Authors: Jasper Kent
Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Fiction, #Historical, #General
He looked down at the two letters in his hands, one to him, the other from him, the arrival of the former making the completion of the latter superfluous. He’d known what the letter to him had been about without the need to open it. He’d felt the small, hard lump inside and understood immediately what it was, and what it meant.
The bayonet that Iuda hurled at him had not done any serious damage. It caught him in the back of the left hand, almost dead centre, and had gone right through. Mihail had been forced to let go of the rope and so he and the others had fallen. He landed badly, and was knocked out, waking the following day inside a mosque that had been commandeered for use as a field hospital. Major Osokin had told him of the prisoner’s strange departure.
He’d spent two further nights in the hospital. His concussion was not serious, but the doctor was concerned about his hand. The bloody mark on his palm might have been taken for a single stigma. The doctor told him he was lucky not to have lost a finger or two, and Mihail had smiled quietly to himself. But the wound was bad enough to justify his taking some leave; that and his
commendation for the mine works. He was more than happy to get away from the place, after what he’d seen of the Russian army’s treatment of the vanquished citizens of Geok Tepe – they’d given him no warning of the barbarity of his own army during his training at the Imperial Technical School. The only hold-up had been in waiting for the slow machine of military bureaucracy to fill out the paperwork. But ultimately it was a lucky delay. The letter arrived on the morning of his departure – three weeks after it had been sent.
He’d taken the road north-west from Geok Tepe towards Krasnovodsk. There was plenty of traffic in both directions; supplies travelling one way and empty carriages holding a few dispatches being sent back. It was slow, but he doubted his quarry would be travelling much faster, and it gave him time to think. After Kyzyl-Arvat, the railway began; General Skobyelev’s great scheme for keeping the army supplied as it marched ever closer to the British Empire. But even by train, the pace was infuriatingly slow. The track had been started with a narrow gauge, and then the decision had been made to switch to the standard used throughout the Russian Empire. In places the carriages were pulled by steam engines, which broke down, in others by horses, who struggled to find a grip in the winter mud.
Once at Krasnovodsk, it was a simple task to book a passage across the Caspian. The sense in every soldier on that boat that once ashore they would be on home soil was palpable – though Baku was very different from any truly Russian town.
He might have chosen a different route across that vast inland sea, heading north and then following the path of the Volga – by boat if it still flowed or on land if it had frozen – up to Saratov, the town of his birth. But the place held little for him now, and the only clue he had to guide his quest pointed towards a quite different city – to Saint Petersburg, far in the north.
Mihail had listened intently to that conversation between Dmitry and Iuda, though his eyes had been closed and his head had lolled idly against the stone wall of the chamber. His mother had insisted that he learn English from an early age, even though she spoke not a word herself. The reason she held it so important, she had told him, was that English was the language of Cain’s
journal. Whether he was truly an Englishman, no one had been able to determine for sure, but that he used it in writings intended only for himself to read suggested that the language was close to his heart. Mihail had been a little surprised to learn that Dmitry could speak English too, but as he’d suggested, he’d had plenty of time to learn.
Only a fool – and neither Dmitry nor Iuda fitted into that category – would expect that speaking in a foreign tongue was a sure protection against eavesdroppers, but little of what they discussed would be comprehensible to the uninitiated. Most of it Mihail already knew. He’d followed the clues that led inescapably to the fact that somewhere deep beneath Geok Tepe there was a secret prison which held a captive so terrible that he was never allowed even to rise from his chair. In Kyzyl-Arvat he’d witnessed the interrogation of a captured Teke who described the appearance of the man – his straggling blond hair and cold grey eyes.
Mihail had never met Iuda, but he’d heard the monster’s description even as he suckled at his mother’s breast. She’d tried to draw him, but without much skill, although when he’d finally seen Iuda face to face, bound to that chair, Mihail had begun to review his assessment of his mother’s abilities. Of course, when she had known him his hair had been dyed black, but they’d both guessed – and guessed right – that he was happier with it in its natural blond state.
