James Asher finds himself once more in alliance with vampire Don Simon Ysidro, as their investigations takes them to far-off Peking. . .
October, 1912. James Asher, his wife Lydia, and the old occultist and vampire-hunter Dr Solomon Karlebach have journeyed to the new-born Republic of China to investigate the rumour that the mindless Undead – the Others that even the vampires fear – have begun to multiply in the caverns of the hills west of Peking. Alongside his old vampire partner, Don Simon Ysidro, Asher embarks on a sinister hunt, while somewhere in the city’s cold gray labyrinth lurk the Peking vampires, known as the Magistrates of Hell – with an agenda of their own . . .
About the Author
Barbara Hambly holds a degree in medieval history from the University of California and has written novels in many genres, from mysteries to science fiction and fantasy. Married to science fiction writer George Alec Effinger, she lives in Los Angeles and teaches at a local college.
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'James,' said the vampire, and let his long, insectile fingers rest on the keys of the Assistant Trade Secretary's piano. 'What are you doing in Peking?'
Asher had glimpsed him from the doorway of the long drawing- room, while attempting to ascertain firstly, whether the man whose testimony might well save his life was at the Trade Secretary's reception ('Yes, Sir Grant's about here somewhere,' his host had assured him, before being called away to more important guests), and secondly, whether there were any men present who might make arrangements to have him – James Asher – murdered on his way back to his hotel. On a visit to China fourteen years previously, Asher had encountered high-ranking officers of the Kaiser's Army in the German-held territory of the Shantung Peninsula who would certainly demand a reckoning for his deeds there if they recognized him.
And they probably won't believe me if I tell them I've retired from the Department and am here solely in my capacity as Lecturer in Philology and Folklore at New College, Oxford ...
I certainly wouldn't.
Aside from the preponderance of men in both the drawing room and the parlor behind it – and the fact that the servants were all Chinese – the reception appeared little different from any large gathering in Kensington or Mayfair, to celebrate the engagement of the host's daughter. The champagne was French, the croûtes and caviar on the buffet entirely predictable.
Then Asher had seen him in the doorway between the drawing room and the parlor: a thin, pale gentleman slightly below average height, his long, wispy hair the color of ivory and his face not the face of a man from this newly-dawned twentieth century. A sixteenth-century face, despite the stylish black evening-clothes and white tie. In fact, Don Simon Xavier Christian Morado de la Cadeña-Ysidro had died in 1555.
And had become a vampire.
Asher took a deep breath and let it out. 'I think you know what I'm doing here.' He reached for the inner pocket of his long-tailed black dinner-coat, and Ysidro moved one finger: I've read it.
Of course he's read it. It's what brought him here as well.
For a moment he looked down into the vampire's eyes, crystalline sulfur palely flecked with gray. I should have killed him in St Petersburg, when I had the chance. The fact that Ysidro had saved his life, and that of his young wife Lydia, should have made no difference. Asher had killed vampires, in the seven years since he'd first become aware of their existence, and had seen them kill. He knew Ysidro was one of the most dangerous in Europe. Probably the oldest and one of the most adept in that paramount skill of the vampire, the ability to seduce the minds and influence the perceptions of the living.
To the point that they don't feel they can kill him even when they're standing over him with a stake in one hand and a hammer in the other.
Ysidro turned to the young lady who was seated next to him on the piano bench. 'Know you anything of Schubert, mistress?' he inquired in the French that was nearly universal in the diplomatic community.
She nodded – Asher guessed her to be one of the Belgian ambassador's daughters. Even females slightly too young to be officially 'out' were precious additions to parties in the small world of the Legation Quarter.
'Can you play his "Serenade"? Excellent.' Though his closed lips hid the long vampire fangs, Ysidro had a beautiful smile. 'James,' he went on, rising. 'Let us talk.'
The hand he put on Asher's elbow to steer him through the crowd toward the parlor's bow windows was light as a child's, but capable – Asher knew – of crushing the bone within the flesh.
The chatter around them did not seem to have changed markedly since 1898.
