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Marianne did not know which of the numerous and frequent bumps in the road woke her, or why that one in particular should have succeeded where so many others had failed, but she woke suddenly to the dim confines of the post coach. She had no idea of the time or place, nor did she know how long she had been asleep. Pausing only to rub the sleep from her eyes, she leant towards the window. It was morning, she saw. The green fields they were passing appeared strangely pale in a weak, watery light. Swathes of the vast landscape were lost altogether under early morning mist, broken only by black pines pricking through on the slopes of low hilltops, trailing into shadowy clumps below. It was a plain but pretty scene until she turned her head towards the south. Then she saw the mountains, abrupt and stoic, and the whole place became indescribably alien.

“How long until we reach the pass?”

“Oh, probably more than a day yet.”

Marianne slid back into her seat and looked to her clasped hands. Dr. Van Helsing sat opposite her, deep under a fur rug. She watched him for a moment. Every minute, like clockwork, his hidden right hand would appear and his long fingers would turn a page of his book before retreating back to the warmth of the rug. It made Marianne doubly aware of the cold and she pulled her own fur over her lap.

“I don’t know how you can read,” she said, “I only sit here and I feel sick.”

“I travel a great deal. It gives me plenty of practice.”

“And what do you read?”

Van Helsing turned his book upwards so that she could see the writing on the cover: ‘The Vampire Cult of Venice’. Marianne made a slight grimace as she read. Van Helsing tipped the book, pages outward again, and hastily held his hand out to her. She did not take it. He opened his mouth to apologise but Marianne smiled and shook her head.

“Please, I am not so easily offended,” she did her best to assure him.

He smiled, weakly, so that she felt obliged to speak more. Indeed, she felt he had more need to be comforted than she did.

“You do not have any lighter reading?”

He shook his head, hardly seeming to have heard Marianne’s words and certainly not having comprehended the humour intended in them. Then, putting his book to one side, he leant forward earnestly and said, “I think we should talk about where you would like to stop once we reach Italy.”

“We are going to Venice, are we not?” Marianne replied bluffly.

“I am going to Venice,” said Van Helsing, “I think, taking your recent experience into consideration, you would be safer returning to Paris as quickly as possible. I thought we could possibly part ways at Milan and from there you could travel south to catch the steamer from Naples.”

Marianne looked to Van Helsing’s book. She hesitated a little before saying, “You think,” (she chose her words carefully), “You think this is where those people, that is to say those creatures, will have gone?”

“Venice has a history of vampiric activity but that’s not what I expect, no. My visit should be purely academic. The plan is to meet a colleague of mine. He has written to tell me about a manuscript he has found. Venice has been largely safe for years, so there should be no danger.”

“But you cannot say for certain.”

“Not for certain. My work can be quite unpredictable.”

“Your work seems to be unnecessarily dangerous.”

“Occasionally it is, yes.”

Marianne stretched her aching legs so that the kid-skin booted calves lifted from the floor and narrowly avoided Van Helsing’s own. Without a care, she turned again to the window and gazed pensively out. She remained in silence so long that Van Helsing presumed that the conversation was at an end until, suddenly, she remarked with a sigh:

“You are truly the strangest doctor I have ever met.”

Van Helsing laughed despite himself.

“And you, my dear,” he said in reply, “Are the most remarkable school teacher of my acquaintance.”

 

Daylight had started to fade before their next stop resolved from the distance: a picturesque church tower surrounded by low, colourful houses. They reminded Marianne of something from a children’s picture book. She saw, nearer by, a stretch of water that had turned white in the light of sunset. On its banks, almost overhanging the water, there was a house, large, dark and turreted.

She watched the scene drawing closer for a while. She had been drowsing on and off during the day as there had been so little to occupy her while her companion was industriously reading. As she noted each new object the road threw up, her eyelids began to drift shut again. She felt her head droop heavily just as a sudden rush of air startled her to her senses. Bewildered, she was vaguely aware of a swirl of stirred up dust and she pushed herself further through the carriage window to see what had happened. The post coach dragged to a halt.

“What can be the matter?” Van Helsing said, rising from his seat.

He dismounted the coach and looked about. They were the only living creatures for miles, it seemed. The driver looked straight forward, as if determined not to notice Van Helsing until he was directly addressed. He shifted uncomfortably on his box.

“Is anything wrong?”

“No, sir, not at all, only something must have spooked the horses.”

Van Helsing looked again along the road and at the fields surrounding it. Nothing stirred.

“Are you sure you didn’t see anything?”

The driver shook his head. He tightened the reins and motioned Van Helsing to get back inside. The matter, it seemed, was not to be discussed.

“I did not see a thing,” said Marianne once Van Helsing had again joined her, “But it felt colder for a moment, I think. Is that useful?”

Van Helsing said nothing but for the rest of their journey he kept an eye trained on the world without.

 

It was completely dark by the time the post coach reached the town. A full moon had risen to touch everything with a silvery white glow—which was fortunate, as the place was almost completely without street lights, and what few lamps Marianne did see remained unlit. Unsurprising, then, that the streets were empty. It was not so very late though, Marianne thought, and yet most of the windows were securely shuttered. She couldn’t see the slimmest sliver of light escape them.

Presently, the coach came to a stop outside the local inn. Marianne looked over the place in which they were to spend the night. It was very pleasant, small and rustic, the walls painted a cheerful yellow. Unlike most of the village, the downstairs windows still showed the world a warm, gold light. For a while she had been feeling, she admitted, a little unsettled. The thought of a warm bed—she was sure such a place must have warm beds—and maybe a little of something to eat, just to settle her jolted stomach, sounded comforting beyond words.

Inside, the innkeeper was the only one present to welcome them but, happily, he was every bit as friendly as his establishment’s façade. He brought them chocolate to drink immediately and asked, smiling warmly, how their journey had been. However, what could have been attentiveness came over rather more as anxiety, as he hung close to them and said repeatedly that they must have had a long journey. Marianne nodded in reply, all thoughts of boredom and nausea disappearing as she relaxed into the great chair she had taken by the fire. Van Helsing, however, had not forgotten about the recent mysterious incident on the road.

“Mostly very well,” he answered, “But we were waylaid by something. The driver didn’t make it clear what that was. Is there anything nearby that might disturb traffic?”

The innkeeper shrugged his shoulders.

“It isn’t unusual for something to scare horses. I’ve worked with a lot of the stupid beasts in my time—most of them would jump at their own shadows.”

He made to take his visitors’ empty cups but Marianne had been inspired by the doctor’s question to ask one of her own.

