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Blackwood Farm


Page 42

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42

"WHEN WE RETURNED to the palazzo, which we did by ordinary means, that is, walking, we were told by the young serving girl, who was now frightened out of her wits, that Petronia was in her dressing room and wanted to see me there.

"I found the room entrancing. The entire wall was covered in mirrors, and Petronia sat at a great curve of granite, on a bench that appeared made of the same material, with a velvet cushion on it, while the young Adonis finished her hair.

"She was clad as a man in a buff-colored velvet coat and pants, with a ruffled white shirt that would have looked good in the eighteenth century, I well imagined, and at her throat was a huge rectangular cameo that was crowded with little figures, the whole thing surrounded by diamonds.

"Her hair was pulled straight back from her face, and the boy was plaiting it for her. She had two threads of diamonds running over her head, which as I've mentioned was beautifully shaped for this kind of severity, and the two threads of diamonds were being plaited into her hair.

"The room was open to the sea like all the rooms of the palazzo which I had seen, though I think I forgot to mention it with the bath.

"The sky appeared violet to me in spite of the hour, and once again the stars seemed to be moving; in fact the sky appeared to be moving into the room.

"My breath was quite literally taken away from me, not merely by the stars and their various patterns but by the sheer beauty of Petronia in her sharp male clothing, with her bold head once again revealed by the austerity of her pulled-back hair.

"I stood for a long few moments gazing at her as she looked back at me, and then the young Adonis told her softly that the plait was complete and the diamond clasp applied to the end.

"She turned around and gave him what appeared to be a very large amount of money and said, 'Go out, enjoy yourself, you've done well.' He bowed and backed out of the room, as though he'd been dismissed by the Queen of England, and then he was gone.

" 'So you find him beautiful, do you?' she asked.

" 'Do I? I don't know,' I said. 'Everything charms me. As a human being I was an enthusiast. Now I think I'm losing my mind.¡¯

"She rose from the cushioned bench and came towards me, and then she took me in her arms. 'All the wounds I inflicted, they've healed. Am I right?¡¯

" 'Yes, you're right,' I said. 'Except the wound no one can heal, the one I inflicted on myself, that I killed the innocent young woman, that I murdered her at her own wedding. No one can heal that. And no time will heal it either, and I don't suppose it should.¡¯

"She laughed. 'Come, let's join the others,' she said. 'All your grandfather knows is how to play chess. He was a raving poker player when I first met him. He beat me at it, if you can believe it, and that Rebecca, she was cagey too, I tell you, and don't go moping after her, but I must tell you -- about the bride, I've had the most splendid night.¡¯

"Within moments we were in the big room with the ominous and empty gold cage at the end of it. I pictured a giant bird inside it. Certainly I hadn't looked like a bird. I thought of Caravaggio's Victorious Cupid. Had I looked a little like that?

" 'I must tell you what happened,' Petronia went on, drawing the attention of Arion. 'It was the best luck. The bride's father and husband, you know, were first-rate killers, and of course the little minx knew it, so salve your conscience with that if you wish, Quinn. But they sent an armed guard here tonight, some four bravos as we used to call them, because we were recognized, it seems, and you can imagine the fun I had with them. Now it doesn't please me to bully mortals, no matter what you think to the contrary, Quinn, but there were four of them.¡¯

" 'And where are they now?' said Arion. He sat at the table with the Old Man, who was looking at the chessboard. I sat between them.

"Petronia walked up and down in front of us.

" 'Gone, into the sea,' she responded. 'In their car, over the cliff. Like that. It was nothing. But the fighting here before I disposed of the bodies, now that was a class act.¡¯

" 'I'm sure,' said Arion with faint disgust. 'And that's made you happy.¡¯

" 'Supremely happy. I drank my fill from the last one, and that was the finest part of it. No. I take that back. The fight was the finest part of it, killing them before they could draw their weapons and make a nasty hole in my body! It was divinely exciting. It made me think I should fight more often, that it's not enough to kill.¡¯

"Arion shook his head wearily. 'You should talk more elegantly for your fledgling. Tell him a few rules.¡¯

" 'What rules?' she inquired. She continued to stride back and forth, almost to the windows and then again to the murals, her eyes sweeping the room around her and then seeming to drift over the stars.

