Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2011
Balfour and Meriwether in The Vampire of Kabul by Daniel Abraham
As I have grown old, I have watched the world of my youth fade with me. The damage done by the Great War will never be calculated. And yet, even now, I hear from my friends in the circles of power - in truth, most are now the children of my friends - that a third war in Afghanistan is all but certain. Even more than the war on the continent just passed, I find myself in dread of this new conflict and the powers it may provoke.
And yet, also I feel the nostalgia of old hunts, old games, old enemies now lost to history, and feel again not the rush of conflict but its echo. And recall the unparalleled eyes of a most singular woman I once knew…
–From the Last Notebooks of Mr. Meriwether, 1919
CHAPTER ONE: The Two Empresses
It was the third of December in 188-, and snow swirled down grey and damp upon the cobblestones of London. Meriwether paced before the wide window of the King Street flat impatiently. Balfour sat before the roaring fire, correcting a draft monograph he had written on the subject of Asiatic hand combat as adapted to the English frame.
“I cannot understand how you can be so devilishly placid,” Meriwether said at last.
“Practice,” Balfour grunted.
“Every winter it’s the same,” Meriwether said, gesturing at the falling snow. “The darkness comes earlier, the cold drives men from the roads, and I have this…stirring. This unutterable restlessness. The winter traps me, my friend. It holds me captive.”
Balfour stroked his wide mustache. His bear-like grunt could have passed for agreement or mere acknowledgment. Meriwether turned away from street and snow, pushing pale hair back from his brow.
“If only something could break this, this malaise…”
Balfour glanced up in time to see the figure–slight, clad in dark leather, and swinging from a near-invisible tether–just before it shattered the windows. Shards of glass and wide, wet snowflakes accompanied the figure as it rolled across the carpeted floor. With a shout equal parts alarm and delight, Meriwether dove for his paired service revolvers. Balfour leapt from his chair, drawing blades from the sheaths concealed by his dressing gown’s sleeves, only to find the mouth of a huge handgun pressed firmly to the bridge of his nose. The leather-clad figure met his gaze, brown eyes flecked with gold. Her lips were the soft red of rose petals, and her smile sensual and touched by madness. The scent of clove perfume filled the air like a memory.
“Czarina,” Meriwether said, pulling back the hammers of his revolvers with an ominous doubled click. “I’ll ask you to stand away from Mr. Balfour, if you please.”
The Empress Consort of Russia lifted her fine-plucked eyebrows. When she spoke, her voice betrayed nothing of the physical effort she had just expended.
“My good Mr. Meriwether, I’ll ask you to note that I have already depressed the trigger of my weapon.”
“Ah,” Meriwether said, sourly. “A dead man’s switch, is it?”
“Indeed. Fire upon me, and you author your good friend’s death.”
“Cheap at the price,” Balfour grunted. “Shoot her.”
Meriwether uncocked his weapons, stepping over the remnants of his windows to lean out, squinting up through the grey snowflakes toward the low, white sky. The Czarina’s weapon didn’t waver.
“Fastened a silken cord to the roof and then launched yourself out,” he said. “You took something of a risk. London’s architecture is not always so solid as it might seem.”
“I had to approach you with very little warning,” she said. “Had I simply announced myself, I think my reception might not have been so cordial, yes?”
“After Cyprus, I think an assumption of violence would have been appropriate,” Meriwether said. “And yet I cannot help notice you haven’t yet killed us, nor we you. It isn’t a turn of events I would have foreseen, and I take it that you have some specific intention in engineering it?”
“I do,” the Czarina said, “but I would require your word of honor that you would respect our truce.”
“Truce?” Balfour asked.
“We face a common enemy,” she said. “Until he is defeated, I suggest we make common cause.”
Balfour’s face reddened and his bright eyes bulged.
“I’d sooner make common cause with malaria!”
The Czarina made a small, disappointed sound with her tongue and teeth.
“This is where all things end, then,” she said and brought up her free hand to steady the pistol.
“What manner of common enemy?” Meriwether asked.
Her smile broadened by a fraction of an inch.
“Truce?” she asked.
“Truce,” Meriwether said.
“Word of honor?”
She nodded to Balfour.
“Do you agree as well, my old friend?”
Balfour chuffed under his breath, stepped back, and truculently sheathed his knives. A gust of winter wind brought snow into the room. The fire hissed in complaint.
“Good enough, then,” the Czarina said, working a small mechanism on her pistol before returning it to the holster at her hip. “Seven weeks ago, my husband was assaulted in his rooms. I was not present at the time, but the woman who impersonates me during my absences reports that immediately before, there was an ectoplasmic darkness that formed in the corners of the room and which no light could dispel, followed by a terrible apparition in the shape of a man with bright red eyes and skin the color of snow. Her memory of the event itself is clouded. We know that my husband survived, that he was for some days afterward quite weak and anemic in appearance. And furthermore… Furthermore, I have reason to believe that his mind is no longer entirely subject to his will.”
For a moment, snow-muffled hoofbeats and the wet bubbling of the gaslight were the only sounds.
“Are you saying that the Emperor of Russia has gone mad?” Meriwether asked, leaning against the ruined window frame.
“Worse,” she said. “He is being compelled by an outside force. A being of spiritual darkness has struck at the heart of my empire. And what researches I have managed tell me that it also has designs upon yours.”