“It is so dark. Is there a curfew of some sort in this town? I could see no one on the street.”

“People around here are superstitious,” the innkeeper said, again shrugging his shoulders, “They don’t tend to stay out late on a full moon.”

Van Helsing looked at him steadily. The innkeeper smoothed down his moustache and shook his head. He said, under his breath, “It’s bad for business.”

Marianne took this up before her companion had a chance to.

“But what is bad for business?”

The innkeeper looked at her as if he were weighing up her right to such knowledge. Eventually he seemed to come to a decision. He pulled up a chair between them.

“It’s just a story. A true story to begin with but you know how people run with these things. I’ll tell it to you if you like. Just don’t go spreading it about. People pay too much attention to this nonsense as it is…

“Perhaps you saw the schloss on your way into town? It’s set a little way off the road, down towards the lake. You can hardly miss it if you’re looking the right way. Nowadays, a well-to-do family from Basel takes it during the winter season but years ago it was the home of Herr Roos and his wife. I was a boy working in the stables back then, no thought that one day I’d be the poor old devil whose job it is to run this place. So, of course, the likes of me never saw much of Herr and Frau Roos. I did know a girl, though, and she was the good friend of a young woman named Blanche. Blanche knew a good deal of Herr Roos.

“I knew Blanche myself, more or less, but only to pass by in the street. She wasn’t a fine lady or anything like that. She was the daughter of the butcher, that’s all. But what Mother Nature had stolen from her in birth and rank, I can say she repaid double in looks. I’m not one to go into raptures, I’m no good for flowery talk or anything like that, so you’ll both have to think of the most beautiful girl you ever saw and I will tell you that she was fully as beautiful as that. Herr Roos knew it as well as any man alive, and much to his misfortune it ended up being. Shame, really, that they ever met. Maybe Herr Roos wouldn’t have ventured into town at all, if left to his own will. His wife was certainly a rare sight around here and I suspect they were both as proud as each other, deep down inside. But Herr Roos, being a man of great consequence and public spirit, made sure to pay regular visits to the mayor. On his way he would ride past the butcher’s shop, seeing as it was on the turning of the road to the mayor’s house, and each time Blanche would be at the shop window, serving the people their lamb shank and cuts of ham. Each time he would find himself staring at the girl with her sleeves rolled and delicate white arms stained pink to the elbows. Seeing her look his way, he would lift his hat and she would smile so sweetly that he could only feel ashamed. I expect he didn’t give a thought to anything but admiring her at first. Blanche, though, as sweet and kind a girl as she was, knew when a man was taking an interest. She had a practical bent too, so maybe she had her eye on the herr’s money. Maybe she liked the idea of trapping a gentleman, or maybe she loved him. Who can say? But I have it on good authority that she made a point of meeting him unexpectedly that summer.

“You may very well think this must’ve caused trouble between Herr Roos and his wife. You’re right, of course, but Frau Roos’ dislike of Blanche stretched back further than her husband’s affection. Frau Roos was… The young lady will excuse me saying this but… well, let’s say she was moderate in her passions. She had a lover to take care of the wants she did have, so she wasn’t too concerned over what or who Herr Roos occupied himself with. She was a vain, insecure lady, however. What troubled her was young Blanche’s beauty. Frau Roos herself was undoubtedly a handsome woman. She must have been barely thirty at that time. She hadn’t a thing to concern herself with but, even so, some fear inside her made every other woman detestable. She had a reputation for firing pretty servants for the slightest wrongdoing—my own cousin was a victim of it back before she married.

“When Frau Roos discovered that her husband was in love with Blanche she went into a fury. I’ve heard talk of her tearing through the house like a dervish, leaving the place in such a state that it took the housemaids fully a day to clear up. Her husband saw none of this. He was spending less and less time at the schloss and had become less and less aware of what his wife thought or knew. By the time he returned the next day, Frau Roos was calm again. He noticed no difference in her at all. Frau Roos’ temper was quick but her malice was long. During the night she had decided to take revenge on her faithless husband and the girl.

“Now, Frau Roos’ lover was the gamekeeper at the schloss. He was a good enough man, by all accounts, but my knowledge of him was kept to the noise he made when he’d been drinking. It was enough to unsettle the horses. The drink didn’t make him much of a man to trust with a secret, either, which was something Frau Roos should’ve considered. But then, who else was she to trust? Hans would have done anything for that lady, whilst most every other person would have ran a mile the moment she opened her mouth.

“Frau Roos told Hans in no uncertain terms that she wanted to punish the little hussy—that is to say, Blanche. Hans agreed, of course, but he must’ve said something that Frau Roos didn’t like. Perhaps something in sympathy with Blanche, I don’t know. The fact is that they got into a big argument. It had to be big—Frau Roos never did arguments by halves. The angrier she became, the more severe the punishment she demanded, until eventually she was screaming for the girl’s heart.

“Hans tried to comfort her and assured her that, yes, she would have Blanche’s heart. But when he left the schloss his own heart was heavy. He had no wish to be a murderer. Then again, he had no wish to make Frau Roos unhappy. He headed straight to this very inn to think things through over a pint of ale.

“It happened that Herr Roos had arranged to meet Blanche that night so he was at the inn as well. He didn’t arrive until late into the evening, by which time Hans had spilled everything to my old boss, Blum, the tavern owner. Blum went immediately to Herr Roos as soon as he entered and told him everything that Hans had said. Herr Roos thanked Blum and ran back out the door, straight to Blanche.

“Blanche was distraught when Herr Roos related what he had heard, who wouldn’t be? She asked him what was to be done. Herr Roos was as distressed as she. He thought, knowing that she would have to flee to safety, but not knowing how best to do it without drawing attention. Soon he had struck upon an idea.

“It seemed lucky to them that Blanche was born into the trade she was. At the back of the butcher’s shop, Blanche and her father had recently skinned and hung a deer. The hide was still there, waiting to be collected by the tanner. Herr Roos took it and put it over Blanche. I can’t imagine she was very happy with this but maybe desperate times call for desperate measures.

“‘Keep this deerskin over you,’ Herr Roos told her, ‘And make your way to the next town. I’ll follow you tomorrow.’

“Blanche agreed and left the shop by the back door as best not to be seen, hunched under the weight of her new skin.

