Swan Song by Bruce Woods

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Royal Blood (Hearts of Darkness Trilogy #1) by Bruce Woods
Risingshadow has the honour of publishing a new guest short story by Bruce Woods, the author of Royal Blood.

This story finds Paulette in England after the events of Royal Blood.

(You can find the previous story here.)

About Royal Blood:

Historical and fictional characters come together and change the future of Africa forever. Renowned actress Lady Ellen Terry, detective Sherlock Holmes, financier Cecil Rhodes, hunter/naturalist Frederick Courtney Selous, King Lobengula, and a mysterious, undead adventuress named Paulette Monot become chess pieces in the Great Game, which takes the form of Africa's First Matabele War.

Swan Song by Bruce Woods

Blatantly bad decisions tend to lead to predictably unfortunate outcomes, while a moment of recklessness can spiral into complications never anticipated.

But allow me to elucidate.

An African expedition I’d undertaken on behalf of Lady of the City Ellen Terry (ageless theater queen and chief among London’s vampires) had left me a wealthy woman by almost any standards, but the complications of intercontinental travel required that I tarry awhile in London before returning home to put those funds to work. The many challenges I’d been forced to confront during that excursion had also left me a less cautious creature, and more inclined to act as I saw fit and let the consequences fall where they may.

Therefore, where I had previously kept tight rein on my appetites in deference to the abovementioned Lady (to the point of subsisting on preserved blood for a time, the better to keep my vampiric nature well hidden), I found myself actively hunting more often than not, and counting upon my skill and intelligence to prevent any trail of clues that might inflame the local populace, be they mortal or kin. These twin virtues, I was to find, would prove woefully inadequate.

Knowing that I would have to divest myself of my beloved Horace-Wilkershire Coilcycle before returning to America, I made full use of this mode of transportation as my days in England waned, whispering in spring-powered speed and silence through the streets and alleyways of old London town in search of sustenance or entertainment or both.

It was early of an evening on one such outing, while I rolled slowly down a network of the narrower of urban passages (grateful for the rear fender that protected my raiment from the worst of the unmentionables flung up by my spinning tire), when I spied an individual moving with craft and caution from one patch of darkness to the next. I did not even then pretend, as some of my Kind do, to limit my depredations to the criminal class, but the opportunity to enhance my feeding with the added spice that my actions might benefit a poor and benighted humanity appealed to me nonetheless.

I tracked my prey for some time, the near silence of the Coilcycle no little advantage. Though I did not witness him (for the individual proved to be male) indulging in any crime, his furtive demeanor convinced me that this was only a matter of time before he committed such an infraction. I even allowed myself to fantasize that it was old Springheel Jack himself that I followed, and that I would fall upon him in righteous vengeance for all the poor Dollymops and Bunters who had screamed beneath his blade.

With my anticipation thus heightened, then, I waited until his perambulations took us to a shop district, the storefronts gone dark for the night, where witnesses were apt to be absent or, for their own reasons, remain silent. There, setting my mechanical steep upon its kickstand beneath a burned-out gaslight with only the slightest squeal of metal on metal, I took up the chase afoot. When the time seemed right I gathered myself for the leap that I was sure would end with his quick and silent demise and my eagerly sought reward, and attacked.

Whilst still in midair I realized my error, for he turned with speed no less than mine and, almost casually, dashed me to the ground and perched atop me, revealing a strength against which my struggles proved fruitless.

“This ‘ere’s my patch, chicken,” he whispered, his voice slurred by his own erect teeth. “Gi’ me one reason why I shouldn’ rip yer pretty ‘ead off ‘ere and now.”

I struggled to keep panic from my voice, as I knew that the slightest sign of subservience could inflame the passions of even the best of men, a company I feared my assailant was neither familiar with nor welcome among.

“My apologies,” I managed, my face and tinted glasses wet with alley filth and my voice no doubt tainted by it as well. “I’m a foreigner, an American, here at the Lady’s leave. If I’ve wandered too far afield it is out of error and not presumption.”

“’At’s a pretty speech, ‘at is,” he replied, in no manner easing the pressure that kept me pinned. “Maybe we should ‘ave a talk with ‘er ‘ighness, yer know, jist to make sure yer on the up an’ up?”

I thought rapidly. It’s true that Lady Terry had been quite complimentary regarding my recent adventure, and had indeed professed herself fond of me. On the other hand I had no wish to feel the sharp side of her tongue, and my carelessness had left me clearly in the wrong.

“Certainly,” I said, “but might we first stop off at my flat? I have no wish to present myself to the Lady in such a soiled state.” Some individuals cast off all interest in matters carnal with the change; others (like me) find those appetites in no way diminished. I knew not what my adversary’s proclivities were, but allowed a bit of the coquette into my voice, however inappropriate to my circumstances, as I was not willing to leave such a shot unfired.

At first he made no response, and I prepared myself for what would be an unequal and likely brief struggle; but then he stood, his weight off me seemingly without recourse to any manipulation of limbs, as if he had levitated rather than mechanically rising.

“Tha’ we’ll do then,” he said. “I’ve a wonderin’ ‘bout wha’ sor’ of posh lodgin’s yer kin’ might be put up in. Yer kin even ride yer li’l play-toy, but don’ git to any funny business. I kin go ever as fast as it kin when the spirit moves me.”

And so it proved. I made no effort to flee once astride my Coilcycle, but the needs of traffic occasionally did force me to accelerate. Despite this, whenever I turned to study the streets around me I unfailingly spotted my enemy, often appearing to loiter in a doorway as if mocking my speed.