The interior door burst open, and a harried-looking Mrs. Long stepped in barely ahead of Lord Carmichael.
“Come quick, boys. The queen’s been attacked!” Lord Carmichael said even before Mrs. Long could announce him. And then, taking in the chaos of glass and ice before him, “What in the world’s going on? And what is she doing here?”
Meriwether scooped up his signature black greatcoat as Balfour reached for his brace of knives. The Czarina bowed slightly to Lord Carmichael, her disconcerting eyes fixed upon his.
“She appears to be helping us, unlikely as that seems,” Meriwether said. “Mrs. Long, I apologize again for the inconvenience, but if you could please–”
“I’ll send a boy to the glazier right away, sir,” Mrs. Long said. “You see Her Majesty’s safely taken care of.”
“Well, then,” the Czarina said, tucking Meriwether’s arm firmly in her own, “let us hurry to Buckingham Palace.”
“You knew,” Balfour said. “This isn’t coincidence. You knew the queen was going to be attacked.”
The Czarina’s mouth formed a distressed moue.
“Of course I did. And when. But if I had warned you before it happened, you’d have had no reason to help me with my problem,” she said, peevishly. “I came as soon as I could, practically speaking.”
Balfour and Meriwether met each other’s eyes for a moment, a silent communication passing between them.
“Malaise, eh?” Balfour said, and Meriwether’s laughter surprised and confused all the others in the room.
The carriage ride through the icy streets was as swift as could be managed. Lord Carmichael’s driver knew all the fastest streets and alleys, and the team of horses was among the best in the empire, but the hand of nature could not be kept back. The falling snow thickened until at the last they seemed to be driving through a dim faerie landscape, only distantly related to the solid, coal-smudged London they knew. Lord Carmichael stared out the window as if his focused will alone could clear their path. By contrast, the Czarina seemed politely amused.
The guards who greeted the carriage were unfamiliar to Balfour and Meriwether, but it was clear from the alacrity with which they led the unlikely party within that the presence of Lord Carmichael was evidence enough of their status. The Czarina’s outlandish appearance provoked no comment.
The queen’s private physician was a serious man at the beginning of his third decade. His muttonchop whiskers gave him an air of age and authority undermined by the trembling of his hands and the thinness of his lips. The private sitting room seemed gloomier and colder even than the weather outside, the gold and vermillion of the wallpaper dimmed by soot from the smoking fireplace. Sofas, divans, and small tables covered the floor like travelers huddled together on a train platform. The glowing gas sconces pressed ineffectually at the shadows. No one removed their coats, nor did the servants inquire.
“She certainly can’t be moved,” the physician said, fumbling with a porcelain pipe. “Not yet. Not for some time, I should think. No, indeed.”
“Has she regained consciousness then?” Lord Carmichael demanded.
“Yes, in a sense.”
“What sense?” Balfour asked.
The physician blinked, at a loss for word. Meriwether took the man’s pipe from his hand, packing the bowl with fresh tobacco as he spoke.
“You say she has regained consciousness in a sense. It follows, my good man, that there is also a sense in which she has not. Such comments are certainly evocative, but not in the strictest sense useful. Would you please elaborate as to Her Majesty’s condition?”
He handed back the pipe. The young physician accepted it.
“When I was called to her, the queen was quite pale,” he said. “Her pulse rapid, and she complained of dizziness. When she attempted to stand, she fell into a faint. Smelling salts did not revive her. She has since woken, but she seems confused. Keeps talking about someone named Arthur Dodgy.”
“Artyadaji,” the Czarina said. For the first time, her voice held no mischief.
“You know the name?” the physician asked.
“Afghan bogeyman,” Balfour said. “Scares children.”
“It seems it may do a great deal more than that,” the Czarina said.
Lord Carmichael hoisted an eyebrow and then, seeing that none of the others shared his amusement at the Czarina’s superstitions, grew somber. Balfour stepped away from the fire, glowering at the walls, his broad nose twitching like a hound’s. Meriwether, noting his companion’s behavior, narrowed his eyes.
“Was this the room in which the incident occurred?” he asked.
“It is,” Lord Carmichael said. “Her Majesty had taken a private audience with a member of the diplomatic service about whom, no offense to the Czarina, I cannot speak. She asked to be left alone. A few minutes later, her private guard heard her cry out. He entered the sitting room to find Her Majesty in distress. He described the shadows reaching out from the corners of the room. There was a man as well. Pale-faced and dressed in dark robes.
“The queen cried out a second time, and the man turned toward the guard. His eyes were bright red, and he spoke in a strange language. A terrible weakness come over the man, but he managed to interpose himself between the attacker and Her Majesty.”
Meriwether crouched down beside the fireplace. Grey smoke puffed out above him–evidence of a poorly drawing flue–as he ran a long, dainty finger through the fallen ash. Behind him, Balfour pressed a palm to the wallpaper four times in succession, pulling it away slowly.
“And what became of the dark-robed, red-eyed gentleman?” Meriwether asked without looking up from the flames.
Lord Carmichael glanced at the Czarina, clearly discomfited by the prospect of speaking candidly in her presence. And then, with a sigh: “Vanished. There one moment, gone the next.”
“This is the beast that attacked my husband,” the Czarina said. “It is associated with a Mohammadan wizard who travels under the name Abdul Hassan. I have been following him.”
