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Authors: Lucius Shepard

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The Golden

BOOK: The Golden
ads

Lucius Shepard
- THE GOLDEN
Copyright © 1993 by Lucius
Shepard. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-930815-30-1
Published by
ElectricStory.com, Inc.
ElectricStory.com and the ES design
are trademarks of ElectricStory.com, Inc.
These stories are
works of fiction. All characters, events, organizations, and locales
are either the product of the author’s imagination or used
fictitiously to convey a sense of realism.
Cover art by and
copyright © 2000 Brian Snöddy.
eBook conversion by
Jennifer Clarke Wilkes.
eBook edition of
The Golden
copyright © 2000 by ElectricStory.com.
For our full catalog,
visit our site at www.electricstory.com.

The
Golden

By
Lucius Shepard

ElectricStory.com, Inc.

For
Michael and Mary Rita

Chapter One

T
he
gathering at Castle Banat on the evening of Friday, October 16, 186–,
had been more than three centuries in the planning, though only a
marginal effort had been directed toward the ceremonial essentials of
the affair, its pomp and splendor. No, most of that time and energy
had been devoted to the nurturing and blending of certain mortal
bloodlines so as to produce that rarest of essences, a vintage of
unsurpassing flavor and bouquet: the Golden. Members of the Family
had come from every corner of Europe to participate in the Decanting,
traveling at night by carriage or train and stopping at country inns
during the day. Now, clad in their finest gowns and evening dress,
some accompanied by mortal servants, who—though beautiful and
well dressed in their own right—seemed by contrast like those
drab ponies chosen to lead Thoroughbreds onto a race course, they
mingled in the ballroom, a cavernous vault of mossy stones supported
by flying buttresses, lit by dozens of silver candelabra and
dominated by a fireplace large enough to roast a bear. Among the
gathering were representatives of the de Czege and Valea branches,
who were currently embroiled in a territorial dispute; yet tonight
this and other similar disagreements had been set aside and an uneasy
truce installed. There was laughter, there was clever conversation,
there was dancing, and it looked for all the world as if it were the
kings and queens of a hundred nations who had assembled to celebrate
some splendid royal function, and not a convocation of vampires.

Yet despite the
gaiety of the assemblage, not every conversation was free from
bitterness. Standing by a corner of the fireplace, their faces
ruddied by the light, two men and a woman were discussing a topic of
some controversy: the proposal that the Family bow to the pressures
currently being applied by its enemies and relocate to the Far East,
where their activities would be more difficult to detect due to the
primitive conditions and the forbidding, often unexplored terrain.
Championing the proposal was the elder of the men, Roland Agenor, the
founder of the Agenor branch, whose position as the chronicler and
historian of the Family gave added weight to his opinions. Tall,
patrician, with a luxuriant growth of white hair, he had the bearing
of a retired officer or an accomplished athlete come to a graceful
maturity. Opposing him in the discussion was the Lady Dolores
Cascarin y Ribera, a dark-skinned beauty with waist-length black hair
and a predatory voluptuousness of feature. She had become the de
facto spokesman for the more reactionary elements of the Family,
those who maintained that no quarter be asked or given in the
struggle, an attitude that embodied the Family’s traditional
disdain toward all mortals. The third member of the group, Michel
Beheim, was a lean young man, taller even than Agenor, with curly
brown hair and remarkable large dark eyes that lent his face an
almost feminine delicacy and ardor and supported the impression that
he was always on the verge of bursting forth with some heated
opinion . . . though at the moment he felt entirely at
sea. As Agenor’s protégé he was compelled to lend
his support to the historian, yet being among the newest—and
thus the weakest—of the Family’s initiates, having
received his blood judgment less than two years previously, he could
not help but be swayed by Lady Dolores’s beauty and passion, by
the flamboyant and seductive potency of the tradition whose spirit
she expressed. He found himself nodding by reflex at her telling
points and staring at the dusky swell of her breasts, at the cruel,
ripe curves of her mouth, and imagined the two of them together in a
variety of erotic postures. So distracted was he by her physical
presence that when Agenor exhorted him to respond to one of the
lady’s assertions, he was forced to admit that he had lost
track of her argument.

Agenor regarded
him with disfavor, and Lady Dolores laughed contemptuously. “I
doubt he would have anything of consequence to offer, Roland,”
she said.

“Your
pardon—” Beheim began, but Agenor cut him off.

“My young
friend may be new to us,” he said, “but let me assure
you, he is most astute. Did you know that prior to his judgment he
achieved the position of chief of detectives in the Paris police? The
youngest, I believe, ever to reach such heights.”

Lady Dolores
made a deferential gesture. “Nothing in a policeman’s
experience can have the least bearing upon the subject of our
debate.”

This time it was
Beheim who cut off Agenor when he began to speak.

“With
respect, my lady, it demands neither a wealth of experience nor any
great art of reason to deduce that changes are in the offing. For the
world . . .
and
for the Family. To espouse a
doctrine of death before dishonor is scarcely wise, especially when
one considers that by doing so one forfeits all further opportunities
for honorable accomplishment.”

“You do
not yet hear the song of your blood,” said Lady Dolores. “That
much is apparent.”