Mihail did not stare too long into Iuda’s eyes, no longer, he hoped, than any officer might upon encountering so strangely fettered a prisoner. He saw no hint of recognition in those eyes, but why should there be? Mihail’s mother had always claimed to see a family resemblance in her son, but he suspected she was just trying to flatter – for her there could be no greater compliment.
It was only when Major Osokin had mentioned Mihail’s surname, Lukin, that there had been a flicker of recognition in Iuda’s eyes, and perhaps a flicker of fear too. It would be almost seventy years since that name had meant anything to Iuda, but he might still be wary of revenge. If he was, he was wise. He might suspect revenge if he heard other surnames too, the names Savin and Petrenko. But he would experience the greatest terror if he knew Mihail’s true surname. He would learn it soon enough. He
would have discovered it there and then, on the day that Geok Tepe fell, if things had gone according to Mihail’s original plan, and would have died with that name on his lips, but it turned out that Mihail was not the only one who had been able to piece together the clues.
Dmitry’s arrival – under the pseudonym of Colonel Otrepyev – had been a complete surprise. At first, Mihail had not even been certain it was Dmitry; his mother’s description of him had been less precise – she held for him none of the hatred that she felt for Iuda. She wondered even if he might be counted on as a friend, but warned Mihail not to trust him. It was his height that was the most recognizable feature, though it was not unique. But Otrepyev’s evident interest in and knowledge of the prisoner put into Mihail’s mind the list of people who might come so far to find him. And ‘people’ was not the right word. Mihail knew that Dmitry was a
, just as he knew Iuda was. He watched Otrepyev and saw that he never went out of the tunnels during the day. He watched Otrepyev’s men too, but they led more normal lives. Mihail felt sure that they were not vampires; most of them, at least. He knew the error of presuming that most meant all.
With Dmitry and his squad present, Mihail knew he would have little chance to kill Iuda. He could have helped as the Turcoman guards tried to spring their traps, but that might well have resulted in his death too. And it was more than that; it was not enough for Iuda to die. He had to know why he was dying and who was killing him – Mihail’s mother had been insistent upon that. This was to be an execution, a punishment for a crime – for many crimes. It meant nothing for the criminal to be shot quietly in the back of the head when he least expected it.
When Iuda had escaped, Mihail’s attempt to grab at the rope and bring sunlight into the room had been an act of self-preservation, not revenge. He was almost glad he had failed. Perhaps whatever Dmitry had in store for Iuda would be worse than anything that Mihail could have conceived. And Dmitry, of course, was not working alone – his ‘we’ had given that away to Mihail as much as to Iuda. Both could take a good guess as to who the other half of the ‘we’ was. Even so, it would not be enough. No punishment, no
death would be enough if Iuda did not at that moment look into Mihail’s eyes and see in them the eyes of his mother, and of his grandfather.
And so it had become clear that, thanks to Dmitry’s intervention, Mihail would not take his revenge – not that day. He had been happy to listen to the two of them, and to learn. In all they had said, there were two things of particular interest.
One was Ascalon. It was not a word that Mihail had ever heard before, but it seemed to be of importance to both vampires. Mihail had asked around, mentioning the word to Osokin and others he encountered during his brief stay in hospital. The only meaning anyone could put upon it was the town of Ascalon, or sometimes Ashkelon, a place on the coast of Asia Minor, not far from Jerusalem. The padre had even recalled a mention of it in the Bible, in the second book of Samuel:
Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ascalon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.
It didn’t seem likely to be helpful. Mihail considered going there, but Petersburg was the better bet. He didn’t think that the Ascalon in question was a place. Admittedly Dmitry had asked where it was, but if he was talking about the city, that question would be simple to answer. And then Iuda had talked about fetching it, which made no sense if it was a town. Dmitry had mentioned the Karaites. Mihail had heard about them from his mother too – a Jewish sect, a group of whom had lived at Chufut Kalye in the Crimea. But Mihail had already been there – it was one of the first places he’d looked in his search for Iuda. The Karaites were long gone and rubble still blocked the mouths to Iuda’s caves below. Mihail had not dug down – fearful of what he might uncover.
