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LUCIFER’S CHILDREN

Worlds of Yifan Book 5

The Technical War Book 1







J L Blenkinsop











In memory of Alek Lotoczko, 1960-2018. My best friend.





This work contains the full text of the poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost, quoted without permission from the copyright holders. Copyright 1923, © 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, Inc., renewed 1951.





Lucifer’s Children, Copyright © 2017, 2018, 2019 by John L Blenkinsop. All rights reserved. This eBook may not be copied, converted, given or sold, used within any other document, quoted or altered without the permission of the copyright owner. The copyright owner may be reached at john_blenkinsop@msn.com

Table of Contents

Prologue

Shanghai

Burial

Hunger

Travelling

Bran Castle

London

The Scholomance

Initiation

Town Visit

The Master

Drachenfels

Lucifer and His Children

The Wolf

Lucifer’s Children

Prologue

I was born in 2002, in Changchun, in Jilin Province. The winters there were bitterly cold, sinking down to minus forty degrees on the Centigrade scale, and the summers ferocious, reaching up to thirty-five. But I was not there long enough to experience much of that range of discomfort, because my parents took a flight to Japan.

No-one told me why they needed, or wanted, to go there, in the years that followed. All I eventually found out was that they had boarded a dirigible at Longjia Airship Port, and seven hours later they were among four hundred bodies floating in the sea off the port town of Sonbong. I was then eighteen months old, and suddenly an orphan.

My mother put me into the arms of her mother-in-law, kissed me, smiled and waved bye-bye. She – I dreamt of her as impossibly glamorous – took my father’s arm; they went out onto the grassy field, turning to wave every few paces until they reached the steps up to the forward gondola. I saw this in memories I constructed many years after the event, saw my beautiful parents mount the stairs, stopping at the top, smiling so lovingly at me, waving.

And that was all there was.

Until I was ten years old I did not know any of this, nor had I begun to imagine it. For my grandparents, full of the windfall of money that came with the possession of their son’s child, the inheritance they promised to keep for their precious little girl, sold up and moved down to Shanghai. There they bought a fine rambling house, and several apartment buildings to rent out. As soon as they considered me old enough they told me that my mother and father would never be coming back, and why, and put me into a boarding-school that catered for Chinese children whose parents wanted them to become Westerners.


This solitary girl thrived there. She fought off bullies, made a few close friends. She discovered she loved to learn. She discovered, too, that she hated her grandparents, and loved her mother and father, because her parents hadn’t stayed away from her because she was bad, but because they had died. Death, I thought, brought me in peace into the arms of my mother. I did not realise, then, what death was capable of, nor how far, through time and space, my mother’s arms could stretch.

Shanghai

A bell clanged and fourteen girls scraped back their chairs and swept up their books and bags. We filed out of the classroom, half-bowing to the Geography teacher even as we pushed her against her desk, heading for the next subject in our timetable: History. By the time the last of us was out of the door the first of Mrs. Juniper’s next class were coming in. I saw her sigh, and knew she was yearning for a cup of good old British tea.


Sir Luke Prendergast was the grandson of the last British Governor of Hong Kong. How he had come to teach at Miss Hart’s Academy for the Daughters of the Chinese Gentry I did not know, but he bore his lot with fortitude and with great kindness toward us girls, always genteel and correct.

He waited patiently as we settled, standing easy before the blackboard, flanked by the portraits of the immortal leaders of our modern world – Queen Victoria, Empress of Britain; Franklin Roosevelt, President of the American Republic; Franz Josef, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor; and our own dear Cixi, Empress Dowager of China. In but two years’ time I would be seventeen, and Victoria would celebrate the bicentenary of her own birth. The stability, peace and prosperity these – and other, lesser, monarchs – had brought since the end of the war confirmed to us all the Golden Age in which we were so fortunate to be alive.

Sir Luke cleared his throat quietly, and I directed my attention to him. “Last week,” he began, “we talked about the causes of the Great War; the rise of nationalism in Europe, of Imperialism in the East, and the trigger being the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by...” He waited expectantly.

“Please, sir... Sir Luke, sir...” A girl, I think it was Jao, waved her hand frantically in the air. Our teacher nodded toward her. “It was Armadillo Pritship, sir!”

“Very close, Jao,” (I was right, it was her) “It was Gavrilo Princip, a member of a gang of Serbian dissidents trained and directed by the Chief of the Serbian Military Intelligence, Dragutin Dimitrijević. The trigger was not the whole reason for the war, of course.

“Today we will discuss the progress of the war, and the aftermath. Since we have a double lesson, this will complete your knowledge of that era; and our next lesson will concentrate on modern history.”

I, together with my sorority, listened with half an ear to our teacher as he droned on, precisely and with footnotes, on the length and ferocity of the Great War, 1914-1937. At one point he used the term ‘the Technical War’, but it went over our heads. It had been a long war; it was a long time ago; it ended with plague and pestilence. So long as we revised, we would pass our History examinations. Most of us were looking forward to lunch. And some, to the lesson that followed.


The English stream was very popular. There were twenty pupils in Mister O’Donnell’s class, and as we entered he was pacing in front of his desk, desperate for a smoke.

I, Shen Aoyun – named for the Summer Olympics of 2002, which had been held in Beijing – was now almost fifteen. I plonked myself down beside Wu Jing, my always-ever best friend, who smiled broadly and pushed over a note which, opened covertly while the class settled, read ‘I love Mister Odon-li’. I smiled, screwed up the paper and dropped it on the floor.

“What’s that?” the teacher called out over the din of settling girls. He looked pointedly at me.

“What’s what?” I countered, looking innocent.

“You appear to have dropped something.”

“Oh!” I looked down. There was a piece of paper by my feet. I picked it up and took it to the bin. “Merely a Chemistry jog. Please accept my apologies; I should not have littered the floor.” I smiled shyly, and he smiled back.

