She woke just before nightfall and had him lace her into the corset Angelus liked. From the dresses he’d unpacked she chose the dark crimson with the black slashes, which Will hadn't seen her wear at all yet. The lamplight shuddered off it like water off a raven’s wing. She looked slender and severe, and actually quite beautiful.
“My God,” she said, turning round and catching sight of him watching her. “You can’t expect to wear that, can you?”
He looked down at himself wordlessly; the trousers were clean enough, and his shirt cuffs were only a little yellow.
“You have a decent waistcoat somewhere,” she said, toeing one of his own unpacked cases. “You must do; Angelus made enough of a fuss over them. And a proper collar, please. And the coat that fits you.”
“They all fit me,” he muttered, but he went and opened his cases. He changed his clothes, stuffed the old ones into the case, shoved the case against the wall, and stood with his hands thrust in his pockets, staring at the back of Darla’s head while she pulled her hair into a neat chignon.
“Stop that,” she said.
He almost said Stop what?, but shrugged instead and went to the window to look out. The air was still as glass, hot as human breath.
“Comb your hair,” she said, and he ran his fingers over his head. “Properly. For God’s sake, Will.”
“Haven’t got a comb,” he said, without turning around.
“Then come here.”
He turned reluctantly and went over, and she raked his scalp with her own comb, holding his chin in her fingers. He winced and tried to twist free.
“Stop it. You little imbecile—must I do everything for you?”
“Needn’t do anything,” he growled, and she tore the comb over his ear. “Ow!”
“We are receiving company tonight, William. What sort of an impression do you wish to make, exactly?”
He stared at her. “Oh. I didn’t—I mean, I thought it would take longer.”
“What would take longer?”
“For her to get here. The letter only came yesterday—”
“Yes, and we replied at once. She was here already.”
He flinched again as she scraped the comb over his forehead. “Ow—stop it—she’s here in England? In Brighton?”
“Of course.” Darla surveyed him critically, then sighed without pleasure and put the comb down with a sharp click. “That, I imagine, is as near to presentable as you will get. Where is your hat?”
He rubbed his scraped ear. “If she’s already here, why did she send—”
“Appearances, William. She wants a meeting. Your hat?”
He stepped away. “Lost it. Can a French master simply come to England like that? I mean—”
“I would think the answer to that question is obvious,” Darla said dryly. “She can, and she has. And we are going to meet her this evening. Surely you have another hat.”
He shook his head and she frowned.
“So you will be bare-headed. Well, we can introduce you as the idiot childe, I suppose. Show me your hand.”
He curled the fingers for her and she gave a curt nod. “Keep it out of sight. In fact, you are to keep well behind Angelus and myself at all times. I would expect you to know that without being told, but of course you never do.”
“I don’t see why—”
“Because you look a disgrace, for one thing. You didn’t sleep properly, so your face is a sight. And because you are four and a half years old, and your place is behind your elders.” Her tone was sharp, and he suppressed an urge to sneer.
“Yes madam,” he said, inspecting the bruises on his knuckles.
“And because this one is very old and very sharp,” Darla went on. He looked up; she was watching him closely, her expression grave. “And we don’t know what she wants.”
“Yes madam,” he repeated, more quietly.
“No games tonight, William. Be good, for once in your life.”
Angelus and Dru were waiting in the lobby, he in his best coat and top hat, and she in the same grey dress that became her so well. They nodded their greetings under the eye of the desk man, then strolled in pairs out into the hot night. At the corner, Angelus paused and stepped into the alley.
“Darling,” he said, holding out his hand to Darla. She took it, and Angelus stood for a moment with the women flanking him. He looked Will up and down.
“You didn’t sleep,” he said flatly. “Your face is a wreck.”
Will stared at his shoes with pursed lips; it struck him as unfair that he was being blamed for the marks Angelus had inflicted, but he wasn’t fool enough to say it.
“And where is his hat?” Angelus asked.
“He’s lost it,” Darla said. “He doesn’t have another.”
“Idiot,” Angelus said. “There isn’t time to buy one. Well, here, take your sister’s hand.”
Will looked up in surprise, then reached out eagerly, before Angelus could change his mind. Angelus didn’t let go of Drusilla at once, though, so for a moment the three of them stood with their hands clasped as if in a pact.
“You’ll walk behind,” Angelus said, his eyes fixed on Will. “You won’t stray, you won’t speak, and you won’t make calf’s eyes at each other. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir,” Will said at once. Dru nodded.