 

“All the while, Hans had been at the inn, drinking as immoderately as he could manage. In his dark mood, his usual barks had turned to mutters. He was doing his best to think through the fog of ale. Like I said, Hans was a good man, all things considered. Well, perhaps not good, but not bad or wicked either. He was trying to think of a way he could give Frau Roos what she wanted without having to kill the girl. He was not so quick to come up with a plan as Herr Roos had been but he got there at last. He decided that he’d go out and shoot a deer. He could take a deer’s heart to Frau Roos, she’d never know the difference, and the next morning he’d find Blanche and chase her out of town.

“I can see by your faces that you’ve guessed what comes next. Poor Blanche. Even when drunk that scoundrel was the best shot around. He saw a creature run by the side of the road and without stopping to think he fired his rifle there and then. She didn’t stand a chance. He soon realised his mistake. Up close a young woman with slim white limbs and long black hair doesn’t look much like your usual deer. Hans didn’t seem to mind so much once he had done it, though. Maybe it was the drink or maybe it was the shock, but suddenly it looked to him like a great opportunity. He had been able to get Frau Roos what she wanted after all and it had been nothing but a terrible accident. He cut out Blanche’s heart and disappeared with it into the night.

“Hans was hanged eventually. It all came out. He gave a very moving account of his distress when he came close and saw that small human hand stretched out from under the deerskin. He said he had been in a terror over his own damnation ever since, that he saw the hand in all his dreams and that it beckoned him to Hell. Yet from what I can remember, apart from being a little more quick-tempered, he hadn’t been far different from usual in the days following Blanche’s death.

“Blanche was a different matter. Hers was a violent death, and violent deaths don’t make for peaceful spirits. Or so the people around here say. I don’t pay much heed to it, myself. Still, they keep indoors on a full moon because the light is good for Blanche’s hunting. She has a doe for a steed, they say, and she rides all around these parts.

“They say no one is safe when she chooses to pierce a man’s heart.”

 

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Marianne had difficulty sleeping that night. It was not that the story had frightened her into wakefulness. She had seen many strange things in recent months but ghosts, thus far, had stayed outside of her experience, and she was inclined not to give them much thought until the case was otherwise. She had slept so much during the day that she had little tiredness left. If anything, she was beginning to feel really awake. Also her legs were painful after all those hours sitting in the carriage. She thought it probably would not disturb anyone if she took a couple of turns up and down the landing, just to cure the ache.

She was deliberating the wisdom of this action when she noticed a barely perceptible scuffling sound. Everything else was silent, save for the wind rattling the shutters occasionally. It was a mouse, she presumed. She was hardly unused to such things.

The noise disappeared. Then, just as she had decided to get up, a louder scratching sound could be heard. A cat perhaps? She froze. It was silly, she knew. She told herself she was only staying still as to better hear what was going on.

The scraping sound of a latch being lifted. At least that seemed most likely. And then, abruptly, glass being smashed. In the next room.

Marianne bolted out onto the landing and flung the next door open. Dr. Van Helsing was laid upon the bed, fast asleep. By the moon’s light, however, she saw clearly that he was not alone.

Marianne fell back against the door in fright.

It was only for a moment. She recovered quickly. She did the first thing she could think of and reached for a nearby jug to hurl at the intruder. There was a high-pitched scream as the jug half hit its target and, passing onwards, smashed against the back wall. The figure was no ghostly apparition, that was certain, but she moved like one. With a flick of black hair, the girl was gone again through the open window. Marianne had not even time to see her face. The only impression she was left with was the slithering white train of cotton that was last to disappear from view.

 

“Are you hurt?” Marianne cried, rushing to Van Helsing’s bedside.

He turned his head to her with a look of beatific ignorance. Confused and half asleep, he had perceived the ruckus but had no idea what had caused it. He pulled himself upright. Marianne had taken his face in her hands and was examining him closely for any signs of injury.

“What’s going on?” was all he could find to say.

“A lunatic, I think. She broke into your room! She has gone but I think she meant to hurt you.”

Van Helsing turned to the broken window. The jagged edges caught the moonlight.

“Now, how did I not hear that?” he murmured.

Marianne had sat herself at the end of his bed. She too was looking at the window.

“I think,” she said presently, “I should stay with you tonight, just in case.”

Van Helsing smiled.

“You’re very kind,” he said. He did not like to say no, somehow. Part of him wanted to tell her that everything would be all right and they would be quite safe in their own rooms but then, maybe she was right to say they should stay together.

“We are safest that way,” she said, as if reading his thoughts, “Two is always better than one.”

For a while they sat in companionable silence. Van Helsing dozed but Marianne was still wide awake. She ran a finger over the book left on Van Helsing’s bedside table. It was the same one he had been reading all that day, and underneath there was another on a similar subject.

“They teach us nothing of this in our schools,” she said absently, “Perhaps they should.”

She looked at the doctor. He was half asleep and hadn’t heard what she had said. She hadn’t really been addressing him in any case, just talking to herself to pass the time. Now she thought of it, though, she wanted to speak with him. She gave his shoulder a little push.

“Doctor,” she said, opening the book and letting her finger fall on a sentence, “What is… the siring of vampires?”

“Siring?”

“Yes, siring. It says here that vampires are sired. I have not come across that word, I think. Is there a French term?”

Van Helsing did his best to explain, with a little censoring here and there. It didn’t seem the sort of topic to have an open conversation with a woman about, even when Marianne told him that a woman would likely be the best person to have such a conversation with, if what he was referring to was childbirth. He said, yes, it was a kind of childbirth. And a little like the contraction of a disease.

Marianne asked one question and then another.

“Why do you want to know all this?” Van Helsing asked her.

“Why does one want to know anything? I think it will be useful.”

“Hopefully not!”

“And if it is not, then it is still interesting. I want to be one of your students. Teach me everything you know.”

Marianne wasn’t sure, as she said it, whether Van Helsing would be at all flattered. She knew a lot of men (including her brothers) who thought she had done quite enough harm to herself by becoming a teacher of languages. Her father was a little more understanding. He had told her that every girl needs an education. He had also said that too much knowledge is a dangerous thing. To Marianne it had become increasingly apparent that knowledge was the best safety precaution. That and a sturdy heart.

Van Helsing seemed not to share her father’s view of the world. In fact, he seemed to find it wonderful that she would say such a thing to him. So they sat on the floorboards together, poring over books, until the cock crowed the next morning and the village looked as though no horrors had ever nor could ever befall it.

