Goodnight was racing the sun through the steep streets of Liveside. Down below, at the foot of the city, twilight had already crept over the huddled shelters where the poor and the poorer scratched out their existences; up above, the spires and battlements of the great houses still shone gold in the sunset, doves wheeling in to roost on the sunwarmed roofs, the orbs at the tops of the towers flashing. As he toiled his way up the cobbled street, not exactly hurrying – he was not a servant, to hurry – but purposefully, his steps led him from the beginning of night back to the end of the day.
The stone walls around him still reflected the day’s heat; he was sweating as he followed the road upward, his militia-grey coat too heavy even at this hour, but the General liked to see him wear it, and in the still cold air of the audience chamber he’d be glad of its weight, as comforting as an arm around his shoulder.
He shifted the bag he carried, heavy with the fruits of his journey, and at the sight of a familiar tavern the temptation to pause for a drink flitted through his mind – sitting with a mug of fragrant ale, greeting acquaintances and watching the tide of shadow rise upwards – but that must wait. Time meant little here, beyond the soft rhythm of sunrise and sunset, a day, a month, a year all one to a deadman who might survive for centuries. But courtesy was demanded, appearance must be satisfied; Goodnight’s patron would know of his return and would be expecting him.
Around him the market was closing, stallholders sweeping and rinsing around their tables, shops shuttering. It was quiet; the streets of Vesontio were always quiet. When he first arrived it was that calmness which struck him most strongly, the restraint even on the busiest market days; in Kadoh or Myrshock or the port cities he had seen the alleys and squares would be alive with clamour and activity, stallholders crying their wares, customers with baskets pausing to chatter, urchins running and shouting between the stalls. Not here. Here the costermonger stood silently behind his stall, nodding discreetly, friends murmured a greeting and passed by, children played soundless games under a table. Most here were born to it: though he had long made his peace with it, sealed his bargain without duress, he would never cease to find it strange.
When Goodnight first saw the man, leaning in the archway under one of the high-gabled houses, watchful eyes on the steep cobbled street, he thought him a liveman, quick like him: his clothes were dark and unremarkable, but sound and clean, and his olive skin caught the light of the fading sun, painted with a false ruddy tint. Not a man he’d seen before, and he knew most in Liveside; still, a newcomer was not unheard of – he’d been one himself, three years past. So he nodded to him as he approached, a brief impersonal acknowledgement, one liveman to another, and braced himself for the steady ascent to the General’s mansion.
As he passed the man straightened up, took a step forward, an expression of curiosity on his face; his hand seemed to reach out towards him of its own volition. And closer to, Goodnight saw the blackness of his eyes, the slight waxen quality to his skin, and couldn’t help but recoil. A vampir? So early in the streets?
Usually it took till twilight, if not full dark, before they came, sidling and skittering along the shadowed alleys, skirting any pool of candlelight from a shuttered window: not many, not even on a moonless night, but one here and one there, sitting like a bundle of rags beneath the well’s lip, or waiting as a still shadow beside the doorway to a garden. Holding out a hand, breathy voices whispering: Have pity. Just a moment of your time. Show kindness. Beggars.
Among the true dead they would not dare be so bold. The Thanati, austere and aristocratic lords, had neither patience nor pity for vampir: as parasites on their mortal servants they were an irritation, and as cousins in unlife an embarrassment. Thanati lords would have them swept from their path, send their guards to hound them back to their ill-built shelters clustered at the city’s foot. But Thanati, absorbed in their slow and deliberate schemes, were not given to wandering the city for amusement: many had not set foot beyond their own gate for decades. And so at nightfall the vampir would come, cautious and deferential, edging into Liveside to find what they desired.
Despite himself Goodnight stopped, curiosity piqued. This one must be newcome, to be so bold, and to have suffered so little. ‘You’re early to be out,’ he said brusquely. ‘Might be those less friendly than me would take you somewhere too bright.’
The man could not step closer, out of the shadow of the gate, but he stood straighter, the ghost of a smile on his lips. ‘Then lucky for me it was you that passed,’ he said. He gestured upwards to where the road led to the carved pillars of the Lune Gate. ‘And it’s worth seeing while there’s light.’
Newturned, then, not just newcome, thought Goodnight, to be still taking thought for the sunlit world. His features and accent made him an Southerner, perhaps from the Firewater Straits, but in Vesontio all such considerations became superficial, men and women of two kinds only, quick and dead. He eyed the vampir narrowly. ‘Not going to get what you’re looking for out here: no one would risk being seen.’
The man considered him, his eyes impenetrable dark. ‘Where would you recommend, then?’