Meriwether rose from the fire, wiped his hands, and exchanged a meaningful glance with his companion. As if in answer, Balfour raised his palms. Behind him, the door swung open and an eerie figure lurched into the room. Thin white hair rose from the pale scalp like steam. Gnarled hands gripped a rough firewood cudgel. The pale blue eyes starting from the broad, doughy face were empty of all thought. The diaphanous gown gave glimpses of a time-ravaged body, rolls of pale fat draping and shifting with every movement. The voice was low and bestial and filled with a terrible conviction.
“It cannot be won!” the queen growled, stepping further into the room. “It cannot be won! We will be destroyed!”
“My queen!” the physician cried. “You ought not be out of bed. You must–”
“It cannot be won!”
The firewood cudgel swung through the air with a hiss. The physician fell back, his pipe shattered and blood pouring from his abused lip. Balfour leapt forward, his broad hands clasping the queen’s improvised weapon. A royal ankle took him in the groin, and he fell back as Victoria, Queen of England and Empress of India, waved her club in the air with the conviction and ill intent of a Whitechapel brawler. Meriwether and Lord Carmichael only found time to exchange a helpless glance before she turned against them.
Meriwether blocked the first blow with the blade of his hand, leaping back before the second could do damage to his ribs. Lord Carmichael tried to circle behind her, only to have her whirl upon him, teeth bared and spittle dripping from her lips. She lurched toward him, coming near the open flame as she did. All the men present shared the terrible fear that the Queen’s nightgown might drift into the fire and set the sovereign alight.
“Stop this childishness at once!”
The Czarina’s voice was sharp as a slap. Victoria turned toward her, watery blue eyes narrowed and cunning. With a visible effort, the queen found words.
“Who are you?”
“An Empress, cousin,” the Czarina said. “Much like yourself.”
“An Empress,” the queen said as if struggling to recall what the syllables meant. “Like myself.”
For a moment the fear and violence dimmed in the pale blue eyes. The gaping mouth narrowed to a prim and disapproving scowl. Her spine straightened and she considered the Czarina with a haughty lift of the brow.
“We do not feel entirely ourself,” Victoria announced and turned her back to the assembled company, pausing only to hand her firewood weapon to Balfour, still red-faced and bent double. The door closed behind her, and for a moment, no one spoke.
“I should be certain that she…” the physician began, limping after his patient with blood smearing his lip.
“Is he like this as well?” Meriwether asked, his voice gentle as warm flannel.
The Czarina sat upon an embroidered chair, her fingers laced together on one leather-clad knee. Her face was a blank. A single tear escaped her left eye, tracking down her cheek.
“Only sometimes,” she said. “There are whole days when he seems nearly himself. And then it comes again, and…”
Balfour lifted himself up with a groan and tossed the queen’s improvised cudgel on the fire. Sparks rose like fireflies and died away. He put a wide, comforting hand on the Czarina’s shoulder, and her head sank. For the first time, Meriwether considered that the adventuress might truly love her husband.
“Lord Carmichael,” he said, “we are in desperate times. I am very much afraid we shall need to close the ports.”
“Which port did you have in mind?”
“All of them,” Meriwether said. “Britain is the heart of the world, but thankfully she is also an island. This wizard must not be permitted to escape, whatever it costs us in trade. We have it in our power to prevent him, and we must employ it. The threat we face is not only to our own Empire, but to the existence of monarchy itself. No price is too high. We will find him.”
“Unless the bastard can call up a djinni to fly him back to Hell,” Balfour said.
“Well, yes,” Meriwether agreed. “Unless that.”
CHAPTER TWO: Players of the Great Game
“You said that your husband was attacked in his rooms, Czarina,” Meriwether said. “Am I to take it that said rooms were in Moscow?”
“I don’t believe I was specific,” she said with a smile.
“No, of course. I understand.”
“He was in Kabul.”
The Czarina’s jewel-bright, jewel-hard eyes glittered in the firelight, but she said nothing.
With the King Street flat still suffering from the Czarina’s arrival, the three had repaired to the private rooms of the Bastion Club, where Balfour and Meriwether had a history of eccentric guests. The servants had seen them to the leather-upholstered chairs and roaring fire, brought them hot tea, and retreated to genteelly spread the word among the other members that any conversations affecting the Empire’s conflicts with the Czar of the Russias ought to be postponed. It was just that discretion that made the club home to the finest minds of political Europe.
Lord Carmichael had left immediately to set in motion the great mechanism that was Scotland Yard, armed with the name Abdul Hassan and a few telling details provided by the Czarina: aged appearance, a missing eye tooth, a looping tattoo in Arabic script along his back.
Balfour paced the edges of the room like a caged tiger, his hand never far from his knives, his gaze constantly on the woman. Meriwether sat near the fire as if the winter storm growing outside were a pleasant spring day, the Czarina a friendly acquaintance come over for tea, and the Queen of England in her right mind.
“And now we seek a Mohommadan wizard who has been invoking Artyadaji?” Meriwether said. “Hardly the sort of thing one finds among the Muscovites.”
“Men say many things. A claim is not the truth,” the Czarina said. “You recall the French poisoner who presented himself as a traveler from the future?”
“Yes, well. That was a bit more complex than public reports let on, but this wizard of yours, pretender or not, unquestionably has ties to the Afghan territories.”
