Home > Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(12)

Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(12)
Author: Anne Rice

At a desk, on an X-shaped chair, there sat the Elderly one, his age quite true to the posture I had glimpsed silhouetted against the castle light, and he was pale as they, of the same deadly white complexion, both beautiful yet awful and monstrous.

Turkish lamps hung on chains about the room, flames glittering deep inside them, giving off a hurtful light against my dazed eyes, and also a fragrance as of roses and summer fields, something alien to heat and burnt things.

The Elderly one had a bald head, as ugly as the unearthed bulb of an iris, upended and shaved of all root, and implanted with two gleaming gray eyes, and a long narrow solemn uncomplaining and unjudging mouth.

"Ah, so," he said to me in a soft voice, lifting one eyebrow, which was scarcely visible except for the sharp arching wrinkle of his perfect white flesh. He had thick slanting lines for cheeks. "You realize you've killed one of us, don't you?"

"I hope so," I said. I climbed to my feet. I nearly lost my balance. Ursula reached out, then stepped back, as though she had caught herself in a breach of decorum.

I righted myself, glaring at her quite ferociously and then at the bald Elderly one, who looked up at me with unbroken calm.

"Do you care to see what you've done?" he asked of me. "Why should I?" I asked. But I did see.

On a great trestle-board table to my left lay the dead blond thief who had hefted me body and soul into his big cloth sack. Ah, the debt was paid in full.

He lay still, shrunken horridly, as if his limbs had collapsed upon themselves, and his bloodless white head, lids open on dark clotted eyes, lay against his roughly torn neck. What a delight. I stared at one skeletal hand of the being, which hung over the edge of the table, white and like some shriveling creature of the sea beneath a merciless sun on sand by the oceanside.

"Ah, excellent," I said. "This man who dared to abduct me and bring me here by force, quite dead, thank you for the sight of it." I looked at the Elderly one. "Honor demands nothing less. We don't even have to talk of common sense, do we? And what others did you take from the village? The wild old man who tore at his shirt? The infant born small? The weak, the infirm, the sick, whatever they'd give you, and what do you give them in exchange?"

"Oh, do be quiet, young one," said the Elderly solemn male. "You are courageous beyond honor or common sense, that's plain enough."

"No, it isn't. Your sins against me demand I fight you with my last breath, you, all of you." I pivoted and stared at the open door. The plodding music in itself sickened me and threatened to make me dizzy from all the blows and falls I'd suffered. "Such noise from below. What are you, a bloody court?" All three men broke into laughter.

"Well, you've very nearly got it right," said one of the bearded soldiers in a deep bass of a voice. "We are the Court of the Ruby Grail, that's our very name, only we prefer that you say it properly in Latin or in French, as we say it."

"The Court of the Ruby Grail!" I said. "Leeches, parasites, blood drinkers, that's what you all are. What is the Ruby Grail? Blood?"

I struggled to remember the prick of her teeth against my throat without the spell which had always come with them, but there it was, threatening to swallow me, the drifting, fragrant memory of meadows and her tender br**sts. I shook myself all over. "Blood drinkers. Ruby Grail! Is that what you do with all of them, the ones you take? Drink their blood?"

The Elderly one looked pointedly at Ursula. "What is it you're asking of me, Ursula?" he put the question to her. "How can I make such a choice?"

"Oh, but Godric, he's brave and fine and strong," said Ursula. "Godric, if you but say yes, no one will go against it. No one will question it. Please, I beg you, Godric. When have I ever asked -"

"Asked for what?" I demanded, looking from her solicitous and heartbroken face to the Elderly man. "For my life? Is that what you ask? You'd better kill me."

The old man knew that. I didn't have to tell him. There was no way I could be given mercy at this juncture. I would merely fling myself against them again, seeking to bring down another or another.

Suddenly, as if quite angry and impatient, the Elderly figure rose with surprising agility and grabbed me by the collar as he swept past me in a great graceful rustle of red robes, and dragged me with him, as if I weighed nothing, out through the archway and to the edge of the stone railing. "Look down on the Court," he said.