Goodnight sighed inwardly, castigating himself. He shouldn’t have stopped, shouldn’t have spoken. Showing interest: you know how it’s going to end. ‘Follow me,’ he snapped, hating himself. At least at this hour any passer-by seeing them together need not jump to conclusions.
‘Since you press me.’ He was surprised again to hear humour in that light voice, though a breath of eagerness underlay it.
Goodnight shouldered past him, under the arch and into the courtyard: impossible here, far too public, with windows all around and balconies supporting lines of washing and jars of water. He looked around more closely and saw a grilled door standing ajar in one corner. ‘This way.’
As he crunched across the little court he heard no footstep behind him: shadows flickered and smoked and suddenly the man was ahead of him inside the doorway. ‘Be quick,’ he warned, pulling up his sleeve with a grimace; the man sank gracefully to his knees before him, eyes downcast. His hair was long, but not yet the tangled nest of neglect; it was drawn back low on his neck, his features sharp in the dim light.
Goodnight waited a moment, then another, unable to resist the petty power of it, until he thought he detected a tiny tremor as the vampir fought to control his thirst. Then he stretched out his arm and closed his eyes. ‘Come on, then.’ A cold hand took hold of his wrist more gently than he expected, and another stroked along the sensitive inside of his forearm: he shuddered as chill lips closed on his flesh and he felt the prick of teeth.
Why do we do it, we living? We needn’t fear them, don’t fall to their glamour; they’re not our betters or our rulers. But we do it, because they ask. Because they need what we have to give. We do it because we’re human.
The man drank with control, sparingly, eyes closed and face calm, not the panicked guzzling of the truly hungry, and to Goodnight’s surprise, before he need jerk his arm away with a growl of, ‘Enough,’ the vampire mastered himself to let go, with just one lingering lap of his tongue over the two red points on Goodnight’s wrist.
He sat back on his heels, deliberately servile. ‘Thank you.’
His skin was already less waxen in appearance, his lips crimson; Goodnight ran an eye down the line of his throat as he knelt and felt an awkward stab of lust. He tugged down his sleeve again, embarrassed. ‘Dangerous tactics,’ he warned.
‘Then as I said,’ replied the man, rising to his feet, ‘lucky it was you I met.’ He raised his face; they were of a height, and Goodnight found himself looking into those black eyes, disturbingly intimate. ‘I’m Roche.’
Goodnight didn’t want to know his name. He wanted to be done with this, to be on his way and make it a small event, easily forgotten. He picked up his bag again, and checked that the court was still empty.
‘Your name?’ pressed the man, and Goodnight flung it back over his shoulder as he strode out to the gate.
To walk through the city was to understand it, Vesontio’s strict hierarchy marked by dress, by manner, by title, but most of all, by place. Below, the slums, little more than shanties among refuse piles and sluggish trickling watercourses; above, the polished spires and granite towers reaching into the clean air. And between, a careful gradation: where the streets began their climb were the smallest houses and workshops, the rowdiest of the taverns; the markets, where rubbish accumulated in the gutter to be rinsed away, and dogs and flies might cohabit with humanity. Above these, larger houses in wider streets, courtyards with wells and hidden gardens where a daring tree might peer atop a wall, the shops of artificers and artisans.
Through the great timeworn gate, and the houses turned in on themselves, the paved roads becoming broad and flat: here no gutters ran, and no wells stood, no living tree or flower, only stone and brick and dust. Here the quick made way for the dead, their liberation from bodily needs a source of pride to be flaunted. And higher still, the road wound up to the citadel itself, where great houses enclosed a dozen halls and towers within faceless walls, where the Thanati and their undead servants made their homes.
The dead were many here: the truedead lords, centuries old, passionless and powerful; their deadalive lieutenants, men and women elected to the honour of death and revivication, raising them to aristocratic rank; their mindless reanimate servants, obedient and slow. The city was theirs, its quiet dusty streets, its high stone towers and thick-walled mansions.
The dead have many advantages – fortitude, centuries of knowledge, implacable, endless patience – but a few qualities they cannot have. Energy, agility, the restless inventiveness that is the hallmark of life: for these, only the quick will do.
Not many living dwelt in Vesontio: few were born, and fewer found their way here, believing it a legend, or a nightmare tale. But here they were, in Liveside, servants all, high to low, sworn bondsmen and women, thaumaturges and artificers, errand-girls and labourers, their brief lives of rapid ticking pulse and fast, hot time like those of scurrying mice beside great armoured chelonas.
No name, then, just a curt farewell as the liveman strode away. Roche stood for a while in the shadow of the court, still dizzy from the thick red richness, the taste of life on his lips. A year ago the act would have turned his stomach to imagine: now the quelling of the hunger that racked him was the only pleasure left to him.