“Opium,” Balfour said. “The resin was on the walls.”
“And the ash in that infernal smoking fireplace,” Meriwether said. “Whatever magic our wizard has employed, it relies on Afghan poppy for its effect. Without intending offense, Your Majesty, your husband’s influence in the region is considerably less than it once was, which would make the decision to begin a campaign by attacking him rather odd. Unless, of course, he presented a particularly convenient target. It follows then, that there have been some…negotiations?”
“Bloody Russians trying to cut off our route to India!” Balfour snapped. “Again!”
The Czarina stretched. A joint in her spine cracked, and as if in answer, the pine in the fireplace popped.
“Would you like me to deny it?” she asked with a deep, throaty laugh. “Of course my empire has been exploring what options and strategies are available to it. Much as yours has. You may as well pretend outrage that the sun sets.”
“And your explorations have met with such success that your husband felt it wise to attend to it personally,” Meriwether said. “That sounds very much as if the recent hostilities might take new fire.”
“That was the hope,” the Czarina said. “Instead, he touched off…this.”
“What can you tell us of these negotiations?”
“Very little, I’m afraid. My husband does not always trust me. It’s something of a game between us. I do not believe the meeting was cheese for the mousetrap. His allies were quite sincere in their hatred of Britain. But a third party intruded.”
“Your wizard,” Balfour said.
“We forget, I think, that being primitive is not the same as being simple,” the Czarina said. “There are as many intrigues in their caves and tents as in our palaces. And yes, Abdul Hassan enchanted the Czar. I was called in on the instant. At first, we assumed you were behind it. The locals swore otherwise, and then I found a workshop in the poorest quarters of Kabul. A den of dark magic. And notes outlining the attack upon your queen.”
“And you let it happen,” Balfour said.
“Consider my position. My options were to track the wizard alone and in the den of my enemy, or with the best and most capable allies in the world, and with the force of the British Empire.”
“Besides which, should we fail, we will both be hobbled by compromised monarchs rather than Russia suffering that fate alone,” Meriwether said.
“Deplore me if you wish,” the Czarina said and sipped her tea.
“Done,” Balfour said.
A soft knock came at the door, and Lord Carmichael stepped in. His cheeks were ruddy from the cold and snow still clung, melting, to his coat. His grin was feral.
“We’ve found him, boys. The bastard’s taken a room behind a slaughterhouse not fifteen minutes from here. Arrived just when the Empress here said he would have. Missing eye tooth. What’s more, when we knocked up the landlord, he said he suspected his new tenant was an opium fiend. Said he stinks of the stuff. I’ve got a dozen men watching the place right now.”
“Well then,” Meriwether said, rising to his feet. “Let us go and make our call.”
It was nearly midnight when they arrived in the street outside Jenkins Brothers Meats. The snow was thick on the cobbles and grey with coal ash. Cold bit at their skin, and the air was rich with the reek of manure and old blood. Lord Carmichael pressed a brass key into Balfour’s hand nodding at the slaughterhouse door.
“The room’s in the back,” he said. “Caretaker’s quarters. Fastest way’s in through the front here, past the counter, and through the killing floor. Take the hall on the right.”
“Charming,” Balfour said, slipping the key into his pocket and drawing out a pair of well-balanced knives.
Meriwether checked his paired service revolvers, the mechanisms clicking softly in the snow-quiet street. The Czarina took her own gun from her hip, adjusted the complex mechanism at the butt, and then took a second pistol from the small of her back and loaded three cartridges into it. Her fingernails were blue with the cold, but she made no complaint.
“Would you consider remaining with Lord Carmichael, Your Highness?” Meriwether asked.
“I thought not.”
The front rooms of the slaughterhouse were cramped. From the ink-stained wood of the counter and the hand-written notices of price, it might have been almost any business. In near-perfect darkness, the trio crept, silent as cats. The door to the killing floor was unlocked, its hinges well-oiled. Within, the room was colder even than the street outside. Blocks of ice stood stacked against the wall, and sawdust soupy with gore covered the floor. In the dim light that spilled in through the high windows, the skinless things hanging from hooks might have been anything: beef or rabbits or men. Even in the cold, the reek was overwhelming.
A rat scuttled along the wall, startled by its unexpected guests. By unspoken agreement, Balfour took the lead, his wide frame moving through the shadows with the agility of long practice. The others followed only a few steps behind, Meriwether dividing his awareness between the dark spaces behind them and the snake-smooth motion of the Czarina, prepared for surprise attack from either quarter. It seemed hours that they negotiated the abattoir, the dead around them like the trees of an infernal forest, and then Balfour made a low clicking sound at the back of his throat.
Meriwether went still, and a moment later, the Czarina as well. Balfour opened the door slowly, a dim, dirty light outlining its frame. From the hallway beyond, a faint voice came. The syllables were incomprehensible, but they had a wetness and roughness that spoke of a throat abused from long use, hoarse as a man accustomed to screaming. Balfour lifted his head, sniffing at the air, and a moment later, the others caught it as well. The sweet, pungent scent of opium, but also something else. Something deeper and more intimate even than the spilled blood through which they had travelled. The Czarina’s long, slow exhalation reminded Meriwether to breathe as well. Her eyes, the brown gone slate gray in the dim light, were fearful and reckless at once. She saw the question in his expression and nodded once. She was prepared.
