The Garden of Eden
The sequel to A Garden in Paris
"Very well, gentlemen." Dorian said. "That's the plan in general outline. Are there any questions before I give you your assignments?"
"Why can't you just use knock-out gas?" said the querulous voice on his right. "It's faster, cheaper--"
"And more dangerous to the guests, especially the elderly ones. The doctors are saying now that general anesthetics have long-term effects on the body. The relevant articles from The Lancet are here, if you want to consult them." He pulled an intimidating bundle from a file and waved it before James' nose.
James humpfed. "You're a thief, not a Goody-Two-Shoes."
"I'm a thief, not a mugger of elderly dowagers and retired Admirals. But if you're volunteering to try the long-term effects of Bonham's soporifics--"
"Well, in that case," James said hastily, "why can't you take the cup from its storeroom before the wedding? Why do you have to do it in front of the guests?"
"Oh James," Dorian sighed. James must have been a terrier in a former life: he never let go. "It's a matter of style."
"You just want to show off," James muttered.
"The guests at the Earl of Dumbleton's wedding breakfast include some of the oldest titles in Britain and some of the richest socialites in America," Dorian repeated patiently. "I propose to demonstrate to this select audience- and, via the media, to the rest of the world-- the stunning brilliance and unmatched audacity of the greatest thief of his generation. In a word, I want to show off. Any more questions?"
He cast a glance down the long table, and was met by the bright-eyed glances of his comely assistants. Dorian had no objection to talent unaccompanied by looks-- where would he be without Bonham, for instance?-- but whenever possible he liked brains to be combined with beauty, in judicious measure.
"Very well. Aubrey and Basil: you'll infiltrate the hotel kitchen. Colin, Derek and Emory: the hotel patisserie. Francis, Gervase, Henleigh and Inigo: you'll replace the waiters at the banquet hall. Jean-Paul, you'll drive the getaway van. Kingsley, Lionel, Miles and Noel--"
There was a small disturbance at the foot of the table. "It's long distance, your lordship," Vernon said, rising with the phone. "He insists on speaking to you. A Mr. Sergei."
"Sergei!" Dorian loped down the room to intercept his minion, and seized the receiver from him. "Sergei! Is that you?"
There was a fearsome crackle on the line. "Lord Gloria-" Sergei's voice came faintly. "Can you hear me?"
"Yes, just. Where are you? It's only Wednes-"
"Circassia. Listen. Tell the Major." There was more crackling. "Allo allo?"
"Yes, I'm here," Dorian said loudly. "Tell the Major what?"
"The President-- needs protection. Tell him-" crackle crackle- "extra care. Halim--" crackle crackle
"Sergei! Sergei! I can't hear!"
There was only static on the line. Dorian waited another minute, but Sergei's voice failed to come back.
He handed the receiver back to Vernon, and returned to the head of the table.
"Gentlemen, we'll continue this conference at 1700 hours. Something has come up. Jean Paul, you can still patch me through to the Major's office in Bonn?"
"Not now, James. This is important. Dismissed, gentlemen."
"Where did you get my private number?" Klaus was, predictably, less than delighted to hear from him.
"Trade secret, Major. Listen--"
"I'll have it changed again."
"That won't help. I always know your private number. I need it for emergencies, like this one. Will you listen, Klaus?"
"What is it? And hurry."
"I had a call from Sergei--"
"What? Where is he?"
"Circassia, he said. The line was very bad. He said the ex- President needs protection. Something about Halim-- I couldn't hear--"
"Covering his tracks, probably. What else?"
"I didn't hear anything more after that-- only static."
"Very well. We can put an unofficial guard on the President for the next forty-eight hours, but only as a temporary measure. Tell M.Serge that, if he calls you back. I'll get the rest of the story when he reports here on Friday. Good-bye." From practice, Dorian held the receiver away from his ear as Klaus hung up with the usual crash. Thoughtfully he replaced the receiver at his own end. He'd forgotten that Sergei was to stop in Bonn on his way back from Circassia.
With his men briefed and moving into their roles, he himself would have nothing to do for a day or so before attending to the final touches. The wedding wasn't for a week, after all. It would make a nice diversion to go to meet his new friend- with flowers and champagne, perhaps. "Bonham," he called, "I'll need the plane for Friday. And a couple of bottles of the Veuve Clicquot '75."
James rose up, a determined light in his eye. Dorian forestalled him.
"James dear, I'm going to see the Major about an assassination or two. Want to come along?"
James blanched, but continued to look dogged. "What's the wine for?"
"To put him in a good mood so he doesn't bite my head off."
"Wouldn't Mogen David do just as well? Germans like sweet wine. And it's miles cheaper."
"The Major hates sweet things." No point in mentioning that the Major disliked wine as well. "It would only irritate him. But if you were there he might be distracted."
"No," said James at once. "I see your game. You want to throw me to the wolves in order to save your own skin. Well, forget it. Whatever trouble you're in, you can get out it of yourself."
He turned away with a distinct flounce. Dorian, ever the perfectionist, threw a reproachful 'Jamesie!' at his back to complete the effect, but it wasn't really necessary. He knew Mr. James would not be accompanying him to Bonn.
"Good morning, Major."
Dorian waltzed into the fortress of Klaus' office behind a veritable Birnham Wood of Burgond roses. "Sergei, how lovely to see you again. These are for you." He deposited the roses in Sergei's lap and gave him an exuberant welcome home kiss.
"Lord Gloria." Sergei kissed him back coolly, but there was a suspicious tightness at the corners of his mouth.
"God damn it, Eroica-" Klaus exploded.
"That's my name, Major," Dorian said, sinking into a chair. "'God damn it Gloria' at the club, of course."
"Get out of here!"
"Major-" Sergei interjected before Dorian could reply. "Lord Gloria is a force of nature. He bloweth where he listeth. He's here now, so we might as well make the best of it. I'm sure-" Sergei turned a grave warning eye on him- "he can be persuaded to a little more-- tranquility."
"For you, dear, anything. I'll be as good as gold."
"I'm damned if I'll have a pair of queers carrying on in my office--"
"I'm sure there are plenty of queer carryings-on in this office, darling-"
"Major, will you excuse us a moment? Lord Gloria and I need to have a word together." Sergei plucked him out of his chair, one large hand clamped about his wrist, and carried him off to the corridor where he backed him against the wall.
He smiled winsomely. "Serg--" and got no farther. Sergei's mouth closed down on his, and he found himself being kissed deeply, thoroughly, and unarguably.
"Mm-mm-hh-" He tried to speak but his mouth was full of Sergei's tongue. There was nothing to do but kiss him back to the best of his ability. Sergei gave him little space to move in. He wriggled a bit, trying to manoeuvre, but Sergei had him pressed tight to the wall. After a moment he gave in and suffered him to do what he would.
The Circassian drew back and looked at him levelly.
"You're annoyed," Dorian concluded, less than brilliantly.
"Not best pleased," Sergei agreed.
"It's just that I'm happy to see you back safe," he pouted.
"I'm glad." There was a flat note to Sergei's voice that triggered small alarm bells in Dorian's mind. He'd seemed no different from a week before, but looking at him closely now, Dorian could suddenly believe he was nearing forty.
"Sergei, what's wrong? Is something the matter?"
"I'm trying to stop someone from being killed, Lord Gloria, and you aren't helping."
"I'm sorry," he said contritely. "I'll be good."
They returned to Klaus' office to face the almost palpable thunderclouds hanging over von dem Eberbach's head.
"Are you two finished?" he demanded, his unhappy, suspicious eyes going from one to the other.
"Quite finished, Major," Sergei said neutrally. "Lord Gloria has agreed to be reasonable. Shall we proceed?"
Klaus' eyes lost their sharp edge and his expression returned to its usual businesslike briskness.
"You know NATO can't keep a watch on the President forever. Our mandate was only to keep your brother alive, and the President's safety is entirely outside our jurisdiction. You must admit the man's no loss. He figured prominently on Amnesty International's hit list for eight years, and I believe some of your countrymen still have questions to ask him about the whereabouts of their relatives. And if he dies, the General's life is that much more secure. I'm puzzled, M. Serge, as to why you're pushing to have us protect him."
"It's a matter of personal feeling, Major. I agree with you. He's a dog. I hate him as much as any man in Circassia. I hate him so much I'm unwilling to have his filthy blood on my hands."
"It's nothing to do with you. If Halim wants to protect his back by murdering his co-conspirator, what fault is it of yours?"
"Halim wouldn't have decided to it if I hadn't confronted him."
"Don't be naive. How long would Halim have let the President live if the plot had succeeded and he'd returned to Circassia? Two months? Three?"
Sergei passed a weary hand over his face. "I wouldn't have given him ten days. His money was what Halim was after; my brother would never consent to be subordinate to someone like him for longer than absolutely necessary. You're right, of course, Major. But I still feel responsible. And I see no way out. Warn the President directly, if you must. But if you do he may well try to get the jump on Halim."
"That's Halim's look-out. It's nothing to do with you."
"He's my brother and my twin. It's everything to do with me."
"M.Serge, there's no room for scruples or sentiment in this game. If you run with wolves, you guard your own throat first. Halim and the President have made their beds. Let them lie in them. And cheer up. Your brother has the advantage of time and may turn out to have the better assassins."
"May I ask you a question, Major?"
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
Klaus snorted as answer.
"I thought not. Well, Major, you win. You'll do as you think best. Is this meeting over?"
"Yes. Thank you for your help, M.Serge. NATO appreciates it."
"You're entirely welcome." The thin edge of irony couldn't hide the unhappiness in Sergei's voice. He got to his feet and turned to go.
"What about these?" Klaus indicated the roses impatiently.
Sergei turned back and removed a single bud.
"Your men can have the rest, Major. Flowers do brighten an office." He crossed to the door in two strides and was gone.
"Klaus, that was too brutal."
"Your friend is a sentimental idiot. It's past time he learned the nature of the real world. And if he doesn't like it, let him go back to his prints."
"He's an idealist."
"The same thing," Klaus said dismissively, lighting a cigarette. Under his briskness there was a world of satisfaction. "I have to admit, Lord Gloria: you're a pervert and a criminal, but you at least know which way is up."
"I don't much care for your compliments today, Klaus."
"Then why don't you leave?" Klaus smiled and waved at the door. "Go and console M.Serge in his desolation."