The hall was immense. The overhang on which we stood ran all around, and below there was scarcely a foot of bare stone, so rich were the hangings of gold and burgundy. The long table below hosted a string of Lords and Ladies, all in the requisite burgundy-red cloth, the color of blood, not wine, as I had believed, and before them glared the bare wood, with not a plate of food nor a cup of wine, but all were content and watching with cheerful eyes, as they chattered, the dancers who covered the great floor, dancing deftly on thick carpets as though they liked this padding beneath their slippered feet.

There were so many interlocking circles of figures moving to the throb and beat of the music that they made a series of arabesques. The costumes embraced a great nationality of styles, from the very French to the modern Florentine, and everywhere there were g*y circles of red-dyed silk or the red field covered with flowers or some other design which looked very like stars or crescent moons, I could not quite see it. It was a somber yet tantalizing picture, all of them in this same rich color which held sway somewhere between the putrid ghastliness of blood and the stunning splendor of scarlet.

I noted the sconces, candlesticks, torches galore. How easy it would be to set their tapestries afire. I wondered if they could burn, they themselves, like other witches and heretics.

I heard Ursula let out a little gasp. "Vittorio, be wise," she whispered.

At her whisper, the man at the center of the table below - he who held that very high-backed chair of honor, which my father would have held at home - looked up at me. He was blond-haired, blond as the shaggy one I'd slain, but his long locks were pampered and silky on his broad shoulders. His face was youthful, far more so than my father's yet plenty older than my own, and as inhumanly pale as all the rest, his searing blue eyes fixing upon me. He returned at once to his study of the dance.

The whole spectacle seemed to shiver with the hot smoking quaver of the flames, and as my eyes watered, I realized with a start that the figures worked into the tapestry were not the quiet ladies and unicorns of the small studious chamber from which we'd come, but devils dancing in Hell. Indeed, there were quite hideous gargoyles in the most violent and cruel style, carved beneath the porch all around, on which we stood, and I could see at the capitals of the branching columns that held up the ceiling above us more of the demonic and winged creatures carved into the stone. Grimaces of evil were emblazoned on the walls behind me, across from me. In one tapestry below, the circles of Dante's Hell climbed one upon another ever higher and higher.

I stared at the shining bare table. I was dizzy. I was going to be sick, lose consciousness.

"Make you a member of the Court, that is what she asks," said the Elder, pushing me hard against the rail, not letting me free, not letting me turn away His voice was unhurried and low and without the slightest opinion on the matter. "She wants us to bring you into our Court as a reward for the fact that you slew one of us, that is her logic."

His glance to me was thoughtful, cool. His hand on my collar was neither cruel nor rough, merely simple.

I was a tempest of half-uttered words and curses, when suddenly I realized I was falling.

In the Elderly one's grasp, I had fallen over the rail, and in a second descended to the thick layers of carpet below, where I was yanked to my feet, as the dancers made way for us on either side.

We stood before the Lord in the high-backed chair, and I saw that the wood figures of his regal throne were, of course, animalian, feline and diabolical.

All was black wood, polished so that one could smell the oil, and it mingled sweetly with the perfume of all the lamps, and there came a soft crackling from the torches.

The musicians had stopped. I couldn't even see them. And then when I did, saw the little band quite high up in their own little balcony or loft, I perceived that they too had the porcelain-white skin and the lethal cats' eyes, as they gazed down at me, all of them slender males, modestly clothed, and seemingly apprehensive.

I stared at the Lord. He had not moved or spoken. He was a fine, imperial figure of a man, his thick bulky blondish hair combed back from his face and falling, as I had seen before, in carefully combed locks on his shoulders.

His clothes too were of the old fashion, a great loose tunic of velvet, not a soldier's tunic, but almost a robe unto itself, trimmed in darkly dyed fur to match its lurid color, and beneath it he wore big beautiful full sleeves ballooning out loosely over his elbows and then tapering around his long narrow forearms and wrists. A huge chain of medallions hung about his neck, each heavily worked circle of gold set with a cabochon stone, a ruby, red as his clothing.

