Balfour and Meriwether in The Vampire of Kabul by Daniel Abraham

As I have grown old, I have watched the world of my youth fade with me. The damage done by the Great War will never be calculated. And yet, even now, I hear from my friends in the circles of power - in truth, most are now the children of my friends - that a third war in Afghanistan is all but certain. Even more than the war on the continent just passed, I find myself in dread of this new conflict and the powers it may provoke.

And yet, also I feel the nostalgia of old hunts, old games, old enemies now lost to history, and feel again not the rush of conflict but its echo. And recall the unparalleled eyes of a most singular woman I once knew…

—From the Last Notebooks of Mr. Meriwether, 1919

CHAPTER ONE: The Two Empresses

It was the third of December in 188-, and snow swirled down grey and damp upon the cobblestones of London. Meriwether paced before the wide window of the King Street flat impatiently. Balfour sat before the roaring fire, correcting a draft monograph he had written on the subject of Asiatic hand combat as adapted to the English frame.

“I cannot understand how you can be so devilishly placid,” Meriwether said at last.

“Practice,” Balfour grunted.

“Every winter it’s the same,” Meriwether said, gesturing at the falling snow. “The darkness comes earlier, the cold drives men from the roads, and I have this…stirring. This unutterable restlessness. The winter traps me, my friend. It holds me captive.”

Balfour stroked his wide mustache. His bear-like grunt could have passed for agreement or mere acknowledgment. Meriwether turned away from street and snow, pushing pale hair back from his brow.

“If only something could break this, this malaise…”

Balfour glanced up in time to see the figure—slight, clad in dark leather, and swinging from a near-invisible tether—just before it shattered the windows. Shards of glass and wide, wet snowflakes accompanied the figure as it rolled across the carpeted floor. With a shout equal parts alarm and delight, Meriwether dove for his paired service revolvers. Balfour leapt from his chair, drawing blades from the sheaths concealed by his dressing gown’s sleeves, only to find the mouth of a huge handgun pressed firmly to the bridge of his nose. The leather-clad figure met his gaze, brown eyes flecked with gold. Her lips were the soft red of rose petals, and her smile sensual and touched by madness. The scent of clove perfume filled the air like a memory.

Maria Feodorovna.

“Czarina,” Meriwether said, pulling back the hammers of his revolvers with an ominous doubled click. “I’ll ask you to stand away from Mr. Balfour, if you please.”

The Empress Consort of Russia lifted her fine-plucked eyebrows. When she spoke, her voice betrayed nothing of the physical effort she had just expended.

“My good Mr. Meriwether, I’ll ask you to note that I have already depressed the trigger of my weapon.”

“Ah,” Meriwether said, sourly. “A dead man’s switch, is it?”

“Indeed. Fire upon me, and you author your good friend’s death.”

“Cheap at the price,” Balfour grunted. “Shoot her.”

Meriwether uncocked his weapons, stepping over the remnants of his windows to lean out, squinting up through the grey snowflakes toward the low, white sky. The Czarina’s weapon didn’t waver.

“Fastened a silken cord to the roof and then launched yourself out,” he said. “You took something of a risk. London’s architecture is not always so solid as it might seem.”

“I had to approach you with very little warning,” she said. “Had I simply announced myself, I think my reception might not have been so cordial, yes?”

“After Cyprus, I think an assumption of violence would have been appropriate,” Meriwether said. “And yet I cannot help notice you haven’t yet killed us, nor we you. It isn’t a turn of events I would have foreseen, and I take it that you have some specific intention in engineering it?”

“I do,” the Czarina said, “but I would require your word of honor that you would respect our truce.”

“Truce?” Balfour asked.

“We face a common enemy,” she said. “Until he is defeated, I suggest we make common cause.”

Balfour’s face reddened and his bright eyes bulged.

“I’d sooner make common cause with malaria!”

The Czarina made a small, disappointed sound with her tongue and teeth.

“This is where all things end, then,” she said and brought up her free hand to steady the pistol.

“What manner of common enemy?” Meriwether asked.

Her smile broadened by a fraction of an inch.

“Truce?” she asked.

“Truce,” Meriwether said.

“Word of honor?”

“Of course.”

She nodded to Balfour.

“Do you agree as well, my old friend?”

Balfour chuffed under his breath, stepped back, and truculently sheathed his knives. A gust of winter wind brought snow into the room. The fire hissed in complaint.

“Good enough, then,” the Czarina said, working a small mechanism on her pistol before returning it to the holster at her hip. “Seven weeks ago, my husband was assaulted in his rooms. I was not present at the time, but the woman who impersonates me during my absences reports that immediately before, there was an ectoplasmic darkness that formed in the corners of the room and which no light could dispel, followed by a terrible apparition in the shape of a man with bright red eyes and skin the color of snow. Her memory of the event itself is clouded. We know that my husband survived, that he was for some days afterward quite weak and anemic in appearance. And furthermore… Furthermore, I have reason to believe that his mind is no longer entirely subject to his will.”

For a moment, snow-muffled hoofbeats and the wet bubbling of the gaslight were the only sounds.

“Are you saying that the Emperor of Russia has gone mad?” Meriwether asked, leaning against the ruined window frame.

“Worse,” she said. “He is being compelled by an outside force. A being of spiritual darkness has struck at the heart of my empire. And what researches I have managed tell me that it also has designs upon yours.”

The interior door burst open, and a harried-looking Mrs. Long stepped in barely ahead of Lord Carmichael.

“Come quick, boys. The queen’s been attacked!” Lord Carmichael said even before Mrs. Long could announce him. And then, taking in the chaos of glass and ice before him, “What in the world’s going on? And what is she doing here?”

Meriwether scooped up his signature black greatcoat as Balfour reached for his brace of knives. The Czarina bowed slightly to Lord Carmichael, her disconcerting eyes fixed upon his.

“She appears to be helping us, unlikely as that seems,” Meriwether said. “Mrs. Long, I apologize again for the inconvenience, but if you could please—”

“I’ll send a boy to the glazier right away, sir,” Mrs. Long said. “You see Her Majesty’s safely taken care of.”

“Well, then,” the Czarina said, tucking Meriwether’s arm firmly in her own, “let us hurry to Buckingham Palace.”

Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату