The lowest row of cells within the monastery had been hollowed into the mountain's fundamental stone and shared its exanimation, the spinal passage lined with cells declared by the same blank style of arch that pierced the colonnade. The cold air stood in staled suspension between smoothly-hewn walls that threw back the shuffling of her boots as they bundled settled dust. Time was chastened by the entombing geology, the cool reptilian smell of the stone lying heavily under a paler note of incense cedar, the ghost of an expired consecration. Her own scent seemed so invasive and inapt that she grimaced to herself, shuffling onward in a darkness relieved only by the docent beam before her. It swept over a stout plank bench against the wall, the worms fretting its timbers betrayed by the mound of frass sifted beneath its legs, and she paused, bending to push a finger into the wood and waving away the powder that flew up at her face. Beneath her arm the pig began to grunt and move its soignée legs, impatient with her circumspection. She scolded it softly; the torch beam met a mounded form upon the ground that stiffened her with fright until she recognized it as one of Petrouchka’s furs. With the dying orange light she examined the arch beside it, lifting a hand and knocking upon the granite, ruing the stupidity of the gesture as it bruised her knuckles. Something in the dark beyond assured her of an answer.
"I brought Fyodor...” she offered. "I thought you might be missing him.” The remark was greeted by a period of deliberate silence, then an equally tenebrous reply.
“I don’t miss."
"I just... I feel... bad." Susan admitted. She stepped beneath the arch, only to be checked by the failure of her torch in a gloom so complete that she would not have seen a hand before her face. The pig’s hooves scurried against her arms, the animal leaping to the ground and trotting swiftly back the way they had come in an action no more diplomatic than it was ambiguous.
"You feel bad?" Petrouchka murmured. "Maybe you have disease."
Susan stepped back as she perceived the darkly-glassed shapes of the vampyre's eyes, gleaming in the blackness like the inlaid gaze of a funeral effigy.
"What you want?"
"Just to talk..."
"You people... all so in love with your own voice. Go away. I don't want talk."
Tiny rasping sounds informed Susan's drifting stare that her hostess had shifted, though she could not locate her black-draped form until a white, abortive flare hissed and died against the vampyre's hands, her outline suddenly elaborated as a bundle of matches held their flame and lit a slag-like mass of tapers on a socket in the wall. Their lazy glow illumed a face that still wore the slack, livid vacuity of solitude, and an unsuspected shape beside her that proved a tall expanse of shelving, the upper and lowermost compartments deeply shadowed by the candles. Each aperture was neatly stocked with a row of human skulls, flensed and desiccated to a narrow range of flecked and ashen eggshell and pallid sepia. Susan stared wordlessly at the baffling array, their order and spotless aspect damping the horror they might have otherwise inspired. Their hollows shifted with the flame stirred by her breathing as she examined the sutured features of each cranium until the blind orbits became a leitmotif far too relentless for sustained perusal. She looked from them to the surrounding cell, the space proportioned exactly as their own, though half-buried and windowless. While her eyes adapted she made out sounds of movement through the vaulting overhead; footfalls, then Sachiin’s chuckling address to Fyodor as the pig returned to the object of his transferred affections. His words were, for the most, part distinct. She closed her eyes at the thought of everything the vampyre had been party to while Petrouchka observed her mortification with a lean amusement.
Some of her coats hung, faintly delineated, on the wall beside the arch like the mortal leavings that they were, beheaded and transfigured as though by maleficia. The vampyre muttered, looking over the ossuary with a proprietary eye.
"Some, I kill. But most, they die. I saw them come into this place... little boys, then old, so soon.” Behind a dark length of the heavy woolen stuff that had clothed the tenant monks lay her makeshift divan, composed of worn furs heaped into a pile. At its far end a doting little doppelgänger arrangement lay upon the floor by an earthenware bowl half-filled with water; Susan’s heart sank further at the sight of it.
“I’m so sorry about Fyodor” she lamented. Petrouchka sat back down.
