“This alright?” she murmured as he set their gear down, refusing the chocolate that he slid from his pocket. “God no, I can’t face anything.”
“If you don’t eat and drink you’ll feel like hell tomorrow, and if you think Ed’s going to stop to rub the cramps out of your legs every two clicks, I have bad news.” he replied. “Eat it. Eat it... eat, you little baggage.” She turned her smirk from the foil he pressed to the corner of her mouth, relenting and biting small pieces from the block.
The prevailing wind had blown thick drifts of dead leaves and needles into the aeolian curves of the stone underfoot; he kicked a mound of them into one of the sculpted shelters and Susan drew the sleeping bag up over her legs and dropped onto his lap, sliding her hands down into the quilted cover while she leant into the curve of his arm. She looked out for the first time from their hard-won elevation; the valley below lay as a dim, distant impression, a deepening of the darkness to her weary gaze, its bounding hills at one with the trees standing about them, their black shapes masking the hushed violet and blue of the stars thrown over their heads by the turn of the earth.
“One day and I’m shattered. I've got to give up smoking.”
“You’re not tapped out, you’re just uncomfortable.” he replied. Her weary dubiety prompted him to elaborate. “When you’re at the last water before the Taklimakan, you have to be able to look over two hundred people and three hundred pack animals and know who's tapped out. If you can’t, you get to explain to Kala'amātya why half the slaves he paid good fucking money for are feeding crows instead of tricking out his bottom line.” He lit two cigarettes and handed her one.
The orange flame atop his lighter illumed a low recess beside them, waist high and hollowed into the rock as though by the tireless working of some animal. Susan bent down to peer into its depths, which had been scoured for a surprising distance into the the cliff; something gleamed against the low curvature of its furthest wall and she frowned, leaning on her hands to make it out. It was an Orthodox crucifix, crudely fashioned in silver or plate, the colour flashing fitfully through the tarnish where it had been affixed to the rock.
“A cross, in a hole, in the middle of nowhere.”
"Atáthik... for vampyres, when they’re caught out on the road.” he said quietly. “Church used to bless them, hoping it would keep the bloodsuckers out, but Jesus isn’t their guy.”
“I cannot think where they come from.” Susan admitted, watching him ponder the query while he flipped the lighter through his fingers.
“It’s like trying to find out who started herpes. If you’re in Ulan Bator, vampyres come from Shanghai... Paris, and it was those Italian bastards. It’s the oldest bargain, to be ridden by something that needs flesh... to strike that kind of deal and get the shit end of the stick. It could have happened anywhere."
"It felt so disgusting, to be bitten. Sort of..." She felt his arms and legs tighten beneath her and smiled to herself faintly. "There’s nothing strange about it in a spooky way... it's just... not being able to stop it, I think. That's the worst part... that and the teeth." Susan curtailed the account in deference to his empathic discomfort, glancing up at him. "When did you first see one?”
“Not for a long time. There’s nothing for them in the mountains... they're city slickers. Kala'amātya was set up in town a long time before I was... he had a place in Samarkand, when it was still Paršvãb, which is a fuck of a long time ago. He was dealing with vampyres before I even knew how to eat off a plate.”
Like the dust that blew in from the neighbouring wastes, the presence of a significant stranger in the most affluent quarter of Paršvãb was a taste in the mouth of the vampyre, a colour other than those of parched summer stone and cracked mud. That the house beyond the gate across the empty way was the town's most luxurious private residence was universally acknowledged; that a foreigner had purchased it was also widely bruited, given the train of slaves and beasts and retainers that had filed in through the north gates like an oasis town afoot. So populous and laden had it been that some thought it a harbinger of catastrophe and taken fright.
There was no sign of this mighty entourage as the vampyre brushed the dust of diurnal repose from his best robe, heavy velvet arbr stained with jade and pomegranate dyes. Splendid though it was, the garment, like his fortunes, had suffered the indignities of the grave, the creature exhorting himself with his old assurance before striding on across the road, passing between the untended gate posts, each thicker than four men stood back to back, their pargeting deeply carved with lion masks.
