thought and philosophy which I believed impossible. Is not the human race moving towards the very age of peace you describe?"

  Her face was a picture of disdain.

  "Marius," she said, "this will go down as one of the bloodiest centuries in the history of the human race. What revolutions do you speak of, when millions have been exterminated by one small European nation on the whim of a madman, when entire cities were melted into oblivion by bombs? When children in the desert countries of the East war on other children in the name of an ancient and despotic God? Marius, women the world over wash the fruits of their wombs down public drains. The screams of the hungry are deafening, yet unheard by the rich who cavort in technological citadels; disease runs rampant among the starving of whole continents while the sick in palatial hospitals spend the wealth of the world on cosmetic refinements and the promise of eternal life through pills and vials. " She laughed softly. "Did ever the cries of the dying ring so thickly in the ears of those of us who can hear them? Has ever more blood been shed!"

  I could feel Marius's frustration. I could feel the passion that made him clench his fist now and search his soul for the proper words.

  "There's something you cannot s
ee," he said finally. "There is something that you fail to understand. "

  "No, my dear one. There is nothing wrong with my vision. There never was. It is you who fail to see. You always have. "

  "Look out there at the forest!" he said, gesturing to the glass walls around us, "Pick one tree; describe it, if you will, in terms of what it destroys, what it defies, and what it does not accomplish, and you have a monster of greedy roots and irresistible momentum that eats the light of other plants, their nutrients, their air. But that is not the truth of the tree. That is not the whole truth when the thing is seen as part of nature, and by nature I mean nothing sacred, I mean only the full tapestry, Akasha. I mean only the larger thing which embraces all. "

  "And so you will select now your causes for optimism," she said, "as you always have. Come now. Examine for me the Western cities where even the poor are given platters of meat and vegetables daily and tell me hunger is no more. Well, your pupil here has given me enough of that pap already-the idiot foolishness upon which the complacency of the rich has always been based. The world is sunk into depravity and chaos; it is as it always was or worse. "

  "Oh, no, not so," he said adamantly. "Men and women are learning animals. If you do not see what they have learned, you're blind. They are creatures ever changing, ever improving, ever expanding their vision and the capacity of their hearts. You are not fair to them when you speak of this as the most bloody century; you are not seeing the light that shines ever more radiantly on account of the darkness; you are not seeing the evolution of the human soul!"

  He rose from his place at the table, and came round towards her on the left-hand side. He took the empty chair between her and Gabrielle. And then he reached out and he lifted her hand.

  I was frightened watching him. Frightened she wouldn't allow him to touch her; but she seemed to like this gesture; she only smiled.

  "True, what you say about war," he said, pleading with her, and struggling with his dignity at the same time. "Yes, and the cries of the dying, I too have heard them; we have all heard them, through all the decades; and even now, the world is shocked by daily reports of armed conflict. But it is the outcry against these horrors which is the light I speak of; it's the attitudes which were never possible in the past. It is the intolerance of thinking men and women in power who for the first time in the history of the human race truly want to put an end to injustice in all forms. "

  "You speak of the intellectual attitudes of a few. "

  "No," he said. "I speak of changing philosophy; I speak of idealism from which true realities will be born. Akasha,, flawed, as they are, they must have the time to perfect their own dreams, don't you see?"

  "Yes!" It was Louis who spoke out.

  My heart sank. So vulnerable! Were she to turn her anger on him-But in his quiet and refined manner, he was going on:

  "It's their world, not ours," he said humbly. "Surely we forfeited it when we lost our mortality. We have no right now to interrupt their struggle. If we do we rob them of victories that have cost them too much! Even in the last hundred years their progress has been miraculous; they have righted wrongs that mankind thought were inevitable; they have for the first time developed a concept of the true family of man. "

  "You touch me with your sincerity," she answered. "I spared you only because Lestat loved you. Now I know the reason for that love. What courage it must take for you to speak your heart to me. Yet you yourself are the most predatory of all the immortals here. You kill without regard for age or sex or will to live. "

  "Then kill me!" he answered. "I wish that you would. But don't kill human beings! Don't interfere with them. Even if they kill each other! Give them time to see this new vision realized; give the cities of the West, corrupt as they may be, time to take their ideals to a suffering and blighted world. "

  "Time," Maharet said. "Maybe that is what we are asking for. Time. And that is what you have to give. "

  There was a pause.

  Akasha didn't want to look again at this woman; she didn't want to listen to her. I could feel her recoiling. She withdrew her hand from Marius; she looked at Louis for a long moment and then she turned to Maharet as if it couldn't be avoided, and her face became set and almost cruel.

  But Maharet went on:

  "You have meditated in silence for centuries upon your solutions. What is another hundred years? Surely you will not dispute that the last century on this earth was beyond all prediction or imagining-and that the technological advances of that century can conceivably bring food and shelter and health to all the peoples of the earth. "

  "Is that really so?" Akasha responded. A deep smoldering hate heated her smile as she spoke. "This is what technological advances have given the world. They have given it poison gas, and diseases bom in laboratories, and bombs that could destroy the planet itself. They have given the world nuclear accidents that have contaminated the food and drink of entire continents. And the armies do what they have always done with modern efficiency. The aristocracy of a people slaughtered in an hour in a snow-filled wood; the intelligentsia of a nation, including all those who wear eyeglasses, systematically shot. In the Sudan, women are still habitually mutilated to be made pleasing to their husbands; in Iran the children run into the fire of guns!"

  "This cannot be all you've seen," Marius said. "I don't believe it. Akasha, look at me. Look kindly on me, and what I'm trying to say. "

  "It doesn't matter whether or not you believe it!" she said with the first sustained anger. "You haven't accepted what I've been trying to tell you. You have not yielded to the exquisite image I've presented to your mind. Don't you realize the gift I offer you? I would save you! And what are you if I don't do this thing! A blood drinker, a killer!"

  I'd never heard her voice so heated. As Marius started to answer, she gestured imperiously for silence. She looked at Santino and at Armand.

  "You, Santino," she said. "You who governed the Roman Children of Darkness, when they believed they did God's will as the Devil's henchmen-do you remember what it was like to have a purpose? And you, Armand, the leader of the old Paris coven; remember when you were a saint of darkness? Between heaven and hell, you had your place. I offer you that again; and it is no delusion! Can you not reach for your lost ideals?"

  Neither answered her. Santino was horror-struck; the wound inside him was bleeding. Armand's face revealed nothing but despair.

  A dark fatalistic expression came over her. This was futile. None of them would join her. She looked at Marius.

  "Your precious mankind!" she said. "It has learned nothing in six thousand years! You speak to me of ideals and goals! There were men in my father's court in Uruk who knew the hungry ought to be fed. Do you know what your modern world is? Televisions are tabernacles of the miraculous and helicopters are its angels of death!"

  "All right, then, what would your world be?" Marius said. His hands were trembling. "You don't believe that the women aren't going to fight for their men?"

  She laughed. She turned to me. "Did they fight in Sri Lanka, Lestat? Did they fight in Haiti? Did they fight in Lynkonos?"

  Marius stared at me. He waited for me to answer, to take my stand with him. I wanted to make arguments; to reach for the threads he'd given me and take it further. But my mind went blank.

  "Akasha," I said. "Don't continue this bloodbath. Please. Don't lie to human beings or befuddle them anymore. "

  There it was-brutal and unsophisticated, but the only truth I could give.
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