‘You said then that they were to be found only in Prague.’

‘So the Master of Prague told me. So too did I hear from the Masters of Berlin and Warsaw. Those of Augsburg, and Moscow, and of other cities, had never even heard of such creatures.’

‘Yet now they’ve turned up here.’

A small line, like the trace of a fine-pointed pen, appeared for a moment near one corner of Ysidro’s lips, then vanished.

‘What else did the Master of Prague tell you?’

‘Only what I then told you. That they first appeared in the days of the great plague, five centuries and a half ago. That they conceal themselves in the crypts and tunnels that honeycomb the ancient part of the town. They seem to reproduce themselves as vampire reproduce, through contamination of blood, though apparently without the phenomenon of death through which the vampire pass. The Others are not physically undead: merely very, very difficult to kill.’

Do they age and die?’

‘This the Master of Prague did not know.’ The vampire turned his head sharply, as if at some sound beyond the windows, though the only thing Asher could hear above the chatter of the crowd in the room was the keening of the wind.

He’s nervous, Asher thought, interested.

No. He’s afraid.

‘So far as Master of Prague can tell –’ Ysidro recovered smoothly – ‘the Others have a sort of consciousness, yet do not seem to retain that individuality which makes me Simon and you James. They move like herding beasts or fish in a school. Like the vampire, they seem to be destroyed by the rays of the sun, though the process takes much longer, and they seem to have the same adverse reaction to such substances as silver and whitethorn and garlic. Like the vampire, while they retain the physical organs of generation these appear to be otiose. Did not this old Jew, this professor of yours with whom you traveled to China, know these things?’

‘Most of them.’ Asher was interested that the vampire knew who his traveling companions were. ‘Professor Karlebach’s study has been primarily vampires.’

Whatever the Master of Prague might have told Ysidro about Professor Solomon Karlebach was reflected in another infinitesimal tightening of the vampire’s lips.

‘Whether there are masters and fledglings among them, as among vampires, he knew not, nor how they communicate amongst themselves. None has ever heard one speak.’

‘Asher, old man!’

Asher turned at the sound of Hobart’s booming voice and held out his hand.

‘Eddington told me you’d showed up on the doorstep looking for me. More dark doings at the crossroad, eh?’

Asher laid a finger to his lips, his expression only half-humorous. The British Legation’s Senior Translator grinned and shook Asher’s hand as if he were operating a pump. Asher made no move to introduce Don Simon, as he was fairly sure Hobart was completely unaware of the vampire’s elegant presence in the shadowed niche between curtains and window glass.

‘I need someone to vouch for me,’ said Asher. ‘To tell anyone who asks – and I’m pretty sure that someone from the German Legation will ask after me – that Lord, yes, you knew me at Oxford and know for a fact that I haven’t stirred from the place in twenty-five years.’

‘Hah! I knew it!’ Hobart’s pale-blue eyes sparkled, and he bared his stained teeth again. ‘All that sneaking about Shantung in ninety-eight, with a German accent and that moth-eaten beard—’

‘I mean it, Hobart,’ said Asher quietly. ‘If you recognized me back then, there’s always the chance that someone will recognize me now. And it is vital that inquiries be discouraged – or led as quickly as possible up the garden path.’

‘You can count on me, old fellow.’ The big man saluted, then sobered and cast a sour glance across the parlor at the uniformed Germans. They were now in conversation with one of President Yuan Shi-k’ai’s aides, a sleek, rather ferret-like man with a beautiful Chinese woman of perhaps fifty supported on one arm. ‘The Huns are thick as thieves with Yuan,’ he added in a lower voice. ‘I’ll swear they were the ones who swung those loans he got from every bank in Europe. That’s Huang Da-feng with them now, Yuan’s go-between with the criminal bosses in the town. And that woman – you wouldn’t think it to look at her – runs half the brothels in Peking . . . Not that Sir Allyn has an inkling, I’ll go bail.’

Hobart nodded in the direction of the drawing room doorway, where their host and his sharp-faced hostess were conferring with the Chinese butler in his white coat. ‘With that wife of his looking over his shoulder I doubt Sir Allyn knows what a sing-song girl is.’ The big man grimaced: he was one of the old China hands, who had been in Peking for twenty years while ministers, attaches, and diplomats came and went. ‘If you need a hand with anything, Richard or I – you know my boy Richard’s out here with me now? Secretary – I needed someone I could trust . . . and needed to get the boy away from the company he was keeping in London, if truth be known. But if you need help . . .’

‘Not my business.’ Asher held up his hand. ‘This time I really am here only in quest of verb forms and legends. In particular, a legend about rat-people – shu-jen, or shu-kwei. In particular I’m looking for a missionary named Dr Christina Bauer.’

‘Oh, Lord, her!’ Hobart made another face. ‘Hand in glove with the Kaiser, if you ask me. Colonel von Mehren’s been out to Mingliang Village half a dozen times this past year, and you can’t tell me it’s all to do with the Kuo Min-tang militias in the countryside. Mingliang’s where the Bauer woman’s got her church and what she claims is a clinic. But you could hide a regiment in some of those caves in the hills, and nobody in Peking would be the wiser. I’ll send Richard out there with you—’

Lady Eddington’s shrill voice reached them above the babble of the crowd. ‘He knew the engagement was to be announced tonight! It’s a deliberate insult!’

The red, wrinkled skin of Hobart’s face seemed to darken with his frown. ‘Told the boy he’d better show his face here tonight,’ he grumbled. ‘I don’t know what else she wants me to do. Go down to the Chinese city looking for him?’ He laughed rudely. ‘Wouldn’t put it past the girl – and her mother – to have made the whole thing up. But it’s damned awkward. For all I know Ricky did ask Holly Eddington to marry him: the boy drinks too much. I got him out of a scrape in Cambridge when some harpy of a landlady’d got her claws in him over her so-called daughter—’

His gray-shot mustache bristled as he pursed his lips. ‘You haven’t got a son, have you, Asher? I heard someone say you finally pulled it off with old Willoughby’s heiress. Never thought I’d see that happen.’

‘Miss Willoughby did me the honor of accepting my hand, yes.’ Asher kept his voice level, but remembered several reasons he hadn’t liked Grant Hobart at Oxford.

‘She here with you? I understand old Willoughby cut up to the tune of a couple of million.’

‘Mrs Asher accompanied me to China, yes.’ If I break this ass’s nose for him, I’m sure it would draw Colonel von Mehren’s attention to me. ‘We arrived this afternoon on the Royal Charlotte and are staying at the Hotel Wagons-Lits. And yes, we have a daughter, Miranda, born at the beginning of this year.’

Even the mention of her name lifted Asher’s heart.

Hobart dug him in the ribs with his elbow. ‘Eh, you old dog . . . You just watch out when the girl grows up. If old Willoughby’s shekels are settled on her, you’re going to be for it, with fortune-hunters coming out of the woods all ’round you like Hottentots. Every girl in Oxford was after Ricky like the hounds of Hell on account of his mother’s fortune. Not that the men here aren’t ten times worse if there’s an heiress to be had. Well, you know how it is: if a man’s in the diplomatic he’s got to marry money, even if it’s only a couple hundred —’

His words were cut off by a woman’s scream. The garden, thought Asher as he flung open the window behind him – Ysidro had vanished, he wasn’t even sure when. Bitter night wind smote him, and in the dark of the garden a blur of white moved.

Another scream: horror and shock.

Asher was out the window and across the brick terrace in two running strides. Light fell through the drawing room windows behind him, through a door further along the house, enough to show him bare thin trees and a frozen

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