“I already say... everybody love Sachiin. Nobody love a dead thing.” Her accent embellished the sentiment with macabre dignity. “If you won't go away, then sit.” she added, offering a bearth. Susan quashed her reluctance and accepted, hidden timbers creaking beneath her weight. They remained too long without speaking while the candlelight settled like dim water around them.
“There’s a lot of snow out there now.” she ventured.
“Where I come from, snow is blue, like eye, and hard, like jewel. If you are still, the winter take you... put arms around, and crush. This... is only pretty snow.” To her increasing discomfort the vampyre’s glances, so slow and grudging, had coalesced into deliberation and Petrouchka rose, crossing to the sagging bulk of a leather-bound coffer beside the ossuary. From this she withdrew two objects, a brush and hand mirror in silver that wore the orthodox red and halcyon blues of Slavic enamel, thickly studded with bosses of cabochon gems. “Sit sit, like this.” she urged, beckoning her sideways. “You are big mess. I fix.”
Susan ducked as rigid yellow bristles sank into her hair and snarled amongst its knots. She pressed her hand to her scalp before it could be stripped by the vampyre's stiff, perfunctory attentions, though Petrouchka paused to examine the side of her neck where it was exposed to the candle light. Her voice had descended to the volume of a prayer murmured over tightly-clasped hands.
“So many scar now... ugly, kotik... make you look like camp whore. Lucky Sachiin have so many himself, he don’t care... I don’t think he care, from what I hear at night.” Her narrow little fingers snagged the hair that they had massed into a tail.
"It could have been worse."
“You think was good that I beat this creature who try to eat you? Some time, when you are old... grand-mére, with no petits-enfants... you will be sick and sad like me, not even with the blood of others as a comfort... you will lie as I do now and hear what you can't have. When Sachiin finish with you, you will wish I met you first.” Susan sat amongst the silence while it served the vampyre like a hand pressed to her mouth. The cold, dry points of the creature's knuckles drew a line beneath her scars in a mute coda to her admission. “You see I am more evil than the man I run away from, but I make no secret... I tell to you. You know sometime, at night... I think, while you are sleeping, how good to cut you open, see everything come out of you... make Sachiin and Kala'amātya dig a hole and cover you with stones.”
Though she had been leaning forward slowly, Susan grew still as the vampyre's fist closed in her hair, unwilling to allow evasive latitude while she indulged herself.
"Don't run..." Petrouchka whispered. Her chin touched her guest's shoulder as she stroked down the restive shedim roused by the prospect of blood-warmed skin, even as it twisted in silky knots inside her throat, muting her counsel. "Be still for me. I don't want to smell your blood here." The rows of empty skulls swam as one of the wicks perished in the wax. The joints inside the vampyre's fingers clicked as they slowly unfurled, partitioning her hair and commencing a narrow braid. Susan let her eyes lose their focus on the black wall before her. "You are so much your blood, milaya moya... you call sweetly to the knife. Look how good my english become when I imagine taste of you."
Susan murmured, tilting her head as her hostess worked the hair behind her ear.
“How long have you been like this?”
“I die before the devil come for Ivan Groznyi."
“How did you know? That you were dead?”
Petrouchka's hands grew still again, but the time she took to furnish a reply, the perils inherent in retrieval did not diminish the inquiry's imperative.
"When it fall on you, you don’t think now I am dead thing..." The vampyre avowed, as though dismissing an assumption. "You think... something has happen... maybe bad... but you don't know." She doubled the end of the first braid back into the weave and began another. "Some time at night, I go from my husband's house and walk along the road. I want only to breathe with no one to hear. A upyr, he find me... he do to me. I go, on hand and knee, back to the house, with nothing where my throat should be. At first, they nurse me, but... when I do not grow well, my husband, he bring an old priest. They take the covers from my body and in their hands..." The sound of Sachiin easing the door closed overhead pushed through the stone. "In their hands they have sword. That night, they kill the pigs before the winter. I wake in that hole, under the dirty pieces of a hundred swine." Susan pressed her eyes closed as the vampyre tore out a knot from her nape. "I run, back to my old home, thinking my father, my sisters, they would have pity. But no... they scream for god and do not know me. Was like a knife into my head, again." Her hands slowed. "Then, I know. The living put you in your grave. They say that you have died, and are accursed. Until they do, you think it all a dream."
