"Semi-decrepitude."



Cheeky bugger, thought Trelawny. "If you like."


"You're as bad as the supplicants under London Bridge."


Trelawny just stared at him from under his bushy white eyebrows. The mix of vampire-tainted blood with brandy in an amethyst cup was indeed a drink sought after by certain perverse folk, and Trelawny had heard of a sort of club called the Galatea under London Bridge, where such people gathered.


Swinburne shifted in his chair. "You'll leave immediately afterward?"


"I'll be away down the street before you've heard the door close."


Swinburne stared at him, then shrugged and got to his feet, the sword still trailing from his right hand - and then his nervous gaze fell on the box Trelawny still carried.


"What's that?"


"A box. For cigars. If you have any, I'll put them in it."


But Swinburne's eyes were suddenly wide. "That lid! - is a mirror, on the inside!" He stepped back hastily and raised the rapier again as the gaslight threw his shadow across the whips hung on the walls. "Get out! I know what mirrors can do to her sort - you'll not deprive me of my poetry! Get out, I say!"


Trelawny set the box on the mantel, then spread his hands placatingly and stepped forward, but Swinburne wasn't letting the old man get near him - Swinburne's sword snapped forward, and Trelawny yanked his right hand back just in time to avoid losing a finger.


The old man sighed and shuffled backward to the fireplace, and he reached up to pull the other rapier free of its hook. He suppressed a wince as his scorched palm closed firmly on the grip.


"I'm sorry you know it," he said, exhaling.


Swinburne laughed in surprise. "You'd fight me? I'm not yet near forty, and you must be twice that - and you should know that I've studied fencing."


"I must be a fool," Trelawny agreed. And I'm only seventy-seven, he thought. He raised the sword, holding the grip as he would hold a hammer.


Swinburne relaxed again into the en garde position, and his disengage and thrust at Trelawny's wrist was contained and fast.


Trelawny parried it with a deliberately clumsy swat that rang the blades, and he retreated a step, his rear heel knocking on the hearth bricks; he didn't want the young man to experience any mortal alarm that might call up Miss B. prematurely.


"Hah!" exclaimed Swinburne. "You fence like a man trying to hang wallpaper!"


That was in fact the impression Trelawny wanted to give. Blisters on his palm were broken now, and the sword grip was wet.


"I'll cut you," said Swinburne, and he licked his lips. "It'll hurt."


If she senses his mood now, Trelawny thought sourly as he tightened his hand on the slick leather grip, she'll simply imagine he's gone back to the sport at the Verbena Lodge.


Swinburne lunged, driving his point toward Trelawny's shoulder, and at the last moment spun the point around the old man's bell-guard and jabbed for the elbow; but in the same instant Trelawny fell backward, folding his arm across his chest, and sat down heavily on the hearth, rapping his tailbone against the bricks and rattling the fire screen.


Swinburne paused over him and giggled breathlessly. "Now I know that all your exploits in your books were lies! Pirates, sea battles, Arab brides!"


He eyed Trelawny's raised knee and dropped his point toward it.


And Trelawny straightened his leg forcefully, kicking Swinburne's forward ankle out from under him; as the young man fell on him, Trelawny parried his blade aside and with his free hand punched the young poet very hard on the shelf of his descending jaw.


Swinburne tumbled into his arms, unconscious.


Very quickly, for Miss B. would have sensed that blow, Trelawny pushed Swinburne's limp form off him - the little poet hardly weighed more than a child - and stood up to snatch the box from the mantel.


The poet had rolled over on the carpet and was now face-down, and Trelawny crouched beside him and flipped him onto his back, and with a fingertip collected a smear of blood from Swinburne's lip - and he had no sooner smeared it around the grooves in the box's mirrored interior than his panting breath became a visible plume of steam.


The room was suddenly very cold, and books and papers flew in a whirlwind as a loud, fracturing buzz rattled the few pictures that weren't tumbling off the walls.


Trelawny spun toward the window and flinched as he held the open box up in front of himself.


Boadicea of the Iceni had arrived from out of the night.