 

A day later, Van Helsing and Marianne were taking the Simplon Pass across the Alps into Italy. Marianne had never before entered Italy in this way and she was struck by the beauty of the mountains. As they ascended to the summit, they were dragged under grand and terrible archways of granite, at times dipping into narrow valleys and at others taking rock-hewn bridges over abysses of stone and snow. Waterfalls thundered and ice hung thickly from cavern roofs. Despite the civilising road that Napoleon had gone to such pains to build, nature’s genius would always remain paramount.

As they went further, the snow became thicker. Marianne knew it wouldn’t be long before they would have to abandon the post coach in exchange for a sled. Yet, they had just passed by a woman walking on the road, she was sure of it. She looked back and there was indeed a black-haired young lady wearing nothing but a cotton nightgown.

Marianne yelled for the coach to stop.

By the time she managed to persuade the driver to halt and had told Van Helsing what she had seen, the woman had vanished.

“No one could walk blithely through these peaks in nothing but a nightgown,” Van Helsing said, “She would have frozen to death long before now.”

Marianne wondered whether others had been made to see strange things by travelling through such a place as this.

 

Van Helsing and Marianne were each other’s only companions until they reached Italy. It was after a night’s stay in a small town at the foot of the mountains that they were joined by a fellow passenger, on her way to Milan. This lady’s name was Frau Stael. The three did not get off to the most amiable start. Frau Stael was late in catching the coach but went to great pains to tell the driver that it was him, not her, who was in error. She seemed to Marianne like a very loud, opinionated person.

This opinion was only further enforced when she soon after said to Marianne: “And this gentleman—is he your uncle or your husband?”

“Neither,” Marianne had replied rather coldly.

Soon, however, it was decided that Frau Stael was not so bad after all. If she was forthright, she was also funny. As Marianne and Van Helsing had no problem with laughing at themselves as well as at others, she happily provided a good deal of amusement. They also discovered that she was quite a notorious bluestocking in her native Germany. The purpose of her journey, in fact, was to research a favourite subject of hers, the folklore of Western Europe.

It was not long before Marianne had implored her to entertain them with one of her stories.

“Well,” said the lady, thinking it over, “The town we set off from is quite an interesting case. The people there told me a story that is very particular to this area. It is something to do with the nearby convent... But most of all, it is to do with a young man who was just as foolish as most other young men who have fallen in love.

“It is said that the boy grew up in a tiny village in the lap of the mountains. Mostly I’ve heard that this village was destroyed by fire long ago, but of course three different towns in this district also say they have the boy’s grave in their churchyards. I’m not sure what it is but people seem so desperate to lay claim to the most horrible of fairy stories, don’t you find? I beg your pardon, I digress already!

“The local people have furnished this fictitious personage with a physical appearance, although again it varies. He had green or brown eyes, a fair to dark complexion, and either a mop of russet hair or a close shorn head of black. I suppose it makes no difference. The only thing in the story that is certainly real is the convent where he first saw his love. I have seen it myself, but it is so old and uncared for now that it can barely be called anything but a ruin. It is supposed to have been dilapidated even at the time this tale took place.

“The boy worked on a farm owned by his uncle. It was among his duties to drive the sheep to market and every time he did so he would first pass close to the convent and then, at the crossroads, he would dip his head at the small roadside shrine. This was his routine. He met many people on the road but he never saw the nuns who were supposed to live in the convent. They might as well have been ghosts for all that the local people knew of them. Of course, that was not so unusual at the time, when many religious orders were strictly reclusive. He didn’t give it much thought until one day he saw a girl behind the gates of the convent. The girl was not dressed in a nun’s habit but rather the plain garments that were the locals’ traditional dress. She looked at him and he looked at her. She was pretty, he thought, extremely pretty. However, he pressed onwards, thinking no more about it. For ten yards at least, he thought nothing about her. His thoughts of her came about slowly but hot, like a slow-burning fever.

“He didn’t wait until the next market day to see her again. Impatience, I would say, is a sure sign of a bad love. He went back two days later, when he had finished work on the farm, but he couldn’t see her. He came back the next day, but again she wasn’t in the yard. On the third day, he disappeared from the fields early in the afternoon and sat outside the convent gates. After an hour or so she came out, dragging a rug to be beaten. She blushed when she saw him waiting. The boy said nothing. In a fright, he ran back to the farm.

“He didn’t know what to say to her and he didn’t entirely believe that he wanted to say anything. Love, to him, felt like energy rather than thought, a passion that would surpass words. He wanted to possess her, however, and he did not know how to go about this without having to talk to her.

“The next market day, he went up to the convent gates again. The girl wasn’t there but a very old looking nun was sweeping the steps.

“He said, ‘Is there a girl who lives here, who wears a blue skirt and does your housework?’

“‘There is a girl like that, yes,’ said the nun, ‘What do you want with her?’

“The boy didn’t know what he wanted other than for the girl to be his. He wanted possession of her, at this point, above all things. He was quite desperate so he said to the nun:

“‘I want to know what I can do for her.’

“‘Well, I couldn’t tell you that,’ said the nun, ‘But there is someone who might know. Go to the shrine at the crossroads and ask Mother Mary.’

“The boy left the nun and went on to the crossroads. He collapsed on his knees and bent his head to the icon from which the Virgin Mary stared benevolently upon him. He had just opened his lips to pray when his eyes were caught by Mary’s own. Kind, brown eyes that were exactly like those of the girl at the convent. He looked at the mouth, thin-lipped but sweet and speaking of peace, just like the girl’s. The nose, the long neck, the shape of the face, even the slender hands—he recognised them all.

“The boy ran back to the convent as fast as he could. The nun was still sweeping. He hollered to her and when she came over, he told her all he had seen, barely pausing to recapture the breath he had lost in the long distance he had just run.

“‘I see, so you know our secret,’ the nun said, benevolently, ‘You have seen Our Lady.’

“He had known before. He had somehow known. The girl who had made him feel so glad and wretched could not have been like any other.

“‘And you say that you wish to serve her?’ continued the nun.

“The boy nodded fervently. It was his sole purpose.

 

“For his first task, the boy was told to return to the convent the next time he went to market and from all his uncle’s sheep, the Virgin Mary would choose three. The boy thought of the story of Christ’s birth and how the shepherds had been among the first to serve their Lord.

“He did as he was instructed. When he arrived at the convent gates, the Virgin Mary was nowhere in sight but in her stead was the nun he had met on his previous visit. The nun chose three of the fattest sheep and commended the boy for his obedience. Next, she told him, their Lady would require clothing as befitted her, rather than the peasant rags she, in her modesty, had chosen to wear. The boy said he would find something suitable. He didn’t mention that he had no money to speak of. He did not want his commitment doubted.