In this at least he was still true to himself: others of his new kind he had encountered in the huddling ghetto and found them restless, resentful, vengeful, venal, all the faults and fractiousness of life brought with them into unlife. But passion – anger, ambition, love – had never been his way; instead he had met the shocks of fortune with a stubborn acceptance, and though now it might seem a waste, not to have drunk deep from the cup of pleasure and indulgence while he might, perhaps it had served him better in the end. From the grind of poverty that drove him young from his home to the brutal labour on the iron road of the TRT, struggling to survive in a world of exploitation and betrayal, resignation had been the wiser course, the willingness to meet the lucky tumble of a die or the treacherous prick of a knife with the same calm fortitude.
Even this last, the death so meaningless in its random horror, the creature descending on him too strong to fight, his life ebbing from him as he fought; the burning fever and strange awakening to new form and senses, the dawning awfulness of learning what he had become: a man of more feeling might have lost his reason, betrayed himself to the mercy of destruction. But Roche had always expected little, alive or dead; he took what came, moved forward, and this was where his road had led.
Had he hoped, or was hope only for the living? He had come here to learn what he was, to see how he might live, in the city where the dead ruled, where vampire might walk openly: had he though to find himself accepted? Respected? Some such hope must have sustained him on a journey so long, when the lessons of survival had been so hard-won. And what had he found? A city of the dead and the quick, side by side, the dead and their servants, but his kind? Pariahs; beggars; no, worse, parasites, as unwelcome as the rats and feral dogs that scoured the midden heaps. He had come to Vesontio to learn what he was, and that had been the hardest learning of all.
And now this man, this liveman, with his hasty unexamined charity. He might not tell his name, but in this place, appearance spoke much. His clothes were militia-issue, coat and boots, worn with use but unmistakeable, and they had dallied long enough for Roche to see how he carried some of the soldier’s caution in stance and eye. Not old, but not young: few smiled or laughed aloud here, faces made deliberately calm or sombre, but this man bore a weight of sorrow on his brow, and a tinge of it had flickered on Roche’s tongue as he drank. A bondsman to a truedead lord, what else would he be?
At the question, Roche roused himself, the fugue of feeding dissipated, mind clear and sharp without the fogging clutch of thirst. Through the court, now almost dark, and out the archway: he stood a moment, tongue flicking out to taste the air, and there, a scarf of trailing scent wound away up the hill. A woman passing by paused and then spat in his direction; he stared at her, expressionless. ‘Be off,’ she ordered, ‘or I’ll call the guard.’ And he whisked away up the dusky street, following the silver wisp of scent.
From street to street he climbed, over the neat cobbles of Liveside, shrinking from the shafts of lamplight that spilled from window or unbarred door; then through the high arch of the ancient gate, past the empty fane atop its steps and across the plaza, always moving upwards, into the broader avenues of the citadel. High walls with tiny barred windows, shadowed by battlements, rose up around him, but his benefactor’s scent led him on, past heavy iron-bound gates guarded by undead, soulless obedient things without a spark of anima which paid him no more attention as he passed than a bird or a rat. Higher still, the scent unwinding delicate before him, shot through with the tang of copper and burning candles, the tickle of old fabric and the breath of myrrh, until finally it brought him to a stop at the edge of a pool of pale lamplight.
Two lanterns flared over a forbidding gate, and two guards stood motionless before it. ‘Whose house?’ he dared to asked, voice echoing in the empty street, but they would not or could not answer him. He faded back into the shadows, deeper dark on dark, and waited: what other occupation should he seek?
For a long time there was only the drift of dust in the light breeze, and once the skitter of what might have been a rat; his predator’s instincts twitched, but he held himself still. Then a sound from inside – the creak of a hinge, the crunch of boots on gravel, a stifled laugh? A smaller door within the gate suddenly swung inward, and three figures stepped through, one after the other. The first was a deadman, tall and well-wrapped in a coat with dark embroidery on the sleeves, and the second his slave, pale and mute like the guards. The third was slighter, and quick, a livewoman: she bowed to the lord but did not accompany him as he departed, waiting instead, hat in hand in the lanternlight until he vanished along the upward street. Then she fastened her coat, clapped on the hat and took the road downwards, looking neither at the guards nor at the patch of darkness where he stood.
Roche stepped, fast through the shadows, to emerge in front of her a little lower down. ‘Can you tell me,’ he asked, voice low and husky, ‘whose house this is?’
The woman paused to look him up and down, then said curtly, ‘Run away, bloodsucker.’
The guards at the gate behind them shuddered into motion and Roche retreated, hands spread in supplication, but asked again, casting his words louder to the dark, ‘Who lives here?’
The woman had started down the road again, but hesitated, curious despite herself at his question. She turned back to look at him. ‘Vauban,’ she said. ‘The General.’