The class, settled, began to learn about gerunds. It was a bore, but Mister O’Donnell followed in the second half with readings of poetry: Wordsworth, Rossetti, and Frost, whose words spoke in my heart.


“Do you really love him?” I squeaked at Jing, wide-eyed, when we were finally free to play for a quarter-hour in the wooded park surrounding the school.

“Yes! Oh, he’s dishy!”

I raised my eyes theatrically to heaven, where my parents were. I’d picked the note out of the bin during the end-of-class scrum, and now I took it from my pocket and threw it at Jing. “He’s nearly forty, and he’s married. And you’re only thirteen.”

Jing stuck out her tongue and ran off.

Around the park rose the metropolis of Shanghai, with buildings over twelve stories all around, some in the business district behind the Bund as tall as mountains, twenty floors and more, all of offices, all conducting Commerce around the globe. I would go to one of those in a few years, making deals, directing the flow of money towards our Empire, making myself rich and thumbing my nose at my monstrous grandparents.

The bell rang far off. I shouldered my bag of books and went back to the ornate red-brick building for my favourite lesson, Mathematics.

The blinds were drawn down in the classroom when we filed in. Lady Sheldrake, who taught the subject, had weak eyes and could not bear the glare of the China sun. She typically arrived at the school in the back of a brougham and stepped down draped in a linen scarf, her eyes shaded by tinted spectacles. Sometimes, if it was raining or if the sun was exceptionally bright, her coachman would hold an umbrella or a parasol for her until she disappeared into the main building. Once inside the classroom she pulled down the day-blinds, which muted the light but did not cast us into darkness, and discarded her protection to stand, as now she did, erect, slim and beautiful, to greet her pupils.

There were more girls fancied themselves in love with her, than there ever were for Mister O’Donnell.

“Which of you,” Lady Sheldrake began, once the class had settled, “can recall what we learnt in our last lesson?”

All hands went up. “Wu Jing?”

“Geometry, your Ladyship.”

“Correct.” Her Ladyship recapitulated the salient points, then segued into Trigonometry. This, occupying ninety minutes, was followed with much attention and very little restlessness from us girls. We all knew that China’s future in the world was to be scientific, commercial and triumphant; we, though we were mere females, would be among the drivers of our country’s prosperity.

To my surprise Lady Sheldrake asked me to stay for a minute after class. It was the last of the day; no penalty would ensue from being late for a walk in the grounds with Jing. I smiled, and sat at my teacher’s bidding.

“Your progress is very good, Shen Aoyun,” the great Lady opened. “It is always a pleasure to teach you.”

I muttered thanks shyly.

“I understand that your parents are no more – please don’t mind me being stark, I mean nothing but good for you. Your grandparents bring you up now, I’ve heard?”

“The school brings me up,” said I, “and very well. I don’t see my grandfather and grandmother much at all, even in the holidays... They send me to Changchun to stay with my mother’s family, who are always so sad to see me because I remind them so much of... of her...” I was surprised to find I was crying. The teacher’s gloved hand came to rest on mine, and I hung my head.

When Lady Sheldrake left, muffled against the late afternoon’s sun, I walked into the parkland behind the school, dazed, muted, toward a favourite spot for solitude. I climbed a tree, one of a dozen in a copse that hid a pool of cool water, fed from a tinkling stream. There I went over in my mind what had just happened.


Jing, when she begged for details of the interview later in our dormitory, was ecstatic.

“She wants to sponsor you? To present you in Society?”

Other girls chipped in their presents of awe and incredulity.

“Why you?”

“Because she’s an orphan, that’s why.”

“Because Aoyun is clever and kind,” said Jing determinedly, jutting out her jaw. “And she’ll be a wow in Society, just you see!”

“Well, so long as the school lets her,” said Jao, practical as ever. “She’d miss evening meals, prep, prayers – I don’t think they’ll agree.”

But the school, flattered by the attention of a Lady, were only too eager to consent, so long as their pupil had an approved chaperone. They chose Miss Yuan, an elderly spinster who taught music, badly. Lady Sheldrake graciously agreed to the arrangement and a week or so after our chat I found myself, with the slightly deaf Miss Yuan, being driven out of the grounds in the school buggy, toward the Sheldrake’s large house on the Bund.

On that first evening my head swam with new experiences. Their house was magnificent, in the Italian style, with an open courtyard in the centre and galleries rising up four stories, a fountain cooling the air. The Sheldrakes sat on the shaded side, with friends from many of the Embassies surrounding them, for Count Arisztid Sheldrake was the Ambassador for Romania; and many of the other diplomats had brought their sons and daughters, who seemed at first outraged and then amused that some random Chinese girl should have been brought in from the street to sit with them.

It was of no concern to me. I was used to sitting quietly, in the company of my grandparents sometimes, and of my mother’s inconsolable family. I could do that for hours, responding politely to enquiries, laughing pleasantly at others’ jokes, keeping boredom away by making up nick-names for those around me.

This one, the Belgian Ambassador’s daughter, fat and with bad teeth – she was Gongfu Panda. The girl with the frizzy hair, whose brother kept bringing wine, was at least twenty, and should by now have been married – she was Junior Yuan. And so on, around the group. Only one of those present smiled at me and essayed a few kind words. This was an earnest fifteen-year-old black girl, the daughter of the Nigerian Consul, and who I suspected had been until my own appearance the neglected one in the party. I smiled back, and made polite conversation. Sipewe – for that was her name – surprised me by speaking in very passable Mandarin, at which the other girls gaped, then aped, chanting “Ywa ywa, mwa mwa, ching-chong-cha!” until the adults told them to be still.