“Before he next went to market, he stole enough money from his uncle to buy a length of silk damask. On his way home, he stopped again at the convent and was met by a nun different to the one he had seen before. It was not enough, he admitted to her, but he would bring more as and when he could.

“‘That doesn’t matter,’ the nun told him, ‘Our Lady must have gold. Can you bring some?’

“The boy admitted that he knew of nowhere to find anything so precious.

“‘The church of St. John in the market town has a golden chalice,’ said the nun, ‘That would do.’

“‘The church of St. John? I could not steal from a church!’ the boy cried in confusion.

“‘That so-called church is nothing but a pit breeding avarice and lust,’ said the nun, ‘The priest there is a drunk and a lecher. Our Lady is destroying such places to build a new house of God.’

“The boy was overcome with wonder. He promised to bring the chalice.

“‘Only make sure you wash it thoroughly before you bring it to us. Our Lady’s hands cannot touch the marks of impurity left by sinners,’ the nun warned.

“The boy nodded. Tentatively, he asked, ‘Will I be able to see her?’

“‘Bring the chalice and we shall see.’

 

“The boy was true to his word but his mind was running wild. His great desire to serve was increasingly met with the greatest desire he had ever felt to have. It made him quick-tempered with all who came across him. He held his duty above all other things, however, and it made him able to persevere against his own demons of doubt, as well as small-minded people who scolded him for neglecting his work on the farm or who blamed him when something of their own went missing.

“He brought the chalice to the convent. On every step he took towards that place, he imagined Mother Mary meeting him there. Her face would be as serene and beautiful as when he first beheld it but, instead of a blush, it would be lit by a pure love. She would lay her hands on him and he would be cleansed of all he felt was impure in his love for her.

“She was not at the gates, however. A nun stood there, waiting for him.

“‘I would like to gift this to the Lady, herself, please,’ the boy said.

“‘You are doing well, my child, but you are not ready to be in her presence,’ said the nun. She reached through the bars to the sack that held the chalice.

“‘I have been in her presence,’ said the boy hotly, ‘I beheld her. I saw her in this very yard.’

“‘Then you should be honoured to have seen her at all.’

“The boy’s temper sparked like a struck flint.

“‘I am her true follower,’ he screamed, ‘Let me see her.’

“The nun snatched the chalice from his hands and retreated to the convent.

 

“For the next few days, the boy returned frequently, hoping to be given another task with which to prove himself. No one came to see him. It was almost as though the building itself had died, so quiet, still, and dark it was. After five days, the boy was no closer to giving up his fruitless quest. If anything, his resolve was strengthening. He sat against the gates and kept vigil. After a while, he fell asleep.

“He was drawn back to consciousness by someone gently shaking his shoulder. When he looked, he found it was the girl. He backed away in horror, the touch of her hand seeming to burn through his flesh, her proximity being, truly, overwhelming.

“‘Please,’ she said, kindly, ‘I did not mean to frighten you. Only, I see you sitting here every day. The sisters told me not to go to you but I wanted to see why you are here. Is it anything I can help you with?’

“For a long while the boy stared at her. His hands were trembling. At first she continued to smile, she tried her best to look reassuring. She was not sure what was wrong with this strange young man, but she did not want to frighten him away. As he continued to stare she grew less comfortable. She became aware of every pore on every inch of flesh on her body, as many people similarly become aware when put under close scrutiny. She almost let out a yelp when the boy fell to the ground and clutched her skirts in his balled-up fists.

“‘Mother Mary,’ he was saying, ‘Mother Mary.’

“‘Why are you praying?’

“‘You are the Virgin Mary. You know what I have done for you. Please put your hands upon me.’

“‘Do not blaspheme!’ cried out the girl, ‘My name is Parsley! I am nineteen years old, my mother was a laundress and I am a servant to the ladies at the convent. I am not the mother of our Lord!’

“The boy did not know what to make of this information. Was this being that he had worshipped not what he thought her? Or was this a trick of the Devil? A terrible thought crossed his mind.

“‘I know all about your spells,’ said the boy, ‘How you fuck the Devil and kill good people’s crops and steal away children from their mothers.’

“He had risen to his feet and pulled her close to him as he said this. The girl was crying. She pulled herself out of his grip and sank to the ground in a rustle of cloth. The boy could only stare at her with growing desperation. He was incensed beyond speech.

“‘Don’t you dare say that,’ she was saying, ‘Don’t you dare say that.’

“The vulgar, crying creature could not be the mother of Christ. Red-eyed, ruddy-faced, a trickle of saliva hanging from her open mouth where the breath burst out in sobs. She was just a girl. Vulgar-named, vulgar-bodied, all flesh and blood and terror and regret. He was filled with disgust.

“The boy spat into her hair.

“‘Do you know what you’ve done by taking that face?’

“The girl whined like a cornered fox.

“‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she screeched furiously.

“She reached for the bowl of waste she had originally been taking to throw out, and held it close to her chest, defensively. She struggled to get up. The boy was about to push her back down when he noticed the bowl’s contents.

“Sheep’s bones.

 

“The nuns in the convent, if that’s what they were, had a horrible fate awaiting them. The story says that they were witches who received what they deserved for casting such an evil spell on that young man. He took the crucifix from the wall, which they had defiled with their parody of religion, and killed them one by one, every woman there. Parsley was spared, but after that day she was never seen again.”

“Horrible!” cried Marianne.

“How very interesting,” said Van Helsing.

“I certainly thought so,” said Frau Stael with a smile, “I am hoping to publish it in some form once I return to Germany. Horrid little stories like that sell in their thousands.”

 

Frau Stael parted with them a day before they reached Milan. The small compartment that had become the setting for all their days together seemed quieter but not in an altogether unpleasant way. Marianne was happy to be sociable but when it was only herself and Dr. Van Helsing, she felt a peace that was almost like being alone. They could talk; he could instruct her on the occult, she could help him practice his French, or they could sit together in silence, exactly as and when they wished. Still, Marianne had never enjoyed travelling and the post coach seemed to become more claustrophobic the longer she was in it. She longed to spend her days on her feet. The bliss of being able to sit down, walk or stand whenever one chose to and in whatever order one chose had become a great preoccupation to her. She had been thinking for a while what her plans should be. Soon they would reach the great city of Milan. Perhaps, she thought, she should spend some time there. She could postpone the rest of the journey back to Paris for however long she wanted. She had no friends there, but she had enough money saved to enjoy something of a holiday.