" 'Oh, all right. Rules,' she said. 'You never disclose to any mortal what you are or what we are. How's that for a rule? You never kill one of our kind. Is that enough for you, Arion? I don't know that I remember anything else.¡¯

" 'You know you do,' he said. He too was looking at the chessboard. He made a move with his queen.

" 'You cover up the kill as to bring no notice to yourself,' she said with a flair, 'and always, always!' she stopped and stared at me, pointing her finger in a declarative manner. 'Always, you respect your Maker as your Master, and to strike out at your Maker, your Master, is to merit destruction at his or her hands. How's that?¡¯

" 'That's all very good,' said the Old Man in his deep bass with his jowls trembling. He squeezed my shoulder and smiled at me with his big loose mouth. 'Now give him the warnings. He needs warnings.¡¯

" 'Such as what!' said Petronia disgustedly. 'Don't be scared of your own shadow!' she said pointedly. 'Don't act like you're old when you're immortal! What else?¡¯

" 'The Talamasca, tell him about the Talamasca,' said the Old Man, nodding at me, mouth turned up in the manner of a fish. 'They know about us, they do!' he said with an emphatic nod. 'And you mustn't ever fall for their blandishments. Do you know that word, my son? They flatter you with their curiosity, which is what they do to everyone! Flattery is their calling card. But you must never yield to them. They're a secret order of psychics and magicians, and they want us! They want to lock us up in their castles here in Europe and study us in their laboratories as though we were rats!¡¯

"I was speechless. I tried to wipe my mind clean of all thought of Stirling. But the Old Man was peering at me in a probing fashion.

" 'Ah, what do I see but that you've known them? They've already invited themselves into your life because you were a seer of spirits! Oh, this is most dangerous. What is this? A plantation house? You must never risk being in the vicinity of them again.¡¯

" 'It was all broken off a long time ago,' I said. 'I saw spirits, yes. I'll probably continue to see them.¡¯

"Arion shook his head no. 'Ghosts don't come to our kind, Quinn,' he said quietly.

" 'No, indeed not,' said Petronia, walking and walking. 'You'll find that your familiar has vanished should ever you go back to spy perhaps on those you used to know and love.¡¯

"I said nothing.

"I looked at the chessboard. I watched the Old Man put Arion's queen in check.

" 'What other rules are there?' I asked.

" 'Don't make others,' said Arion, 'without the permission of your Maker, or the eldest of those who make up the group in which you live.¡¯

" 'You mean I can make another?' I asked.

" 'Of course you can,' said Arion, 'but you must resist the temptation. As I told you, you can do it only with the permission of Petronia, or in reality, my permission, as you are in my house.¡¯

"Petronia made a contemptuous scoffing sound.

" 'That may come to be your worst temptation,' said Arion. 'But you're too young and too weak to make the transformation. Remember it, what I'm telling you. Don't be a fool in this. Don't share eternity with someone you may come to despise or even hate.¡¯

"I nodded.

"There was a long silence during which time Petronia stopped at the window and looked out at the stars.

" 'There is one other warning,' she said. She turned back and looked at me. 'If you go back to the swampland, and some night you might, just to spy on your beloved aunt, that great lady, or for some other simple reason, don't be tempted to hunt New Orleans. The Talamasca keeps a tight watch for us there, and though they're bumbling mortals they can do us harm. But there is one other danger and that is a powerful Blood Hunter who styles himself the Vampire Lestat. He rules New Orleans and he destroys young Blood Hunters. He's ruthless, iconoclastic and self-centered. He's written books about us which pass as fiction. A lot of the stories in those books are true.¡¯

"I was quiet for a long time.

"She came over to the table, and, drawing up a chair, she put her arm around Arion and she watched the game. Arion had saved his queen, but just barely, and was now about to be checkmated in a very sly way. I saw it coming but I saw he didn't by the pieces he was moving and what his eyes were doing, and then quite suddenly there came the Old Man's surprise move, and Arion sat back, amazed and then smiling and shaking his head.

" 'Another game!' he said. He started laughing. 'I demand it.¡¯

" 'And so you shall have it!' said the Old Man, his face all atremble.

"As the Old Man was setting up the pieces I slowly rose to my feet.

" 'I'm going to leave you, gentlemen,' I said. 'I thank you for your hospitality and your gifts.¡¯

" 'What are you talking about?' said Petronia.