“They are fools,” Sipewe said, in the language the others could not, and would ever not understand. “They spend their days with tutors and in boutiques, they learn nothing. Only existing to find some poor man to marry. And then, to torment.”

“I do pity them,” I replied. “Why don’t they go to school?”

“School? Oh! They would hate it. To risk meeting someone of a lower class than they?” Sipewe laughed, which earned glares. “To speak of which – how do you come to be here?”

I determined to take the remark as humorously meant, and gave a short account of my meeting with the Lady. Sipewe nodded. “Well, perhaps you will grow from this experience. I know that the Count and Lady Sheldrake have no children of their own. Perhaps they will adopt you.”

This hadn’t occurred to me. I felt uncomfortable, then, but stuck with my new friend, talking about what I supposed, and what Sipewe knew, about the life of those limited to living in the foreigners’ enclave, rich though it was; and by the time the evening was over I felt quite comfortable, and had no thought about being adopted by a rich Western couple.

I was handed into the buggy, and Miss Yuan, who had amused herself with sherry, was poured in behind me. Back to the school we went, to a telling-off for the teacher and an interrogation for me behind the doors of my dorm.


Illness was rife in Shanghai in that summer, even in the enclave. Funny Ghost – the nick-name I bestowed on a slim, pale girl in the clique of diplomatic daughters – sickened and died, having become paler and thinner each time I had seen her since that first evening. Her parents mourned, but the callous girls all forgot her within a week.

“Tragedy and death are always close,” I remarked to Lady Sheldrake, when we were getting ready together for a Ball. My chaperone had been discontinued; it was satisfactory to my school that the Sheldrakes now sent their own coach and a maid to bring me, and poor Miss Yuan needed a break from the sherry.

“I am aware of that, Aoyun,” my benefactress replied with a smile. She held up a necklace made all from diamond and platinum. “Will you wear this tonight, for me?” She put it around my neck and fastened the clasp. Her face was powdered lightly, cheekbones hinted with rouge, lips naturally full red. She came so close that I felt her breath – minty, but with a trace of metal to it. Of iron. The clasp closed, her hands fell away. Lady Sheldrake stepped back and I breathed again. Then she gave me a hand-mirror; there were no other mirrors in the dressing-room.

“Look! You are a princess!” And indeed, I was. I saw, when I held the mirror far enough away, a perfect almond face, black hair dressed just-so, up in a chignon and with sweeps of my long hair on either side brought around to curl on my collar-bones. The dress, bought from a swish store just behind the Bund, showed my shoulders to advantage, and was bodiced to make the most of what little chest I had so far obtained.

I turned, to catch myself in different angles of light. I was so beautiful, I almost dropped the mirror. But I did not; and placed it, with exaggerated care, glass side down on the dressing-table, and turned to my sponsor, smiling with delight, sparkling with diamonds and joy. “Let’s go down! The carriage must be waiting!”

So we went, and had a wonderful time at the Columbian Embassy, where I danced with careless boys and uncaring girls – for there was a dearth of male companions – and spinning in my mind why it was that when I had turned the mirror, there had been no sight of the Lady who stood beside me, but only an empty dress standing on its own.


On the anniversary of my invitation to the Sheldrake’s coterie I, now almost sixteen, completed my General exams.

I took the required Imperial examinations in Mandarin, calligraphy, poetry, mathematics and technology, and the school’s examinations, from the Cambridge curriculum, in English, art, mathematics, music, sciences and general philosophy. It was a very progressive school, taking advantage of its distance from Europe to promote its own conviction that girls must be at least as intelligent as boys, and wanting just as much intellectual stimulation. Of course, I did well; but my Form teacher thought that I might have done better.

“You spend so many nights out,” Mrs. Juniper complained when she handed me my envelope. “I wouldn’t be surprised to hear you’d failed everything!” But I hadn’t.

“Of course you did well in English,” Wu Jing moaned. “YOU’RE not in love with Mister O’Donnell.” Her own scores had been very good save in that one subject. “Although you did quite well in mathematics, which surprises me.”

I laughed. I was not in love with Lady Sheldrake. Truth to tell, although I liked the Lady, I felt that I was being pushed toward a decision I did not want to take, which was to consider being adopted by the Sheldrakes. I felt it would be a betrayal of my own parents; but in quiet hours I could see that this was a foolish fancy. My parents would have approved of any means by which I could escape my grandparents’ uncaring and avaricious guardianship.

And I was now almost of age to accept for myself, or deny, as I wished. The money left to me by my parents’ demise would rest in the old folks’ hands until I turned eighteen, but in almost all other ways I was now free from their control.

And Lady Sheldrake, once the results of the examinations were known, came straight to the point.

“My husband and I would like you to come to live with us,” she began. “You would attend the school as a day-girl, and of course you may bring a companion with you. But we – I – we find that we love you as if you were our own; having had your company for a year, we find we can’t bear to think of you remaining here, alone, bedding down in a draughty loft full of other girls. Please – say you will come to live with us?”

It was a heartfelt plea, accompanied by the glimmer of a tear in the Lady’s eye, and I found it impossible to refuse. I of course nominated Jing as my companion, which brought a wide grin to the girl’s face, and the school made the arrangements rather more efficiently than it normally would; so that we were out of the stuffy farty dormitory and into the big Italianate house on the Bund within a week.

The Lady sent a steam-wagon to bring our trunks and valises, as well as we ourselves. It was exciting, but the smell of hot metal and burning coke, the particles of soot and the infernal clanking made us both feel sick, and when we stumbled out onto the carriage-park at the end of the drive we swore never to go horseless again.

The accommodation was wonderful. I had seen the upstairs rooms before, but had never spent the night. Jing wandered around our shared suite, touching things, examining the bathroom fittings – there was a shower, and it had hot water! – and generally oohing and aahing over the smallest convenience.