'Honestly, there's no arguing with them,' declared a bracket-faced matron in lilting Viennese French as they passed, to an elegant dame in aubergine silk. 'Our Number One Boy will not leave the mirror above the mantlepiece in Freidrich's room, no matter how many times I order him to. He says it's bad joss to have it facing the bed ...'
Dialects and accents were Asher's hobby and delight – his business, these days, as a Lecturer in Philology. His trained ear identified the schoolroom French of the British and Russians, the slurry Parisian of the French ambassador and his wife. Over in a corner he heard German: a harsh Berliner accent, and a countrified Saxon. Yes, there was Colonel von Mehren, whom he recognized from his earlier visit. Is he still the Kaiser's Military Commissioner? And with him old Eichorn, Chief Translator at the German Legation, who didn't seem to have aged a day. Von Mehren wouldn't associate Asher's current unobtrusive brown mustache and unassuming bearing with his previous incarnation as the shaggy, grumpy Professor Gellar from Heidelberg. No danger there. But Asher had always suspected that Eichorn – one of the long-time 'China hands' immersed in the language and culture – was running an information network for the Abteilung.
Keep clear of him ...
Still no sign of Sir Grant Hobart in the crowded parlor. At six feet two, Asher's old Oxford acquaintance was difficult to miss. Asher followed Ysidro behind the velvet curtains into the embrasure of the parlor's bow window, the cold blackness of a bare garden on the other side of the glass. Naked trees fidgeted in the wind that swept from the Gobi desert, dry as the fawn-colored dust which was a part of living in Peking. Like the house, the garden was a brave pretense that living in China wasn't really so terribly different from being in England: the 'stiff upper lip' at its most defiant.
'I think you will find the Kuo Min-tang deep in error when they seek to give the men of China a vote, Sir Allyn,' proclaimed a voice just beyond the concealing drapes. Asher raised his brows as he recognized the speaker as the 'provisional' President of the new-formed Republic itself: the head of the largest faction of its Army. Yuan Shi-k'ai, stout and gorgeously attired in a Western uniform thick with bullion, watched the faces of the diplomats around him with cold black eyes. 'The people of China need a strong hand on the rein, as a spirited horse is only happy when it feels its rider dominate it. Without a strong man in power, only disaster can follow.'
Sir Allyn Eddington made the non-committal agreement expected of a host. A few feet off in the crowd Asher heard Sir Grant's name and craned to look: a slim woman in a very girlish white dress had caught Lady Myra Eddington by the arm – Asher could see the resemblance in their faces. She had asked, 'What does Sir Grant say?'
Lady Eddington replied soothingly, 'He promised Ricky would be here, Holly darling. That's all he can reasonably do.'
'It's an insult!' Holly Eddington's sharp cheekbones reddened. 'It's our own engagement party —'
'Dearest,' her mother said with a sigh, and she laid a kid-gloved hand on the young woman's shoulder. 'You know what Richard is. I'll tell Cheng to let us know when he arrives, but beyond that, pestering Sir Grant about his son isn't going to get us anywhere.'
She nodded toward the far corner of the room as she spoke, and at the same moment Asher heard Sir Grant Hobart's unmistakable voice bray, 'Poppycock!'
The crowd shifted, and Asher saw his quarry in conversation with two German officers whom Asher didn't recognize and a Japanese Colonel whom he did: a stout, diminutive, and heavily bespectacled little nobleman named Mizukami, who fourteen years ago had been the Meiji Emperor's military attaché to the German Army in Shantung.
Not the time to go over and ask a favor. Even had Asher not just encountered the one person – living or dead – who could tell him what he needed to know about the shocking thing that had brought him thirteen thousand sea miles to this farthest corner of Britain's influence, the newly-born Republic of China.
In the shadows of those wine-hued curtains, the vampire's eyes caught the glare of the parlor's electric lights, reflective as a cat's. Asher slid his hand into his breast pocket, found the article he had clipped from last August's Journal of Oriental Medicine. He had reread it a hundred times on the six-week voyage on the Royal Charlotte and still hoped it wasn't true.