"I think I'll do that," Dorian said meaningly. He turned on his heel and left, not missing the closed shuttered expression that came over Klaus' face at his words. At another time he might have paid it a little more attention than he could afford to now, with concern for Sergei uppermost in his mind.
He ran down the stairs and out of NATO headquarters, looking about anxiously for a trace of Sergei's black coat and pale blonde hair.
"Over here." Sergei's voice came from behind him. He was standing next to the front entrance, smoking a cigarette of his own.
"I thought you'd be halfway to the airport by now," Dorian said in relief.
"Without you? Did my manners impress you so badly last time?" He smiled teasingly.
"Your manners are exquisite, as always," Dorian said with significance.
"I'm sorry, my dear." Sergei drew deeply on his cigarette. "Your Major upset me. I don't always wear my heart on my sleeve like this. It's very-- uncomfortable."
There was nothing to say to that. Dorian put an arm around Sergei's waist, the only consolation he dared to offer.
"Well, shall we go?" Sergei threw his cigarette away.
"My hotel room was what had occurred to me. Unless you have another suggestion?"
"I like the sound of yours."
Sergei's hotel was a small, cozy affair, a world removed from the crystal and marble palace in the city centre where Dorian had registered that morning. Surrounded by the red-figured carpets and dark wooden furniture of the lobby he felt as if he were visiting in someone's home. The owner greeted them personally at the desk and handed Sergei his key, speaking to him in the throat-scraping gutturals of Circassian. Sergei answered in French, introducing Dorian as an English friend, and Dorian completed the polyglot chain by complimenting the landlord, in Russian, on the appointments of his hotel. This earned him the owner's approval, a five minute encomium on the virtues of England and the English, and a bottle of homemade liqueur, on the house, which the man's daughter brought to their room.
Sergei poured two thimblefuls of the amber stuff.
"It's stronger than you'd think." He passed one over. "To your health."
"To yours." Dorian took a sip. It was strong. He drank it with care, watching Sergei whose expression had become abstracted and who seemed to find something fascinating in the pattern of the carpet on the floor.
"Sergei, what's the matter?"
"Nothing, m'ami." He looked up with a sigh. "Raking through the bones of one's dead past is depressing work. It leaves a bad smell in the nostrils." He put his glass on the table and reached over to run two fingers down Dorian's cheek and across his lips. His one eye narrowed and a sudden smile lengthened his mouth.
"I'm glad you came." He took hold of Dorian's shoulder with unexpected strength to pull him near, but Dorian was already moving into his embrace, and they fell back together on the sofa in a tangle of grappling arms and legs. Sergei was using no technique this time. His hands and mouth and body moved over and about Dorian and Dorian responded energetically in the same fashion. It was half wrestling match and half teenaged grope, all awkward and unpracticed and very very satisfying. Dorian kissed and flailed and fumbled his way more or less out of his clothes and definitely into a state of rampant excitement. Sergei let go eventually, breathing deeply.
"Let's slip into something more comfortable," he suggested, "like the bed next door."
"What's wrong with right here?"
"Uncivilized. Indulge me, my dear. I've been sleeping rough the last four nights."
"Sorry. I'd forgotten. Camp beds?"
"My plane, mostly."
"Why?" Dorian had got himself vertical and was ridding himself of his shirt.
"Protection." Sergei was stripping off socks and shoes. "Safe from knives and clubs, at least."
"Knives and clubs?" Dorian repeated, startled.
"Circassians can be most primitive."
"They don't use guns?"
"They do. But ammunition is expensive. I don't rate a bullet."
"Sergei-" The idea of ferocious mountain bandits was romantic, but this was no fantasy. This was real. "I'm glad you got back."
"So am I." He finished with the fastenings of his fur-collared coat and slipped it off. "This was perfect, by the way. I'd forgotten how cold the mountains can be."
Dorian snuggled against him.
"I see you don't wear anything underneath it either."
"Just little non-necessities, like these." Dorian's pants were already at half mast. Sergei gave their natural downward tendency some assistance, making that an excuse to squeeze Dorian's behind and the backs of his legs. Dorian fell backwards onto the sofa again, and Sergei stripped his pants off entirely, dropping onto the floor as he pulled.
"Thought you wanted to move next door?"
"--a minute." Sergei, kneeling, had Dorian's right foot in his hands and was exploring it with his mouth. Dorian's breath grew short. He hadn't realized that the region between ankle and arch was an erogenous zone. Sergei's strong fingers massaged his sole, sending tingling messages up Dorian's spine, while his tongue moved across the delicate skin of the upper foot to the toes.
"Ticklish?" he paused to enquire.
A sucking warmth enveloped Dorian's big toe. Not ticklish exactly-- not caressing-- but intimate, certainly, this encounter between Sergei's mouth and the antipodes of his body. Sergei's tongue pulsed around him for a moment, then moved on to investigate each toe in turn and the thin-skinned spaces between them. Such an inquisitive creature, Sergei's tongue; it must know every corner of his body by now... The thought brought a pulse to his groin. His fingers went to soothe the ache there, but found that wasn't quite what he wanted either.
"Hands off." Sergei was smiling at him.
"I know. It's like smoking Turkish cigarettes with a Chablis. But I'm lonely up here, Sergei."
"Poor little boy. What shall we do about that?" Sergei's eye sparkled. Dorian pounced on him, and they rolled across the living room carpet, bare flesh sliding sweatily together. Dorian ended on top and pinned Sergei beneath him, smiling down into his flushed excited face.
"Now-" said Dorian severely. "Make up your mind. Do we do it on the floor like peasants or in bed like civilized people?"
"By all means, let's be civilized. Besides, I can't imagine how I'd explain to Fakkad what happened to his rug."
They floundered into the bedroom and collapsed into the deep soft bed. The big square pillows, the sausage-like bolsters, the multiple strata of quilts and blankets and thick clean German sheets enfolded them like a large-breasted mother. In that snug enclosure smelling pleasantly of fresh linen, Sergei turned into a supple serpent with a hundred unknown wiles and devices that made Dorian's blood pound and his head spin. The whole of his friend's strong but seemingly boneless body laid itself out for his delight. Wriggling invading fingers teased him into flame, so that it seemed his skin must show brown char marks from the fire blazing inside. A twisting tongue sucked him into iron rigidity and the promise of imminent ecstasy, but each time stopped as Dorian approached the point of release. Lovingly cruel, Sergei refused him the one last service that would take him over the edge. Tortured by delight infinitely deferred, Dorian was at last reduced to begging for deliverance: at which Sergei rolled onto his back with opened legs and yielded his delightful rump for his lover's consolation.
Dorian proceeded to plough him in good yeoman fashion. But though Sergei's face was flushed and his breathing deep, he showed no reaction at all in that part of himself that was unable to lie. With the evidence virtually before his eyes, Dorian couldn't remain unaware for long. He slackened his efforts a little.
"Sergei-" He attempted to gain at least a nod from the indolent organ.
"It's alright, my dear. I wasn't expecting you today. I had company this afternoon."
"Oh? Must have been good. Did he do this to you?"
Sergei groaned, and Dorian wriggled again with practiced art. "What about this?"
Sergei tightened himself in response and ground his hips, so that sparks flew across Dorian's eyes. Attention distracted, he failed to note the handful of spies creeping up on his back until they had accomplished their mission and breached his citadel from the rear. The sudden attack divided his forces: he let loose a volley, and then surrendered entirely to the explosive pleasure of his climax.
He hadn't intended to fall asleep, but when he opened his eyes, the room was deep in shadows and the purple red reflection of sunset. Sergei's cigarette glowed in the half twilight. He lay propped against the headboard, shoulders drooping, and his face had an emptiness that made Dorian's chest tighten. He reached out to stroke the pale forearm. Sergei turned his head, a small smile beginning, but Dorian spoke first.
"Sergei-- Klaus was right. You did what you had to do. What happens afterwards is out of your hands."
There was silence a moment.
"I know," he said eventually. "I know. I just wish--" He took another pull on his cigarette. "I wonder why I thought it might be different this time. It seemed-- somehow-- as if I could..."
He didn't finish.
"Tell me what happened?"
"Nothing, really. It all went as planned. I found Halim's camp- he's holding the blockade on the south side of the capital, thank God. Majek- the General- is on the north. I told him I knew what he was plotting, and that he could forget it: NATO had already taken measures. He didn't deny it. And he backed off, as I knew he would." Sergei put out his cigarette in the ashtray on the bedside table and slid down to lie next to Dorian. "He doesn't really want to kill my brother. It would be like tearing his own heart out. He wants to try and fail. It would be a lot easier for everyone if he'd only admit it to himself, but of course he never will. Anyway, he's happy now. He made me come back after I swore I never would. He's probably telling himself his plot would have succeeded if international forces hadn't been pitted against him. Or maybe he thinks he did it as a favour to me."
"I don't understand. It sounds so complicated. Why does he feel that way about the General?"
Sergei laughed, unamused. "Why, Lord Gloria? If I knew why, I'd be a different man. It's the way our family is. I feel the same way about the two of them. I have every reason to hate them; I can't bear to breathe the same air that they do; but the thought of either of them dying is like a knife in my heart."
"I see," Dorian murmured.
"Do you?" Sergei smiled sardonically. "You English are so cold, so correct in your relationships. Confess, m'ami- you think me hysterical."
"Not hysterical," Dorian protested. "But you take things so much to heart. Art is worth suffering for, and beauty, and love. But family? Family is just-- there."
"Just there. What an enviable attitude. Maybe I should adopt it."
"It couldn't hurt, Sergei."
"Only it's at least twenty years too late. Ah well-- other people's tragedies are the stuff of comedy. Have you plans for dinner?"
"My hotel was what had occurred to me. Dinner downstairs, dessert up. I brought some champagne to celebrate with."
Sergei kissed him. "I like the sound of your suggestions."
Dorian leaned back, satiated.
"I think I won't eat again for a week," he mused.
"That's the virtue of German cooking: it can satisfy a man for days."
"It was good," Dorian admitted.
"And now I feel like becoming a vegetarian. Heaven at this point looks like a month of endive and watercress."
"And water." Dorian was aware of several less than comfortable physical areas about himself, but his bladder was the most pressing and the easiest relieved. He excused himself and went to deposit half a bottle of Bernkastel in the municipal sewage system. A waste, when you thought about it-- but such, alas, was the human condition. Feeling considerably lighter, he washed his hands, gave the required tip to the old lady who handed out the towels, and was about to retrace his steps to the dining room when he found himself confronted by a vision.