“There isn’t a mirror,” she complained eventually, sitting on her own bed, in her own chintzy bedroom.

“There’s a hand-mirror on your dressing-table,” I pointed out nervously. Jing conceded that, but still found it peculiar. A pillow-fight changed the subject, and Jing never mentioned it again for the rest of her life.


I, Jing, Sipewe and the few other non-white girls formed our own clique within the group of diplomatic and Society young women accepted into the ballrooms and salons of the foreigners’ enclave. We acted together, finding strength in our unity. Our ripostes in response to the insults from the others were witty and hit home, so much so that we found ourselves in an ascendant, selecting our dancing-partners from the young males and hardly ever having to dance with one another; while the pasty-faced teenage girls fumed, going quite red in the cheek at our audacity.

Sophie – Lady Sheldrake, but now, in loco parentis, Sophie to we two girls – bought clothes and jewellery for Jing and me, effortlessly upstaging the fashion-setting attempts of the ‘creamers’ – the nick-name I had given to the white girls. Indeed, there was so much jewellery around the Sheldrake home that it was impossible to wear the same thing twice in a season.

I donned an ivory silk dress for the ball at the Ecuadorian Embassy, and Lady Sophie fastened a wonderful ruby choker around my neck before we went, two tiers of baguette-cut rubies, dark like blood, set in butter-yellow gold. They smouldered in the hand-mirror like lava.

Sipewe caught sight of us as we entered the Embassy and bustled over, grabbed my arm and started to pull me towards a stand of potted palms.

“What are you doing? Let go!”

“Come; or I’ll hurt you.” Sipewe was strong, and she dragged me, struggling, behind the plants and pressed me hard against the wall, then reached around, fumbling with the clasp of the choker. I protested but my friend pressed hard; and finally the jewel was free, and Sipewe dropped it into her reticule. “You’ll get it back later.”

“Why? What’s wrong... Are you jealous of me? Sipewe –”

The Nigerian girl hissed through her teeth. I had never seen her so angry. “That necklace belonged to Adriana.”

“Who?”

“Funny Ghost, you called her.”

I was speechless. How could my benefactress be so crass as to purchase, and then to display, such an item? “Oh! So... Oh, thank you, Sipewe – you have saved me from such an embarrassment, I can never repay...”

“She was buried with it around her neck,” Sipewe growled, her eyes mere slits. She turned and left me stock-still behind the palms, my brain in turmoil.


The mirror thing was real. The Romanian diplomat and his wife attended many balls and soirees, but never in the American Embassy, which ballroom was lined expensively with floor to ceiling mirrors of Venetian glass; and when they went to other venues they tended to keep court in some un-overlooked area, dancing seldom, and otherwise not moving much about. I sometimes glimpsed them in a glass, and saw how any normally unobservant spectator might not notice anything amiss – they were covered, in the main, the Count with the usual male outfit, gloves, and a simple and undetectable wig, the Lady with long gloves, a silken shawl or mantilla and often a wig of her own. A keen eye could have discerned the absence of faces in the mirror, but the normal mind would dismiss the image as fancy.

I didn’t say anything to anyone, not even to Jing. I should have. I wish I had.


We of course still attended school. Every morning after breakfast the brougham would take us there, and sometimes in the afternoon we would come back with Sophie. Since now I was a sixth-former I had time to study by myself, rather than in the class-room; and it was while I was so engaged, in the copse of trees around the pool, that a distasteful incident occurred.

Mister O’Donnell, the English teacher, emerged from the shrubbery that surrounded my hideaway and tipped his hat to me. I nodded back. I was seated beneath a tree; my books were spread around me, my head was spinning with Physics and the theories and discoveries that had sprung up since Professor Einstein, a century ago, had pronounced his theories of Relativity, and Professor Planck had propounded the Quantum universe. So that I was surprised when Mister O’Donnell was suddenly beside me, and waving something in my face. I was confused, and then it dawned on me what it was.

“Could you not find something bigger?” I enquired, raising an eyebrow. My quip had the desired effect, and he stepped back.

“You’ll find it more than sufficient. Virgin chinks like you – like your little friend Jing – just love a dose of white –“

I had risen, and now I lifted my skirts and kicked him full in his privates. My shoes were the latest in fashion, provided by Sophie, and sported a severely tapered toe capped with metal. I suspect that I drove his unmentionables quite back through his inguinal canal. It appeared to hurt; so much so that I had more than enough time to pick up my books and make my departure.

Anger and embarrassment drove me. I first sought out Jing, who stammered when I pressed her, and finally broke down – the man had indeed abused her, and made free with her in private places about the school. So then I tried to take her to Miss Hart, but she would not go. I went instead alone, and had a most frustrating conversation in which I found myself accused of leading on a married man.

“Look for him,” I told my headmistress, holding myself back from the fury I felt on my own and my friend’s behalf, “and see how much pain he is now experiencing. If he did not want to be kicked, he should not have been waving his filthy flag in my face!”

This gave Miss Hart some pause, and she sent for him, insisting that I stay. Of course, when he came, he looked quite ill. He accused me, as he had no other defence, citing my spoilt pursuit of pleasure with Western worthies beyond my social level as an evidence that I was a wanton. But the school nurse, examining him in Miss Hart’s private bathroom, revealed such bruising as could not be gainsaid; and to my satisfaction he was instantly dismissed, although I would have preferred a prosecution for the number of girls he must have so badly abused in his career.

Jing, when I taxed her, said only that she loved him, and that he had been unfairly treated. She did not admit to any deeper physical intimacy with the devil, and beat against me with her fists until I withdrew. Sophie, who as a teacher had of course heard of the dismissal, talked with me. She agreed with my actions, and closeted herself with Jing for quite some time in the evening, after which my friend became more docile. At the time I rejoiced, believing that Jing had come to terms with the gross betrayal of her feminine agency by one who had been sworn to uphold her; but it became apparent, once it was too late, that she had fallen from one evil power into the clutches of another.