" 'I'm going home,' I said. 'I want my family.¡¯

" 'What do you mean, you're going home!' she demanded. 'Have you taken leave of your senses?¡¯

" 'No, I haven't. And I wish now to abolish our bargain. The Hermitage is mine. I reclaim it as of now. I need the mausoleum for my hiding place by day, and I need the rest of it for a getaway in the night. Now, I'll leave you to your chess, and again I thank you --.¡¯

"Arion rose to his feet.

" 'But how will you get home?' he asked gently. 'You can defy gravity very well over short distances, and with great speed, perhaps more than you know. But you can't travel halfway around the world. It will be years before you have that skill.¡¯

" 'I'm going the way any mortal would go,' I responded.

" 'And what will you do when you get there!' demanded Petronia, looking up at me.

" 'Live in my house as I've always done,' I said. 'Live in my room where I've always lived. Be with my family as I've always been. I'll do that as long as I can. I won't give them up.¡¯

"Petronia rose slowly. 'But you don't know how to pretend to be human. You don't have the faintest idea.¡¯

" 'Yes, I do,' I said. 'I watched you do it, and you're ancient by your stories and yet you managed in a roomful of people. Why should it be so hard for me? Besides, I'm determined to do it. I won't relinquish the life I had.¡¯

" 'Won't you realize," Petronia said, 'that if you take those mortals into your secret, you'll destroy them?¡¯

" 'I'll protect them from it with my whole heart,' I said. 'You won't make me lose my nerve.¡¯

" 'You can't just leave here and do this, Quinn,' said Arion gently. 'Besides, why would you? You don't belong with humans now.¡¯

" 'Must I ask your permission?' I countered, looking him directly in the eye.

"He shrugged gracefully, just as I knew he would.

" 'No, you don't have to ask me.¡¯

" 'I don't give a damn what you do!' said Petronia, just as I knew she would.

"I smiled. 'Then the Hermitage is now mine?' I asked.

" 'Take it as a present from me,' she said venomously.

"I looked down at the Old Man. 'Manfred, we'll meet another night.¡¯

" 'Be careful, my son,' he said.

"I left the room, and, finding the grand stairs of the palazzo, was soon out, walking down a narrow winding path to the city below.

"Within twenty minutes I walked into the lobby of the Hotel Excelsior, where we had stayed on three occasions on our trips to Naples, and went to the desk of the concierge. He remembered me and immediately asked after Aunt Queen.

" 'I've been robbed. Everything's gone,' I said. 'I need to make a collect call to my aunt.¡¯

"The phone was at once placed at my disposal. And a suite was being prepared.

"It was Jasmine who answered. She began to sob. When Aunt Queen came on the line, she was damn near hysterical.

" 'Listen,' I said. 'I can't explain this, but I'm in Naples, Italy. I need my passport, and I need funds badly.' I told her over and over again how much I loved her and how unexpected this was, even for me, and that I would never be able to explain, but the thing now was for me to spend a decent night in the hotel and then start the flight home tomorrow evening.

"Finally Nash came on the line to give all the appropriate numbers to the cashier, and I was officially set up with every convenience, and I was told that airline tickets would be delivered to me. I explained to Nash that I would only travel at night -- that I wanted to fly from here to Milan on an evening flight, then from Milan to London on another evening flight, and from thence to New York in one evening. From there, of course, I'd return to New Orleans.

"When I shut the door of the suite, I went into a state of shock.

"It seemed my life had been a series of escalating fears, and this fear I knew now was the worst. It was quiet and cold and worse than panic, and I felt my heart throbbing in my throat. It seemed there would never be any relief from this fear, never any relief from this pain.

"Tarquin Blackwood was dead, this I knew perfectly well. But a great remnant of me existed still, and that remnant, dazzled as I was by so many unwelcome gifts, longed only to be with Aunt Queen, with Tommy, with Jasmine, with all my beloved witnesses, my irreplaceable and adored kith and kin.

"No, I wouldn't let go of my family. No, I wouldn't go quietly from my place at Blackwood Manor and from all those whom I so loved!

"No -- not without a struggle would I leave them, not without the noblest attempt to remain with them for as long as I could.

