Low Midnight Page 22

“I am a bit of a scholar,” she said with a thin smile. “I’ve been investigating local folklore practices.”

He had an olive complexion, but pale, as if he spent most of his time indoors. Clean shaven, he was well dressed in a tailored coat and silk cravat with a gold and diamond pin in it. He might have been a merchant or high-ranking official of some kind.

“Oh, please do not tell me you’ve been taken in by that Irish novelist. You do not seem the kind of young woman to read such drivel.”

“I’ll read anything,” she said. “You’ve read Dracula, then?”

“You are not the first to come traveling here looking for the truth of Stoker’s monster.”

She had to hide some disappointment. She had thought people’s annoyance with her had to do with her sex. Setting down her pen, she turned to him, shifting her disappointment to amusement, making a joke of it. “Do any of them find what they’re looking for? Do you believe that vampires exist?”

“I don’t have to believe it,” he said. “I know they do. And they are very much as dangerous as Stoker writes of. You should be careful.”

She had no reason to believe him. He was simply a fellow traveler making a joke. But something of his seriousness, his intensity—her impulse was to believe him, even if she could not catch his gaze to look him in the eyes to judge him. This should have made him seem evasive, untrustworthy. Instead, it made him seem sad.

“Are there very many of them about?” she said, with a newspaper journalist’s detached curiosity. “Or are they rare—a single master with a handful of progeny, as in the novel?”

“Both, I would say. It depends greatly on where you are. Do keep in mind, such rural environs as this aren’t well suited to vampires, who need a ready supply of living souls in order to survive. They are parasites, after all, with all that implies.”

She hadn’t thought of vampires in those terms, a parasite like a remora or mistletoe, but the description seemed apt. She became even more curious.

Her reticule was on the table beside her. She tugged open the drawstring and drew out the silver cross, as long as her fingers, that she kept there. Setting it on the table, she slid it toward the man, watching his reaction. He stared at it, but did not flinch. She wasn’t sure why she thought he might.

“I’m given to understand this serves as protection.”

“It does. Sometimes.”

This seemed ominous. “You seem knowledgeable on this topic—confident—which leads me to believe you can help me. I would like to meet a vampire. I have so many questions.”

She kept trying to meet his gaze, to hold to it, to judge his character, to learn if he was lying or not. That he kept his eyes downcast suggested he was untrustworthy. A coward, even, withsome ulterior motive to trick or rob her. But that lingering sadness about him threw her entirely into doubt.

“I would advise against it. I fear I must be going, but speaking with you has been a pleasant diversion. Have a good evening, miss. And do be careful.” He stood, gave a short bow, and departed.

He had never ordered any food or drink.

That night was a full moon, and from her room she heard the howls of wolves in the distance. When she asked the innkeeper about them, he said they were pests and that hunters were slowly culling the region’s wolf population. We would all be so much safer when they were gone, he said.

The setting she traveled through for the next month was sufficiently beautiful and intriguing to make her journey worthwhile, but she decided that one location was not any more likely to play host to vampires than any other, and so continued on to Istanbul. She thought about the mysterious man in the tavern often, but still was not sure she’d ever met a vampire. At least, not until she entered Cormac’s world. From him, she learned that vampires had a power they exerted through their gaze, a subtle hypnotic mind control, and that it was best to never make eye contact with them. Cormac wore dark glasses when any of Kitty’s vampire friends came around, to prevent them from catching his gaze.

The gentleman in the tavern had been protecting her. Her memory of his specific features had faded over time. She remembered the incident more than the man, and so could not show Cormac an image of him or describe him well enough to learn if Kitty recognized him. But she liked to think the man still existed somewhere, and that she might meet him again someday.

What she’d learned about vampires, lycanthropes, skinwalkers, wizards, people who simply dabbled in magic or those whose entire existence was submerged in the supernatural—they’d all started out as people, which meant they could be understood as people. Their motivations, fears, desires—comprehensible. They only seemed mysterious—and mysteries could be solved.

Chapter 10

CORMAC GOT back home past dark and collapsed into bed. Fell into a half sleep, and from there he dreamed of the meadow, and of the woman in a long skirt and high-collared shirt. It was like she’d been waiting for him.

They walked side by side along the creek, wading through knee-high grass. Her skirts made a shushing, brushing sound as she passed. Overhead, a hawk called as it soared from one end of the valley to the other. Cormac watched it, calmly astonished. Every time they came here, he found more details, from a bee buzzing at a wildflower to the gray-green lichens painting the rocks. It all seemed so real. And impossible.

“You don’t trust them,” Amelia started the conversation by stating the obvious. “You want to know what they’re doing, but you don’t trust them.”

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