Angelus held on a moment longer, then let go. “All right. Will, if you disappoint me tonight I will whip you till I see bone.”
Will held still and kept his face blank, and after another moment of scrutiny, Angelus turned and led them out of the alley.
They took Queen’s Road toward the shore, making no effort to move without being seen. Will tried to stay alert, to notice any slight flicker or sound that would betray a follower, but his mind kept slipping back to the light pressure of Dru’s hand on his arm. He kept his hand over hers, and watched from the corner of his eye as she walked with her head held straight, her gaze on Angelus’s back. She smelled dark and lovely, and he had to prevent himself from leaning over and burying his face in her neck.
They walked quickly through the hot darkness, and when they turned east on North Street Will realized they were making for the Pavilion. At the edge of the grounds, they paused again.
“Keep that hand out of sight,” Angelus said, looking at Will.
“I told him that already,” Darla said sharply. “Though God knows the repetition can’t hurt.”
Will thrust his hand behind his back and watched while the two of them inspected each other. Darla reached up and brushed a little dust from the brim of Angelus’s hat, and he arranged a tendril of her hair to better effect. When they were both satisfied, they turned and led the way into the grounds.
The air in the gardens was like a black perfume heated almost to boiling. There had been rain in the early spring—enough to start things off properly—and now the heat had driven the plants mad. They passed a rhubarb with leaves the size of cart wheels, and a stand of purple thistles as tall as Will. There was no breeze, and no light but the slow dazed winking of glow worms in the bushes. Dru pointed at them in delight, and Will gave her a quick smile and squeezed her hand.
They took a little curving gravel path crowded with moss and heather, too narrow for them to walk in pairs. Blooms leaned in and stroked the women’s skirts with a sound like fingertips trailing, dusting their hems with pollen. Will walked carefully, his hand in Dru’s behind his back, trying to scent anything unusual in the thick hot air.
This would be a perfect place to lay a trap, he thought—with the path so narrow and the masking smells of a thousand orders of green. He caught a flicker of movement above and looked up sharply, but it was only a bat skimming the sky. When he looked back down he saw that Angelus and Darla had followed the movement too. He tightened his hold on Dru’s hand.
The path passed under a low flowering tree that sang with insects, then pushed through a stand of broom flocked with yellow blossoms. The smell was rank and overpowering. When they emerged they were in a small circle of lawn with a central sundial and a little laurel tree on the far edge. Someone was sitting on a bench below the tree.
Will saw at once it was a man, and was momentarily confused. Then he remembered the Frenchman who’d left the note at the hotel; the one who’d followed him. Will’s hand twinged.
The man rose as soon as they entered the clearing and bowed deeply, dropping one leg behind him to do so.
“Madame et monsieur,” he said in a low silky voice. “I am the humblest of your servants.”
He was tall and slim, with a strong slender neck and long fingers that brushed the grass in a reverence when he bowed. His skin had an odd sallow pallor, as if he ought to be a darker colour but had been blanched. And his accent was queer; somehow it didn’t sound quite French.
Even stranger was his clothing. He wore a long black waistcoat with tails, and fitted black knee breeches. His collar was white, but was almost entirely hidden beneath a flowing black cravat. His stockings were white too, and came up to roll neatly just below the knee. His shoes were like slippers, with small black bows as fastenings. He looked like a courtier, or a footman, or a lunatic. He looked like a remnant from another century. Will watched him with a blank face and a seething heart.
He straightened and smiled, and Darla dropped a small curtsey, while Angelus bowed very slightly.
“There was no difficulty in coming, I hope?” the man asked. He had long pale hair tied at the back of his neck, and Will remembered the boy in the hotel saying, This one had bows in his hair.
“No difficulty,” Angelus said. “We await the pleasure of your mistress's company.”
“She comes now,” the man said, and turned sideways with a smile. There was another path behind him, and in a moment the ferns and wild roses parted, and the master called Venétiane came into the clearing.
She was not a tall woman, and she was full-bodied to the point of stoutness. She wore a dress the colour of absinthe, with a low bodice that cupped her large white breasts. A dark band circled her neck—one of those necklaces they called a dog collar, Will remembered. Her hair was so black it was almost blue, and was pulled into a heavy knot at the back of her head. She must have been in her early fifties when she was turned, and she was attractive in a lush, frankly sexual way.
She came to the middle of the clearing and dropped a deep curtsey. Her smile might have been ironic, or simply social.
“Master Angelus,” she said. “Madame Darla. A thousand thanks for permitting me this meeting.” Her accent was heavy, and she pronounced their names in the French way.
Angelus bowed again, more deeply, and Darla dropped another curtsey.
“Madame Venétiane,” Angelus said. “The honour is entirely ours.”
“You are too kind,” she said. “Far too gentle—or perhaps I misspeak. Do you say, bonté?”
“Not at all,” Angelus said. “It’s an honour to meet such a venerable master as yourself.”
She dropped another curtsey, even deeper than the first. Angelus bowed again, perhaps not quite as low.
“I am without words,” she said when she rose up. “The grace of your invitation, to such a one as myself—”
She sank into another curtsey, and Angelus shot Darla an exasperated look, then bowed again.
“We’re delighted to have you,” he said in a slightly sharper tone, and Darla put her hand on his arm.
“Allow me to present the fledglings,” she said smoothly. “William, and Drusilla. Both Angelus’s childer.”
Venétiane raised her head and looked at Will and Dru—for an instant her gaze was so keen that Will was taken aback. Then she smiled.
“Ah!” she gasped. “Les enfants! It is so long since I—let them come here, let me see them.” She stretched out one hand, and Will noticed that she had extremely long, pale fingernails.
Angelus looked over his shoulder at them and then stood aside—a little reluctantly, Will thought. He hesitated, then clasped Dru’s hand and stepped forward.
There was a slight strange smell, when he came close to Venétiane. It was several things at once: a lingering air of foreign shores, a hint of scent at her bosom and wrists, and some further undertone he couldn’t place. It was both new and somehow familiar, and it made his neck prickle.
“Oh, but they are delightful!” Venétiane said, taking their clasped hands in hers. Her fingers were cool and soft. She looked back and forth between them, her full lips parted in a smile. “Such beauties, Angelus! Et regardez la belle—so serious!” She touched Drusilla’s cheek gently, tracing the fingernails down to tickle her. Drusilla twitched as if a fly had landed on her, and continued to regard Venétiane without a smile.
Venétiane laughed lightly and turned to Will. Her eyes were large and black—beautiful eyes, but lined at the corners, and he felt a moment of disdain for her, wearing this sign of human mortality for all time. Then she smiled, and though it deepened the lines it also made her look younger. She had even white teeth and smooth cheeks; when she smiled, she was a woman of thirty.
He smiled back without thinking, and she cocked her head to one side. “This one is sweet,” she said. “Such eyes, and a mouth like a promise—” She glanced over Will’s shoulder at Angelus. “He is your childe, this one? Not a servant?”
“My childe,” Angelus said firmly.
“A shame,” she said, looking back to Will. “If he were not, I would perhaps offer you something for him. Perhaps even so... Mais est-ce qu’il parle français?”
“He’s learning, Madame Venétiane.”
“Ah yes—and the girl? She too learns?”
Venétiane’s eyes flicked over Will and Dru, and again Will saw for a moment a harder, sharper interest under her smile. “Of course,” she said, “I forget. In England a woman learns pianoforte, and crochet.” Her tone was entirely pleasant, as if she admired these accomplishments extremely.
Angelus and Darla remained silent, and after a moment’s pause, Venétiane looked back at Will.
“Ah well Angelus, you are fine in this choosing as in all things. Such lovely childer. But—” She paused and looked at Will’s face again, then touched his cheek lightly where it was still healing. “But he is perhaps un peu…how do you say—maladroit?”
“He can be,” Angelus said.
“Ah yes,” she said again, and her black eyes moved over Will’s face with compassion. “When they are young…” She smiled and patted Will’s cheek. “But I have not introduced my boy.” She turned and gestured to the man in knee breeches, and he came forward. “My childe, Stefano.”
Stefano bowed again, and this time Will noticed that his hair wasn’t truly pale—rather, it was powdered white. It was gathered in a loose pigtail at the nape of his neck, and tied with a neat black ribbon.
“Your humblest servant,” he said, straightening. He had a wide flat face, with heavy-lidded eyes and broad cheekbones. His mouth was full and large, his nose straight. It was a haughty, handsome, reptilian face, and something about the eyes bothered Will.
“Qu’ils sont beaux ensembles!” Venétiane cried, looking from Stefano to Dru and back again. “Are they not charming? La belle serieuse, and my gallant boy—are they not charming?”
Will felt an angry shock, and tightened his hold on Dru’s hand. She made no response at all, and simply studied Stefano with the same sombre expression she’d shown Venétiane.
“Delightful,” Darla said quickly, before Will could open his mouth. “You’re quite right, Venétiane, they’d make a lovely pair. Now—”
“Her hair so dark,” Venétiane went on, “and he so handsome, to escort her. Let them take hands, for the effect.”
Will pushed Dru’s hand down between them, still clasped in his own. “Not bloody likely,” he said in a low voice.
Venétiane glanced at their joined hands, then up at Will’s face. “No,” she said after a moment, in a meditative tone. “I am mistaken, of course.” Her gaze lingered on Will’s cheek, then dropped to his right side, where his hand was hidden. She smiled.
“William,” Angelus said coldly, and Will bowed slightly to Venétiane, then turned to lead Dru back to their place. As he went, he caught another breath of the strange familiar smell around Venétiane—and he had it. It was the same sort of smell he’d noticed on Darla, during the first days after his turning. He’d got used to it, and didn’t notice it anymore, but he knew she still carried it. It was sharp and dry, like an envelope of pepper waved under the nose, but it worked its way under his skin and itched. It was the smell of age and power.
Then he smelled a bitter current of anger from Angelus, and stopped musing.
“My apologies,” Angelus was saying. “He’s very young, as you can tell, and he has no manners.”
Venétiane waved a hand dismissively. “A delightful childe,” she said. “He will be strong and wise, like his Sire.”
“You’re very kind,” Darla said. “I consider this a wonderful opportunity for William to learn from your boy Stefano. And how fitting that they have all but met already.”
Venétiane turned to Darla with a playful, mock-confessional smile. “Ah,” she said, “you are right, yes. I set my boy to follow yours, to deliver my letter. But this does not bother you, I hope? After all—” She lowered her lashes. “I have to find you some way, no?”
“On the contrary, we’re pleased that you did,” Darla said calmly. “As your hosts here in England, we would hate to be remiss in our duties. You will please take whatever means necessary to alert us to your presence when you travel in our country, so that we may show you the proper hospitality.”
She smiled, and Venétiane smiled back. There was a slight pause.
“You are too kind,” Venétiane said at last.
“And how do matters stand in France?” Angelus asked quickly, when Venétiane showed signs of preparing to curtsey again. She turned to him.
“Eh bien, dear boy. There is a thing that is troublesome. We have lost our Chasseuse, I think you say Slayer. She came to England, I believe, and never returned.”
“Did she?” Darla asked. “How interesting.”
“I knew this one,” Venétiane went on. “I had a grievance against her. The little—how do you say, bitch? La méchante—she murdered one who was dear to me. An American master; her name was Rebecca. Burnt, avec sa famille.”
“I’m very sorry,” Darla said. “I knew Rebecca also.”
“Yes,” Venétiane said. “She thought well of you.”
Darla inclined her head to accept the compliment.
“Perhaps you have heard mention of this Slayer, in your travels?” Venétiane asked.
Darla gave a delicate shrug and displayed her palms. “Our kind are tale-bearers—one hardly knows what to believe.”
“Yes,” Venétiane said. “Sadly, this is so.”
“I’m surprised that you regret the loss,” Angelus said. “If she’s gone, so much the better for France, no?”
Venétiane waved a hand noncommittally. “I wish to find her,” she said. “Perhaps I wish to kill her. I am old, Angelus, and I have few friends. The Slayer cannot take them from me, not without I take something from her.”
“And you wish to search in England?” Darla asked.
“She came here. She did not return.”
“She may have travelled elsewhere.”
“I have not heard of it.”
“No one hears everything.”
“Not everything, no. But a great deal.”
There was a pause, and Venétiane looked away from Darla and fixed her eyes on Angelus.
“Tell me, Angelus,” she said. “I am your elder, and I wish the truth. Dites-moi la vérité. Have you seen this Slayer?”
Angelus stood still. He looked quickly to Darla, his expression tense and uneasy. Darla said nothing, and didn’t move. After a moment Angelus pulled himself a little straighter, and looked back at Venétiane.
“Yes,” he said.
Venétiane surveyed him for a moment; then a broad smile broke over her face. She raised her hands and clapped softly.
“Ah bon!” she said brightly. “Merveilleux—je suis bien contente. You please me very much, Angelus. Now I know I can have confidence in you.”
Angelus’s eyes narrowed, and he glanced at Darla again.
“I’m afraid I don’t—” he began.
“You must forgive my little test,” Venétiane said. “I am horrible, I know—but I wish to know with whom I deal. As Madame Darla says, one can hardly say whom to believe now.”
Darla was regarding Venétiane with a look as narrow as Angelus’s. “Please explain,” she said sharply. “What sort of test has this been?”
“Oh, I don’t ask if you kill the girl,” Venétiane went on, still speaking to Angelus, as if Darla were not present. “I don’t ask that—only if you have seen her. But you see I am horrible, because I know already you have seen her. I have been told that already.”
“Have you?” Angelus asked. “By whom?”
“By one who was there,” Venétiane said. She turned and spoke over her shoulder. “Viens ici.”
There was a moment in which they all stood in silence, waiting for something to happen, and then the roses trembled again and Caitlin stepped into the clearing.
The first thing Will noticed about her, bizarrely enough, was that her hair had grown a little. Not much—their hair grew more and more slowly as they aged—but just enough to make her look like a young man in need of a barbering. Perhaps she was growing it out to a proper woman’s length again, which would likely take years.
She still wore workingmen’s clothes—she must be passing as a young man. He hadn’t thought much about that before, but here in the city it struck him as odd and indecent. She seemed a little plumper in the face, a little solider and straighter. The exhausted hollows had been wiped from around her eyes.
She came and stood a few feet behind Stefano, and regarded the four of them without expression, as if she had never seen them before.
Will stared, and found his gaze drawn to the centre of her chest, as if he might still see a dark stain on her shirt. Dru was clutching his hand hard enough to hurt, though he registered the pain only vaguely.
“What—?” he started, then shut up. No one paid any attention.
Stefano had turned briefly to watch Caitlin appear, but Will noticed that his eyes were now on Angelus and Darla, and that he was smiling very slightly.
“We have all met, I believe,” Venétiane said. “But perhaps nonetheless I will make an introduction. I do not wish to be impolite.” She waved her hand vaguely, and Caitlin caught the movement and dropped down to one knee. “Madame Darla, Master Angelus, I present you Caitlin childe of Rebecca, of the order of Cathbad. My…in English you say, I think, minion?”
There was silence.
After a moment, Venétiane motioned again, and Caitlin stood. Her eyes were fixed on Angelus now, and they were very cold.
“Not pretty,” Venétiane said off-handedly. “Not like your childer, Angelus. But the childe of my friend, and without family—how can I refuse?”
“Will—” Dru whimpered. “Cuckoo.”
He tried distractedly to free his hand before she crushed it, and Venétiane looked past Angelus and Darla at the pair of them.
“La belle est enerveée,” she observed. “Don’t worry, ma belle—we are all good friends here.”
“You’re quite right,” Darla said, as if collecting herself at last. As she spoke she angled her body slightly to cut off Venétiane’s view of Will and Drusilla. “We know this girl. She came to us when Rebecca was killed, and led the Slayer to our home. Why have you brought her back?”
Venétiane tilted her head and smiled. “Ah,” she said. “Perhaps I bring her because she is English, and misses her country.”
There was a taut silence. Venétiane smiled and raised her shoulders in an elegant shrug. “Or perhaps I bring her for another reason,” she said. “But I do not think we can discuss this here.”
“Where can we discuss it?” Angelus asked tightly.
“I can visit you in your rooms, perhaps? Where there is privacy—more than here, where any ear can hear.”
“We have changed lodgings,” Darla said.
Venétiane nodded soberly. “Yes, of course. And now you are in—” She paused and turned halfway to Stefano, squinting slightly as if trying to remember. “Ah yes—the Waterloo. An excellent choice, though the name is perhaps not charming.” She smiled. “We will come tomorrow night, if you find this convenient.”
Darla was silent. After a moment she said, “That is convenient.”
“Excellent. I regret I must leave now, to attend to some small affairs of my own. But I look forward to our meeting, tomorrow night.”
“As do I,” Darla said, and dropped a small curtsey as Venétiane did the same. Angelus bowed at the waist, and Stefano brushed the grass again, smirking slightly. Will held Dru’s hand and did nothing. Caitlin bowed like a man, her gaze still locked on Angelus.
“My deepest gratitude for the audience,” Venétiane said. “You do me too much honour.”
“Not at all,” Darla said. “Until tomorrow night.” She turned and led the way back up the path. Her face, Will noticed with a chill, was pale and hard as stone.