Quiet as thieves, they crept forward.
At the end of the hall, light spilled from the edges of a poorly-fit door. Red and gold, it danced like flame, but there was no roar of fire to accompany it, only the rough, ruined voice lifted in its incomprehensible chant. Balfour crossed to the far side of the door, his drawn blades glittering. The Czarina placed herself at the door’s nearer edge just as Meriwether moved to the same position. Their bodies collided silently, and Meriwether took a step back to steady himself. A floorboard creaked under his foot.
The chanting stopped.
“Grand,” Balfour sighed, and then twisting from the hip, kicked the door open. The lock shattered. The bolt tore free, splintering the wood. All three leapt into the room.
What had once been a modest caretaker’s residence–a cast-iron stove, a small cot, a single gaslight–had been transformed. The stove’s plate was open, the burning coal within heating the air like a furnace and filling the room with demonic light. The ancient, black robed man kneeling before it could have been drinking at the back of any pub in England. Close-cut white hair frosted his pale scalp. The patchy beginnings of a beard clung like lichen to his loose jowls and wattled neck. His alarmed eyes were the blue of ice at the iris, the sclera a uniform, blood-bright red. He shouted, his bared teeth revealing the pale-gummed gap of a missing eye tooth, and threw a handful of dark powder into the flames.
Meriwether lifted his revolver toward the man’s skull.
“In the name of Victoria, queen of England, stand down!” he shouted.
The dark-robed man rose, his arms raised at his sides in a gesture that could have been surrender or a show of fearlessness. At his breast, a huge and ornate silver medallion glittered as if with a light of its own. When he spoke, it was with the unaccented English of a London native.
“In the name of Victoria?” he said. “You have no idea what I have seen and suffered in that name. It has no power over me any longer, God help us both.”
The three exchanged confused glances. The wizard hoisted the corner of his mouth in an amused smile. His medallion glowed silver in a world of honey-gold. There was a ruby set at the center, red as the old man’s eyes.
“Forgive me,” Meriwether said, his revolvers still trained at the man’s forehead. “Abdul Hassan?”
“If you like, son. I’ve been Abdul Hassan. I’ve had a dozen names. What does it matter what a man’s called? Call him king or cobbler, it’s what he does that matters.”
The heat of the fire redoubled, the flames licking at the black iron.
“You have injured my husband,” the Czarina said. “You will tell me now how to cure him.”
“Balfour?” Meriwether said.
“I see it,” Balfour replied. At the edges of the room, the shadows were growing solid. Darkness made its web. “It’s the smoke fumes.”
“I believe that it isn’t,” Meriwether said.
“You will tell me how to cure him!“ the Czarina shrieked, and her pistol barked twice. The black robe bucked and puckered as the rounds pierced it. The wizard chuckled.
“You’ll find me a harder man to kill than that,” he said, and the shadows swept down around him moving through the air like ink dripped into water. There were eyes in that darkness, shining like black water. Searching for them. Meriwether felt the hairs on his neck and arms standing too, his deep animal nature recognizing something that had threatened him since before evolution had brought men to walk upright.
Something detonated soundlessly, and the iron stove gone, the caretaker’s room gone, and rising behind the ancient man, a huge goat-headed thing. Its pendulous belly shifted as it shuddered from one awkward, bent leg to another. Its eyes were malefic and intelligent.
“Artyadaji,” the Czarina breathed.
“Meriwether?” Balfour said, and there was a barely controlled panic in his voice.
“I suspect we’ve been exposed to…some sort of hallucinatory agent.”
“That’d be good,” Balfour said. His voice echoed, as if coming from a great distance away. Meriwether took careful aim at the beast shuddering before him. A huge, honey-colored moon was rising over its shoulder. His service pistol barked in his hand, and the demonic face rippled like a reflection in a pond when a stone has been dropped into it.
“Stop that!” the Czarina said, and the world smelled of her clove perfume and the richness of her flesh. “You could have killed me.”
“Get on the floor!” Balfour wheezed.
With his head pressed to the filthy floorboards, Meriwether’s mind slowly cleared. A greenish haze poured up from the iron stove, floating about three feet above the floor, venomous and threatening. A calm and poisoned ocean, seen from beneath the waves. Of the ancient man, there was no sign.
“Stay low,” Meriwether said. “We have to get to the street. And quickly.”
When they had reached the curb again, their clothing ruined by the return trip through the frigid gore of the slaughterhouse, Lord Carmichael had a carriage waiting. Wrapped in woolen blankets, the three were pulled quickly through the night streets.
“We saw him slip out,” Lord Carmichael said. “Leapt off the rooftop. I’ve got men in pursuit. I was about to send a squad in when you three stumbled out. What happened in there?”
“Hell opened,” Balfour said. The Czarina leaned her head against the rattling side of the carriage and wept silently.
“It’s well you didn’t send any others in,” Meriwether said. “Especially not men who were armed. We’d all have been shooting one another down as devils until morning.”
Slowly–the opium had done something unpleasant to his ability to find words–Meriwether recounted the events from within the slaughterhouse. Lord Carmichael listened, his eyes wide and his expression the rapt fascination of a boy sitting at a campfire, regaled with ghost stories. When Meriwether came to the end, Lord Carmichael slapped his back, grinning.