Then there was the second choice: to accompany Dr. Van Helsing to Venice. This was clearly not the option he favoured. He was so sweetly concerned with her safety. The doctor had done such a great deal for her. She owed him her life. If Venice were to prove dangerous, and her safety was put at risk… She liked to think that she was resourceful enough to take care of herself in most circumstances, but she had come to know that the dangers of some circumstances were beyond anyone’s expectations. Perhaps, she reflected, it would have been best to have stayed in Bachtstein after all.

She thought of how she had come to leave Bachtstein in the first place.

 

Lang’s had gone into a steady decline after the troubles that had befallen the school. Herr Lang and his wife had tried their best to normalise the situation but as rumours spread and grew wilder, one girl after another was called home by her parents. Marianne’s first thought had been to return to Paris as quickly as possible. Yet she was fond of the Langs. When she saw the look of resigned dejection they wore when she mentioned her plans to leave, she just as quickly determined to stay. She was one of the few members of staff who did. She settled into a quiet, simple life, sharing duties with the other teachers who were left. It became quite lonely. She had a room all to herself, which she had previously shared with Gina. The extra space, if anything, made it less comfortable.

Marianne had not been surprised by Dr. Van Helsing’s first visit to see her. He was so exceedingly well-mannered. He had seemed anxious that day but he had taken great trouble to ascertain the state of Marianne’s health. He made sure to ask how every little detail of life at Lang’s suited her too, and how she was recovered from her ordeal. That meeting had been somewhat awkward. Marianne was touched but she had told him as politely as possible that she didn’t yet like to talk about the incident. She had a feeling he had taken these words to heart. He had pressed her hand in his as he said his goodbyes. Marianne had wondered, once he was gone, whether she would ever see him again. She was surprised when, no more than three weeks later, he came back. After that, a fortnight never went by without a visit.

“Do you ever consider going back to France?” he had asked one day.

Marianne had admitted that occasionally she did. Any sense of danger had long since vanished but the constant reminders of her ordeal made her life in Bachtstein claustrophobic. Besides which, she had begun to feel some genuine homesickness.

“It’s too short notice, perhaps,” Van Helsing had said, “Only, tomorrow I am going from here directly to Italy. I thought, if you had wanted to return home, I might be able to accompany you for perhaps one leg of the journey.”

“Italy!”

“Yes, you would be able to catch a boat easily and see a little of the country too, if you wanted.”

Marianne would have liked to see a lot of the country if she could. The idea of a complete change of scene had been appealing. However, she quickly rebuked herself for disloyalty, recalling how many others had already abandoned the Langs.

“Perhaps once the term is over,” she had told him.

Of course, she had barely given Van Helsing her answer when she began to wonder whether she had made the right decision. She would have to return home at some point, just for a short while, to see her family. Perhaps the time was right. She could spend the winter in France and then return once the spring came. She determined to talk over the matter with Frau Lang. After all, the decision should probably be left to her employers’. They knew best when they would be able to spare her.

And so it was that Van Helsing had opened the door of the post coach next morning to find it already occupied by one Marianne Danielle.

“I have thought on your offer,” she had said pleasantly, “And I have decided to accept.”

 

She had accepted then because… well, for one thing she had been longing to get away. She had also accepted because she trusted Van Helsing. Another reason, perhaps, was that something had been left unfulfilled in their friendship. She owed him her life. Maybe it was a sense of guilt, a sense that she had yet to repay him. She was not sure herself. She had only a sense that it was right for them to be together.

Before they reached Milan, Marianne told Van Helsing that she still wished to go with him to Venice. She expected an argument and, as predicted, she was made to debate the matter back and forth.

“It is sweet of you to worry for my safety,” she had said at one point, which Van Helsing did not seem to like. Still, he did not know exactly how to rebuff it. He had even less to say when Marianne told him:

“We are safer together, do you not think?”

He was thinking, she knew, of the night they had spent in the Swiss town. He had trusted her then. He had done more than that—by what he had taught her, he had trusted her with the means to protect the both of them. If he refused her, all she had learned would be for nothing.

Reluctantly, he agreed.

 

Marianne and Van Helsing’s first view of Venice was as a light on the dark water. They were carried forth on a boat of a colour hardly distinguishable from the sea and sky. They sat shoulder to shoulder by necessity. Van Helsing was watching the glow of the city disperse, as it drew nearer, into many wavering lights. Marianne was watching the stars dance in the ripples sent from the boat’s path. She, perhaps, was a little closer to the doctor than necessary, she thought. Yet she did not feel too close, she felt at peace. Shyly, she watched him turn his lapels up against the cold and when his hands rested again on his lap, she put one gloved hand in his. She thought that maybe she felt a tremble at the touch but he did not draw his hand away.

“That is the cemetery,” said Van Helsing in hushed tones as they passed a mysterious island lying flat on the water.

Marianne looked back in surprise, trying to make out the details of it, but the sight quickly disappeared from view as they turned into a street. Houses rose up from the water on either side of them. Van Helsing had seen Venice a good many times over the years but even he seemed struck to silence by the beauty and strangeness of the place they were entering. For Marianne, who had only seen such things in aquatints and illustrations, it was a sight beyond words.

On the steps of a grand but narrow palazzo, lit by a yellow light from the doorway, someone stood waving to them. Van Helsing released Marianne’s hand in order to wave back.

“My colleague,” Van Helsing told her, the pleasure of the meeting evident on his face, “Bennett.”

The man was rather small, bespectacled, bearded. He wore a very well-tailored but also well-worn suit. Marianne was not at all surprised to think this man was an academic.

“How are you, old man?” he asked warmly as he helped his fellow scholar from the boat. He spoke German to Van Helsing in an English accent but with all his English idioms intact.

“Very well,” said Van Helsing, shaking him by the hand, “Allow me to introduce Marianne Danielle.”

“Enchanted, young lady.”

Bennett took Marianne’s hand and kissed it. Marianne did not like to be rude, even when keeping such thoughts entirely to herself, but she was glad to have kept her gloves on.

“I’m sorry to have brought you an unexpected guest. I hope you have room for us.”

“Nonsense! Of course there’s room. I’m rattling about in there by myself. If the young lady wants she can take the top floor and call it a suite.”

Marianne demurely told him in English that one room would be sufficient.

“Suit yourself. But come in, come in,” he said, suddenly remembering his manners and ushering them into the house, “You’ll catch your death out here. Besides, I have something you’ll like, Van Helsing.”

“The manuscript you wrote to me about?”