"Did they never talk to you again?"
"I saw them no more, but for one time. My young sister, Galina... at ball, in Ostankino... she so old I could not recognize, but she see me. All her beauty gone, so few pleasures, but she look at me, and...” Her voice grew lower still. “I don’t go back. The places that were alive to you are gone... you cry outside the door... nobody hear you. So I find new places... to Paris, and to Frankfurt, then... why do you want to hear? You are tourist...”
"I live here now." Susan assured her.
"You don't say that to upyr. This death, it never finish with us. You die, but is beginning... you are still losing, so much... you lose feeling... for thing, for people... I try to keep a memory of feeling, but I can't have. I kill people for their feeling... but it fall out of me, like I am made of bad cloth. Life is shadow on my face. My body serve only the evil that is in me, and I sicken myself to please it. I am charogne. I drown, in my hole, with the pigs.”
Again the vampyre lapsed into a silence thick with her own battered spectre.
“When I think everything is gone, I meet de Marchand. If she was not evil, she was not good, but she find a way to live so you are not sorry. She say to me, Trouchka, what is death, but the breaking of our only chains? For a time, I hold her hand, and her face was the star that I had lost.” Susan touched the antiquated composition in her hair, and the vampyre took the mirror from her lap, holding it before her. “There. Pretty now.” she pronounced, turning the blackened glass upon her own flame-lit features. “They say we cannot be seen like this, but is only dead who cannot see. The truth... the one that make you more than you were a day before... is lost to us.”
“As much as I don’t know him, or Helaine... I don’t think Kala'amātya loved her to spite you. I don't think we have a choice.”
“I lie when I say she would not choose him. Would she choose me? He walk into her house, enough life in his great body for one hundred people, and no fear of what she was. From the first, they were vyehs' to one another. Helaine live, and then she die... I was dead, and try to live, but you can have no more when it has gone... not another moment, if you beg one hundred saint and paint their feet with blood. You have only time. Ask Kala'amātya, if time is good for company."
Leaning back into a curl against the wall Petrouchka gathered her skirt over her legs, regarding Susan with her darkest aspect.
"I lie too, to him, in what I say last night... Helaine find that she was enciente, and could not believe... but when she tell to me, she smile, and say... we never thought ourselves enough for this small creature, and I am happy to be wrong... I hear these words, and I want to cut it from her. I cut it from her heart. I tell her everything she dread... herself, of him, of what could come, and in a week, she drink the cup, make me promise never to tell. When he come home from Paris, I take his hand, I smile, and I wish him joyeux noel. But vengence taste like blood you lick from hole in your own skin." She touched her own face as though doubtful of its shape. "If Helaine come back to him... udači... I wish good luck. The darkness love her and has no patience. Of her Art... I don't know what she find, behind a door closed so long.”
Rising, the vampyre hoisted the lid from the trunk once more and leant over to lift something pale from its dusty bowels. The gesture redoubled Susan’s desire to escape, throwing a ripple through the candle light that made the creature's small shape slide out of focus with her attendant shadow.
“I want for you to have.” Petrouchka handed her the bundle; she mutely refused, but the vampyre grimaced and raised a hand to her head as though to ease some harping pain and spoke through heavy, torpid loathing. “Don't say you can't take... you already take from me... but I want for you to have. If you stay, and I hurt you, I won’t feel bad.” Her face lapsed into a smirk, the black holes in her eyes licking at her face. "If I do, it will not be for hunger... I don't feel. I will do because I am écœurant, et affreux.”
Her smile blackened again, blooming horribly and sending her eyes backward into her head.
“I love so much your great disgust.” Petrouchka soughed, looking down at herself. "This... is not even the worst I could be. In Praha I see this thing... never hungry, but always at the feast, where it devour, and exalt itself. I thought there was nothing more, but soon I will wake in that garden, where black flowers turn toward you, and the trees are all aflame." She dropped the mirror into Susan’s arms. “Sachiin will stay long enough to make you hate your own face, and Kala'amātya, he will leave you when you need him. Be careful.”
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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