Iridescent gleams played over the scaled serpent's body as it swung heavily in the vibrating air, its wings a blurred gale of rainbow colors; vertically slitted eyes like poisonous golden apples swiveled back and forth in the room's brightness.


Trelawny could feel the freezing chill of her gaze as it swept past him - and then his hands were numbed as she focused on the box.


And the serpent shape rippled and seemed to implode, and the floor shook as it fell and crashed to the carpet. Trelawny kept the box aimed at the bending, darkening shape. Streamers of heavy black smoke blew away from her and out the open window.


The eyes had shrunk to black stones, but they could not look away from the mirrors that were etched now with Swinburne's beloved blood.


Boadicea was a spasming black fetus now, waving stiffening limbs on the carpet as more of the thick black smoke burst out of her and spun away; Trelawny was able to scuff closer on his knees, and he could still feel the electric shiver of her attention in the box in his aching hands.


At last, with a loud crack, she lay still on the frosted carpet, a black statue no more than two inches long - and he lowered the box onto her and gingerly tilted it to scoop her inside as he swung the lid shut.


For nearly a minute he didn't move, but just knelt there, gasping as the night breeze from the open window warmed the room. Thick black soot stained the floor and wall and windowsill.


Carefully he lifted the box an inch, and it was not particularly heavy - and he allowed his muscles to relax a little; her mass was nearly all gone, presumably carried away in the billows of leaden smoke. This trick had indeed drastically diminished her.


At last he got shakily to his feet and swung the latch on the box's exterior, shutting her in. He tucked it under his coat and gripped it against his ribs with his elbow.


Swinburne, sprawled on the carpet over by the fireplace, had begun to snore. Trelawny retrieved both rapiers and hung them back up on their hooks; the scattered papers and books he left where they lay, and after taking a deep breath and letting it out in a long, shivering exhalation, he turned and walked out of the room, pulling the door closed behind him.


CHAPTER FIVE


Our little baby fell asleep


And will not wake again


For days and days, and weeks and weeks,


But then he'll wake again,


And come with his own pretty look,


And kiss Mamma again.


- Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song, A Nursery Rhyme Book


JOHANNA HAD BEEN living in the house on Wych Street for three days, sleeping in Mrs. Middleditch's old room - apparently more in the closet than on the bed, according to the maid, and always with McKee's bright-eyed goldfinch close at hand - and haphazardly assisting Crawford in the surgery, when Christina Rossetti finally responded to Crawford's note.


When Christina arrived at one P.M., Johanna had only ten minutes earlier returned from the latest of her so-far daily "shoreline sorties," which took her to the river for conferences, or it might have been fights, with the newest crop of Mud Larks; when she had returned from the first such expedition with a black eye and scraped knees and mud stains on her new clothes, Crawford had told her not to go there again, but she had insisted that she needed to - the Mud Larks were all prepubescent children who had had dealings with the Nephilim, and they were hired by the old Mud Lark man to recognize and follow people who "had a whiff of the Neff about them" and report any such to the old man. "There's a lot of stirring about among the Neffies," Johanna had told Crawford as he'd dabbed some Lugol's iodine on her knees - he gathered that the term referred to people who were currently or had once been infected by a vampire or were perceptibly soliciting it - "I'm too old now to mix with the Larks anymore, but they're all real aware of him being out again, picking up his old sources. I need to - we need me to - keep track of him as much as can be done."


Adelaide McKee had stopped in for brief visits every afternoon, and yesterday she had viewed Johanna's black eye with rueful fatalism. "Those Mud Larks are mostly a damaged lot," was all she had said. "Always see a way out and have your knife handy."


Johanna had nodded. "I know," she said, "I was one myself for a while," making McKee and Crawford both wince.


Yesterday afternoon Crawford had taken Johanna with him to Allen's riding school in Bryanston Square. Mr. Allen hired out his horses as much as he used them for lessons, and even in the off-season he charged five or six guineas rent a month, and so he was anxious to keep them healthy; hardly a week went by without Crawford getting a summons from him. Yesterday Crawford had shown Johanna how to press her ear to the left side of the horse's chest, just forward of the seventh rib, and use his new watch to count the heartbeats; she had used some mnemonic system she'd learned for estimating the number of loose shoes in different-sized shipping crates to memorize the proper pulse rate for different breeds and ages of the horses.