'Last year in Prague you spoke to me of the nest of creatures there, undead things that weren't vampires,' he said. 'The Others, you called them then.'
Ysidro's assent was a motion of his eyelids that if he'd been a living man would have been a nod. There was nothing dead, or static, about the vampire's stillness: it was as if after three hundred and fifty years he had become infinitely wearied of intercourse with the living world.
'Did you ever see them?'
'Once. Like the vampire, they can make themselves extremely difficult to see.' The vampire's gentle whisper still held the faintest traces of the sixteenth-century Castilian that had been his native tongue. It was typical of Ysidro, Asher reflected, that the girl at the piano – now rendering a very beautiful version of Schubert's 'Serenade' – hadn't noticed either the vampire's fangs when he spoke, or the fact that his nails were long, shiny, thick and sharp as claws. Such was the nature of the vampire's psychic power.
She probably also didn't notice that he wasn't breathing.
'Difficult even for vampires?'
Another flicker of assent. 'Nor can our minds affect their perceptions, as they do those of the living. This may be partly because the Others haunt the islands of the river in Prague, hiding beneath its bridges to take advantage of our – incapacity –' he seemed to sidestep an admission of weakness with aloof distaste – 'with regard to running water.'
'Which they don't share?'
'No. I did not, you understand, venture close to them.' Ysidro drew on his gloves, gray French kid, and smoothed the silk-fine leather over his long fingers. 'They devour vampires as they devour the living and, indeed, anything else they can catch.'
'You said then that they were to be found only in Prague.'
'So the Master of Prague told me. So too did I hear from the Masters of Berlin and Warsaw. Those of Augsburg, and Moscow, and of other cities, had never even heard of such creatures.'
'Yet now they've turned up here.'
A small line, like the trace of a fine-pointed pen, appeared for a moment near one corner of Ysidro's lips, then vanished.
'What else did the Master of Prague tell you?'
'Only what I then told you. That they first appeared in the days of the great plague, five centuries and a half ago. That they conceal themselves in the crypts and tunnels that honeycomb the ancient part of the town. They seem to reproduce themselves as vampire reproduce, through contamination of blood, though apparently without the phenomenon of death through which the vampire pass. The Others are not physically undead: merely very, very difficult to kill.'
'Do they age and die?'
'This the Master of Prague did not know.' The vampire turned his head sharply, as if at some sound beyond the windows, though the only thing Asher could hear above the chatter of the crowd in the room was the keening of the wind.
He's nervous, Asher thought, interested.
No. He's afraid.
'So far as Master of Prague can tell –' Ysidro recovered smoothly – 'the Others have a sort of consciousness, yet do not seem to retain that individuality which makes me Simon and you James. They move like herding beasts or fish in a school. Like the vampire, they seem to be destroyed by the rays of the sun, though the process takes much longer, and they seem to have the same adverse reaction to such substances as silver and whitethorn and garlic. Like the vampire, while they retain the physical organs of generation these appear to be otiose. Did not this old Jew, this professor of yours with whom you traveled to China, know these things?'
'Most of them.' Asher was interested that the vampire knew who his traveling companions were. 'Professor Karlebach's study has been primarily vampires.'
Whatever the Master of Prague might have told Ysidro about Professor Solomon Karlebach was reflected in another infinitesimal tightening of the vampire's lips.
'Whether there are masters and fledglings among them, as among vampires, he knew not, nor how they communicate amongst themselves. None has ever heard one speak.'
'Asher, old man!'
Asher turned at the sound of Hobart's booming voice and held out his hand.
'Eddington told me you'd showed up on the doorstep looking for me. More dark doings at the crossroad, eh?'
Asher laid a finger to his lips, his expression only half-humorous. The British Legation's Senior Translator grinned and shook Asher's hand as if he were operating a pump. Asher made no move to introduce Don Simon, as he was fairly sure Hobart was completely unaware of the vampire's elegant presence in the shadowed niche between curtains and window glass.