Through two cold winters and one hot Shanghai summer we sixth-formers toiled towards the examinations that would, we hoped, secure us places at prestigious Universities. I would be celebrating my majority, my eighteenth birthday, at the end of those tests, and would leave the school with whatever monies my grandparents had not spent from my parents’ inheritance; and with, I confidently hoped, the key that would unlock the riches of the world to me: a first-class education, and a place at Cambridge to study Physics.

My relations with Jing grew back to an approximation of their former cheer and intimacy, but she did not seem to have recovered from the disappearance of her tormentor. She grew pale and taciturn, and had to be cajoled to eat more than a few mouthfuls at each meal. She had always been slim; but now she was gaunt, and sometimes when I could not sleep I fancied I heard her moaning and crying, like some sort of ghost, from her own room. I was at times tempted to go to her, but I did not, and that is to my shame. But if I had, I would surely not have been able to stop what was happening, and would merely have hastened my own demise, and hers.

We still attended the balls, and we coloured girls continued successfully to taunt the creamers, and to attract the attention of their menfolk. We became, all of us, very accomplished dancers; and expert, too, in fending off unwanted liberties. If it had not been for my worry over Jing, this would have been the best time of my young life. Sipewe, and Sunitha, the second daughter of the first attaché to the Embassy of the Republic of India, took us to small ethnic restaurants in the cramped streets just behind the Bund, where I found that I loved Indian curries – the hotter the better! So that I feared I would get fat, and even more that I would break noisy wind the next day; but it was far worse when it did happen, for though I was able to keep silent, the scent of the curry-house wafted through the class-room, and the windows had to be opened wide. I did not confess; but all knew, even the teacher.

In retaliation Jing and I took our friends to the real Shanghai, the Chinese city, to hot-pot restaurants and tea-houses, and showed them the authentic China in its variety of foods. Some meats, like dog or cat, I did not describe, knowing how Westerners made such a fuss; and they ate and enjoyed them. Jellyfish, tripe and sea-snail were tasted, and Sipewe loved more of those delicacies than Sunitha or Shona – Shona was a jolly white girl who was in our clique because she had red hair and freckles! Such stupid bigotry! – but she professed she was happier with us than ever she had been with the creamers, and she was great fun, bringing a smile always to Jing’s pale face.

I was drawn to Sipewe particularly, from our group, and we spent much time together talking. But as Jing’s health continued to fail my Nigerian friend’s conversation turned dark. At first I did not understand where she was leading with her talk of the gods and demons of Afrique – it was interesting, of course; young women like a ghost story as much as any boy – but when she turned her theme to the ancient monsters of Europe a cold thrill ran down my spine. She talked of vampires, their glamours and their thirsts, and when she told me of their aversion to mirrors I almost cried out, but caught myself just in time. Did she suspect? Did I believe her? I felt caught in a trap, helpless to help my friend Jing, unable to confide in my friend Sipewe. As with so much at this time I did nothing, said nothing. We should have fled, Jing and I; but I did not move in any direction, and condemned us both.

It was during the cold Shanghai winter that Jing’s health began to collapse. The Sheldrake’s doctor, who attended, diagnosed influenza and recommended bed rest, beef tea and the other common remedies, but my friend continued slowly to deteriorate. He then advised that perhaps she suffered from consumption.

In the Lunar New Year holiday I was again compelled to go to Changchun to visit my mother’s family. When, demoralised from their usual passive reproach, I returned, Jing’s appearance dismayed me. Her eyes were sunken and darkly smudged around with pain. Her skin was pale and clammy, her limbs limp and trembling. She smiled when she saw her loving friend: there were curves of blood at the base of her teeth, where the gums had shrunk away. I sat on the bed with a bump, and held the poor invalid’s hand. It was burning with heat.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Jing whispered. “I can go now. She... she said that I might...”


In the night, in the small sick-room, she died.

Burial

The doctor, their doctor, who had come to Shanghai with them, wrote a certificate to state that Wu Jing had died of consumption. This, I was aware, was a very contagious disease; yet few other cases had been reported around Shanghai, excepting in the poorer districts where doctors were loath to set foot. I reproached myself, for I had shared rooms with her, yet had not seen the creeping sickness taking hold.

I had not, in fact, noticed any cough or palpitation in the vital young woman. The usual symptoms of tuberculosis were notable by their absence.

“We have purchased a tomb in the Eight Immortals Bridge cemetery,” Count Arisztid announced at breakfast, the day after. Jing’s body had been taken down to a store-room beside the stables, where the winter cold would keep her. “She will be laid to rest this afternoon. I have sent word, and some from your school will come.”

“She was a very popular young lady,” Sophie remarked, buttering toast. I felt ill. I gulped coffee and refused food, dove rudely out of the breakfast-room and up to our suite. Jing’s bed had been removed during my short breakfast, and her possessions. There was no evidence that she had ever lived.


Thirty people or so stood hunched beneath umbrellas in the thin and spiteful sleet, watching impatiently as the coffin was carried from its two-horsed hearse into a marble-clad concrete tomb, one of several new-built in this corner of the foreigners’ cemetery. She should not be here, thought I, she is not a foreigner. She should have been taken back to her home, to rest with her family. But there had not been time to tell them, before these Westerners had taken control. She was not their property; but they evidently believed she was.

The bearers came out, and one sealed the door, and a priest no-one had ever seen before made some speech in English, about the mercy of a god from a land far away, and then the mourners wove their way to an inn opposite the cemetery gates for a wretched meal of sandwiches and sponge cakes, sherry, and weak English tea. Half of the group were from my school, two teachers and twelve girls, all subdued. I talked with them in Mandarin, responding to desultory questions with anodyne answers, accepting condolences.