“Oh, but I
do!” Beheim returned, though uncertain whether she was
referring to something actual or merely waxing metaphorical. “And
your arguments have gone far in enlisting my pride, my sense of
honor. But pride and honor, too, must confront the realities or else
they become mere conceits. As you well know, certain medicines have
been developed that allow us to forgo the dark sleep and other of the
colorful hindrances long attendant upon our condition, and thus we
may pass the daylight hours in whatever occupation we favor . . .
so long as we keep from the light. And the time draws near when our
men of science, perhaps one who even now labors in my lord’s
service”—he nodded to Agenor—“will devise a
means by which we may walk abroad in the day. This is an
inevitability. And with that change, must not everything about us
change? I think so. We will be forced to redefine our role in the
affairs of the world. I suspect we will someday redefine as well our
stance toward mortal men and join with them in great enterprises.
Perhaps never wholeheartedly, perhaps never openly as regards who and
what we are. But at least to some degree.”

“The idea
of walking about in the daylight does not entice me,” said Lady
Dolores. “As for joining with mortals in any enterprise other
than feeding, I can find no words to express my distaste. Next you
will suggest that we seek counsel from the cattle in the fields. That
is no less odious a prospect.”

“We were
all mortal once, lady.”

“Spoken
like Agenor’s man.”

“I am my
own man,” Beheim said sharply. “Should you require proof
of this, I will be delighted to supply it.”

First anger,
then bemusement washed across Lady Dolores’s face. “Insolence
can be an entertaining quality,” she said. “But beware.
It will not always find so kindly a reception.”

Her eyes,
slightly widened and fixed upon Beheim, went a shade darker, a degree
more lustrous, seeming both to menace and to offer sexual promise. A
thrill passed across the muscles of Beheim’s shoulders, and it
was as if he had grown suddenly small and feeble, diminished by the
focus of a vast disapproving majority; yet he recognized this to be
merely a consequence of Lady Dolores’s stare. He could feel in
it all the weight of her years—two hundred and ninety, so it
was said—and the chill potential of her accumulated power. He
was helpless before her, like a bird mesmerized by a serpent.
Terrified by fate, yet at the same time seduced by it. Her face and
form seemed warped, as it might in a watery reflection, and the
ballroom itself also looked distorted, areas of darkness expanded,
candle flames drawn into flickering, fiery daggers, the entire
perspective become that of a fever dream, shadowy avenues leading
away between groups of elongated, elegant phantoms who appeared to
have stepped out of a nightmare by El Greco. And then, as swiftly as
he had been overwhelmed by this feeling, he was free of it, so
completely free that he felt for a moment bereft, unsupported, like a
child who wakes in the middle of the night to find that he has kicked
off the blankets that have been overheating him and causing bad
dreams.

“What your
scenario fails to take into account,” Lady Dolores said,
continuing as if nothing had happened, “is the lustful imprint
of our natures, our need to possess and dominate.”

Beheim, still
disoriented, had difficulty in marshaling his thoughts, but the goad
of Lady Dolores’s haughty expression inspired him to recover.

“I
discount nothing,” he said. “Nor will I deny my nature. I
am of the Family now and would not wish this to change. However, I
choose to interpret our essential condition in a different light than
do you. Whereas you insist we have been given a license to exert our
will howsoever we desire, a license granted by some anonymous evil
pantheon, I submit that we are afflicted with a disease whose most
significant symptoms are a craving for human blood and an extended
life span. We already have some evidence that this is the case. I’m
speaking, of course, of the substance discovered by the Valeas that
is manufactured now and again in mortal blood and appears to be a
factor in permitting a fortunate few to survive a killing bite and so
join with the Family.”

“ ‘Extended
life span,’ ” she repeated. “Now there’s
a meager term with which to describe immortality.”

“You know
far more of the Mysteries than I, Lady. Yet even you must admit there
are doubts regarding the character of this so-called immortality. And
therein lies the importance of modifying your view of our condition.
If we are to succeed in achieving true immortality and avoiding the
grotesque metamorphoses that the centuries bring, we must treat the
disease in hopes of ameliorating its long-term effects. If we
continue to think of ourselves as grand, erratic masters of the
night, volatile lords and ladies who, for all their power and
dramatic fever, are tragic, doomed, then we will remain exactly that.
While this may satisfy a theatrical urge for self-destruction, it
serves nothing else. In my opinion we are, in our excesses of
violence and cruelty, less enacting the dictates of our natures than
we are indulging the emotions attendant upon an aberrant mentality.
We are no longer mortal—this is true. And I have no desire to
regain my mortality. Like you, like all of us, I am in love with this
fever. Yet I doubt a slight modification of our behaviors would rob
of us of our natures.”

“You are
an infant in these matters,” Lady Dolores said. “Though
you speak with passion, it’s clear you are puppet to your
master’s thoughts. You may feel something of what I do, but you
cannot know the poignancy of those feelings. You have not yet learned
the names of the shadows that haunt us.”

“Perhaps
not. But it might be said that this is because the symptoms of the
disease, the perceptual eccentricities and so forth, are not so well
developed in me as they are in you.” Beheim held up a hand to
forestall her response. “We could argue this endlessly, lady.
Logic is a facile tool, and we can both contrive of it an
architecture of deceit. But such is not my aim. This is a matter of
interpretation, and I’m only suggesting that you attempt to
understand my point of view for the sake of improving our lot.
Certainly you’ll agree that holding to traditional views has
not won us many battles of late. What harm, then, will it do to
consider that there may be another and more promising avenue of
possibility?”

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