Aside from the preponderance of men in both the drawing room and the parlor behind it – and the fact that the servants were all Chinese – the reception appeared little different from any large gathering in Kensington or Mayfair, to celebrate the engagement of the host’s daughter. The champagne was French, the croutes and caviar on the buffet entirely predictable.

Then Asher had seen him in the doorway between the drawing room and the parlor: a thin, pale gentleman slightly below average height, his long, wispy hair the color of ivory and his face not the face of a man from this newly-dawned twentieth century. A sixteenth-century face, despite the stylish black evening-clothes and white tie. In fact, Don Simon Xavier Christian Morado de la Cadena-Ysidro had died in 1555.

And had become a vampire.

Asher took a deep breath and let it out. ‘I think you know what I’m doing here.’ He reached for the inner pocket of his long-tailed black dinner-coat, and Ysidro moved one finger: I’ve read it.

Of course he’s read it. It’s what brought him here as well.

For a moment he looked down into the vampire’s eyes, crystalline sulfur palely flecked with gray. I should have killed him in St Petersburg, when I had the chance. The fact that Ysidro had saved his life, and that of his young wife Lydia, should have made no difference. Asher had killed vampires, in the seven years since he’d first become aware of their existence, and had seen them kill. He knew Ysidro was one of the most dangerous in Europe. Probably the oldest and one of the most adept in that paramount skill of the vampire, the ability to seduce the minds and influence the perceptions of the living.

To the point that they don’t feel they can kill him even when they’re standing over him with a stake in one hand and a hammer in the other.

Ysidro turned to the young lady who was seated next to him on the piano bench. ‘Know you anything of Schubert, mistress?’ he inquired in the French that was nearly universal in the diplomatic community.

She nodded – Asher guessed her to be one of the Belgian ambassador’s daughters. Even females slightly too young to be officially ‘out’ were precious additions to parties in the small world of the Legation Quarter.

‘Can you play his “Serenade”? Excellent.’ Though his closed lips hid the long vampire fangs, Ysidro had a beautiful smile. ‘James,’ he went on, rising. ‘Let us talk.’

The hand he put on Asher’s elbow to steer him through the crowd toward the parlor’s bow windows was light as a child’s, but capable – Asher knew – of crushing the bone within the flesh.

The chatter around them did not seem to have changed markedly since 1898.

‘Honestly, there’s no arguing with them,’ declared a bracket-faced matron in lilting Viennese French as they passed, to an elegant dame in aubergine silk. ‘Our Number One Boy will not leave the mirror above the mantlepiece in Freidrich’s room, no matter how many times I order him to. He says it’s bad joss to have it facing the bed . . .’

Dialects and accents were Asher’s hobby and delight – his business, these days, as a Lecturer in Philology. His trained ear identified the schoolroom French of the British and Russians, the slurry Parisian of the French ambassador and his wife. Over in a corner he heard German: a harsh Berliner accent, and a countrified Saxon. Yes, there was Colonel von Mehren, whom he recognized from his earlier visit. Is he still the Kaiser’s Military Commissioner? And with him old Eichorn, Chief Translator at the German Legation, who didn’t seem to have aged a day. Von Mehren wouldn’t associate Asher’s current unobtrusive brown mustache and unassuming bearing with his previous incarnation as the shaggy, grumpy Professor Gellar from Heidelberg. No danger there. But Asher had always suspected that Eichorn – one of the long-time ‘China hands’ immersed in the language and culture – was running an information network for the Abteilung.

Keep clear of him . . .

Still no sign of Sir Grant Hobart in the crowded parlor. At six feet two, Asher’s old Oxford acquaintance was difficult to miss. Asher followed Ysidro behind the velvet curtains into the embrasure of the parlor’s bow window, the cold blackness of a bare garden on the other side of the glass. Naked trees fidgeted in the wind that swept from the Gobi desert, dry as the fawn-colored dust which was a part of living in Peking. Like the house, the garden was a brave pretense that living in China wasn’t really so terribly different from being in England: the ‘stiff upper lip’ at its most defiant.