By the time the carriages arrived the mourners had split into two very different groups – a jolly, loud collection of Western diplomats and their children, scoffing cake and catching up on one another’s news, and the silent clump of white teachers, Chinese and non-white girls. I stood in the freezing rain mumbling good-byes as my and Jing’s school-friends clambered into their charabanc, and leant on Sipewe when it drove off. I hated the Sheldrakes and all that they stood for. I had, however, no energy to bring to my hatred, nor even to my grief. The slow thin rain cried for Jing, as Sipewe held me.


I began to refuse the evening entertainments. I still met with the clique, my ‘coloured friends’, as the rump of pale misses called them, in the Grand Arcade and in the open-air cafés along the Huangpu, and we talked of young men, schoolwork, the latest moving-picture, our hopes for the future. I wasn’t certain I had a future. I felt more and more that my association with the Sheldrakes was leading me toward tragedy, towards death. I had nightmares when I felt a presence in my room, a pressure fixing me to my bed, Sophie’s perfume filling my head and mixed with the scent of iron. After those nights I invariably felt fatigued, and struggled to concentrate at school. I was fearful of slipping behind, and studied ever harder, until the printed words swam before my eyes.

Sometimes Jing came to me in my dreams. Her eyes were wide and dark, her lips red as rubies, as blood. She said nothing, but only stared at me, longingly, and I felt such shameful emotions for her in those dreams that I began to wonder what I was becoming.

One day in the coffee-house on Dianchi Road Sunitha remarked on how pale I was looking. She even leant forward, almost knocking over the cups, and picked at my high collar.

“Look! You’ve been bitten!”

The others craned their necks. A tiny red mark was visible above Sunitha’s finger as it pulled on my garment.

“Oh, yuck!”

“Oh, be real,” I protested, grabbing my friend’s hand and pulling it away. “It’s just a mosquito bite. We’ve all got them.”

“Mozzie bites are big and itchy. That’s something else.”

“A spider. I bet it’s a spider-bite!”

It wasn’t much, just the larking around one might expect of bored young women. But when I got home – no; not home; I resisted that thought. That house was not, still is not, never will be my home – I picked up the hand-mirror and inspected myself.

There were two small red wounds, about an inch apart. They did not hurt, nor did they itch. They were, in every sense, unimportant.

But I had seen just such marks on Jing, before the poor girl had so untimely died.


“Come back,” the headmistress urged. I stood in her warm study. Outside the March winds shook the trees, blowing clouds of snow into the air. The metropolis of Shanghai could not be seen. Miss Hart, standing too, was in earnest. “You’re so pale, Aoyun. The life on the Bund is doing you no good. Please consider?”

“I want to come back,” I replied. And I did, with an ache that filled me head to toe. But I did not think that the Sheldrakes would let me return. Even if they did – what other girl would replace me, what other innocent might be placed in danger?

The bites had not healed. They had grown, rather, and when I rose from my bed each morning I immediately took up the hand-mirror and examined them. Sometimes they leaked thin threads of blood.

“Then we will arrange things with your benefactors,” Miss Hart said, and turned back to her desk.

“No, please... I must stay.”

“Though you don’t want to. Miss Shen, I cannot fathom you.”

“I...” I faltered, couldn’t say what I suspected, what Sipewe had talked about. And more, the presence in the house on the Bund, the evidence in dreams of my true friend, Jing, my dead friend Jing. “I have made friends there, Miss Hart. I have options, I may be able to leave with the Nigerian Consul and his family in May – they will be returning to Afrique, through Europe, they want me to travel with them, a companion to Sipewe...”

“You may live here in the meantime.”

But I could not, and the interview fell into an awkward silence, until Miss Hart sighed and signalled her leave for me to withdraw.


Two weeks later I called upon my Nigerian friend and invited her to take tea with me on the Bund.

“I have left my school, and am no longer under the security of the Sheldrakes,” I revealed. She looked astonished.

“Where are you living now?”

“Nowhere of consequence,” I replied, truthfully.

“So come to live with us,” Sipewe urged, leaning over the table towards me. I was sorely tempted to accept, but said nothing. “Why won’t you?” My girl-friend was suspicious. She poured tea and looked narrowly at me as she passed the cup and saucer. I took it, and it clattered as I set it down on the damask. “Why don’t you go back to your grandparents? Or to Changchun? What keeps you here?”

“Don’t be sharp with me, Sipewe,” I pleaded, putting my hands in my lap to hide the tremors. “I must stay. I want to confront them, I have to be strong to do that. They killed my friend.” Tears fell and I didn’t notice, they were so familiar these days. “They are everything you suspected, everything you told me. The Old Ones, the drinkers of blood; and they took my Jing...”

“What can YOU do? Tell my father. He will believe you. Let the adults run them out of China! I’m sure they’re used to that, the fiends. I told you – they are well-known to us! Their magic is old, it is evil. You can’t resist against it – why do you believe you can’t leave Shanghai? Because they make you think that way. Please, let us help you!”

Sipewe had told me often about the ghosts and gods of Afrique, the spider-god Anansi, the floating balls of hair and teeth, the water-spirits. And then she told me too about the ghouls of old Europe: Nosferatu, Dracula. The vampires. I knew that she had suspected what my benefactors were; but it was now too late.

She reached out and touched my high collar. “You cannot defeat them, even if you become one of them. You will be bound.”

I shook off her hand. “I can, and I will. This will end. Jing shall be avenged.” And then I told my friend what I had now become.