He held one slender na**d hand curled on the table, simply. The other I could not see. He gazed at me with blue eyes. There was something puritanical and scholarly about his bare hand, and the refinement and cleanliness of it.

Across the thick overlapping carpets, Ursula came with a quick step, holding her skirts in two dainty hands. "Florian," she said, making a deep bow to the Lord behind the table. "Florian, I am begging you for this one, on account of character and strength, that you bring him into the Court for my sake, for my heart. It's as simple as that." Her voice was tremulous but reasoning.

"Into the Court? Into this Court?" I demanded. I felt the heat rise in my face. I looked from right to left. I stared at their white cheeks, their dark mouths, which were all too often the color of fresh wounds. I stared at the blanched and colorless expressions with which they regarded me. Were their eyes full of demonic fire, or was it only that every other bit of humanity had been taken from their countenances?

I saw my own hands as I looked down, my own clenching fists, very ruddy and human, and quite suddenly, as if I were meant to smell it, I caught my own scent, the scent of my sweat and the dust from the road clinging to me and mingling with whatever in me was simply human.

"Yes, you are quite the morsel to us," said the Lord himself, speaking from the table. "You are indeed, and the hall is filled with your scent. And it is too early for us to feast. We feast when the bell rings twelve times, that is our infallible custom."

It was a beautiful voice, a voice of ringing clarity and charm, tinged with the accent of the French, which can in itself be so beguiling. It was with a French restraint and regality that he expressed himself.

He smiled at me, and his smile was gentle, as was Ursula's smile, but not pitying, and not at all cruel or sarcastic.

I had no eyes now for the other faces to the left and the right of him. I knew only that there were many, and some were men and some women, and the women wore the stately French headdresses of olden times, and somewhere in the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a man got up like a jester.

"Ursula, such a thing as this," the Lord said, "requires long consideration."

"Does it!" I cried out. "You mean to make me one of your Court? That takes no consideration."

"Oh, come now, my boy," the Lord said in his soft, calming voice. "We are not subject to death or decay or disease here. You squirm on the end of a hook, you're a doomed catch from the sea, and you do not even know that you are no longer in the life-sustaining water."

"My Lord, I do not wish to be part of your Court," I said. "Spare yourself your kindnesses and your advice." I looked about. "Don't talk to me of your Feast."

These creatures had adopted an abominable stillness, a frozen regard which was in itself utterly unnatural and menacing. A wave of revulsion came over me. Or was it panic, panic which I would not allow to form inside of me, no matter how completely and hopelessly I was surrounded by them, and how alone I stood.

The figures at the table might have been made of china, so fixed they were. Indeed it seemed that the very act of posing to perfection was inherently part of their attentiveness.

"Oh, if I had but a crucifix," I said in a soft voice, not even thinking about what I was saying.

"That would mean nothing to us," said the Lord matter-of-factly.

"Oh, how well I know; your lady here came into my very chapel to take my brother and sister prisoner! No, crosses mean nothing to you. But it would mean something to me just now. Tell me, do I have angels about me that protect me? Are you always visible? Or do you, now and then, melt with the night and vanish? And when that is so, can you see the angels that defend me?" The Lord smiled.

The Elderly one, who had let go of my collar, for which I was very thankful, laughed softly under his breath. But there came no easy mirth from anyone else.

I glanced at Ursula. How loving and desperate she looked, how bold and steadfast as she glanced from me to this Lord, whom she had called Florian. But she was no more human than any of them; she was the deathly semblance of a young woman, past all description in gifts and graces but long out of life, as they were. Some grail was this Ruby Grail.

"Hear his words, Sir, in spite of what he actually says," she begged. "It's been so very long since there was a new voice within these walls, one that would remain with us, be one of us."

"Yes, and he almost believes in his angels, and you think him wondrously clever," said the Lord understandingly. "Young Vittorio, let me assure you, there are no guardian angels that I can see about you. And we are always visible, as you know, for you have seen us at our best and at our worst. No, not really truly at our best, not at our finest."

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