She let him blindfold her with his scarf, then he spun her around four or five times so she was dizzy when he stopped her. Then he took her by the arm, “Come along,” and led her off, the scarf still around her eyes. She could only imagine what the people passing them thought, she wasn’t even sure why she was letting Rhys do this. They crossed a road, walked a little farther then they stopped and Rhys warned her, “There’re a few steps here to get up to the front door.” He led her up the steps then they stopped again and she heard a door open. “In we go,” and he led her forwards again, maybe ten more steps.
“Can I help you, sir?” She didn’t know the voice but for some reason it didn’t sound to her like a waiter.
“Just a moment, we’ll uncover her eyes first.” Rhys undid his scarf and she found they were at a neat, plain and unlabelled reception desk with an open doorway behind the counter leading into another area beyond the partition wall. A young man with a short, neat haircut dressed in a white business shirt and grey trousers with a tie that was hideous enough to belong to an exclusive school stood behind the counter. She saw his hand twitch as if pressing something under the counter as Rhys told him, “I have a letter of introduction from Hajji Razzaq ibn Abdullah to the Master of this Chapter.”
“Certainly, sir. I’ll take it to the Master.” The young man’s voice also suggested that he’d gone to a very expensive school and he held out his hand.
“Thank you, but I prefer to hand it to him myself.” Rhys was still holding his companion by the arm as if he was afraid she’d run away if he let her go.
A second man, older and with a touch of grey to his hair came through the door. His trousers and coat were black but his shirt was white and his tie was just as hideous as his younger colleague’s. His voice sounded roughened as he asked, “Is there a problem?”
Rhys was about to speak when a blond, thick featured young man paused as he passed the doorway and took a second, hard look at the couple on the far side of the counter. “Ana?” He stepped forward, “That is you isn’t it, Anastasia?” He had an accent from somewhere within the German states.
“Klaus?” It was like a dam breaking inside her head. “You’re my cousin Klaus!” An enormous grin broke across her face and she turned to Rhys. “Rhys, this is my cousin Klaus. I’m Anastasia Hannelore Solana Herena Stannford!” Then, hampered by the fact he was still holding her by one arm, she stood on her toes, threw her free arm around him and kissed him.
The next little while was chaotic. It seemed that a lot of the people in the building knew Anastasia, whom they called Ana, and she had to counteract their attempts to separate her from Rhys by clinging to his arm. The chaos was calmed by the arrival of a tall, middle-aged man with a still powerful physique who simply had to glare around the room for the noise to settle down.
“Hello, Uncle Mark.” Rhys thought his companion’s greeting was very subdued to the way she’d been greeting everyone else she knew so he simply covered the hand on his arm with his own and squeezed it reassuringly.
“Anastasia,” the older man nodded. “Where have you been for the last four years?”
“Amnesiac and being told I was Karen Frockman.” She looked him squarely in the eye. “Did no-one come looking for me?”
“We could trace you as far as Bartleby, but then we lost you. We’ve weren’t able to find where you went from there and we have been looking.” He looked stern and possibly a shade defensive.
Ana thought for a moment. “I can’t remember Bartleby. The last thing I can remember before waking in the hospital and being called Karen is... having lunch in a café across the square from the cathedral in Rythorn.”
Rhys asked, “Have you been to Bartleby in the last four years?”
“No,” answered Ana thoughtfully. “The furthest I’ve been in that direction is the stone circle overlooking Queens Cross. I was going to go up to the Leap to see the Falls but there was a mob of sheep with a farmer on a tractor on the road, so I turned around and went home.”
“That would be the boundary in that direction, then,” said Rhys thoughtfully. “But you actually got to the stone circle?”
“What are you two talking about?” Ana’s Uncle Mark was beginning to look annoyed.
“I’m sorry,” replied Rhys. “There’s been a deliberate effort to keep her confined to a small district, presumably to stop her finding out who she really is. There was certainly an attempt to get us off the train to the city this morning, and I’m interested in the boundaries that were set on her.”