“The very thing! It may be more pertinent than ever. I don’t want to speak too soon but I’ve been hearing things. We might be seeing the return of the last remaining vampires of the plague years.”

Marianne let them wander ahead of her, deep into their lively chatter. At the door to Bennett’s study, Van Helsing turned and saw her standing, still in her hat and coat, still close to the doorway. The boatmen had left her bags beside her. He invited her forward.

“This should prove to be an interesting document,” he said, “If you should like to see it.”

Marianne gave a little laugh.

“For me, interesting documents can wait until morning. I hope you do not mind if I retire early?”

“Of course not, dear girl,” Bennett said immediately, “Make yourself at home. I suggest the bedroom on the first floor, second on the right. Van Helsing here can have the one next door. Take any you like though. I always have a bed made up in the study so it makes no difference to me.”

Marianne nodded. “Thank you. You are very kind.”

“Not at all, not at all. Good night, sweet lady!”

 

Marianne slept soundly for a long while.

She must have been slowly coming back to consciousness because, before she finally awoke, she was aware of the lights and sounds breaking upon her mind like waves. The last wave collapsed in a flurry of white upon her closed lids. She opened her eyes. Fireworks.

The room was lit up in a succession of colours, making the furnishings dance eerily behind the gauzy mosquito net that hindered Marianne’s view. Red struck a hellish patina over everything and the rustle of a curtain or the scurrying of a mouse became demonic movements. Green was hardly better; the room was sunk to the bottom of the great canal where monstrous serpents lay waiting in the silt. Marianne lay frozen for a moment, still half in a nightmare. She thought of the times when, as a child, she had woken up this way and had been too afraid to even scream for her Mama. Gradually, though, she became fully awake and scolded herself for such fears. She pushed the gauze away and went from her bed to the window.

Beneath her, hanging over bridges, riding boats on the water, even a few, like her, leaning on windowsills, there was the most overwhelming commotion of people. Music and laughter assailed her ears. She was astonished. All these people, the sky and the water likewise alive with colour, musicians heartily playing—and she’d had no idea.

Marianne ran through the palazzo in her nightgown and slippers but each corridor and room was as silent as the grave. She stopped at Van Helsing’s door. A little peek, just to see that the doctor hadn’t gone out without her couldn’t be a crime. He was in his bed, however, sleeping peacefully. Not even the servants were awake. Marianne considered whether she should disturb anyone. It seemed remarkable that they hadn’t been woken as she had. Did they really have no idea that such a thing was happening? Surely such gatherings didn’t happen on the spur of the moment. She had heard of the Venice Carnival, of course, but she was certain that it didn’t take place in November.

It was all very strange and something told her that she should go back to her bed and pretend that nothing was happening. On the other hand, she was very intrigued. She did love a party.

Marianne crept to the ancient oak door at the front of the palazzo and tentatively pulled it open. She was surprised to find a boatman waiting. He climbed the mossy steps and held out a black gloved hand to her. Marianne looked around in bemusement. She could not be the person he was waiting for and, besides, she was still in her nightgown. The man made a small step towards her.

“I am sorry… but I think you must have the wrong address.”

“Marianne Danielle, signorina?”

Marianne eyed him cautiously.

“Yes,” she said with a little hesitation.

“My mistress has sent me to fetch you.”

“I have no friends in Venice.”

“She is but recently arrived, like yourself.”

This piqued Marianne’s curiosity significantly but she made sure to protest, “I am not dressed. Let me see her in the morning.”

The man said that this would not do. He disappeared down the steps for a moment only to return with a fur-lined cloak which he placed on Marianne’s shoulders without waiting for her assent.

“My mistress wishes you to enjoy yourself. If you would please come with me.”

He offered her his outstretched hand.

Well, after all, what could be so very wrong with that?

 

At first Marianne was captivated by the tableaux all around her. She would have thought it impossible to dance in such a crush, but on the bridges people twirled each other in half a Viennese waltz with no other damage to their neighbours than that of muslin coming against silk. Gondolas swept by carrying cloaked women in beautiful carnival masks. One of them called something to her in Italian that she couldn’t quite make out. Then, passing under a bridge, a man deliberately leaned over and dropped a lily. It sailed past the boat into the water. Marianne followed it with her eyes and lazed towards it, cheek on her folded arms. She was still quite tired. The noise and the music was becoming something of a lullaby blur, motioning her to sleep. She looked down on the water and saw the lily slip behind. The fireworks, still rocketing and raining, reflected like scattered jewels. The surrounding houses delved down into the deep of the canal, their windows as dark as the sky. Marianne turned her eyes upward. A man and a woman hung out of the window directly above, yelling conversation to a girl opposite. Marianne’s eyes darted down again.

The water was empty. The only reflection she could see was her own.

“Who is your mistress?” Marianne asked slowly, looking towards the boatman.

If he heard, he made no answer. He kept his eyes fixed steadily ahead.

 

The boat finally stopped at a house’s green steps. The building looked, in some indescribable way, older than any other. As though, before anything else had been built, it had risen out of the water with its pink render already flaking and its window frames already rotting.

Somehow, Marianne had not felt the cold before and yet a chill came over her as she stepped inside. She pulled the cloak around her, as much for comfort as for warmth. The doors had opened upon a hall that was singularly unwelcoming. It was long, flanked by marble columns on either side, and must have been the height of elegance a hundred years ago. It had long since been abandoned. No one could be living there. Damp crawled the walls. Marianne peered long and hard at these, for there seemed to be some sort of fresco hidden beneath the mass of blackspot. She could not make it out. Here and there, a bright eye stared out or a hand thrust from the darkness but the details could not make sense of the whole. The air was thick and musty and sat coldly in Marianne’s throat. She coughed from the dust. All the lights had been lit but it made no difference.

Marianne walked slowly to the grand flight of stairs at the end of the hall. She glanced over the pictures as she rose. They had all been torn apart inside their frames. At the top, she hesitated. A glance back revealed the hall in no better a light. She was alone in an abandoned house wearing nothing but her nightdress and a coat given to her by a stranger. By what strange steps of logic had she come to this? She was sure she never intended such things to happen. Still, she decided, one deals with such matters as they occur.

She held her chin up and made herself walk at a normal pace to the parlour where she had been instructed to go. She wondered whether to knock. The door was open, however, and the mistress was waiting for her.