It was possibly sixteen years old, with pale blue eyes, pale white skin, and more pale blonde hair than any man, and most women, had a right to. Medium-length on top, it aureoled about his head like a surprised cherub's, but at the back it fell thick and straight nearly to his waist. A black ribbon bound it together, not at the neck but near the bottom of its full length. Dorian found the fashion bizarre but charming, rather like the young man's fine grey linen suit with its high roundnecked tunic and brass buttons. Evidently the uniform of some old-fashioned Prussian boys' academy, it showed off the slender body to extremely good advantage. All this he had leisure to observe in the few seconds before the visitation spoke to him in heavily accented German.
"Entschuldigen Sie bitte," it said, "wo ist die Toilette?"
"Sie ist hier." Dorian indicated the men's room behind him, with the prominent sign saying 'Herren' beside it.
"Aber- aber- ehh-" The boy waved a desperate hand at the old woman sitting just inside the entrance. He looked ready to burst into tears. Dorian understood the source of his distress, but wasn't certain the boy's German was up to an explanation of the institution of Toilettefrau.
"Kein Problem," he said, and taking the young elbow steered him into the washroom and over to a urinal. "Glauben Sie mir- dies ist die Herrentoilette."
"Mais la vieille me regard, quoi!" the boy wailed.
"She isn't really looking at you," Dorian said kindly in French. "She just hands out towels. Forty pfennig, when you're done."
"Oh." The youth looked dubious. "Will you stay until I'm finished? If you're with me--" The swimming blue eyes regarded him confidingly. What a hothouse flower the child was, to be sure. Or was he perhaps a bit simple? Certainly he seemed in need of a companion, if not an actual keeper. Ah well, Dorian sighed mentally, my good deed for the day-- and not particularly onerous at that.
"But of course," he assured him. "Go ahead."
The boy smiled happily and began unbuttoning. Dorian waited for him to start- and waited--
"I can't," the child said matter-of-factly. "I need someone to hold it." His smile left no doubt that he expected Dorian to fill the role.
"You hold it," he suggested, mildly indignant. Just how far did simpleness go?
"Me?" He looked perplexed, as if he'd never heard such a thing and didn't know how to respond.
"But I don't know how." His face crumpled like a distressed five-year-old's. "My tutor always does it for me. And I need to go- I'm going to burst--" Tears ran down his cheeks.
So he did have a keeper-- and only too clearly, he needed one.
"Alright, alright," Dorian said hastily, reaching into the boy's fly. "But you should learn to do this yourself- for when your tutor isn't around-" The boy grunted in satisfaction as his bladder emptied itself, and pressed back against Dorian's hips. Dorian shifted to avoid him, and jumped as a cry in Russian came from the doorway.
"Samh' Gunmar! Samhet! What's that man DOing to you??!!!"
The boy was snatched from his arms, and Dorian found himself facing a dark-eyed white-faced fury. As tall as himself, with Eurasian features, Rasputin-black hair, and an organ voice that shook the walls, the man was nearly insane with rage.
"Pervert!" he bellowed in German, "Rapist!! Child molester!!! Samhet, are you alRIGHT?" he demanded of the boy, in Russian this time. "Why didn't you wait for me? I was just coming-- when this criminally depraved Bosch, this seducer of innocents-" he was back into German, "laid his filthy hands on you--"
Dorian was trying to get breath enough to protest his innocence, appalled at the situation he'd blundered into: but his eyes met the boy's blue ones and he checked. Samhet, if that was his name, gave him a smile and a small shrug from the encircling embrace of the older man's arms, as if to say 'Don't mind him- he does this all the time.' All very well- but his tutor was shouting about die Polizei, and the old woman had vanished.
"Takamatsu," the boy started--
"My poor white lamb, my innocent suckling kid--" Takamatsu was well-launched on a flood of sugary Russian endearments.
"Takamatsu, he was just helping me--"
"You don't need the help of a pervert like that--" back to German, as he glared at Dorian--
"Pot and kettle, surely, Takamatsu?" said Sergei's cool voice behind him, and Takamatsu turned to stone. Not so his charge, who wriggled happily from his embrace and ran over to Sergei.
"Uncle Savijc! What are you doing here?" and he threw both arms around Sergei's neck.
"Gunmar." Sergei kissed him on both cheeks. "I could ask you the same."
Dorian's astonishment was interrupted by a bustle at the doorway, and the assistant manager came in accompanied by two security guards. He looked at the ill-assorted group, and automatically addressed himself to Dorian.
"Lord Gloria, is something the matter?"
"Not at all," Dorian assured him. "A misunderstanding."
"Ah? Is that right, Doctor?" He looked at Takamatsu.
"Certainly," the man said urbanely. The screaming fury of two minutes ago might have been a figment of Dorian's imagination.
"Ah well, then..." The manager glanced from one to the other, clearly deciding to let sleeping dogs lie. "Perhaps, gentlemen, some other place..."
"Yes indeed," Takamatsu began, but Gunmar interrupted him. "We're going to have dinner," he said to Sergei. "You come too."
"We've just finished." Sergei looked at Takamatsu. "If you're in the dining room--"
"Where else?" Takamatsu growled, ungracious.
"We'll join you for coffee." There was a nearly imperceptible pause before Takamatsu said, "Alright. Come, samhet."
"Are you really a lord?" Gunmar asked Dorian. "What kind?"
"Later, samhet. Did you wash your hands?"
"No. It costs forty pfennig."
"Well then, let's go do it." He gave Sergei and Dorian a last dark look from his odd down-slanting eyes, and shepherded his ward to the wash basins.
Mouth a tight line, Sergei turned to one of the urinals and occupied himself with it until the other two were gone.
"Sergei, I'm sorry. It was unforgivably stupid of me, but I thought he needed help--"
"The apologies are all mine, Lord Gloria. I don't know what I've got you into."
"Into? It was a bit comic opera, but that's all--"
"I hope so. It may even be so. But I don't like coincidences."
"You mean, it might be planned- Halim's son being here?"
"Halim?" Sergei's eyebrow rose in surprise. "Halim has no children. Whatever gave you that idea?"
"I thought you said he has three."
"I have three nephews- the General's two, and Gunmar. His father's dead; Takamatsu's had the raising of him."
"Oh." Dorian's discreet monosyllable spoke volumes, and Sergei's mouth curved unexpectedly.
"I'll tell you later, m'ami. Let's go find out what they're doing here."
It was easy enough to locate them in the dining room. Gunmar was immersed in a menu, giving orders to the waiter.
"--strawberry strudel, and crepes, and Sacher torte--"
"--and coffee for four," Takamatsu said, taking the menu from him.
"I'm not finished, Taka--"
"You can order again if you're still hungry, samhet." He patted Gunmar's arm protectively, his suspicious eye raking the two of them over as they sat down.
"Introductions, I think," Sergei said mildly. "Lord Gloria, my nephew Gunmar and his tutor, Dr. Gabriel Takamatsu. This is Dorian Red Gloria, earl of Gloria. He's an English nobleman."
"English?" said Gunmar in delight. "Have you met the Queen?"
"Yes," Dorian admitted.
"Where? At Buckingham Palace?"
"Yes," he said again, neglecting to mention that it had been in the Queen's own bedroom. Gunmar might believe it, but Takamatsu would think he was mocking the boy.
"Was she wearing her crown? And a long dress?"
The questions came in a steady stream, naive, uninformed, and endless. Gunmar's mental age appeared to be about eight, and he had a true eight-year-old's voracious curiosity. But the most automatic answers were enough to satisfy him and Dorian still had leisure to eavesdrop on what Takamatsu was saying in Russian to Sergei.
"Very pretty. Has it any talents beyond the obvious ones?"
Sergei gave Dorian a neutral look, as if he were talking about something else. "Nothing you'd be interested in. He's a bit more intelligent than Gunmar- not that that's saying much."
Takamatsu scowled and Dorian adjusted his expression to the right degree of fatuousness. If he was to be brainless, best to do it in style.
"Stupid or not, you can tell him to keep his vicious English hands off your nephew. He was practically sodomizing him when I came in and stopped him."
"It would be more useful to tell Gunmar not to go confiding in strange men. Not everyone is as good natured as Lord Gloria."
"What are you implying?" Takamatsu bridled.
"Bring your giant brain to bear on the subject, Takamatsu; I think you'll be able to figure it out."
The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Gunmar's cakes and their coffee. Still in character, Dorian picked up a fork and helped himself to a bit of strudel.
"I like the chocolate ones best," Gunmar was confiding to him. "Here, try a bit." He brought a forkful of torte to Dorian's mouth.
"Good, but a bit too sweet. It needs something to balance it."
"Whipped cream. We should have ordered the profiterolles too. Takamatsu, we want profiterolles."
"Finish what you have there first, samhet," Takamatsu said, smiling fondly. "There's lots and lots left."
"But we need them now," Gunmar said earnestly.
"There's whipped cream in the crepes," Dorian pointed out.
"Really? Oh wonderful. It's OK, Takamatsu. We don't need profiterolles after all."
"That's good, samhet," Takamatsu said without irony, and turned back to Sergei. "I thought you lived in Paris."
"I do. I'm in Bonn on business. What are you two doing here?"
"Travelling for samh' Gunmar's education. Sightseeing at the moment, but we'll be in Paris from next week. There are courses at the Polytechnique he needs for his doctorate."
Dorian's mental eyebrows rose at the word, but he remembered that he didn't speak Russian and kept the disbelief from his face. As a cover story it was preposterous, but it might well be a fiction that Takamatsu had created for his ward. Gunmar wouldn't even know what a doctorate was.
"Anyway, the capital's being shelled. The whole country's unsafe. It's impossible for him to continue his studies there."
"So I hear," Sergei said neutrally. "When did you leave?"
"Three weeks ago, when the worst of the heavy bombardment started. The papers seem to think it'll be over soon, but you're probably safer staying away for the moment." There was a small sneer in his voice.
Takamatsu sat up straight in indignation. "The hell with your nasty insinuations, Sergei! I'd give my life in a moment to preserve Samh' Gunmar's, and you know it. We left Circassia because the situation there exposed him to constant danger."
"Of course," Sergei said. "We all know how devoted you are."