"As for Mona, my beloved witch, I would never, never see her again or let her hear my voice over a phone. Never would my evil touch her, never would my true fate be known to her. Never would my pain be mixed with her pain.

"An hour must have passed as I stood there, my back to the door, unable to move. I tried to breathe deeply. I tried not to clench my fists. I tried not to be afraid. I tried not to be in a rage.

"It was over and done with, this transformation. And I must go on. I must go home. I must do everything gently and with great conviction and love those who loved me with all my heart.

"Finally, I lay down on the bed, my throat tight, and my body full of tremors and I felt a sudden overwhelming exhaustion, and fell into a mortal sleep.

"It must have been dreamless. No Patsy, no Rebecca, though it did seem that I heard Rebecca laughing again, and that I didn't care.

"The early light awakened me like scalding water.

"At once I pulled all the draperies and their under curtains, and was soon in a sweet chilled darkness. Then I crawled under the bed, and soon lost consciousness.

"The following evening I had a temporary passport, money in my pockets, a new American Express card and the tickets to commence the journey. As soon as I reached London I realized I had to chart a different course for home, so I made stops in Nova Scotia, Canada, and finally Newark. Then at last I was bound for New Orleans.

"During all this time, I practiced, fearfully, my skill at the Little Drink in airports, prowling the big crowds like a swamp cat, stalking this or that victim for hours before the opportune moment, that sweet moment, loving it and loathing it at the same time. There was no doubt in my mind that I looked human to people. I even looked agreeable. And in my hunting, I made no blunders. I made no kills. I never spilt a drop.

"Oh, it was an agony of fear and pleasure, drifting through a humanity I could only penetrate as a monster. And the swarming airports became hellish, like vast sets for some existential drama. But I was fast becoming as addicted to the hunt as to the blood.

"Finally, I came down the concourse in New Orleans and Aunt Queen opened her arms and then Nash did the same and then my lovely Jasmine and my little son, Jerome, whom I picked up and kissed, crushing him to me totally. And then there was Tommy, my reserved thirteen-year-old uncle, whom I so adored. I had to hug Tommy.

"If any of them found anything strange about me it was totally overwhelmed by my enthusiasm. As for how I had gotten to Italy, I promised only that someday I would tell them. Of course they raised bloody hell, but that was all I would say.

"As we piled into the limousine to go home, they broke the news to me that Patsy had full-blown AIDS but was responding well to the medicines; however, Seymour was suing her. He had it too, and he claimed she had never told him she had it and that she had given it to him. I didn't know what to say. I thought of that dream I had, that awful dream. I couldn't get the images of the dream out of my head.

" 'How's she feel?' I asked. They said fine.

" 'How's she look?' I asked. They said fine.

" 'How's the band?' I asked. They said fine.

"That was the end of it.

"As soon as I reached the house I hugged Big Ramona and I told her I was too old to be sleeping with her anymore, and she said it was about high time for me to be saying that, that she was just waiting. She couldn't believe it when I turned down her pancakes.

"When I finally reached my room and shut and locked the door, I felt faint and mad. But I had fooled them. I had fooled them and I was back with them. I was with them and I had their love. I began to cry.

"I cried and cried. I went into the bathroom and I saw the blood streaming down my face, and that's how I learned that we cry blood tears, and I wiped away the blood with a paper handkerchief, and I finally stopped crying, and then I realized Goblin was there.

"Goblin was sitting in my desk chair, facing me, and Goblin was a full duplicate of me right to the blood in his eyes and the blood tears streaming down his face.

"I almost cried out in terror, it was such a sight. My heart stopped beating for a moment and then caught up.

"I wiped and wiped at my face. I ran at him.

" 'Look,' I said, 'I'm wiping them away, can't you see? I'm wiping them away! Look, they're gone, the blood is gone, can't you see?' I was shouting at him, I was thundering. I had to lower my voice. 'Don't you see! The blood's gone. I wiped it away!¡¯

"He just sat there with the blood in his eyes and the blood dripping down his cheeks and then he ran at me. He ran into me. He merged with me, and I felt myself pushed backwards against the round table and then to the side and to the foot of the bed, and I couldn't fight him off, he was in me, he was merged with me, and it felt like a pure fatal electric shock, and when he withdrew I saw him huge and filled with tiny droplets of blood, and I collapsed."</

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