In this manner we soon arrived at my building. After securing the Coilcycle, I led my adversary to the steam-powered elevator, little more than a cage made elegant with brass filigree. I confess to some embarrassment as I showed him in and locked the door behind us. The apartment, selected by the Lady herself, was far grander than those I was accustomed to, including even a piano for which I had little talent and less use.

His response reinforced those trepidations nicely.

“Cor, a flash crib an’ tha’s a fact!” He said, wandering the rooms and taking note of the paintings on the wall (mostly pastorals and Reubenesque nudes) and the somewhat worn but elegant furniture. “’M wonderin’ if a swell Yank bird like you migh’ be willin’ ta par’ with a bi’ of the ol’ push to spare ‘erself any munge wi’ Milady?

I’ve noted elsewhere that our Kind seem to have a knack for language, and though his accent was thick I was able to worry out the sense of most of his words by context. I could certainly afford to buy him off without depleting my new-found riches overmuch, but there was a matter of pride at stake as well; so I pretended to contemplate his overture while scrabbling mightily for a plan.

“That would perhaps save both of us from inconvenience,” I said, still maintaining the illusion that I had little concern about being brought up before Ellen Terry. “Perhaps we can discuss it in detail once I change out of this besmirched costume. Whilst I do you might wish to investigate the tub in the lavatory. It is quite the latest thing, and produces hot water at the spigot on demand!”

This ruse proved effective. Though the Kin need bathe more rarely than mortals, not being subject to such insults as perspiration, London is a dirty town, and our skin is as wont to be contaminated by its surroundings as any. Bathing, as well, is for most a laborious chore, and I hoped the novelty of a quick and almost effortless washing-up might buy me a bit of time.

I made short work of disrobing and donning a clean set of clothing in order to take maximum advantage of such a godsend, and was rewarded, as I pulled on a starched blouse, by the sound of water splashing upon porcelain. A plan slowly coming to mind, I made myself busy in the main room, even plucking upon the piano a few times to calm any apprehensions he might have had. I was barely finished with my preparations when I heard his voice calling from the bath.

“Oy, lovey,” he said, “’ere’s a spot on me back I can’ reach. Wha’ say you soap ‘er up for me?”

I had banked on this and, consequently, chosen clothing that, though dark in color and not overtly provocative, was still casual in nature and more suited to the intimacies of home life than the promenade of the streets. Thus clad I entered the bathroom and quickly realized, by the evidence of the engorged head of his manhood peering at me above the bubbles he’d indulged in, that my “guest” was counting upon a bit of amorous sport to sweeten the monetary reward he now expected.

I pretended to ignore his arousal and, rolling up my sleeves, positioned myself at the head of the tub and proceeded to rub his shoulders in preparation for undertaking the scrubbing he had requested. This produced a satisfactory result, and soon he let his chin fall to his breast the better to facilitate my efforts.

I made to reach for the soap, giving my hands an excuse to leave his body, and retrieved a length of fine wire from beneath my clothing, its ends each in turn wrapped around a china Leda and her avian rapist, a pairing that had previously been frozen in eternal foreplay upon the black enamel of the piano top. As he raised his chin to urge me to new efforts, I whipped the fine cable around his neck, my arms crossed behind his head, and--knees against the edge of the tub--reared back with all my strength.

The Kin may be long-lived, but their flesh is no more impervious to outrage than any mortal’s, and I had the satisfaction of feeling the fine wire cut into his throat like a knife through cheese. He struggled, oh violently, clawing back for my hands that remained just beyond his reach, but all of my not inconsiderable strength held his head against the fixtures of the tub, the garrote sawing inexorably; and his blood sprayed forth, reaching almost to the far end of the tub but, thankfully, spilling little beyond either side.

The loss of vitae weakened him quickly, and tempted me madly in my peckish state, but I resisted the latter distraction and redoubled my efforts, Soon I felt the wire stopped by bone, but with a continual sawing motion, pulling now up and now down on the mythic figurines, I eventually felt it pop between the vertebrae and with one final effort, my shoulders aching from it, worked the wire though his spine and quite separated his head from his body.

This plunged forward into the tub, the be-crimsoned water thickening like a sauce bubbling around a roué. There had been, as I’d anticipated, no sound save his splashing, as the wire in its first effort had so opened his throat as to effectively separate his lungs from his vocal chords. I confess I sat on the floor for a moment, the dark hue of my clothing hiding whatever spray it had endured. I had of course killed in the past, but this premeditated murder of one of my own Kind was a step further, and I was some seconds in mastering my emotions as a result.

It being the wee hours of the morning, I was not observed, once I’d recovered myself, in depositing the body some blocks from my flat. Contrary to myth (which, though making for chilling tales, is also generally quite unscientific), the corpse did not dissolve into dust upon the loss of its motivating principle, but only reposed as inert and unexceptional as any mortal husk.

Perhaps the medical geniuses of the day might have been able to learn something of our Kind from the remains had they conducted a thorough examination, but so common were bodies to the streets of London (even those whose heads were some distance from their trunks), that I assumed I had little to fear from its discovery, all the more so as my steamship was scheduled to sail only a few days hence.

The bathtub, as I’d planned, greatly facilitated what tidying up was required in my apartment. The length of wire and figurines, the latter grooved and dusted as a result of my efforts , were simply separated and discarded in disparate locations.

And if one note on the piano was left dead, well, that would be a problem for a future, and more musically inclined, tenant.