'I need someone to vouch for me,' said Asher. 'To tell anyone who asks – and I'm pretty sure that someone from the German Legation will ask after me – that Lord, yes, you knew me at Oxford and know for a fact that I haven't stirred from the place in twenty-five years.'
'Hah! I knew it!' Hobart's pale-blue eyes sparkled, and he bared his stained teeth again. 'All that sneaking about Shantung in ninety-eight, with a German accent and that moth-eaten beard —'
'I mean it, Hobart,' said Asher quietly. 'If you recognized me back then, there's always the chance that someone will recognize me now. And it is vital that inquiries be discouraged – or led as quickly as possible up the garden path.'
'You can count on me, old fellow.' The big man saluted, then sobered and cast a sour glance across the parlor at the uniformed Germans. They were now in conversation with one of President Yuan Shi-k'ai's aides, a sleek, rather ferret-like man with a beautiful Chinese woman of perhaps fifty supported on one arm. 'The Huns are thick as thieves with Yuan,' he added in a lower voice. 'I'll swear they were the ones who swung those loans he got from every bank in Europe. That's Huang Da-feng with them now, Yuan's go-between with the criminal bosses in the town. And that woman – you wouldn't think it to look at her – runs half the brothels in Peking ... Not that Sir Allyn has an inkling, I'll go bail.'
Hobart nodded in the direction of the drawing room doorway, where their host and his sharp-faced hostess were conferring with the Chinese butler in his white coat. 'With that wife of his looking over his shoulder I doubt Sir Allyn knows what a sing-song girl is.' The big man grimaced: he was one of the old China hands, who had been in Peking for twenty years while ministers, attachés, and diplomats came and went. 'If you need a hand with anything, Richard or I – you know my boy Richard's out here with me now? Secretary – I needed someone I could trust ... and needed to get the boy away from the company he was keeping in London, if truth be known. But if you need help ...'
'Not my business.' Asher held up his hand. 'This time I really am here only in quest of verb forms and legends. In particular, a legend about rat-people – shu-jen, or shu-kwei. In particular I'm looking for a missionary named Dr Christina Bauer.'
'Oh, Lord, her!' Hobart made another face. 'Hand in glove with the Kaiser, if you ask me. Colonel von Mehren's been out to Mingliang Village half a dozen times this past year, and you can't tell me it's all to do with the Kuo Min-tang militias in the countryside. Mingliang's where the Bauer woman's got her church and what she claims is a clinic. But you could hide a regiment in some of those caves in the hills, and nobody in Peking would be the wiser. I'll send Richard out there with you —'
Lady Eddington's shrill voice reached them above the babble of the crowd. 'He knew the engagement was to be announced tonight! It's a deliberate insult!'
The red, wrinkled skin of Hobart's face seemed to darken with his frown. 'Told the boy he'd better show his face here tonight,' he grumbled. 'I don't know what else she wants me to do. Go down to the Chinese city looking for him?' He laughed rudely. 'Wouldn't put it past the girl – and her mother – to have made the whole thing up. But it's damned awkward. For all I know Ricky did ask Holly Eddington to marry him: the boy drinks too much. I got him out of a scrape in Cambridge when some harpy of a landlady'd got her claws in him over her so-called daughter —'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Magistrates Of Hell"
Copyright © 2012 Barbara Hambly.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoy the way the author weaves real history into her stories. Her stories have more to do with the relationships of the main characters with tbe vampire and the moral decisions they're forced to make than with the usual blood and violence you expect in a vampire novel. That's not to say this isn't a horror story, because it is. You won't find any glittering vampires here. I view it more as a thinking man's/women's vampire story. I've read all of the books in this series and I've enjoyed them alk.
In this latest James Asher novel, Lydia and James arrive in Peking accompanying James' elderly teacher Rebbe Solomon Karlebach as he tracks a animalistic vampire strain that has arrived to the country from Europe. Much to their surprise Don Simon Ysidro is tracking the same horror. Not the finest in the series, but a satisfying read