“Well, this is all to the good, then, isn’t it? We may not have caught the bastard, but at least we know it’s all drugs and mesmerism. Not real magic at all.”
“I’m afraid we don’t know that,” Meriwether said.
“You recognized him too?” Balfour asked, his bear-deep growl softer than usual.
“I did,” Meriwether said. The carriage lurched, the team of horses whuffling in complaint. “Our so-called Abdul Hassan is, in fact, an Englishman.”
“Born in England, of Scottish descent,” Meriwether said, giving half the point. “I’ve never met the man, but I’m quite familiar with his portrait. William Brydon.”
“I don’t know the name,” said the Czarina, her attention suddenly sharp and bright as a blade’s edge.
“Assistant surgeon in the East India Company. When Elphinstone retreated from Kabul to Jalalabad, he had an army of forty-five hundred men. Only one man reached safety, and that was William Brydon.”
“Elphinstone? No, you must be mistaken. This can’t be the same man. That was…”
“Yes, I know,” Meriwether said. “That was our first adventure among the Afghans. Over four decades ago.”
“The man would be in his sixties,” Lord Carmichael said.
“Seventies,” Balfour said. “Except that he died at sixty-two.”
“Ah,” Lord Carmichael said.
“Yes,” said Meriwether. “So we can’t entirely rule out magic just yet.”
CHAPTER THREE: Remnants of an Army
Dawn came behind a veil of low, grey cloud. The difference between darkness and day was only a greater wealth of detail in the worn faces and cold stone. The traffic thickened the streets, horses and carriages battling the night’s snowfall. The young man in Lord Carmichael’s offices looked at the great brass globe and the citations from the Queen as if he expected to wake from it all. Balfour smiled at him and extended a cup of rich-smelling, smoky tea. Samuel Brydon hesitated, ran a hand through hair still disarranged from the pillow, and accepted the cup. The men around him–men only, for the Czarina was elsewhere, preparing her part of the endeavor–waited patiently for the boy to answer the question.
“No, I’m quite sure Grands is dead. I was at his funeral. I remember it because it was on my tenth birthday,” he said. “Funny, isn’t it, how we’re such selfish beasts when we’re young. Mum lost her father, and all I could think was that it wasn’t fair I couldn’t have my cake. Really, though, you should ask her about it. She’ll know more than I do.”
Meriwether smiled, trying to keep the anxiety presently shaking him from affecting his demeanor.
“Alas, Westfield is a bit too long a journey for us at the moment. Time is of the essence and all that sort of thing. You have, I take it, had no visitations from your grandfather? Dreams or visions, perhaps?”
The young man laughed, and then seeing the grim faces of the men around him, sobered.
“No. Nothing like that. Is this…actually important?”
“Deadly so, I’m afraid. Did you know your grandfather well?”
“Well enough, I suppose. He seemed a decent sort of man. Prone to dark times, of course. Anyone would be who’d been through what he had. In the war, I mean.”
“Did he talk about Afghanistan often?” Lord Carmichael asked, smiling encouragement.
“Not as such, no,” the boy said. “He’d go back there every few years. Had friends there, he said. And he was very down on war in general. When Pa asked for my mother’s hand, the only condition was that Pa couldn’t take a career with the military.”
“That so?” Balfour rumbled.
“He’d be damned upset with me, I’m sure,” the boy said with a laugh.
“Joined up?” Balfour said.
“Haven’t yet, but I’m going to. Clerking hasn’t exactly worked out, you could say.”
The secretary knocked gently at the door and leaned in to catch Lord Carmichael’s eye.
“Your appointment with the Inspector has been postponed, sir,” he said. It was a code phrase. The time was right to move in. Lord Carmichael nodded and plucked the drawing from his waistcoat pocket. He considered it carefully, then held it out to the boy.
“Have you ever seen a medallion of this sort among your family’s possessions?”
The boy hesitated, frowned, and then slowly shook his head.
“No, sir,” he said. Balfour leaned toward him.
“Aryadaji,” he said. “Mean anything to you?”
“No. Should it?”
“Someone may approach you claiming some relationship to your grandfather,” Meriwether said. “He may particularly be haunting places that your grandfather may have known within London or its surroundings. If any such man approaches you, you must let us know immediately. He is quite dangerous.”
“Is he?” the boy squeaked.
“Yes,” Meriwether replied. “But don’t be too concerned. We are certain to have him captured by nightfall.” He paused, then in a lower voice: “We have a trap in place.”
“Well that… That’s good, then,” the boy said. “Something a bit queer about having one’s dead grandfather about, isn’t there?”
“Thank you for coming in, Mister Brydon,” Lord Carmichael said. “And I apologize again for the abrupt manner of our arrival.”
The boy rose, setting the cup of tea on the table with a clink and then wiping his hands on his trousers. For a moment, his eyes flickered toward the drawing of the silver medallion.
“No harm done,” he said. “Sorry I couldn’t help more.”
Lord Carmichael ushered him to the door, a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Not at all. You’ve been a great help. I’ll have a man see you home right away.”
The door closed behind the boy with a soft click. Balfour rose, scowling out the window at the street below. Meriwether sighed and stretched, his spine letting off a small volley.
“Not a particularly good liar, is he?” Lord Carmichael said.
“No,” said Meriwether. “And his failure to dissemble is entirely to our advantage, I think.”