Jing had already been avenged. I had seen to that, but not by my design. I’d crept from my lonely suite and padded down the landing to the sick-room, two nights before this meeting with Sipewe. I locked the door and curled up on the cot-bed. I knew that something came to my room – not every night, but often. The evidence was there in the mornings, in smudged dark stains on my pillow, in the crusted marks on my neck seen in the hand-mirror, in my lack of energy, my unnatural pallor, and in the sad eyes of my friends and schoolmates.

In the sick-room I did not sleep. I listened as the house ticked in the cool of the night. Footsteps sounded there and about, servants mostly, then the Count and his Lady going to their beds. Silence fell for a while, save for the insects and the geckos that prowled for them.

When boards creaked I sprang into alertness. The door of my suite, opening, was obvious, because I had put a small bell behind it before I decamped to the sick-room. It tinkled in the still night. There was silence for a few moments, then a sudden vicious whoosh of air inflated the whole house, making my ears sing; some great and implacable thing shook the building to its foundations in a turmoil of anger and frustration, a huge and petulant stamp that clanged around the place in a hungry riot of rage. I trembled, and knew now what power I was ranging myself against, and it was terrifying.

The house boomed for a while with ire and disturbed geckos, but at length settled. Drained, I drowsed, my heart relaxing. But in the smallest hours I felt a presence, and woke with a start, and thought at first that I was still asleep and dreaming. For there, in the small sick-room, Wu Jing stood limned in the light of the moon.

“I must feed,” the girl faltered in Mandarin. “They keep me hungry.” The wraith, clothed in nothing but her own pale skin, crossed to the window. I rose slowly from the cot, keeping my eyes on my dead friend. The door was locked, the key still in place. I put my hand in the pocket of my dressing-gown, fingers curling around a crucifix Sipewe had given me.

“That won’t work,” said Jing, not turning from the window. The moonbeams seemed to slant through her, leaving no shadow on the dusty floor. “If it did, you wouldn’t be able to touch it.”

“Am I gone so far?” I cried, knowing despite myself, and then, “Are you really my Jing?”

“I don’t know. I think I am,” said the girl. She was so still. Not the beat of a heart nor the rise of a breath moved her. Only the moon glittered from a single tear. “I am so hungry. I can’t know what I am.”

I went back to the bed and sat. I sighed. What would one more night of leeching mean, after all those that must have gone before? “Come to me, Jing,” I said. “Hold me.”

Jing, slim and famished, dithered at the window. “She would not like it; you’re hers. You belong to her. I cannot –”

“You can. You will.” I slipped off my robe, unbuttoned my nightdress. I slipped it down around my shoulders and swept my hair back to expose the pale neck with its two vivid stigmata. Jing turned, saw me, shuddered. The single tear fattened and fell to the floor.

“I can’t. I would spoil you for her.”

“That’s what I want you to do, Jing darling. She took you away from me. I will take her away, if you help me. Take me. Spoil me. Take away the power she has over me, and I will save us both.” I was not at all certain that this was true, but I had to break the terrible geas that hung –

Jing swept towards me, a moonbeam wraith; she was beside me in a heartbeat. The vampire was hot, hot; she held her victim in strong arms, and my desire rose in the scent of iron. My throat flushed with what little blood I had left in me. I wanted to feed her, my love, my friend. Her red lips closed around my throat, her needle teeth visited the tracks left by a vastly older monster, slid down old scars into my tired vein. This was the first time I had known I was being fed upon, after what must have been so long a period of secret exsanguinations. It was so sexual and vertiginous a thing, it tilted my world, my mind; my heart fluttered with a grovelling desire to feed my – mistress? Friend? There was no proper word for this thing that sucked at me. There had never been such self-sacrificing love felt by any human for any such inhuman thing – and that love was a deception bred in my mind by the nature of this beast. But beneath the slavish adoration, my free will and my own remaining true love for her kept me sane.

My hand found Jing’s breast, the heat she was shedding burning my fingers. No dormitory sniggers could gainsay this feeling, could invalidate these emotions. It was as if Jing were pumping pure, hard and urgent love into me even as she took my bright life.

And suddenly it was over. The fangs withdrew. Jing sat heavily on the bed beside me and the heat died, echoes wavering across the room, echoes in my heart and stomach and groin, and my head dizzy with lack of blood. And lack of common sense, my brain scolded. Yet I reached out and took the dead girl’s hand in mine.

“You must feed on me,” she said, my blood trickling down her chin.

“What? Why?” And how, I thought; but the answer was in my mouth already. I felt the stretch, and a corresponding ache and urgency. I rose and searched the sickroom, finding a tiny square mirror in a drawer. But when I lifted it, to see what my teeth looked like – there was nothing. No me. Just the collar of my night-dress, with nothing above it. I dropped the mirror onto the night-stand and turned to Jing. She had the grace to look embarrassed; she shrugged, and gave me a wan smile. When I sat down beside her she presented her neck.

“You’ll know what to do.”

I did. I embraced her, and my lips sealed around her neck. I felt the slow pulse of blood deep beneath her skin. Trembling, I let the new sharp needles at the outer edges of my incisors prick her, and knew. Jing trembled in my arms, my fangs grew long, piercing her, driving down through skin and fat and muscle, seeking her jugular vein, finding it. The blood of the vampire surged through the hollow hearts of my needle-teeth, her terrible virus surged into me, quickening my own turgid blood, making my heart bang with excitement and terror in equal measure. She gasped, slumped in my arms. If now I had wanted her body I could have had it, for she was enwrapt, but all I wanted was her blood. She eventually tore herself away, her poor neck ripped by my barbs, and I swooned, or so I thought, onto the bed on which my friend, my fiend, had died.


They found me in the sick-room in the morning, after breaking down the door. The servants fled at the rage that poured from the Lady. She howled like a banshee, brought down threats and thunders, and her husband had to restrain her from tearing my lifeless body apart.