"We all know how devoted you are. Aren't you going to ask about your family?"
"I'll tell you anyway. They're all alive and all well, no thanks to you. Majek's son is making a name for himself in the army. These are perfect times for hoodlums like him." Sergei sipped coffee expressionlessly. "The General still thinks the sun rises and sets where he is. He hasn't any time for the little one, which is too bad, because the boy is very much his father's son. Very much. Majek's going to pay for his neglect in future." Sergei kept his gaze turned away. Takamatsu's eyes gleamed. "Do you want to hear about Halim?"
"I don't need to. Halim is still himself. He bullies his men and he talks big and he accomplishes very little, and I've seen him more recently than you."
"What?! Where did you see him?"
"Outside Sgrosz, on Wednesday."
Takamatsu's jaw dropped. It was almost funny.
"I miss him. I wanted to see him. Why else?"
There was a short silence. Takamatsu said, "What on earth have you been up to? Or should that be, what's Halim been up to?"
"What do you think?"
"I'd rather not imagine. Don't worry, I won't ask. But aren't you at all worried about walking into the lion's den and tweaking his whiskers like that?"
"I've nothing to fear from Halim."
"True, perhaps, as far as it goes. But you've been away three years. He's got a following of his own now- that special squad of mercenaries he commands. They're a bunch of crazy foreigners who think he's God, and they'll resent an outsider just walking in and interfering with him, even if it is his brother. What am I saying- especially if it's his brother."
"I'm telling you, Sergei, you don't know them. Their devotion is insane, even by Circassian standards. They're Halim's dogs. He treats them like dirt, he cuts their pay for the smallest infraction, and instead of mutinying they kiss the ground he walks on. Attachment to that degree is pathological. It takes no account of reality and could be capable of anything. In fact, I'm going to write an article on the subject for the Revue Psychologique."
"Good. You can use yourself as a case history."
Takamatsu snorted. "Poisonous as ever, Sergei. The French haven't sweetened you a bit." He sipped his coffee. After a moment, he indicated Dorian with his chin and said, "What's it do when it's at home?"
"If you keep on calling my friend 'it', we'll leave."
"Oh, pardon, pardon. What does his noble lordship do when he's at home?"
"He collects art."
"Oh, really?" Takamatsu's tone had changed. "Rich, is i- he?"
"What do you care?"
"Why, I may have something that would interest him. Your lordship-" his tone suddenly dulcet, he addressed Dorian in French. Dorian pretended to pull himself out of the conversation he was having with Gunmar about toy trains.
"Serge says your lordship is interested in art. Might I presume to ask whether you have any interest in our Slavic culture?"
Dorian opened innocent eyes.
"'Our', Doctor? Aren't you Japanese?"
"My father was a Japanese from Habomai- one of the islands between us and Japan- but I never knew him. My parents were separated in the chaos after the war." He smiled proudly. "I was born in Archangel- hence my first name- and though I have Japanese blood in my veins my soul belongs entirely to Mother Russia."
"That's why he lives in Circassia," Sergei explained.
"Mother Russia, not the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics," Takamatsu snapped.
"True enough," Dorian said soothingly. "It was Russia that produced those masterworks of Orthodox art, not the USSR. The icons and mosaics with their glowing golden backgrounds and dark- eyed Madonnas-- that marvellous combination of Slavic sentiment and Christian faith--" Takamatsu beamed with satisfaction: clearly this was the right line to take- "yes, in fact, I'm very interested in them."
"Ah. Well, I have a few items that I'm selling-- just to defray our expenses, of course. Ready money is hard to come by in Circassia these days--"
"Whose were they?" Sergei asked.
"Some from the family, some from national collections. Don't worry, I have the General's permission. I wouldn't sell things behind his back."
"You would, but it's not necessary. How much is he taking?"
Takamatsu looked sour. "Eighty percent. Mercenaries cost."
Sergei grunted and Dorian finally understood. Well, if Takamatsu was fundraising for the General it might be worth seeing what he could pick up, literally or figuratively.
"I'd love to see them. My collection's been almost completely confined to western art so far. Really, I should expand."
"If you'd care to come to our hotel room, samh' Dorian--"
So that was what 'samh' meant. Amused by his instant ascension to Circassian aristocracy, Dorian smiled at Takamatsu.
The doctor monopolized him on the trip up in the lift, talking popular-level art history, while Sergei carried on a low-voiced conversation in Circassian with his nephew. Dorian heard one or two protesting sounds from the boy but Takamatsu's solicitude kept him from listening more closely. The doctor held his arm in a soft but unshakeable grip and spoke directly into his ear. His hand felt damp even through the linen sleeve of Dorian's shirt, and at such close quarters the smell of stale tobacco coming from his clothes was overpowering. Dorian was distinctly grateful when they arrived at the sixth floor.
The hotel room proved to be a double suite of no mean size. Takamatsu went to a large trunk and began removing thick canvas boxes from it, taking off lids and displaying the icons, crucifixes and reliquaries within. As expected, some of the pieces were crude, but a couple were high examples of the art. Dorian examined each carefully, pretending to listen to Takamatsu's encomiums, but it was already clear that he knew more about this than the Doctor. There were one or two specimens worth having, if not worth stealing, which he might obtain without too great an outlay.
"What's in that one?" he asked, pointing to the last remaining box inside the chest.
"Ah- this item already has a buyer. We'll deliver it when we get to France. It's not Russian, but it's interesting enough."
He removed a velvet-wrapped bundle from the box, unfolded it, and brought forth a metal goblet six or seven inches in height. It glowed in gold and deep green enamel. The bowl represented the branches of a tree, dappled with thick cloisonne leaves and small red apples that couldn't be rubies but certainly looked like them. The tree's trunk formed the stem, and the knotted tree roots digging into a grassy mound comprised the base. Against the trunk leaned a naked woman cast from pale gold, who was holding an apple in one tiny hand. Long hair concealed most of her body, whose proportions were oddly elongated in the Mannerist fashion of the 16th century. Her head was lifted, and she was looking into the eyes of a thick green snake that curved down from one of the branches.
Dorian was struck dumb. His eyes went wide and his hands reached out like a sleepwalker's to take the cup from Takamatsu. He held it with aching care, as if it were made of spun glass, and turned it slowly, checking the details against an ancient description he knew now by heart. "...greene enamall leaves set about with Rubies, and from the boughs depending the Serpent of Genesis..." It was. It was. His soul spiralled like a soaring hawk on the winds of rapture and amazement. A sign. A portent. It was meant to be. Oh God, here it was, after all these centuries, fallen out of the sky and into his hands. With breath- catching delight he noted the many tiny perfections of its workmanship: the complex flower pattern delicately chased into the interior of the bowl; the band of smooth deep gold around the lip; the rough bark of the trunk, pitted and knotted like a real apple tree's; and the minute scaling of the snake's skin, with its green cloisonne outlined in infinitisimal gold leaf.
"Majek's getting rid of that?" Sergei was asking.
"The General's not sentimental."
"Oh yes he is."
"Not where money's concerned. This will get his troops a month's pay. Besides, it has that reputation for bad luck. He's probably glad to be rid of it; he's still a peasant, basically."
Dorian found his voice. "Bad luck?" he asked, dazed. "This?"
"Guilt by association. It was a present from Ivan the Terrible. Not a man remembered with much love by the Circassians in general."
"But don't you know what it is?"
"It's an Italian goblet," Takamatsu said, looking surprised at his tone. "Sent to the chief of the Circassians after he signed a non-aggression treaty with Russia in fifteen- whatever-it-was."
"Ivan's said to have got it from the Doge of Venice," Sergei added, "when they were negotiating trading rights to part of the Baltic."
"Oh yes," Dorian said. "Oh yes. It comes from Venice. You haven't heard?" He looked from one to the other. "You don't read our British newspapers, of course, but I thought it would have made the international press."
He put the goblet carefully down on the table in front of him.
"This is the work of a certain Pietro di Capono, whom Benvenuto Cellini considered his most gifted pupil. Pietro was a goldsmith of genius, but he died in a brawl when he was only twenty-three. Like his master he fancied himself a swordsman, but he proved less skilful with a rapier than Cellini was."
"In his brief career he created three masterworks. Three goblets, each in the shape of an apple tree, each illustrating a religious or mythological subject. The first, the Judgment of Paris, has been in the news a lot recently. It was bought by the van Heller family of America in the last century, and the current Mr. van Heller has announced that he'll give it to his only daughter when she marries the Earl of Dumbleton next week. The second, the Garden of the Hesperides, is in a private collection in England. The third- the Garden of Eden- has been lost for centuries. And this, gentlemen, is it."
He looked at them, eyes glowing. Takamatsu shrugged.
"It's very pretty, Lord Gloria, but I'm more interested in turning it into cash."
"That can be done right away. How much?"
"Sorry. I have a buyer."
"Whatever he's paying, I'll double it."
Takamatsu's eyes grew longing. "I wish I could," he said, with real regret. "But it's someone the General wants to oblige. Alas- politics complicate business, as ever. But these icons- and the crucifix--"
Dorian heaved a deep disappointed sigh, then settled down to bargaining, with careful lack of skill, for the best of the icons. The pretence proved unnecessary. Takamatsu was nearly as bad at haggling as Dorian was pretending to be, and in the end he got the best two for slightly less than market value. Really, the General should have used a professional agent.
"Here's my cheque, Doctor, and my card, should you ever have other items I might be interested in. You say you'll be based in Paris?"
"From next Tuesday. I have the address here." Takamatsu, all urbane man of the world, gave Dorian a card bearing the inscription 'Dr. Gabriel M. Takamatsu' and an address in the 16th arrondissement.
"I didn't know you had a middle name," Sergei said, reading over Dorian's shoulder. "What's it stand for?"
"Makoto. And don't call me that." He scowled at Sergei, and Sergei smiled back under his eyelashes. There was an old understanding in the exchange that hinted at a history different from the one suggested by their previous wrangling.
"Doctor, what are the chances of your French buyer being willing to sell to me?"
"Nonexistent, I'm afraid. He's desperate to have this cup."
"Oh. Who is it?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you. He was promised absolute secrecy. It's not someone who can afford to have his name linked openly with the General's, or at least not yet."
"I see." Dorian sighed in feigned disappointment.
Takamatsu pocketed Dorian's cheque with satisfaction, then looked about him in sudden alarm.
"Samh' Gunmar! Where is he?"
"In his room," Sergei said, "sulking. I read him a lecture coming up and he didn't care for it."
"You're too harsh, Serge. You never remember how sensitive the boy is."
Takamatsu hastened into the next room, concern on his face, and Sergei sighed in his turn.
"I think, Lord Gloria, I could do with that champagne you promised me, or possibly something stronger. I've seen more of my family in the last three days than in the last three years, and I can't take much more. Shall we be off?"
"Aren't you going to say good-bye?"
Sergei sighed again and followed in the direction Takamatsu had gone.
"Gunmar," he called to the closed door, "we're leaving. If you want to say good-bye, do it now."
The door opened after a minute, and Gunmar's reproachful face appeared, with Takamatsu hovering behind him. He looked at Sergei sulkily under his blond eyebrows.
"Good-bye, Uncle Savijc."
"Good-bye, Lord Gloria."
"Good-bye, Lord Gunmar."
Gunmar gave him a sudden cheerful smile.
"And?" said Sergei meaningly.
The smile vanished. "I'm sorry," he muttered to Dorian.
"About- you know- when I met you--" Suddenly he smiled again. "I really do know how to do it myself."
Dorian stared helplessly. "Lord Gunmar- really, it's dangerous-"
"It's OK," Gunmar said confidently. "I've got Takamatsu to look after me."
Dorian shrugged mentally. Clearly there was reason for the Doctor's mother hen routine. With any luck, the child would live to see his majority unraped.
Takamatsu yelped suddenly, making them all jump. Something small and fast-moving zipped through his legs, made an abrupt right turn in front of Dorian and Sergei, and scooted towards the door.
"Oh no- catch it-" Gunmar wailed. "I forgot to lock the brakes."
Sergei overtook the thing in a stride or two and scooped it up. Dorian could see waving limbs and heard a high whirring sound.
"Is it alive?"
"No, it's just one of Gunmar's machines."
"It's my latest model." Gunmar took it from Sergei. It looked like a Cuisinart with feet. "It senses objects and avoids them. Look- it has a sonic device, like a bat- I incorporated infrared sensors in the headpiece-"
"Samhet, turn it off. It's wasting the charge."
Gunmar clicked a switch in the side and suddenly saw Dorian's wide eyed expression.
"My field is cybernetics. Do you like robots?"
"I- I don't know much about them--"
"Oh, but they're fascinating. Right now I'm working on refining the speed factor. We should be thinking in terms of jet propulsion, not just a simulacrum of the human leg." Gunmar still sounded like a small boy describing his plastic models, but what he was saying was worthy of Bonham. "A robot isn't a mechanical human, you know. It's a machine that does what we do but differently. The real problem for me is getting away from the human model- the species bias--"
"Gunmar, this is very interesting, but-"
"No wait- wait-" Dorian said hastily. "I- Lord Gunmar, you actually build these robots?"
"Well, when I have the facilities, of course. This-" he indicated the robot- "is just something I play with now we're travelling."
"How long will you be in Bonn? I have a friend with me- he loves this sort of thing- could we come see you tomorrow?"
"We leave tomorrow morning," Takamatsu said shortly.
"It's late- the Samhet needs his sleep-"
"Takamatsu, it's barely ten. I want to meet Lord Gloria's friend-"
"He should be just upstairs in my room. If I can borrow the phone-?"
Bonham came downstairs at once. Dorian introduced him, but Bonham's fascinated questions were clearly recommendation enough in Gunmar's eyes. In minutes the two were deep in a technical discussion far over Dorian's head. Takamatsu glared irascibly at him.
"It will be hours before I can get him to bed. He'll be exhausted tomorrow."
"I'm sorry, Doctor. Perhaps we should be going now. A pleasure to have met you." He picked up his icons and made a small bow.
Takamatsu snorted. "Good-bye, Lord Gloria. Sergei."
Sergei merely nodded to him, and they left in silence.
Dorian's soul was singing gloriously as they went up in the lift, a rousing hymn of triumph situated somewhere between 'See the Conquering Hero Comes' and the Soldiers' March from Aida. He was fortune's favourite, no doubt about it. Used as he was to the idea, it was nice to have it confirmed from time to time. Occasionally, since meeting Klaus, he'd wondered if his luck wasn't turning somehow. The Major had failed to fall into his hands with the regularity he'd come to expect from the objects he desired. But it was clear that today, at least, he was still the universe's blue-eyed boy. The cup- the Garden of Eden- suddenly appearing like that after four hundred years: what more proof did he need? He patted Takamatsu's card in his pocket. Best to steal it from the Frenchman who had bought it: that way he wouldn't deprive Takamatsu of his commission or the General of his funds. He'd have John-Paul put a tail on Takamatsu as soon as he reached Paris- before, if he could spare the men. It would be only a matter of days till he knew whom the cup was destined for. And as icing on the cake, Sergei's charming witless nephew was apparently some kind of mechanical idiot savant: and who knew what that might lead to?
He turned to Sergei to share his happiness. The Circassian was silent, eyes focussed far away. Still worrying about his brother and the President. If only he could learn to let go... Dorian slipped an arm around his shoulders, nuzzling his neck, and Sergei moved closer to him, putting his own arm around Dorian's waist.
"I'm sorry about that charade back in the restaurant."
"Not to worry. Did you learn anything useful from it?"
"What he said about Halim's men--"
"Oh, you heard that? Don't worry. They won't act without Halim's orders, and he won't give them. Whatever Takamatsu thinks, they've no reason to want me dead themselves. And Halim would be merciless if they touched one of the family without his permission. It might start a feud and he can't afford that."
"It sounds all rather tribal and romantic, like the Scots."
"I don't know the Scots, but it's certainly tribal. As for romantic," Sergei said heavily "that depends on whether it's your balls that are being chopped, or someone else's."
"You're not serious, Sergei? Surely Circassians can't really be this--" he fumbled for a word.
"Barbaric? Not always, perhaps. But it's there, in all of us, not too far under the surface."
They arrived at his suite. Wonderful Bonham had put the glasses as well as the champagne in to chill, and Dorian poured with a flourish. His soaring spirits didn't need it but Sergei would clearly be none the worse for a glass or several.
"Gunmar doesn't seem like that, at any rate. Your nephew's an interesting case."
"That's one way of putting it."
"Without offence-- is he an idiot or a genius or both?"
"Neither, really. He's just an ordinary boy who's had an extraordinary upbringing."
"Surely not. He must be something of a prodigy. A doctorate- he really is doing his doctorate?-" Sergei nodded- "at sixteen."
"Sixteen? He must be twenty by now, at least. Don't be misled by his looks. He has his talents, but he's no genius."
"You all look so young in your family," Dorian complained.
"A sign of moral imbecility, I'm told. Which may be the reason Gunmar seems about ten."
"You don't like him?"
"It's not a matter of like or dislike. It's painful to see what Takamatsu has turned him into."
"Couldn't you have done something to- to stop him?"
"No. It's for Gunmar's own good. I know that." He sighed, drained his glass in one gulp, and held it out to Dorian for a refill. "My country has many ties to the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps you already know: when a Turkish sultan came to the throne, in order to make his position secure he'd occasionally have all his half-brothers strangled. He might allow the very littlest ones to live, but only as eunuchs. I don't know if castration is preferable to death, but Takamatsu seems to think it is. The way he's raised Gunmar has effectively emasculated him. He'll never grow up- never be a true adult- and so he stays alive. The General could never think him a threat to his heir, and no-one would dream of using him to spearhead a conspiracy. If Majek believed for one moment that he was dangerous--"
Dorian was listening in shock. "He wouldn't kill him, surely?"
"He killed Gunmar's father. No, not a midnight assassination. Don't go imagining horrors. Majek's more subtle than most Circassians. He worked on him somehow. He made him feel guilty or unmanly or something. I was recovering from my wounds, I never learned what happened. But Ruza suddenly decided he had to go off to battle, even though he wasn't a soldier- wasn't a fighter at all. He was gentle- a scholar. A botanist, for God's sake." Sergei's mouth crooked at the corners, and his eye shone. "He was killed almost at once, before his son was even born." His face closed, and he reached over and poured himself another glass.
"I never found out. Don't think I haven't wondered. I have, endlessly. For some reason- or maybe, after all, for no reason- Majek decided he was in the way and got rid of him."
"Where does Takamatsu come in?" Best to draw him off from what was clearly a painful subject: and besides, Dorian needed to know.
"He was Ruza's student. I introduced them. He and his mother fled from Russia into Circassia when he was a boy, and I met him at the high school. My brother took to him- virtually adopted him, had him to live at the house. Takamatsu was beside himself when he went away. Then Ruza's wife died in childbirth-- from grief and weakness, I suppose- and Takamatsu was still living with us, and he simply assumed control of Gunmar's upbringing. He can be quite masterful under that servant's act he puts on."
"It is an act then? What kind of man is he?"
"For all I know, it may be real where Gunmar is concerned. But I don't pretend to understand him. He's Takamatsu."
That wasn't much help, but Dorian put the matter to one side. Sergei needed his attention.
"You've had a long day, love. Why not have a nice relaxing bath-- with me-- and, well, you know..." He twined his arms around Sergei's neck and kissed his beautiful mouth. "If you've recovered from your visitor this afternoon, I'd very much like you to make love to me."
Sergei looked at him a long moment. "There was no visitor this afternoon, Lord Gloria. A spur of the moment invention. Forgive me." He ran a finger through Dorian's curls, lightly caressing, and brought the end of a waving lock to his lips. "I'm afraid I'll have to take a rain cheque, as our American friends say. When I've- recuperated- from my voyage." He smiled lightly, but in his eye there was a heavy sadness.
"Oh," Dorian murmured unhappily. "Isn't there anything I can do?"
"If anyone could do anything, it would be you, m'ami. But I think my body's trying to tell me to get some rest- by myself."
"I see." As a nice way of being told 'Leave me alone', Dorian had seldom heard its equal. The least he could do was exercise a similar tact. "I have to go back to England tomorrow- there's some business that needs attending to- but I'll be free after Wednesday. Can I give you a call then?"
"Certainly. I'll feel more like myself when I'm home again."
Dorian walked him to the lift and kissed him good-bye, hiding his disappointment. Sergei was right. When he was back in his beloved Paris, surrounded by the settled civilized world he'd made for himself, the painful impressions of the last days would fade. He thought of the appalling life Sergei must have had in his native land. More than wild-- primitive and dangerous. How lucky he'd managed to escape: lucky for him and lucky for Dorian. Well, he'd only have to wait a few days, at most. It wasn't as if there was nothing to keep him occupied in the intervening time.
He reviewed his schedule for the approaching week, and happiness came flooding back. The wedding was five days away. On Wednesday the Garden of the Hesperides would come to join its brother in Dorian's possession. Then there'd be a trip to Paris for the third... In another ten days- a fortnight at most- di Capono's apple trees would all three be growing in Dorian's country house.
He made one or two necessary phone calls, and then gave himself over to a vision of green enamelled leaves and gold and silver and ruby apples. So wrapped up was he that he almost didn't hear Bonham's return.
His number one was clutching a sheaf of blueprints and notes and looking almost as rapturous as Dorian felt.
"Well," Dorian asked, unnecessarily, "anything?"
"He's a genius. A bloody natural." Bonham glowed like a man in love. "I've got a load of stuff-- it'll take all night to go through it, that po-faced watchdog of his wants it back by the morning-- but my God, y'r lordship, the boy's the goods and no mistake. If you could get him on staff--"
"Not likely. The watchdog thinks I've designs on his virtue."
Bonham looked interested. "Do you?"
"Not at all. The other way round, I'd say. And I get enough of that from James."
"Ah well. Probably for the best. He'd do me out of a job in no time."
"Hardly, Bonham. He's an unstable genius. I prefer balanced geniuses, like you." Dorian gave him a hug. Bonham regarded him shrewdly.
"You're happy. What's up?"
"The third cup. They have it, and I'm going to get it."
Bonham's eyes widened in delighted surprise, but all he said was, "Better hurry. They leave tomorrow."
"I won't take it from them. Personal reasons. But when I find out where it's going, then..."
They smiled at each other.
"So," said Dorian, business-like, "what did young Gunmar have to suggest?"
"Well, just off the top of my head-- there's these: that would give us extra speed; and the notion of an intelligent sonic radar linked to the motor-- what I've worried about is how you'd steer the thing, with all the bodies running about-- even with the surprise factor..."
Dorian let him talk. Ideas came to Bonham in the process of explaining, and all Dorian needed to do was listen. By morning, the plans had been perfected and remained only to be put into effect.
Dorian and Bonham were both yawning a little, but excitement was still running high between them.
"We should go back right away."
"Are you up for it, Bonham? Really, a little sleep..."
"I don't need it. Let me get at the packing--"
"They're my things, I'll do it."
"Go on with you," Bonham said fondly. "You know what a mess you make when you meet a suitcase."
"Well, it's not where my genius lies, I'll admit--"
"You take those plans back; I'll tidy up here."
Dorian wasn't sure he wanted another encounter with Takamatsu right away, but it was true that chaos seemed to grow whenever he tried to arrange his belongings into a shape that would fit a suitcase, or even a trunk. He took the lift down, and was rewarded by finding Gunmar standing in the hall as the door opened.
"Oh, Lord Gloria! Good morning. Did you come with my things? That was kind of you. You know, that friend of yours is brilliant- really brilliant. I'll have Takamatsu take us on a trip to England soon; I do want to talk to him again." Gunmar's happy babbling flowed over him like a brook in spate. "Did he put the notes back in- oh yes he did, how wonderful. He has some interesting ideas about articulating the joints, you know, I may be able to adapt-"
A door opened along the corridor, and Takamatsu appeared. "Samhet! What are you doing?"
"It's just Lord Gloria, Takamatsu. Sorry, Lord Gloria, I must fly. I'm afraid you've missed Uncle Savijc, he just got on the other lift-"
"Oh," said Dorian, "he came to say good-bye to you?" And he hadn't come to say hello to him.
"Oh no," said Gunmar happily, "he went to catch his plane. He spent the night with us- well, with Takamatsu, really-"
"Samhet!!" Takamatsu sounded impatient.
"Coming, Takamatsu. Good-bye, Lord Gloria. Auf wiedersehn." He reached up suddenly, kissed Dorian full on the mouth, and skipped off back to Takamatsu, leaving Dorian suddenly thoughtful, for many reasons.
The wedding of Lord Frederick (Nobby) Dumbleton, of Portsmouth Square and Hertfordshire, to Tiffany Ashleigh (Squeaky) van Heller, of Westchester, N.Y. and Fort Lauderdale, took place at St.George's, Hanover Square, in the presence of the groom's aunts, female cousins, and a scattering of Oxford associates, and of the bride's father, her father's country club cronies, and a bevy of alumnae from Miss Porter's and Sarah Lawrence. The discerning observer might have remarked several lines of distinction between the friends of the groom and those of the bride, not least the uniformly large equine teeth belonging to those seated to the right of the altar, and a similarly unisex ordered whiteness in the mouths of the Yankee contingent, an outstanding tribute to the excellence of American orthodontics.
The groom's side, even those giddy types who genuinely qualified as Sloane Rangers, sat through the ceremony with the same grim doggedness with which they'd eaten toad-in-the-hole and rice pudding at school in their youth, certain that if one endured long enough the beastly thing would eventually be finished. The bride's side, or at least the younger members thereof, were much more twittery, like Japanese tourists visiting Versailles and with much the same sense of cultural dislocation. They were naturally acquainted with the notion of innovative wedding ceremonies and, while they themselves would never get married in a field in bare feet, the idea struck them as neither inherently unlikely nor unusual. But the archaic primitiveness of the Anglican Prayerbook service was surprising enough to elicit shocked comment. Several of Squeaky's friends who had dabbled in feminism giggled in disbelief when she actually promised out loud to honour and obey Nobby. Certain more conservative types took offence at the unnecessary bluntness of 'with my body I thee worship,' while the few who could penetrate the vicar's Oxbridge English (most thought he had a speech impediment) were astonished to hear their friend being counselled by St.Paul on the proper conduct of her sexual life: "not as the brute beasts of the field who have not understanding, but reverently, soberly, advisedly, discreetly, in the fear of the Lord and mindful of the purposes for which marriage was ordained." 'Not', most of them thought. 'And especially not Squeaky.'
The ceremony being concluded and Nobby and Squeaky duly become man and wife, both sides adjourned to the wedding breakfast at the Savoy. The bride and groom sat smiling at the high table, flanked on the one side by her father, muscular from daily tennis and brown from the Florida sun, and on the other by a fearsomely aged dowager, the groom's great-aunt. What was not discernible in either of the beaming young faces was the degree of heartburn being nursed in each breast, which was considerable, nor the cause, which was, oddly enough, the same for both.
'We should be having this in the country,' Squeaky was thinking in fury. 'What's the point of getting a title if there's no country house to go with it? It's like not having service on your car. And it's all his fault, the fucking liar. All that talk about the ancestral mansion at Dumbleton Abbas- ours since the Stuarts- and look what happens. The damned government owns it. We have to fucking pay to even see it. The National fucking Trust.' Tiffany smiled, a glowing debutante's smile, at whatever Nobby's senile aunt was mumbling through her big teeth. 'Damn- why is Grandpa's inheritance all tied up in trusts? And Daddy won't fork over the bucks to get the place out of hock. Oh no. He gives us something from Great-grandpa's collection that didn't cost him a cent. Damn Daddy, and damn Grandpa, and damn Great- grandpa, and most of all, damn Nobby. I wish I was dead.'
'We should be having this at Dumbleton Abbas,' Nobby was seething rebelliously. 'What's the use of marrying American money if I can't get the place back from the National Trust? Her bloody father's rolling in it, the jumped-up tradesman- look at him, a tan in April; it's indecent-' Nobby smiled, a well-bred public school smile, at whatever Tiffany's ape-like father was braying in his ear. 'Damn him, he could buy the place five times over and not even notice. But get him to part with the ready? Oh no. Not him, damn his gleaming teeth. No, he gives me that- that horror- and thinks he's done the right thing by us.'
Nobby's eyes went resentfully to the small stand in front of the center of the table, where reposed di Capono's Judgment of Paris in all its overdone awfulness. The bowl was supposed to be the branches of an apple tree, studded with golden blobs meant to represent fruit. The trunk was impractically slender and twisting, saved from breaking under the weight of the bowl only by the practically naked gilt shepherd who leaned against it. Capono had presented Paris as an elongated and etiolated youth with flowing gold locks, holding the apple of Discord in one too elegant hand. Whether the artist had read the newly discovered Greek classics of his time was unknown, but he seemed to have agreed with Homer's opinion that Paris was an unmanly coward, precisely the sort who'd choose a woman over power or wisdom. The androgynous elegance of Paris' nude body was bad enough, but Nobby especially disliked the knowing smile on his face. He was glancing flirtatiously up into the leaves over his head where lurked the goddess Discord, her snaky hair indistinguishable from the green branches and her expression one of settled and delighted malice. This Paris was clearly in league with the goddess, as if he knew the chaos that would follow on his choice and thought it an absolutely wonderful idea.
The chamber orchestra hired to provide background music broke into the Pavane from Handel's Water Music, and the doors at the far end of the room opened slowly. 'What now?' Nobby and Squeaky thought in apprehension and boredom. Oh god, the cake. That meant speeches. Both sat up straighter, steeling themselves for the next ordeal.
The cake was large, even given the number of guests: a three storey Baroque fantasy in white sugar over a metre high. It was borne on a linen-covered mahogany trolley so large that it took two waiters to push it. They were, Squeaky noted, rather better looking than the types that had been serving them up to now, but a bit faggy- hair kind of long and pants kinda- hmm- tight... The two waiters positioned the cake directly in front of the bridal couple and stood off to each side. Nobby caught the eye of his best man down the table and leaned back to hiss at him, "Dammit, Pongo, who's supposed to talk first?" Before Pongo could reply, there was a sudden fanfare and a drum roll- 'Trumpets? I didn't see any trumpets-'-- and the cake parted slowly in the centre like the gates of Paradise opening to admit the blessed. From the interior arose a golden-haired masked figure, his smooth ascent assisted by a purring hydraulic lift. He was clad entirely in white silk: a shining silk domino that covered his face above the mouth; a loose white shirt that opened to midbreast with full billowing sleeves edged, like the collar, in deep lace; close fitting breeches that strained over narrow hips and that were rather more than tight; fine silk stockings that clung to the narrow muscular calves like a glove; and soft slippers of milk white suede, the final foppish note. The only touch of colour came from the waves of golden hair that fell curling to his shoulders and the golden apple he bore before him in his right hand. Skirting the goblet, he came and stood before the high table; reached out, and put the apple in the center of the cloth exactly between the young bride and groom
"For the fairest," he said in a low voice like a clarinet, and smiled at them both.
'What the hell-' thought Squeaky in annoyance. 'These Brits- they're too weird. What the hell is this?' She looked down at the apple.
'Monstrous!' thought Nobby in disgust, 'Stupid vulgar playacting. Trust an American to pull something like this.' He looked down at the apple.
It looked like gold. It couldn't be, of course, but it looked- very like-- Two hands reached out and fastened on the apple at the same time.
"It's mine!" Squeaky said. "I saw it first!"
"Don't be silly," said Nobby. "It obviously belongs to me."
"Let go, damn it. It's mine."
"Now calm down, like a good girl, and let me have it."
"It's for me, right?" Squeaky appealed to the figure in white.
"My dear chap, you gave it to me, didn't you?" Nobby looked up at the masked face.
"The prize is for the fairest," said the clarinet voice. "The fairest is myself. And I choose this." He picked up the goblet, and leaped lightly onto the trolley, which suddenly turned about and sped down the center of the hall like a linen-covered tank with a wedding cake turret.
"Stop him!" Squeaky and Nobby cried together. Various rugger blues and athletic senior citizens leapt out of their chairs to intercept the trolley's path, but it seemed to anticipate their movements and dodged nimbly away before they could get near. Dorian was required to do only minimal steering as his chariot zig-zagged down the room, while Gunmar's power thrusters gave him undreamt of speed. From quick glimpses, he could see that his men were performing their parts beautifully. Osbert, Piers and Quentin, disguised as guests, were adding to the chaos by blocking the most agile of Nobby's friends, accidentally and with time-consuming apologies. Rollo, Simon and Terence, tricked out in most convincing drag as the former's lady companions, were having hysterics in carefully selected areas of the room, thus adding to the general confusion. And here were the doors, which Gervase and Henleigh were keeping open for him. He zipped through into the lobby. Ussher, Vernon, Winston and Xavier, sitting in armchairs here and there as if waiting for friends, jumped up and joined the hue and cry, staying a careful four or five feet to his rear to prevent any real pursuers from getting too close. Yves in the uniform of a porter had kept the front entrance clear and Zeno outside was patrolling the pavement in the guise of the doorman. The cart sped through the gleaming brass doors, jolted lightly down the front steps, and headed towards the street. At the moment it detected the getaway car and started to turn away, Dorian catapulted himself from its depths, made one spring onto the pavement, and was inside the car and speeding away before Vernon and Winston had even reached the curb.
He lay supine on the back seat, dizzy with delight, panting deeply and clutching the cup to his breast. Oh wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. A triumph. A masterpiece. A brilliant, stunning success. Wonderful.
He closed his eyes and let himself drift away. There'd be a victory dinner tonight, a grand celebration. And before the inevitable letdown could claim him he'd be planning the next stage. The Garden of Eden.
Nobby scratched the apple with his fingernail.
"Gilt," he said leadenly.
"Oh." Squeaky, slumped in her dinner chair, seemed unable to say anything more.
"We'll sue," her father was saying energetically. "We'll sue the hotel for not taking proper security precautions. That'll be an easy four or five million right there."
"There's probably a clause disclaiming responsibility in the rental agreement. There usually is," Nobby said with dislike.
"Well, we'll fight it. Who's the best lawyer in England?"
"Oh, Daddy," Squeaky said tiredly. "Do we have to?"
"Of course we have to. You can't let them get away with something like that! Stealing that cup right from under our noses!"
"It's not the thieves you're going to sue, it's the hotel. The hotel didn't steal anything."
"They were negligent-"
"Oh Daddy, give it a rest. It's gone, and frankly I couldn't care less. I hated the damned thing."
"You did?" said Nobby in surprise.
"Yes of course. I know you liked it-"
"I loathed it. Beastly vulgar bit of frippery."
"It's a valuable masterpiece!" van Hallen bellowed.
"I don't bloody care," said Nobby with energy. "And we're not going to sue the hotel. Don't be stupid."
"Of course we are. It's my cup, and no-one-"
"It's not your cup. The papers were all drawn up and signed in order at the soliciter's. So it's our cup, and we're going to forget about it."
"Forget about it!" Hallen was outraged. "Aren't you even going to claim the frigging insurance!?"
"You had theft insurance on it? I suppose we might as well." He looked at Squeaky, who nodded without interest.
"Damn right I had insurance. Three million dollars worth. I don't let my art go unprotected, young man; and if you're dumb enough to--"
"Three million? Three million?" Squeaky sounded dazed.
"Pounds or dollars?" Nobby asked.
"Dollars, of course!"
Nobby was doing mental calculations. Three million dollars into pounds--
"Is it enough?" Squeaky asked. "To get it back?"
"Enough to get it back, and redo the plumbing, and probably the electricity--"
"What are you two talking about?"
But they didn't hear him, gazing transfixed into each other's eyes.
Dorian took a magnifying glass and examined the faceted eyes of the dragon curled around the apple tree of the Hesperides, its scaly body supporting the bowl of the cup and its curving tail flattening out to become the base.
"Crystal," he murmured to himself. History failed to record in what order di Capono had fashioned his cups, and Dorian was attempting, for his own amusement, to find out. He turned his attention to Discord in the Judgment of Paris. Her eyes were minute but shone with a different light than the dragon's. Topaz, perhaps?
"When are you going to sell them?"
"I'm not, James love, and you know it. No dealer would give more than a fraction of what these are worth." Dorian turned his attention to the tiny fangs that fringed the dragon's grinning mouth.
"Then break them down. The stones might fetch something."
"Don't be silly," Dorian said indulgently. He was at the full flood of contentment. It wasn't often that circumstances arranged themselves so perfectly to ensure his happiness, allowing him to enjoy simultaneously the satisfaction of having gained something he wanted and the anticipation of wanting something he was about to gain. Rare though it was, no felicity could compare to it.
"They're ugly," James maintained, "all squirmy and scaly like that. Little snakes and big snakes. They give me the fantods. And that Paris--" He gave an exaggerated shudder of distaste. "What on earth do you see in it?"
"It's hard to explain." Dorian smiled at the almost nude Paris, with his long sexless limbs and waves of rippling gold hair. What a little rogue he looked, with that wide-eyed devilish smile. It reminded him of a boy he'd known at Magdalen...
James stared at him in an exasperation that seemed close to tears. Poor old Jamesie- jealous of a statue four inches high. It must be hard to have a nature like that.
John-Paul came into the room. "Your lordship--"
"Oh, John-Paul. Good. Any news?"
"Dominique just called in. The Doctor left his apartment today with a box like the one you described and took it to this address. He was there for perhaps twenty minutes, and came out without it."
There was something in John-Paul's voice. Dorian looked at the slip of paper, and his eyebrows rose to his hairline.
"This can't be."
"There's no doubt," his lieutenant said. "It's our old client, still at the same location." James craned to read the note over Dorian's shoulder.
Dorian stared at the address, remembering Takamatsu's words: '-been promised absolute secrecy-- can't afford to have his name linked to Majek's--' Yes indeed; the ex-President of Circassia might well insist that his dealings with the General be kept secret.
"He's a well-known collector," James said. "Worth two million, three hundred and twenty-"
"He's a known amasser," Dorian corrected him. Indignation and alarm were welling in his breast. "That Matisse I took from him- do you know where he'd hung it? Right across from the door to his bathroom, where the steam could get at it. When I brought von Kleowitz in to clean it, he said mould had already started to form. And the Garden of Eden- God alone knows what that barbarian will do to it! He'll use it for his morning orange juice or his afternoon cocktails! Oh my cup- my poor poor Garden of Eden!" He turned to John-Paul, eyes burning. "I have to go rescue it! Immediately! There's no time to lose! Get the plane ready at once." He rose in a whirl of activity, calling instructions to his men; then paused and came back to the table. "These go in the vault until I can bring their brother to them. The keys, James."
James opened his mouth in automatic protest but the blue fire in Dorian's eyes quelled him. Muttering only a little, he handed the keys of the vault over to his employer.
Dorian was calmer by the time his taxi dropped him at the print shop in the Rue Galande. One or two remarks from the level- headed John-Paul on the flight over had brought a little cool reflection to his fevered impatience. It was true, an impromptu late afternoon attack upon the ex-President's house would accomplish nothing save to alert the enemy. Old ways were ever the best ways: though it fretted him, it was safer to wait until late night for the break-in. That meant finding something to do for the next six or seven hours, and the obvious solution was to spend them with Sergei. It was their first anniversary, after all: they'd met two weeks ago today. And in any case he ought to be informed of what Majek was up to.
The store was of course closed tightly, this being Wednesday afternoon. He passed along the familiar outdoor passage that led to the stone stairs at the back of the building, mounted to the first floor and rang the bell of Sergei's apartment. It took a while, but eventually he heard the sound of boots on the tiles and the oak door opened.
"Ah, Lord Gloria," Sergei said without expression. "Come in."
"I'm sorry, love, I should have called first, but something came up and I had to fly over here--"
"It's alright. I'm glad to see you, m'ami." Sergei kissed him, a brief cool touch on his face. He seemed pale in the shadow of the hallway and there were new hollows under his cheekbones. Dorian looked at him closely.
"Are you alright?"
"Perfectly. Yourself? But I can see that something has happened. Tell me about it."
Sergei took his arm and led him down the long passage to the yellow and green drawing room.
"It's the cup- the Garden of Eden. I found out who's bought it. Sergei, you'll never believe this. It's the ex-President."
"Impossible." Sergei's chin came up in surprise.
"He must have offered Majek a fortune for it."
"No," Sergei said slowly, knitting his brows. "I don't think so. He thought he'd be returning to his country in the near future. Why would he bother to buy something that he'd have soon anyway?" That was true, though Dorian had been too upset to remember it. "But more than that, he would never deal with Majek, nor Majek with him. The two of them hate each other beyond telling."
"But they did deal with each other."
"No. Takamatsu did."