No, Petersburg was the place to go. That would be where Dmitry was taking Iuda, secured in that coffin-prison. Dmitry himself would presumably travel in a similar manner, though without the constraints. Mihail knew because of a second name he had heard them speak of.
Mihail had never met his brother – his half-brother – Luka Miroslavich Novikov. Luka had been adopted years before Mihail was born and taken the name of his new family. They had different fathers, but the same mother: Tamara Alekseevna Danilova. And Tamara’s brother – again, her half-brother – was Dmitry. That was why Dmitry could rightly call Luka his nephew.
Just like her son, Tamara had been adopted, years earlier, but she’d always known in her heart that the man and woman who had raised her were not her true parents. Once she was old enough she had gone in search of them – and been reunited only to see them both die within hours of each other. It was obvious to Mihail that she hoped Luka would one day come looking for her, just as she had gone in search of her parents, Aleksei and Domnikiia. But Luka never came. It made her bitter towards him, even though she had loved Luka’s father, her husband Vitaliy, more than she could ever love Mihail’s, a passing encounter. She’d had two other children with Vitaliy. Both had died. Mihail often tried to imagine Milenochka and Stasik – his sister and brother – but Tamara was loath to talk of them.
Neither did she speak much of Mihail’s father, but of all the things she had told him – drummed into him since before he could remember – this was the aspect over which he most doubted her.
It would be untrue to say he had not doubted other things. For a boy brought up in the second half of the nineteenth century to be told every day, by the woman whom he is by nature itself compelled to trust, that the
– the vampire – was as real a creature as the wolf or the bear was, to say the least, unusual. She had told him of Baba Yaga and Zmey Gorynych, but never pretended that they were real (though she had debated whether Zmey Gorynych might have had a child and called him Zmyeevich).
When he had gone to school, the other children had laughed at him for his beliefs. Mihail had felt humiliated and realized in an instant that everything his mother told him had been make-believe. She was mad, and whatever the cause, she had moulded her son to believe in her madness. He had ranted and screamed at her, but she had held her ground, though for years after she
scarcely spoke of vampires, or of Iuda, or even of Aleksei. Then she had shown him something that had convinced him, the evidence of his own eyes proving that at least part of what she had told him was true and, by inference, that the whole of it was true. She had scolded him for that last leap of misplaced logic.
But even then, there was nothing she could do to prove to him the identity of his father. She had told him how she, when young, had suspected that
real father was a prince, and not just any prince – specifically Prince Pyetr Mihailovich Volkonsky – but Mihail’s supposed father was of a higher rank even than that. He was, Tamara insisted, a grand duke – Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich Romanov, the tsar’s eldest brother. It was preposterous, and yet no one denied there were Romanov bastards scattered across the country. There was no certainty that Mihail was not one of them, but it seemed unlikely. Tamara had told him to go and see his father, and how to prove their kinship, but Mihail had always been afraid, afraid of his own humiliation, but afraid most of seeing his mother’s dreams exposed as rambling self-delusion.
But now he had to go, for the first time in his life, to Petersburg. Petersburg was where, as far as he knew, Luka still lived. And both Dmitry and Iuda knew of Luka and so to find him might be to find them. Perhaps it would be a good time too to attempt to make himself known to Konstantin and discover whether his mother’s claims could be anything close to the truth. Now of all times, there was least to lose if they proved a lie. Now of all times, Mihail needed a father.
He read again the words of the letter he had begun writing in hospital:
My dearest Mama,
I have seen him, face to face. He was just as you described him. I will not waste your time by recounting my feelings, but must tell you immediately: I failed. I failed in the sole task that you have raised me to accomplish. He escaped me, but he is not free, and I shall soon hunt him down again.
Let me tell you from the beginning …
At that point Mihail had put down his pen to think, and soon after the letter to him had arrived, and there was no need to write any more.