In the night they took me to the tomb. He fumbled with the fake lock and pulled the doors open. Sophie entered with my body in her arms, a light body, lightly held. She waited until he’d taken the lid off Jing’s empty coffin, then tossed me into it and stalked back out into the darkness. The Count replaced the lid and closed the doors, locking them with a real, stout padlock.

“She went to see her mother’s family,” Sophie said, not looking back. “And she died up there in the north.” Her husband nodded, and helped her to climb the low cemetery wall.


I awoke from that dream with a hunger that astonished me. My stomach felt hollow. I sucked energy from the very marrow of my bones and it did not seem enough. I did not know where I lay – the darkness was absolute. My shoulders rested on a thin padding over a hard board. There was a vinegar smell in the close air around me.

I raised my arms and explored the cramped environment. Wood all around, as far as I could reach, and wood close above me. I panicked, thrashed around, cracked my head on the coffin-lid, fell back panting. This would not do.

Was this how all such creatures were born? Was this Jing’s awakening, into a nightmare? How had she got out? I lay still, dragging stale air into my lungs, sick and dizzy with its acrid odour. Slowly my heart ceased its hard knocking, and the lightness left my head. I brought my hands to my chest and pressed upwards, felt the heavy wooden lid shift.

The tomb was rough concrete inside, unfinished and uneven. It was made just for show, after all. The moon had risen, and slits of silvery light indicated the entrance. Pushing on the doors confirmed they were locked tight. But Jing had come into the sick-room through a locked door – I cursed that I hadn’t thought to find out how.

“What do you expect? A text-book?” I asked myself, and chuckled. The pain in my stomach grew suddenly and I doubled up, retching. I had to move. I thought of the moonlight, the silver grass outside the tomb, the coming dawn. I reached through the doors and stumbled out into the graveyard. It was just that simple, and just that frightening. For now I knew that I must feed.

The Eight Immortals Bridge cemetery was surrounded by the suburbs of the foreigners’ enclave, dwellings that surrounded the Bund and kept China at arms’ length from the West. Here were houses for the servants, the clerks, the necessary functionaries swept up and brought abroad to serve their respective Empires. I didn’t want to feed on them. I had an ideal of innocence, and an idea of guilt. I knew those must not apply to me now; but they were all that I had.

It was a spring night, and warm. There was a slight and intermittent breeze, which I felt rather more than I thought I should. I looked down and found I was naked. When I’d woken in the coffin I had been wearing my night-dress, I was certain. And when I knelt in front of the securely-locked doors I could see a corner of it in a slim shaft of moonlight. How exasperating! Searching around I found a faded wreath, stripped some of the wire from it and spent a frustrating ten minutes – a whole ten minutes! – fishing the damn’d thing out through the crack.

Then I walked, as normally as I could, though clad only in a night-dress, and keeping when I could to the shadows, towards the Sheldrake mansion. There was no-one on the streets but me.

When I reached the Bund I drank greedily at a public fountain, walked on past shops and offices deserted by humans but scurrying with rats and cockroaches, through courtyards and past carriage-drives leading to the big houses of merchants and diplomats. The broad streets led toward the river and the road that ran alongside it. On the way I tried to enter buildings, but there were some I could not penetrate. With a little thought I worked out that if I had been in a private house before, or if it was a public space such as a shop, I could enter. But dwellings that I had not been invited into, I could not.

I was hungry, and I was not powerful. I could not confront my tormentors. But their puppet doctor lived around here. I had been taken there with Jing when she was first ill. I knew I could enter.

His house was shuttered close. It was an easy lay, in thieves’ parlance, if you were a vampire. In I went and up, searching for the man who had written the death certificate for my friend. I found him sleeping in a separate room, leaving his wife to snore alone.


“How are you here?” Sipewe asked, awed by my story, frozen with the realisation that she was having tea with a vampire.

“I gained strength from the doctor. I drained him. He is truly dead; there will be no resurrection for him. And I took these clothes from a boutique. I opened a window in a store-room at the back, and dropped them outside in a bag, and donned them in the alley.”

“The sun...”

“It is bright. But I’m new. I think I can resist it well enough so far. And my hat – fetching, isn’t it?”

“No,” said Sipewe, “it looks horrible. Perhaps good taste flies off with your life-blood!” I laughed, and Sipewe grinned. “Come. I’ll explain to my father. He’ll be angry to begin with; but we Afriques know about spirits. He will protect you.” She rose and held out her hand, fearless. And so began the next phase of my existence.

Hunger

Sipewe’s father listened attentively to his daughter, and then to me. His wife Nnedi sat stone-faced during my discourse, but when her husband finally spoke she smiled.

“You’re honest, I grant you,” he began. “I’ve never met a spirit so open about the danger she poses... You claim you can drift through walls; well, then, we are none of us safe. For you crave blood, and can kill, or create others of your kind.

“It seems to me that giving you shelter may protect us. From you, and perhaps from your kin. We are Afrique, we have borne millennia of spirits and the inconveniences they bring. I own a library of unparalleled excellence, with many books of such lore – Sipewe has been dipping into it, I suspect, on the subject of European vampires. Perhaps she will show you the volumes.

“You may stay here with us. If you go out, go at night – I don’t want people to spot you. But do not injure my family, or else we will use our knowledge to destroy you.”

“What about the Sheldrakes?” Sipewe asked.

“I will destroy them,” I said.

“WE will destroy them. Sipewe is right to bring them to mind. The Sheldrakes have travelled much; they will have been moved on many times. We don’t want other communities to suffer as ours has. Do you know – there have been twenty unexplained deaths, so far, in this city? Twenty boys and girls, men and women, since they came to Shanghai? Their pet doctor came at the same time as them; I’m glad you offed him, the low-life scum... Now go sleep. There’s an afternoon to get through. Tonight you and I will talk again.”


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