‘I think you will find the Kuo Min-tang deep in error when they seek to give the men of China a vote, Sir Allyn,’ proclaimed a voice just beyond the concealing drapes. Asher raised his brows as he recognized the speaker as the ‘provisional’ President of the new-formed Republic itself: the head of the largest faction of its Army. Yuan Shi-k’ai, stout and gorgeously attired in a Western uniform thick with bullion, watched the faces of the diplomats around him with cold black eyes. ‘The people of China need a strong hand on the rein, as a spirited horse is only happy when it feels its rider dominate it. Without a strong man in power, only disaster can follow.’

Sir Allyn Eddington made the non-committal agreement expected of a host. A few feet off in the crowd Asher heard Sir Grant’s name and craned to look: a slim woman in a very girlish white dress had caught Lady Myra Eddington by the arm – Asher could see the resemblance in their faces. She had asked, ‘What does Sir Grant say?’

Lady Eddington replied soothingly, ‘He promised Ricky would be here, Holly darling. That’s all he can reasonably do.’

‘It’s an insult!’ Holly Eddington’s sharp cheekbones reddened. ‘It’s our own engagement party—’

‘Dearest,’ her mother said with a sigh, and she laid a kid-gloved hand on the young woman’s shoulder. ‘You know what Richard is. I’ll tell Cheng to let us know when he arrives, but beyond that, pestering Sir Grant about his son isn’t going to get us anywhere.’

She nodded toward the far corner of the room as she spoke, and at the same moment Asher heard Sir Grant Hobart’s unmistakable voice bray, ‘Poppycock!’

The crowd shifted, and Asher saw his quarry in conversation with two German officers whom Asher didn’t recognize and a Japanese Colonel whom he did: a stout, diminutive, and heavily bespectacled little nobleman named Mizukami, who fourteen years ago had been the Meiji Emperor’s military attache to the German Army in Shantung.

Not the time to go over and ask a favor. Even had Asher not just encountered the one person – living or dead – who could tell him what he needed to know about the shocking thing that had brought him thirteen thousand sea miles to this farthest corner of Britain’s influence, the newly-born Republic of China.

In the shadows of those wine-hued curtains, the vampire’s eyes caught the glare of the parlor’s electric lights, reflective as a cat’s. Asher slid his hand into his breast pocket, found the article he had clipped from last August’s Journal of Oriental Medicine. He had reread it a hundred times on the six-week voyage on the Royal Charlotte and still hoped it wasn’t true.

‘Last year in Prague you spoke to me of the nest of creatures there, undead things that weren’t vampires,’ he said. ‘The Others, you called them then.’

Ysidro’s assent was a motion of his eyelids that if he’d been a living man would have been a nod. There was nothing dead, or static, about the vampire’s stillness: it was as if after three hundred and fifty years he had become infinitely wearied of intercourse with the living world.

‘Did you ever see them?’

‘Once. Like the vampire, they can make themselves extremely difficult to see.’ The vampire’s gentle whisper still held the faintest traces of the sixteenth-century Castilian that had been his native tongue. It was typical of Ysidro, Asher reflected, that the girl at the piano – now rendering a very beautiful version of Schubert’s ‘Serenade’ – hadn’t noticed either the vampire’s fangs when he spoke, or the fact that his nails were long, shiny, thick and sharp as claws. Such was the nature of the vampire’s psychic power.

She probably also didn’t notice that he wasn’t breathing.

‘Difficult even for vampires?’

Another flicker of assent. ‘Nor can our minds affect their perceptions, as they do those of the living. This may be partly because the Others haunt the islands of the river in Prague, hiding beneath its bridges to take advantage of our – incapacity –’ he seemed to sidestep an admission of weakness with aloof distaste – ‘with regard to running water.’

‘Which they don’t share?’

‘No. I did not, you understand, venture close to them.’ Ysidro drew on his gloves, gray French kid, and smoothed the silk-fine leather over his long fingers. ‘They devour vampires as they devour the living and, indeed, anything else they can catch.’

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