“Who are you?” The older man’s eyes narrowed.
“I have a letter of introduction for the Master of this Chapter,” was Rhys’ even reply.
“That would be me, Sir Mark Stannford. May I see it?” The older man held out his hand.
“Certainly.” Rhys handed over the envelope.
“From Hajji Razzaq ibn Abdullah? Interesting.” Sir Mark opened the envelope with his fingers, pulled out the letter inside and began to read. Several times he looked at Rhys with an odd expression and then went back to his reading. Finally he said, “I’ve heard of you under both names and didn’t realise you were the same person. The Hajji’s version of events is very different to the official story, isn’t it?”
“The truth is often complicated.” Rhys expression tightened.
Sir Mark indicated the letter, and asked, “So, what did you learn from your experiences?”
“Conversational and written Persian, a few spells and that I really don’t like vampires, or ghul for that matter.” Rhys gave a tight smile.
The older man probed, “And you are now longer in the Army? In any capacity?”
“That’s right,” Rhys nodded. “I’m no longer trusted. My version of events seems to make some people uncomfortable.”
“And what is your version of events?” Sir Mark asked the question impassively.
“Our government was tricked into trying to counteract the Caliphate’s suppression of a vampiric/ghul moiety in and around the city of Kara Amida. Once we got there, our ‘allies’ started picking us off as fodder and recruits. We lost half my platoon on our night first patrol, without ever meeting the Caliphate’s forces. The vampires and the ghul were enemies we weren’t expecting and weren’t equipped for. Three weeks after we arrived we knew enough about what was really going on, and there were so few of us left, that we warned off the resupply flights, destroyed the base and went to the Caliphate’s forces for help.” Rhys was looking into the distance of the past.
Sir Mark questioned, “Why not withdraw? Just return home as a unit.”
“Our command was compromised soon after our arrival,” Rhys shook his head, “not that we realised that at the time. Not all vampiric recruits went to their front lines, some were left in place to…shepherd the rest of us.”
“One of the first things your commander would have done on arrival,” said Sir Mark slowly, “would be to have a face to face meeting with the leaders of the group you were there to support.”
“You were all doomed from that point on, weren’t you?” Sir Mark looked sympathetic.
“So they thought,” Rhys agreed. “I’m not the only survivor. Unfortunately, although we did our best, I can’t guarantee that some of the converted aren’t still walking around too.”
“You covered all of that in your debriefing?” It was a sharp question from the older man.
“Yes, but it was clear to me that they didn’t want to believe me.” Rhys smiled wryly, “Certainly I was pushed very firmly out the door of the Army as quickly as possible.”
“Which brings us to why you are here today. I think,” said Sir Mark with a smile, “that we should all sit down with a cup of tea and have a nice long chat about the state of play in your part of the world, don’t you?”
Sir Mark gave them tea in a room that could best be described as a “meeting-people office.” It had all the usual attributes of an office, including a desk and a certain amount of standard office equipment, but it also had four armchairs and two sofas, all upholstered in the same cabbage rose patterned fabric, and clustered around a coffee table. Rhys and Ana sat together on one of the sofas while Sir Mark played host from his seat directly opposite them with a silver teapot and a good bone china tea set. When everyone had tea and biscuits Sir Mark asked, “So, what seems to be going on?”
It was Rhys who answered. “A conspiracy to keep Ana within a set area that precluded her from finding out who she really is, that seems tied to a whiff of taint we’ve both noticed. The taint reminds me of the feel you get around a vampire that controls others, but that’s not quite it.”
“Vampires are rare in this country,” Sir Mark commented. “Those we do get have either taken great effort to import themselves or have been created by older vampires who did so. Statistically, it is likely to be something other than a vampire. Where do you think things are centred?”
“The area your niece has been confined to revolves around Wychbury. Until now she’s been no further on this direction than Market Tonbury, Hainton to the north and, as you’ve heard, Queens