He found a walled garden planted with arching apricots and roses, beneath which lay benches of skin-smooth marble, their pallor undimmed by the hour. A red horse, bell stilled by its suspicious stance, regarded the intruder from beneath one of the fruit trees while their carefully-tended branches were barked by a pair of desert goats. The vampyre frowned and entered the house, blown sand grating underfoot upon the turquoise tiles.
Grandeur surpassing his most hopeful estimation awaited in the first hall. He smiled at the frescos executed by Hellenic and Egyptian artists, their staring nymphs and rigid bestiaries forming the last word in taste and luxury. The great anteroom lay bare of furnishing but this did not perturb him as much as the flickering of a naked flame, reflected dimly down a passage lined with gleaming green stone. It opened to the star-littered sky beyond the pillars of a peristyle; they were coloured drowsy gold and roseate by a small fire, as might have warmed a desert camp, two figures seated at the blaze. Beside an empty water skin sat a male figure dressed in sombre homespun, black hair tied in a tail, contrasting both his austere features and his wide-set stare. In antithesis, a smoke-skinned crone in a chapan of thick blue felt sat on the far side of the hearth, her white hair knotted in a high wisp. The pendant sleeves of her coat almost concealed the wrinkled stump of her right wrist. The vampyre could discern her origin amongst the clans of the eastern steppe but it was by her great age, tattooed chin and infamous manual deficit that he recognized her personally. She seemed no less appraised, clucking harshly as she lifted a branch from the flames and waved it in the intruder's direction with a scowl that bared her blackened teeth. She railed at length to her companion before dashing her glowing wand back into the fire. With that, the sagacious crone returned to stripping dried meat from a length of antelope bone, gumming it with one slitted eye still on the vampyre.
“I am come to meet the master of this house. Where might he be?” the visitor inquired loudly, using the few words of bandit dialect he had acquired. The pair tried his patience further with their silence until he prepared another botched address.
“I speak the Sogdian tongue.” the male figure muttered, demonstrably.
“Then permit me to remind you that this house is the foremost in Paršvãb, and you are boiling soup bones on its floor like karavansarai rats.” His execration seemed to puzzle them, and the vampyre drew on the dignity he had worn in life as a well-born son of the city. “I am Arimnat, of Paršvãb, its oldest citizen and most learned advisor...”
“I am Kala'amātya, of nowhere, and this woman is I’Tiang-na, of...” Kala'amātya glanced at the crone’s interruption, and amended his remarks. “I’Tiang-na, lately of Paršvãb.”
Arimnat's distaste revealed his knowledge of the ancient reaver’s reputation, lapsing somewhat with the passing of her ruthless crew of feminine fugitives, which she had survived in defiance of those dispatched to subdue her inveterate rapine.
“Another, lately of Paršvãb, is the great man who has brought, to the edification of this fine city, his entire household to dwell with us, having made purchase of this very house... if you are among his retainers, be good enough to tell him that Arimnat has come to make offer of himself for the position of Master of the Gate.”
The nomad pair entered into conference halfway through his declaration, Kala'amātya standing suddenly and advancing on the visitant, seizing his arm and stripping off his mantle in the first act of a thorough and determined physical exam. With his hands he satisfied himself of the creature's inelastic skin, of the sluggish plasticity of his flesh, grasping his head and peeling back his lips to view the remaining teeth and sniffing at them unwillingly. Content with his conclusions, he walked back to the fire, speaking over his shoulder.
“It was I who took this house for I’Tiang-na, who could not contract for it on account of her sex. She will die before the end of winter, and it is a small thing for me to aid her in this. She says that you are a revenant abomination, and I myself can see that you are no living thing. What business can we have with one another?”
“Well said by the worst of all the Tiger Women. You have killed more men between you than I could ever hope.” Arimnat assured them, the pitch of the response conforming to the trajectory of his pique.
“Perhaps, but I am not a man, and do not prey upon my own kind, and as a woman, I’Tiang-na has far more cause than you.”
“It was you, who came with as many slaves as a town could feed?”
“I came thus, but I have sold them. There is nowhere for them in this little place.” said Kala'amātya, glancing around at their confines.
“This is the largest house in Paršvãb, and you might have procured all the stabling and barracks you needed if you had not robbed yourself of half their price in Kokand.”
“You would have lost half your slaves in a week, with this devil’s help.” remarked the crone.