The rear door swung open and the Czarina appeared. With her leathers replaced by a simple cotton dress, her feet covered with simple, working-class footwear, and her hair let down in bangs that almost covered her remarkable eyes, she might have been a young woman of London. She smiled at Lord Carmichael’s reaction and made a small curtsey.
“Not too bad, I hope, m’lords?” she said in an accent that would have passed for local.
“Disturbingly brilliant,” Lord Carmichael said.
“The boy is on his way,” Meriwether said. “He was, as we’d hoped, hiding something, and I hinted rather broadly that we know much more than we actually do. Once at his home, he will try to contact our Abdul Hassan.”
“But, having been questioned by yourselves, he shall be discreet,” the Czarina said, pulling a pair of spectacles from her sleeve and propping them on her nose. “He will be watching for the dark-coated arm of law, and overlook a pretty young thing like myself. I shall track him to his lair, signaling your men as I go. I’m aware of our plan, sir. And I am accustomed to being underestimated.”
“I’m sure you are,” Meriwether said, appreciating her implicit dig at him.
“I’m off, then,” she said. “The hunt calls.”
The door closed behind her, and Balfour spun the great brass globe, the oceans of the world glimmering in the sunlight. His expression was peevish.
“The hunt calls,” he said in an unconvincing falsetto. “Hate the way she always says that. Bloody affected.”
Lord Carmichael leaned against his desk, drew a cigar from the humidor presented him by the Pope, and lit it thoughtfully.
“I do wonder, boys,” he said. “What do you plan to do once you’ve found him again? The three of you were thoroughly trounced last night. What’s changed?”
“First, we have seen our man in action. He requires flame and his opium powder. Should we deprive him of these, our chances improve at once. Also, we’ve ascertained that the fumes from those are lighter than air, and can be defeated by dropping to one’s knees. And…”
“And?” Lord Carmichael said.
“Artyadaji is a demon of the night,” Meriwether said, tapping at the sketch of the eerie medallion. “We’ll take him by daylight, when the spirit is weakest. And we offer no quarter. I have the sense that failure now means failure forever. There will be no third opportunity.”
For three long hours, they waited, every tick of the clock an eternity. When at last the Czarina’s message came, they leapt to the waiting carriage and sped through the snow-choked streets. The grin behind Balfour’s wide mustache promised violence, as did Meriwether’s calm. They stopped two streets away, finishing the journey by foot for fear of alerting the prey.
The warehouses sat against the grey Thames, ancient timbers blackened by time and soot. Rats watched them pass, black eyes incurious and challenging. The Czarina stepped out briefly from the mouth of an alleyway, nodded to them, and stepped back. Walking casually, they joined her. The building was three stories high, old stone at the water’s edge. The voice of the river was a behemoth breathing softly, gentle and deafening at the same time.
“They’re both within,” she called into Meriwether’s ear. “I’ve found a way to the top. We can enter through the roof and work our way down.”
Meriwether nodded and gestured to Balfour. The Czarina led them to a narrow space where age and weather had eaten away at the mortar between stones. She pulled off her shoes, tying the laces together and draping them across her shoulders. On toes and fingertips, she began scaling the sheer wall. Their path led around the corner and out over the water. Soon, the great wooden doors that would have allowed a barge entrance were directly beneath them, crusted with ice and snow.
They achieved the rooftop, forty feet above the alleyway and chill gray flow. A path through the snow marked the Czarina’s previous explorations, and the black, wooden trapdoor, its hinges forced, that let them slip inside. The attic space had been used for storage with little regard to the strength of the beams. Huge cast iron wheels and chains that had once raised cargo now lay rusted and abandoned. The evidence of a generation of pigeons left the air pungent and unpleasant. The Empress of the Russias squatted down, pulled back on her shoes, and drew her weapons from beneath her dress.
“How far did you get?” Balfour whispered, pulling wool socks back over blue-toed feet.
“Far enough,” she said. “Come quickly.”
An ancient wooden stairway so narrow Balfour had to turn his shoulders to fit switch-backed down into darkness. Silently, they descended. The sulfurous stench of cheap coal began to taint the air. The wooden stair widened and gave over to stone. The Czarina paused on a landing beside a half-opened door, holding up her delicate, pale hand still gripping a pistol. A moment later, they heard it as well: voices.
The platform on which they found themselves looked down over a wide expanse of water. Where in the busy days of summer a half dozen barges might stand together, only a single, spare craft stood at anchor, rough and weathered, little better than a raft. The cranes above it seemed to threaten to sink it more than to relive its burdens. And at the quayside, sitting by a brazier of red-and-gold coals, the boy Samuel Brydon and the weathered husk of what had in life been William Brydon.
“…reach the sea, much less Gibraltar,” the young man said.
“The coast will be enough,” the wizard replied. His voice was deep and resonant and borne down by the weight of ages. “If I can reach the coast, I can reach the continent. If I can reach the continent, I can reach the east. There are caves in the Gul Koh mountains that no man in the great nations has breached. I will rest there.”
“You don’t have to go alone.”
Balfour touched the Czarina’s elbow and nodded toward the armature of a crane that passed over their shadow-dark platform. She traced it with her eyes and nodded.
“Yes, I must. The lands north of the Zhod valley are no place for us. Not now, and not for generations. The bargain I struck on that deathly road was no betrayal of England. The task I have been called back to accomplish is no treason.”