Now she was kneeling on a stool by the marble counter, kneading linseed oil into a mix of bran, mashed turnips, and lard - the concoction was to be sent to Mr. Allen's for a horse suffering from strangles, inflammation of a gland behind the jaw. The goldfinch's cage was on a shelf by the windows.


It was not a day when Crawford had servants in, so when he heard the door chime, he leaned a mop against the wall and hurried through the dining room and down the hall to the street door and pulled it open.


Standing on the gravel pavement in the midday sun, Christina Rossetti looked older than the intervening seven years could justify; her hair was the same shade of brown as before, and her face and throat were still smooth, but some spirit or liveliness seemed to have been taken out of her.


Crawford touched his own gray beard. "Miss Rossetti," he said quietly, "thank you for coming. Let me take your hat and coat. We're in the back, in the surgery."


Christina stepped up over the threshold, and Crawford saw her glance at all the mirrors that were now hung in the entry.


"And your house reeks of garlic," she noted in an approving tone. She took off her coat and handed it and her bonnet to him. "You wrote that Adelaide is with you?"


"Not exactly." Crawford hung the things on hooks between mirrors. "Not at the moment," he added, leading the way. "I'm with our daughter, Johanna."


Christina Rossetti shuffled after him through the dining room into the white-tiled surgery, and she blinked around, in the gray light from the windows, at beakers and books and mortars and pestles and the rows of glass-stoppered Winchester bottles full of variously colored liquids like extract of belladonna, sugar of lead, and spirits of turpentine. She wrinkled her nose at the cacophony of smells, not least of which was the acid odor from the mop bucket, and then stared uneasily at a big print hung on the far wall, an etching of a horse exhibiting thirty numbered equine maladies all at once.


Johanna looked up and raised her lard-caked hands. "Hello!" she said brightly, wiggling her fingers. "Have you had lunch?"


"This is our daughter, Johanna," said Crawford nervously. "Uh, careful, the floor's wet. I was mopping."


"You - " began Christina; then she gasped and said to Johanna, "You were following me yesterday!"


"Oh!" exclaimed Johanna. "Yes! You had on a brown coat and bonnet. The girl I was with - "


Christina looked ill. "Ragged leather trousers with braces? That was a girl?"


Johanna nodded and resumed kneading the poultice. "I hear she cuts her face with cold iron whenever she gets frightened. Nancy doesn't talk at all, but she's a wonder for sniffing out Neffies. She could smell your history on you, and she wanted to see if you'd got bit again." Johanna looked up and smiled. "Lucky for you she decided you haven't been!"


"No," agreed Christina, blinking bewilderedly at the girl. "I haven't been."


"Uh," said Crawford, "speaking of such things, I wrote to you - because - "


The doorbell rang again.


"Excuse me," he said, and hurried back to the front door and pulled it open.


McKee stood there in the dress she apparently always wore.


"He's passed out drunk," she said evenly. "I can stay for an hour." She stepped past him into the house. "Johanna's in the surgery?"


"With Christina Rossetti. She - "


"She finally responds to her correspondence! And I'm sure her brother was lying."


Crawford nodded as he led her through to the back of the house. He and McKee had found the Rossetti house in Euston Square, and Christina's brother William had told them on several visits that his sister was not at home.


McKee sniffed and spat when she stepped into the surgery. "Always smells in here like somebody tried hard to burn something that doesn't really burn."


"Ah," said Crawford, "Miss Rossetti, Miss - Mrs. - " He waved vaguely. "You know each other."


"Adelaide!" said Christina with a warm smile, "it's wonderful to see you again! I'm sorry I was too ill to receive you on Sunday and yesterday!"


McKee nodded, half smiling. "You're here now," she allowed.


"Miss or Mrs.?" said Christina, raising her eyebrows.

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