“For once in her evil life, she is correct.” Arimnat announced. “The governor would have taken your finest women for himself, because you did not know he had come for his bribe, and that he must be paid in silver, and not the local gold, which is so poor as to be worthless outside the desert... I could have argued down his price for you. If you had sold your train in Merv, your black camels and your Khotan girls would have made twice what they did in Kokand, where they prefer the toothless brats from the Korezhem... all of which I might have arranged. And living here with my aid, you will know which of the cartmen relieves himself in the water he delivers, which oven girls steal dough, which whores are worth paying and which tax collectors are not, where to buy clothes fit for yourself and your house, so that you will not be laughed at as either savage or simpleton. You m…”
Kala'amātya drew a hand across his forehead in a gesture of impatience. I'Tiang-na expressed a curse and heaved herself from the camel-hair mat, pausing to straighten up before shuffling off along the hall on her saddle-bowed legs.
“Your price?” sighed Kala'amātya. The vampyre began a hedging preamble. “She has gone for her bow... speak frankly before she returns.”
“For my service I require nothing but the dignity and protection of this house, from which the governor may not expel me merely for the habits of my nature.”
"Perhaps a small libation, on festive days... nothing to trouble you. But, I must ask… how does a woman with only one hand wield a bow?” the vampyre inquired. Kala'amātya pushed a slide of embers back into the flames.
“It is better seen than described.” he said.
“I’Tiang-na retired his first vampyre concierge three weeks into the arrangement, and he’s had a strictly no domestic bloodsack policy ever since. I never met I’Tiang-na, and part of me is thankful for that, but I do owe her a toot, since ten solid years of nagging by an octogenarian Qing battle axe was the only thing that could have strong-armed Kala'amātya into property.” William admitted. "Bloodsucker mascots were a thing for a long time... it’s like having your own cat. Less trouble to feed one than put up with all the others.”
“What is this place we’re going to?” she yawned.
“A monastery... an er, ex-monastery”
“All the way out here?”
“Yeah, well... the further away from temptation, the holier you get.”
“God it sounds boring.”
“Ask Pet. She was their surioarã, little sister... whenever she ran out of money or things got too hairy on the outside, she’d come back and sit it out, eat their bedwetters, troublemakers, anything embarrassing dropped off at the door in the middle of the night…"
"Ask Pet? This isn't her place, is it?"
"Er... yeah." His whisper was uniquely insubstantial, shorn cleanly from the grounded, masculine elements of his voice and decaying swiftly.
"She's not there now, though, is she?" He scratched at the side of his neck and murmured some half-comprehensible prevarication. “Oh god... as long as it’s not made of polyester, I’m past caring at this point."
"Well... if you were hoping for heated towel rails, just be thankful there's nowhere to have a bath anyway."
"Where's your brother?" she muttered, closing her eyes.
“Sitting in the middle of fucking nowhere, realizing he should have gone after Frost instead of haterating all the way to eastern fucking Europe and hissing at daylight and whatnot.”
“He's bad, isn't he?”
"Uh huh. Beaucoup horreur.”
"On a scale of one to ten?"
William blew a rueful sigh.
"Eight point five... no, nine. He's down to one language, looks like he has acid for blood... I wouldn't tell any blonde jokes or make too many sudden movements. I’ll say one thing for Frost... she knew how to keep a bad trick in a pretty fucking tidy endorphin haze, and that’s something you don’t miss till it’s gone." He gazed down into the slope below them. “He’s idrana á kata mehtra, Christabel, walking the black mile. Respect the cordon." She twisted, shaking out a stiffening leg. “If it comes down to it and you really are that tired, I ca…”
“As long as I’m conscious I will never let you carry me anywhere for longer than sixty seconds. I mean it.”
“That’s the most evil thing about Ed.” he observed. “He can freezer burn you, be a toxic premium bastard but it doesn’t matter... you still care what he thinks of you.”
“I don’t care what he thinks of me.”
"I care what he thinks, and he’s spent the last two thousand years alienating me like it’s a fucking olympic event.” Her annoyance slowly gave way to toleration of the concept, her breathing slowing into a steady, somnolent rhythm.
“I can’t let you help me.” she murmured. “What if he sees that I can’t do this on my own?” Closing her eyes, she settled her weight and tucked her feet behind his own, too tired to insist on any amendment.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce