Home > Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(10)

Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(10)
Author: Anne Rice

"You think I should?" I asked. "Or stay, which is it?" I made my manner mild, not unkind.

He gave me a half-smile. "I don't know," he said. Then he looked dour again and almost tragic. "God be with you," he whispered.

I leant towards him. The innkeeper, seeing this confidential manner, turned away and busied himself somewhere else. The old elfin one was talking to his cup.

"What is it, Father?" I asked in a whisper. "Is the town too well-off, is that it?"

"Go on your way, son," he said almost wistfully. "I wish I could. But I'm bound by my vow of obedience and by the fact that this is my home, and here sits my father, and all the others have vanished into the wide world." He became suddenly hard. "Or so it seems," he said. And then, "If I were you, I wouldn't stay here." I nodded.

"You look strange, son," he said to me in the same whisper. Our heads were right together. "You stand out too much. You're pretty and encased in velvet, and it's your age; you're not really a child, you know."

"Yes, I see, not very many young men in the town at all, not the sort who question things. Just the old and the complacent and those who accept and who don't see the tapestry for the one small monkey embroidered in the corner."

He didn't answer this overzealous streak of rhetoric, and I was sorry I'd said it. In that little lapse perhaps my anger and my pain had flashed through. Disgusting! I was angry with myself.

He bit his lip, anxious for me, or for himself, or for both of us.

"Why did you come here?" he asked sincerely, almost protectively. "By which way did you come? They said you came in the night. Don't leave by night." His voice had become such a whisper I could scarcely hear him.

"You don't need to worry about me, Father," I said. "Pray for me," I said. "That's all."

I saw in him a species of fear as real as that which I had seen in the young priest, but it was even more innocent, for all his age, and all his wrinkles, and the wetness of his lips with the wine. He looked fatigued by that which he couldn't comprehend.

I stepped free of the bench and was on my way when he grasped my hand. I bent my ear to his lips.

"My boy," he said, "there's something... something ..."

"I know, Father," I said. I patted his hand.

"No, you don't. Listen. When you leave, take the main road south, even if it's out of your way. Don't go north; don't take the narrow road north."

"Why not?" I demanded.

Doubting, silent, utterly stricken, he let go of me.

"Why not?" I said in his ear.

He was no longer facing me. "Bandits," he said. "Toll bandits who control the road; they'll make you pay to go through. Go south." He turned sharply away from me and began to speak to his father in a soft gentle scolding manner as if I was already on my way. Left.

I was stunned as I set foot in the hollow street. "Toll bandits?"

Many shops were shut now, as was definitely the custom after the heavy meal, but others were not.

My sword weighed a ton on my hip, and I felt feverish from the wine and dizzy from all these people had revealed to me.

So, I thought, my face burning, we have a town here with no young men, no cripples, no half-wits, no diseased people and no unwanted children! And on the road north we have dangerous bandits.

I moved downhill, walking faster and faster, and went out the wide-open gates and into the open country. The breeze was at once magnificent and welcome.

All around me lay rich, well-tended fields, vineyards, patches of orchard and farmhouses - lush and fertile vistas which I couldn't see when I had come in by darkness. As for the road north, I could see nothing of it due to the immense size of the town, whose uppermost fortifications were northward. I could see, below on a ridge, what must have been the ruins of the convent and, way down the mountain and far off to the west, what might have been the monastery.

I made my way to two farms within the hour, having a cup of cool water with both farmers.

It was all the same, talk of a paradise here, free of miscreants and the horror of executions, absolutely the most peaceful place in the world, and only well-formed children everywhere.

It had been years since any bandits had dared to linger in the woods. Of course you never knew who might pass through, but the town was strong and kept the peace. "Oh, not even on the north road?" I asked.

Neither farmer knew anything about any north road.

When I asked what became of the unhealthy, the lame, the injured, it was the same. Some doctor or other, or priest, or order of friars or nuns, had taken them off to a university or city. The farmers sincerely couldn't remember.

I came back into the town well before twilight. I went poking around, in and out of every shop, in a near systematic manner, eyeing everyone as closely as I might without attracting undue attention.

Of course I couldn't hope to cover even one street of the place, but I was determined to discover what I could.

In the booksellers, I went through the old Ars Grammatica and Ars Minor, and the big beautiful Bibles that were for sale, which I could only see by asking that they be taken out of the cabinets. "How do I go north from here?" I asked the bored man who leaned on his elbow and looked at me sleepily.

"North, nobody goes north," he said, and yawned in my face. He wore fine clothes without a sign of mending, and good new shoes of well-worked leather. "Look, I have much finer books than that," he said.

I pretended interest, then explained politely that all were more or less what I had and did not need, but thank you.

I went into a tavern where men were busy at dice and shouting over the game, lustily, as though they had nothing better to do. And then through the bakers' district, where the bread smelled wondrously delicious, even to me.

I had never felt so utterly alone in my life, as I walked among these people listening to their pleasant talk and hearing the same tale of safety and blessings over and over again.

It froze my blood to think of nightfall. And what was this mystery of the road north? Nobody, nobody but the priest, even raised an eyebrow at the mention of that point of the compass.

About an hour before dark, I happened into one shop where the proprietor, a dealer in silks and lace from Venice and Florence, was not so patient with my idle presence, as others had been, in spite of the fact that I obviously had money.

"Why are you asking so many questions?" she said to me. She seemed tired and worn out. "You think it's easy to take care of a sick child? Look in there."

I stared at her as if she'd lost her mind. But then it dawned on me, clear and cold. I knew exactly what she meant. I poked my head through a curtained doorway and saw a child, feverish and sick, slumbering in a dirty narrow bed.

"You think it's easy? Year after year she doesn't get better," said the woman. "I'm sorry," I said. "But what's to be done?"

The woman tore out her stitches and put down her needle. She seemed past all patience. "What's to be done? You mean to tell me you don't know!" she whispered. "You, a clever man like you!" She bit into her lip. "But my husband says, No, not yet, and so we go on with it."

She went back to her work, muttering to herself, and I, horrified and struggling to keep a straight face, made my way on. I went into a couple more shops. Nothing special happened. Then in the third on my way, I found an old man very out of his wits and his two daughters both trying to keep him from tearing his clothes off. "Here, let me help you," I said at once.

We got him down in the chair, got his shirt over his head, and finally he stopped making incoherent noises. He was very wizened and drooling.

"Oh, thank God, this won't go on long," said one of the daughters, wiping her brow. "It's a mercy."

"Why won't it go on long?" I asked.

She glanced up at me, and away, and then back again. "Oh, you're a stranger here, Signore, forgive me, you are so young. I only saw a boy when I looked at you. I mean God will be merciful. He's very old."

"Hmmm, I see," I said.

She looked at me with cold cunning eyes, as if they were made of metal.

I bowed and went out. The old man had started to take off his shirt again, and the other sister, who had been silent all the time, slapped him.

I winced at it, and kept walking. I meant to see as much as I could right now.

Passing through rather peaceful little tailors' shops I came at last to the district of the porcelain dealers, where two men were having an argument about a fancy birthing tray.

Now, birthing trays, once used in practicality to receive the infant as it came from the womb, had become by my time fancy gifts given after the child was born. They were large platters painted with lovely domestic designs, and this shop had an impressive display of them. I heard the argument before I was seen.

One man said to buy the damned tray, while the other said the infant wouldn't even live and the gift was premature, and a third man said the woman would welcome the beautiful gorgeously painted birthing tray anyway.

They stopped when I entered the shop proper to look at all the imported wares, but then when I turned my back, one of the men uttered under his breath, "If she has a brain in her head, she'll do it." I was struck by the words, so struck that I turned at once to snatch a handsome plate from the shelf and pretend to be much impressed with it. "So lovely," I said, as if I hadn't heard them.

The merchant got up and started to extoll the contents on display. The others melted into the gathering evening outside. I stared at the man.

"Is the child sick?" I asked in the smallest most childish voice that I myself could muster.

"Oh, no, well, I don't think so, but you know how it is," said the man. "The child's smallish."

"Weak," I volunteered.

In a very clumsy way, he said, "Yes, weak." His smile was artificial, but he thought himself quite successful.

Then both of us turned to fussing over the wares. I bought a tiny porcelain cup, very beautifully painted, which he claimed to have bought from a Venetian.

I knew damned good and well I should leave without a word, but I couldn't stop myself from asking him as I paid, "Do you think the poor smallish weak child will live?"

He laughed a rather deep coarse laugh as he took my money. "No," he said, and then he glanced at me as though he'd been in his thoughts. "Don't worry about it, Signore," he said with a little smile. "Have you come to live here?"

"No, Sir, only passing through, going north," I said.

"North?" he asked, a little startled but sarcastic. He shut up the cashbox and turned the key. Then shaking his head as he put the box into the cabinet and closed the doors, he said, "North, eh? Well, good luck to you, my boy." He gave a sour chuckle. "That's an ancient road. You better ride as fast as you can from sunup."

"Thank you, Sir," I said. Night was coming on.

I hurried into an alleyway and stood there, against the wall, catching my breath as though someone were chasing me. I let the little cup fall and it shattered loudly, the noise echoing up the towering buildings. I was half out of my wits.

But instantly and fully aware of my situation, and convinced of the horrors I had discovered, I made an inflexible decision.

I wasn't safe in the Inn, so what did this matter? I was going to do it my way and see for myself. This is what I did.

Without going back to the Inn, without ever officially leaving my room in the Inn, I turned uphill when the shadows were thick enough to cover me, and I climbed the narrowing street towards the old ruined castle.

Now all day I had been looking at this imposing collection of rock and decay, and could see that it was indeed utterly ruined and empty of all save the birds of the air, except, as I have said, for the lower floors, which supposedly held offices.

But the castle had two standing towers remaining to it, one that faced over the town, and another, much fallen away, beyond and remote on the edge of a cliff, as I had seen from the lower farmland.

Well, I made for the tower that overlooked the town.

The government offices were shut up of course already, and the curfew soldiers would soon be out, and there was noise from only a couple of taverns that obviously stayed open no matter what the law was.

The piazza before the castle was empty, and because the three streets of the town took many a curve in their way downhill, I could see almost nothing now but a few dim torches.

The sky, however, was wondrously bright, clear of all but the most rounded and discreetly shaped clouds, very visible against the deeper blue of the night, and the stars seemed exquisitely numerous.

I found old winding stairs, too narrow almost for a human being, that curved around the useful part of the old citadel and led up to the first platform of stone, before an entrance to the tower.

Of course this architecture was no stranger to me whatsoever. The stones were of a rougher texture than those of my old home, and somewhat darker, but the tower was broad and square and timelessly solid.

I knew that the place was ancient enough that I would find stone stairways leading quite high, and I did, and soon came to the end of my trek in a high room which gave me a view of the entire town stretched out before me.

There were higher chambers, but they had been accessible in centuries past by wooden ladders that could be pulled up, to defeat an enemy and isolate him below, and I couldn't get to them. I could hear the birds up there, disturbed by my presence. And I could hear the breeze moving faintly. However, this was fine, this height.

I had a view all around from the four narrow windows of this place, looking in all directions.

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