The room was lit by a single oil lamp on a table in the middle of the room. It was an anomalous object, for not only was it far more modern than any other furnishing, it was bright and new, untroubled by dust. Marianne found her eyes drawn to it first and then to the woman leaning against the tall bay window at the back of the room. Away from the light, her face was hard to see. Her dress was nothing but a white shift which, as she drew closer, became less purely white, revealing the streaks and stains of long wear. The lady looked down at it, tugging it out in front of her, almost comically.

“I am sorry,” she said, in a sweet, earnest voice, “Perhaps I should have changed before now.”

Marianne knew the voice as well as she did the face.

Gina looked at her shyly.

“It is so good to see you again,” she said, “I have been wanting to see you for so long. However, I thought it best to have your friend dealt with before I sent for you. He has been an awful nuisance. Always getting in the way.”

“No!” cried Marianne. She thought of how she had left the doctor sleeping. He could not have been dead. He was only asleep. She did not want to convince herself otherwise, but she could only fall further and further into doubt as she thought how still he had been.

This is not Gina, Marianne told herself. She remembered what Van Helsing had said about what happens to the soul once the body is infected with vampirism. It was not Gina. It was terrible, it was using Gina. All the things she had so loved about her friend at the academy—the kindness, the generosity, the sweet disposition. All these things were now distorted and brought forth in a horrible parody of the girl’s goodness.

She was so close. Marianne struck her hard against the chest. She had no thought of pushing Gina back, she only wanted to let out some of her own anguish. She hit her again.

“Shush, my darling,” Gina whispered tenderly, catching up Marianne’s face in her hands, “You don’t know what’s best for you. I will show you, don’t worry. I will show you.”

Her words became the vague, repeated nonsenses of a mother trying to lull her child to sleep.

“What… will you show me?”

“Oh, Marianne, you don’t know how guilty I’ve felt all this time. But now I have a wonderful gift to share with you, I know how much you will love me for it. No mark will ever touch that pretty face of yours. And I will find a husband for us to share, yes, to make up for the one that was taken from us.”

Marianne wriggled out of Gina’s embrace and headed for the door. She stopped in the centre and looked back. She was surprised that Gina had not blocked her way.

“It only takes one kiss, Marianne dear,” said Gina calmly, “One kiss for everlasting life.”

She and Marianne looked at each other. Marianne’s large brown eyes darted in shame from Gina’s. This is not Gigi, she reminded herself again. This is not your dear friend. However much sadness you feel for what has happened to her, this is not your friend. Yet, that sadness (she could even call it shame) was hardly bearable.

She took off her cloak and let it drop to the floor. She leaned against the table and tipped her head to one side, as she knew would make it easier for Gina to bite. With an unnatural squeal of delight, Gina ran towards her.

Gina’s lips were already at Marianne’s neck when she heard the smash of glass. She backed away in her surprise but Marianne had already touched the lamp’s flame to her sleeve. For a moment, they stared, each as horrified as the other. It took mere seconds for Marianne to come to her senses. She clambered onto and over the table in her haste to get away. Gina snatched at her ankle but her grip quickly failed. The flames were working quickly.

Crucifixes. Wooden stakes. Sunlight. Fire. That was what the doctor had told her.

 

Marianne fled the building, still with the flickering oil lamp clasped in her hand. She had no thought for where her feet were taking her or how fast, as long as they led her out, so that when she reached the steps she had entered by she skidded on the damp moss and narrowly kept herself from falling in the canal. The boatman was gone but there were still vampire carnival-goers all around. She rethought the wisdom of taking a dip in the icy waters on a November night. Faces were already turning towards her, their instinct following the scent of untainted blood. She presumed Gina and the boatman had formerly protected her.

A ghastly figure swooped with preternatural speed towards her. Marianne thrust the oil lamp in front of her as she was knocked back. It was enough. The attacker writhed helplessly as the flames caught her dress and Marianne was able to free herself. This seemed to do something to dissuade the others, she thought at first. Then she noticed a creeping heat and turned to see flames licking from the windows directly above her.

The fire would protect her, she knew, but she hardly wanted to stay on the steps of a burning building. Was daylight at all close? She had no idea of the time. Even if the call was raised to put the fire out, any potential rescuers would surely fall victim to the vampires before they could even reach her.

She looked desperately around. If she could find some place of safety to head towards, she might be able to survive the waters in getting there. A hundred eyes were watching her for signs of movement. She knew that the moment she made herself vulnerable, she would be set upon by the crowd of them. They were barred from plucking hapless people from their houses, after all. They must be hungry for any fool who dared to step outside during their celebrations.

There was only one boat on the water ahead of her. It was still at some distance but she guessed it would be the boatman returning to his mistress. He would not be as obliging to her as he had been before.

Marianne set her sights on the building facing her. The doors were shut tight, but with the help of a hair pin—there were, thankfully, always one or two she failed to remove when going to bed—she stood more chance of crossing that threshold than her vampire followers did. Provided she made it that far.

She took a deep breath and leapt.

 

The shock of ice cold water stunned her so that she thought she might faint and drown. Her eyes were closed. She tried her best to put one arm in front of the other and forge ahead but it felt as though her limbs ached with exertion the moment she started. She did not know how far she had gone or how long she had been underwater when she felt someone’s fingers wrap tightly around one wrist.

She kicked back in the water but the grip tightened. With some force, she was dragged up. As she spluttered and thrashed on the surface, the same hands caught her underneath the shoulders and hauled her until both Marianne and the boatman were collapsed on the floor of his craft. Strangely, after the relief of breathing cold, fresh air, the first thing Marianne became aware of was an overwhelming aroma of garlic. Then she noticed that the boatman was not the same man who had taken her to see Gina.

Van Helsing took her hand with a great deal more gentleness than before and helped her to sit up.

“There are no blankets,” he said apologetically, “I admit that I wasn’t entirely prepared for this eventuality.”

Marianne laughed in a burst of relief. Van Helsing had taken off his coat and had put it around her shaking shoulders. She buried her face into the fur collar, trembling with adrenaline as much as with the cold.

“We must get you back. None of these creatures will come near us, don’t worry.”

“I killed Gina,” she said. She did not know what she wanted him to say in reply. She was not glad and she didn’t want congratulations. Van Helsing seemed to understand.

“It was the right thing,” he said, “Venice will thank you for it. Although,” he turned his head slightly towards the burning building, “Venice may not thank you for that.”

Marianne took both Van Helsing’s hands and squeezed them as tightly as she could.

“I told you,” she said, through chattering teeth, “I told you we would be best together.”

Van Helsing squeezed back.

“You’re very right, my dear. But once we return to Bennett’s we may have to talk through a few rules for future dangerous situations…”