Balfour cupped his hands, bracing himself. The Czarina put her foot on his laced fingers. Quiet as a spring wind, he lifted her up to the armature’s edge. Meriwether crept to the platform’s edge, judging with narrowed eyes the distance between wizard and boat, boy and man, brazier and black, cold water.
“If you say so, Grands.”
“I do. We see the east as our chessboard. We think the men who live in those dread places are pawns. They aren’t. If by this action, I have kept the British Empire from a fresh war in those hills, then I will die again as a patriot. And no greater wisdom could ever be offered the Muscovites than to look away from the Afghan tribes. The power that lives there will never win against us, but neither shall it lose.”
“But is there no honor in trying?” the boy asked.
Meriwether drew his service revolvers. The soft hush of knives unsheathed reached his ears.
“Is there? It’s the honor of ignorance, then.”
“Are the soldiers there so mighty?” There was anger in the boy’s voice. Contempt even.
“Some are. And some are cowards. Some are men of peace born in the wrong place and time. They are men. That’s what I’m saying, and they have their wisdoms as we have ours. It’s only our shortness of sight that makes us think they don’t. That they somehow belong to us. Like goats.”
Above wizard and boy, the Czarina appeared, a light spot in the gloom. William Brydon or Abdul Hassan or Artyadaji was so wrapped up in his lecture, she might have been no more than a dove.
“We can spill their blood in our great game, Samuel, but it won’t nourish us. We can fight our battles on their field, but–”
With a shout, the Czarina leaped from the crane, her arms wide. Had she been another woman, Balfour and Meriwether might have feared for her, but as the wizard’s attention snapped upward, they were in motion, racing toward the brazier. The wizard grabbed at his robe. The Czarina landed on the cold stone, rolling as gracefully as a dancer, and coming up with her pistol at the ready. The old man threw a leather sack onto the fire as the Czarina fired. Her bullet tore a hank of dark flesh from the wizard’s temple, but no blood flowed from it, and he did not fall. Samuel Brydon shrieked.
Evil green smoke began to rise from the coals. Meriwether reached the brazier first. It was larger than it had appeared from the platform, thick and black and hot as a stove. He set his shoulder to it, ignoring pain and the smell of burning skin, and pushed. A lungful of the evil gas started him coughing, and where the boat had been, a huge, nacreous beast now rose from the dark water, tentacles slipping against each other in mindless glee. He closed his eyes and pushed.
The Czarina fired again as the wizard rushed at her, a silver dagger in his hand. The bullet blew off part of his neck, but he did not falter. With a single stroke, he knocked her from her feet and towered above her, blade high. The silver medallion glowed with its own baleful light, the ruby blazing with a deep internal brightness matching the blood-red eyes. The terrible hiss of steam–hot metal thrown in cold water–failed to distract him.
She did not see the thrown knife. It seemed to appear in the wizard’s breast from nowhere, splitting the silver medallion and piercing the long-still heart. The ruby fell from its setting and shattered on the stone. The wizard let out a sudden, despairing cry and collapsed on the ground beside the Czarina, a desiccated corpse. She struggled to her feet as Balfour stepped close. In the distance, Samuel Brydon fled screaming toward the waiting hands of Scotland Yard. At the water’s edge, Meriwether retched and held his eyes against the visions that plagued him, his shoulder and neck a single angry scorch mark.
Balfour retrieved his blade from the dead man’s chest.
“Well. That ends that,” the Czarina said. “Do you suppose his magics died with him? Or are your queen and my husband lost forever?”
“Don’t know,” he grunted. “We’ll see.”
“Either way, I owe you my life now.”
For a moment, their gazes rested on each other. Balfour drew his knives in the same moment the Czarina raised her pistol. The bullet grazed his skull, setting his world ringing like a church bell, and his blade bit into the flesh of her arm. Her foot shot forward, taking him in the belly. He fell back and she retreated. Blood flowed down her side, crimson soaking her dress. Her eyes were bright and mad and insatiable.
“The hunt calls!” she said, then turned, took half a dozen steps, and dove into the icy water.
Balfour lay back, his hand pressed to his wounded head. Some time later–a minute, an hour–Meriwether crawled up beside him. They lay on the stone, the chill seeping into their bones.
“Well,” said Balfour.
“Yes,” said Meriwether.
“You should have shot her when you had the chance.”
“Next time,” Meriwether said. “Next time.”
They tell me that after the Bolsheviks rose up, she fought a campaign of assassination and sabotage. I can well believe it. But by the evidence of my own eyes, she lives now in retired leisure in the Denmark of her youth. She or someone quite like her. With her, one can never be certain.
I picture her reading of this new Afghan adventure and thinking of me and of my old friend Balfour. I hear her laughing, if only within the confines of my memory. Nostalgia, is that? Regret? But what is one man’s youth against the great spread of history. No, I will drink my tea and turn away from the old days, however much I feel their loss. Instead I will take comfort in the fact that the great game has ended. With communism devouring the greatness that was the Russian Empire, Britain - however much wounded by the Great War - is left as the only great power in the world. And so it follows that this next Afghan war must necessarily be the final example of its species. With no great enemy glowering at us from across its borders, there will no longer be a call to battle in those barren fields, and the tribes of those ragged hills will at last be granted peace.