Tepes countenanced alliances which ranged him against Romania, the land for which he had fought, and alongside Turkey, the empire he had devoted his warmth to resisting.

Outside the Cabinet Room, Beauregard was greeted by Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the monocled spymaster who served with him on the Ruling Cabal. It was rumoured the vampire had amputated his own leg with a penknife to free himself from the wreckage of a car accident so he could drape his coat over his dying son, who complained of the cold. His leg was regrown past the knee joint; under a bundle of bandages, a new foot was forming.

'Beauregard,' Smith-Cumming said, smiling broadly, 'what do you think of the disguise?'

Smith-Cumming took boyish delight in the element of deception in his profession. He sported a large, patently fake beard. He leered, twitching his horsehair moustache like one of Fred Karno's comedy troupe.

'I look a proper Hun, what? Can't you just see me biting out the throat of a Belgian nun?'

He showed huge false fangs, then spat them out to reveal delicate real ones.

'Where is Mycroft?' Beauregard asked.

Smith-Cumming looked as serious as was possible for a man in disguise. 'Grave news, I'm afraid. Another stroke.'

Mycroft Holmes had been on the Ruling Cabal of the Diogenes Club as long as Beauregard had been a member. His plans had held the nation together throughout the Terror.

Subsequently, he had done much to moderate the odd enthusiasms of the new King and his eternal first minister, Ruthven.

'We're all under a strain. You've heard about Spenser.'

Smith-Cumming nodded, appalled.

'I've had Winthrop step in. He's coming along fast. I trust he'll catch up.'

'Frightening nights, Beauregard,' Smith-Cumming said.

It had started on Sunday, the 28th of June, 1914, in Sarajevo, far from the borders where European powers snarled like dogs separated by fences.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of King-Emperor Franz Joseph, was touring Bosnia with his morganatic wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. Left to its own devices in 1877 by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia was hardly the most desirable patch of Europe, but Austria-Hungary saw it as a natural addition to already swollen and ungovernable holdings. Franz Joseph had almost surreptitiously annexed the province in 1908. Serbia, not unfairly deemed a catspaw of Russia, also had designs on Bosnia and its sister province, Herzegovina.

The Archduke was nosferatu, a provocation. The Slavs and Muslims of Bosnia- Herzegovina did not accept vampires, especially as rulers. Serbian irredentists trumpeted the prevalence of the undead at the King-Emperor's court to stir up those in Bosnia-Herzegovina who wished to be free from bloodsucking Habsburgs. With fine hypocrisy, the Tsar's undead advisers (notably excluding the fanatically warm Rasputin) sent agents to Sarajevo to agitate torch-bearing mobs of vampire-hating Orthodox Christians, Serbian nationalists and cafe trouble-makers. Pamphlets appeared giving obscene accounts of the Archduke's marital relations with the plumply warm Sophie, a Czech caricatured as a bloodmilk cow.

It was the unshakable belief of the Central Powers that Tsar Nicky personally ordered a student Van Helsing named Gavrilo Princip to empty a revolver at Franz Ferdinand, putting silver in the Habsburg's vampire heart and incidentally murdering the scabby-necked Sophie. Equally, any adherent of the Allied cause was required to believe Princip a lunatic acting independently of any of the Great Powers, or even a paid agent of a warmongering Kaiser.

Beauregard once asked Mycroft if Russia was involved. The great man conceded no one truly knew. On one hand, the Okhrana certainly dispensed cash (and, probably, silver bullets) to many of Princip's stripe; on the other, even Artamanov, the attache responsible for handing over funds, was unsure whether the obscure assassin was one of his contacts.

The Kaiser, seeing an opportunity to redraw the map of Europe, egged the ascetic bureaucrat Franz Josef Ferdinand into issuing a communique to Serbia which must be construed as a preparation for war. Russia was pledged to defend Serbia from Austria-Hungary, Germany was required to stand with the King-Emperor in war with Russia, France was bound by treaty to attack any nation that warred with the Romanovs, Germany could strike at France only by invading through Belgium, Great Britain was obliged to preserve Belgian neutrality. Once Princip's silver bullet transfixed the Archduke, the cards fell one by one.

That summer, Beauregard, contemplating his sixtieth year, was considering retirement. As each alliance was invoked, each nation mobilised, he realised he could not leave his post. Reluctantly, he conceded there would be war.

In 1918, the question of who ruled Bosnia was remote. The Romanovs faced death by a hammered stake and beheading sickle. Franz Josef Ferdinand's mind was gone, his empire governed by a feuding rabble of Austrian and Magyar elders. The Kaiser had long since ceased to supervise the conduct of the war, which was entirely in the hands of the Graf von Dracula and his new-born clique, von Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

The doors of the reception room opened and the two active members of the Ruling Cabal were ushered in to see the elder who ruled Great Britain under the standard of King Victor.

'Gentlemen,' said Lord Ruthven, 'come in and sit down.'

The Prime Minister was clad entirely in dove grey, from spats and morning coat to ruffled stock and curly- brimmed topper. He was at his bare desk, posed archly beneath another of his own portraits, a martial study by Elizabeth Asquith. The indifferent canvas might have earned a place because the artist's father was Home Secretary in Ruthven's Government of National Unity.

Others sat in deep armchairs around the room. Lord Asquith sourly contemplated despatches. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was in France, but General Sir William Robertson and General Sir Henry Wilson of His Majesty's General Staff were present, kitted out in dress uniform. Churchill, the baby-faced Minister for Munitions, wore a smock-like robe which tented over his considerable bulk and an American belt with holstered pistols at his hips. Lloyd George, Minister of War, stood by the window chewing on an unlit pipe. Sitting meekly by the Prime Minister was the little-publicised Caleb Croft of the Home Office, his bloody hands in woolly gloves. Croft's duties were too frightening to consider.

Beauregard and Smith-Cumming took chairs in the centre of the circle.

'Tell me,' Ruthven purred, 'how goes the secret war?'


Past Midnight

Courtney kept winding the gramophone and setting the needle back to the beginning. 'Poor Butterfly' was the only record in the billet. Winthrop wondered if the choice struck anyone else as unhealthy. Butterfly kept waiting but Pinkerton never came back, the swine. Every three minutes, the unfortunate Cio-Cio-San wasted away, drained cold and abandoned by her vampire lover. The story always upset Winthrop, and this version, distilled to a few verses, was the most concentratedly upsetting.

'We used to have a rare selection,' Williamson claimed, when Winthrop voiced a complaint at the limited repertoire. 'The Bohemian Girl, Chu Chin Chow, 'Take a Pair of Crimson Eyes'...'

'But there was a binge and they all got smashed,' said Bertie.

'I miss The Vampyres of Venice,' said Ginger.

'Heroic binge, though,' Courtney said. 'A veritable binge of binges. The demoiselles can still feel the bites.'

The record finished and the gramophone stuttered, hissing. Courtney lifted the needle. 'Poor Butterfly' started again.

The bridge game had evaporated. The pilots lounged in the mess, not talking of Red Albright, regarding Winthrop with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. He fancied some of the vampires looked at him hungrily.

'Will you be permanent?' Bigglesworth asked.

'Nothing's permanent,' Courtney got in. 'Not even immortality.'

'I'm given to understand that I'm to be your liaison with Diogenes in place of Captain Spenser.'

'Oh joy,' said Brown, a sour Canadian.

'Mind your head then,' said Williamson.

'I intend to.'

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