Low Midnight Page 21

It occurred to him, now that he was twenty miles down the highway, that he could have asked for her phone number. He was kind of glad he hadn’t thought of it. He probably wouldn’t see her again.

I will never understand you, Cormac Bennett.

Not like that was a surprise.

Chapter 9

ONE THING Amelia and Cormac had in common: nothing surprised her anymore. She’d started by looking for fairies, and she’d found so much more. She’d made it around the world before arriving in Manitou Springs and meeting her end. She’d learned so much, encountered so much. Never enough, of course. But at least she was rarely surprised anymore. Not by vampires or werewolves, not by magicians’ duels, not by anything.

She remembered when she first learned that vampires and werewolves were real.

She had just left home for the last time a few months before, after burning all her bridges with her family, after she’d declined Arthur Pembroke’s proposal and had that terrible row with her brother. If they were going to be disappointed and ashamed of her, she would earn their ill will.

Looking back on it, she’d been very young, very naïve, and hadn’t known quite where to start in her investigations of the veiled world. She had no other choice but to start where almost everyone started—with the stories. Which led her to Romania, because like so many others at that time, she’d read Dracula and wondered how much of it was real. It had just been published, and she carried a copy of it with her on the ferry out of Dover. In her second life, she could weep over how much that first edition would be worth if she still had it.

She had launched her own Grand Tour of Europe, visiting Templar castles and prehistoric dolmens, seeking out Romany fortune tellers and Theosophists who held court at salons in the various capitals. The hardest part was convincing them that she was serious, and that she would not be satisfied with parlor tricks. She revealed her own fairy charms and old Celtic protective magic. She feared that most thought her just another silly English girl taken in by fanciful tales. She encountered much chaff in her search for grains of power. But she did find them, and she went to find the seed of truth at the heart of Bram Stoker’s novel.

A young woman could travel alone in the late Victorian world if she had a good story to explain herself, a ready line of credit, a dictatorial confidence in her dealings with others, and a sturdy umbrella or walking stick. She had all of these. She told people she was a scholar from a well-to-do family, which was entirely true, but she also told them she had her family’s blessing, and by extension their protection. She had a line she used: that in a world where a queen ruled the most successful empire on Earth, couldn’t a woman be expected to travel alone safely? This at least made people stop to consider her.

Usually, though, they were astonished enough at her demeanor and questions that they seemed to remove herfrom the category of “woman” entirely. The irony of surviving into a world where she could travel nearly anywhere without enduring endless questioning about “where is your husband/father/brother?” was that she was now housed within the body of a man and it all became moot.

Bucharest was splendid and modern, and she stayed for a month in a little pension operated by a German widow. She read books in the libraries, questioned professors about local history, and listened for stories of vampires. She learned about Vlad the Impaler of course, and also about Countess Báthory, who was said to have murdered over six hundred girls and bathed in their blood to retain her youth. This story itself planted the seed that led to developing the spell she eventually used to preserve her soul within the walls of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility. The spell had nothing to do with blood and youth, of course, but Amelia became intrigued by the idea of preservation, of using magic to ensure a person might live on. In the end, she had not used the spell in the manner she expected to at all, but she couldn’t complain. She was still here, in a manner of speaking.

It was all very sensationalist. The stories focused on what one would expect the popular imagination to focus on: the dream of eternal youth, shocking violence, and vast quantities of spilled blood.

With a collection of tales and threads of inquiry in hand, she went into the rural areas, the forests and mountains and villages that hadn’t changed in centuries. She could feel mysteries seeping up from the ground, charging the very air, beckoning her.

She procured a room at a village’s lone pension and found herself in the tavern next door, very much like one Jonathan Harker might have patronized in the story. She ordered what passed for an ale in this locale, a hearty stew, and wrote in her journal of what she had found: the gods and spirits said to live in the hills, local charms, protective symbols carved into the lintels over doorways in barns—in the doorway at this very pub, the wheel-and-circle symbol called the gromoviti znaci, which protected against storms.

Night fell. A man just shy of middle age came into the tavern and sat at the table next to hers. She was aware of his presence, and aware of her umbrella propped at her chair. A glance told her that the proprietor had left for a moment, but there were two others in the room, a pair of travelers bent over their meal in the corner. She would not have paid any more attention to this newcomer, except that he was watching her. After what seemed a very long time of this, she turned to him with a raised eyebrow, questioning.

“You are very intent on your writing,” he said. He spoke with the sort of precise accent typical of someone who’d been born in another country but educated in England. He’d erased evidence of his origins from that accent. “Might I inquire what it is you write?”

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