"Oh. Of course. He had the cup to sell and he just gave it to the highest bidder. He told us it was a secret to make sure Majek never found out where it had gone. It was a plausible story. I believed it."
"That sounds like the Takamatsu I know, only-- I don't like the feel of all this, somehow. There's something wrong. That cup is one of our national treasures-- it's been in the Imperial Palace in Vbronsk for centuries. Majek wouldn't send something that valuable just on consignment."
"Takamatsu said he wanted to get rid of it."
"Don't believe everything Takamatsu says. The cup has an evil reputation down in the plains, but Majek doesn't care what plainsmen think. He's a practical soldier. No, I think what Takamatsu told us was true as far as it went. Majek was sending it to someone here in Europe, but Takamatsu offered it to the President instead, knowing he would pay more. More profit for himself, and a captive buyer. If the President didn't take it from him, he'd never have another chance to get hold of it."
"He has guts," said Dorian, torn between admiration for Takamatsu's daring and distaste for his methods. Theft was one thing, fraud quite another. "What happens when your brother finds out?"
"What indeed? Takamatsu's stuck his neck out before and always survived, but this is too much. It's treason. He can't hope to get away with it. It must mean he's left Circassia for good. He can't go back now."
"Well, surely that's just as well. It doesn't sound like the best place for either him or for Gunmar." Or you, he added silently.
"Majek has a long arm. When the war is over, there'll be a settling of accounts. Has the man gone insane? He may have put Gunmar in danger."
"You should tell him that. It's the one idea that might carry some weight with him."
"Yes. Well, I was going there this evening anyway. I'll see what I can find out."
"Would you mind if I came? Or is it a private occasion?"
"No, not private. Come by all means, though you may not care for it. I'll be leaving in an hour or so."
There was a small brusqueness in his voice that Dorian determined to ignore. He gave Sergei his most coaxing smile.
"Well, then. That gives us just enough time-- if you're in the mood?"
Sergei's mouth crooked. "I'm never in the mood these days, alas; but if you don't mind doing all the work, I'm sure I can accommodate you."
"Oh dear, Sergei- still?"
"It does happen, though you may not believe it at your age. It will pass."
"Shouldn't you see a doctor, perhaps?"
"No need." His hand moved between Dorian's legs, and Dorian gave an 'oh!' of surprise. He caught hold of Sergei's shoulders as the long fingers played upon him, making his legs tremble so he could scarcely stand. "There are other expedients one can use."
"Sergei--" he managed to get out. "At least let's get into bed first."
"What if I say no, your Lordship? What if I insist on having my way with you here on the living room settee? What will you do about it?"
He pulled him down onto the couch, his right hand moving insistently against Dorian's groin and the other biting painfully into his arm. There was an odd light in his one eye and an edge to his voice that Dorian had never heard before.
"Sergei," he said in distress, putting a hand to the stranger's face and caressing it with his fingertips. "What is it? Why-"
The fire went out of Sergei's eye, and his hand stilled. "Ah no, my dear. After all, this isn't your sort of game, is it?" He took Dorian's own hand and kissed the fingers contritely.
"I can do it if you want to, Sergei. I just need to know that's what I'm doing."
"One is best cultivating one's own garden, Lord Gloria, and yours is tenderness. There are others who excel at making a battlefield of the bedroom. We'll leave it to them. Shall we go upstairs, m'ami?"
Sergei's manner was all gentle apology as he undressed Dorian, lavishing kisses on each inch of him as it emerged from his clothes. Dorian was happy to respond in kind, and his mouth explored his friend's fair skin with a painstaking attention to detail. He revisited several favourite old spots, like the smooth interior of Sergei's ear and the hollow of his collarbone, and found some interesting new ones in the curve of the elbow and the inner edge of the shoulderblade. It took an endless delightful age to get them completely free of their clothes, but at last they were lying amongst the linen and rose-coloured silk with bodies pressed together, lips interlocked and hair mingling around them. Dorian reached a hand up and ran it through the pale corncoloured silk, winding it about his arm.
"'A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,'" he quoted unthinkingly.
"An old poem," he said, suddenly remembering which it was- Donne's lovers buried in the same grave- "For graves have learned that womanhead/ To be to more than one a bed..."
"I wish I had something to quote back at you, but we don't run much to poetry in my country. Though there are some affecting odes addressed to a warrior's horse. 'My wind of battle, my silken delight.'"
"That sounds alright. Shall I be your wind of battle?"
"Not just yet. Let me do one or two things first." He shifted, making to move down in the bed but Dorian held him back.
"Stay up here with me, Sergei. It's lovely, but I'm in the mood for company to-night. I haven't kissed your mouth in such a long time."
"Five days." Sergei, stretched out beside him, made no further attempts to leave.
"Too long. I never get enough."
"Tonight, then, you can do what you please."
Dorian took him at his word. He rolled his friend half over onto his back and laid himself atop the slender muscled body. From that vantage point he moved over and inside Sergei's mouth to his heart's delight, savouring the swollen tenderness of those lips against his and the slow windings of Sergei's tongue that tasted of coffee and cinnamon. His sex rubbed between the other's legs, strong and soft at the same time, and soon slick with sweat. They squeezed at him, hard enough to give him pleasure but not to distract him from the present task-- but as his body moved slowly on top of Sergei's in time to the sliding of their tongues, the pressure gradually increased until it became difficult to concentrate. He pulled away, gasping and laughing a little.
"Sergei, what am I going to do with you? You're impossible."
Sergei smiled back at him and put a hand to Dorian's crotch.
"Give me a little rest? My lips really do get sore."
"Poor dear. Of course. Your turn."
Sergei slipped down to lie by Dorian's thighs and do what he'd wanted to for so long. His tongue licked over the end of Dorian's sex, under the head, up and down the shaft, and around his balls: gently and lovingly, relishing the taste of him but trying for no more than that. That very restraint had the reverse effect on Dorian and his excitement turned into a sharp goad. Sergei's mouth left him, giving him a short breathing spell.
Their eyes met. "Let me?" Sergei asked unexpectedly. "This once- as much as I like?" Dorian heard an echo of sadness in his voice, the muted pain that had been there in Bonn and which always meant Circassia to him. Still there- even now, even here.
"Of course," he smiled at him. "Do whatever you like, my dear."
Sergei caught his hand and kissed the back. "T'es merveilleux," he murmured into it and rubbed his cheek against the edge, an odd child-like gesture that caught at Dorian's heart.
Sergei returned to the region of Dorian's thighs. His lips moved up and down the exquisitely sensitive skin on the inside of his legs, kissing and nibbling, while his thick hair dragged across Dorian's rampant sex and tightening balls. Dorian's took a handful of that silky sea and clung, fighting the urge to let the feather-fine caressing pull him over the edge. Sergei's mouth found him again, winding snake-like over his pulsing glans, and Dorian heard himself making little whimpering noises of pleasure and distress. More- he needed more- as Sergei's mouth and tongue pulled him in deeper, and deeper, into the strong sucking vortex. A slow surge of electricity pulsed out of his bowels- up his spine and along his sex- and jerked him once twice like a man touching a live wire, and he exploded in the dark depths of Sergei's mouth.
A few black and red moments followed and he came back to a view of the corniced ceiling darkening with the fall of night. Sergei's head lay warm across his groin. He reached down and stroked the heavy hair.
"Do we have time for a shower?"
"All the time in the world," Sergei answered in a slow, mazed fashion, as though he too had been carried off elsewhere. They got up and stumbled down the hallway, Dorian at least feeling as if he'd gotten drunk and lost track of the time and place.
The hot water of Sergei's white and gold bathroom helped a little. Sergei soaped him down with a round brown cake that smelled of carnation and rinsed him off, and Dorian, leaning back against his friend's chest, watched white foamy suds run off him and down the drain as the spray dampened his curls. He took the soap and began to do the same for Sergei. After a moment Sergei turned and leaned on folded arms against the far wall of the shower, offering him his back. Dorian's hands moved across the slender shoulders and down the hard muscles edging the spine, feeling the tension there. He worked at it, over and over, and Sergei leaned more heavily against his forearms, beginning to rock back and forth with Dorian's strokes. His shoulders lowered, became softer, and his breathing deepened, relaxing the muscles above the ribs. Dorian's soapy hands moved down to his buttocks. He slipped a few fingers into the hot cleft between them, squeezing the fleshy edge against the heel of his hand, before going to work on each shallow mound with a circling thumb. Sergei gave a small gasp.
"Am I hurting you?" he asked gently and Sergei shook his averted head. Slowly the tightness was replaced by a yielding softness in each curved cheek. Dorian moved down to the tops of the legs. He was getting beyond his arms' reach, and he knelt in the water, soaping his hands again and running them up and down and around each slender leg in turn. The muscles were beautifully outlined, like delicate tracework, and his palms moved over the shallow lines of definition, making whorl patterns in the soap. The shower spray beat on his back and he shifted aside periodically to let it rinse the white patterns away. At length he got to his feet. His hands slid up the front of Sergei's body and met at the crotch. He soaped the tangle of gold pubic hair, the thick organ and the sac behind it, letting his hands linger over and around the heavy softness. Odd not to feel the slightest hardening there, in view of what he was doing, but his lover's body in and of itself was pleasant to the touch. He put one hand between Sergei's legs and the other over his cock and rested his head against Sergei's shoulder, dreamily rubbing his cheek against the wet smoothness of his back.
Sergei stirred, turned around. "Don't move," he said in a low voice. His arms came around Dorian and his face took refuge in the Earl's wet curls. He stood motionless, holding him like that, as if turned to stone on an instant. Dorian could barely feel him breathe. Only the insistent pressure of his arms told him that he was still there.
"Can I hold you?" he asked softly, and Sergei gave an "Mmh" of assent into his hair. He put his arms around the slender torso and held him as hard as he could. There was still no response from Sergei, only that intense stillness. He might have died standing up. A small pulse of worry went through Dorian.
"What is it, love?"
Sergei sighed deeply, exhaling all the air from his body in a breath. He looked up.
"Nothing, m'ami. Let's wash off and get ready." His hand lifted Dorian's sodden curls. "This will take a while to dry."
It was seven-thirty when they left the apartment, and the streets were closed in darkness. As Dorian towelled his hair dry the memory of pleasure past gradually yielded to recollection of present business, and the flame of impatience began to eat at him again. Hours yet, and who knew what was happening to the Garden of Eden in the meantime? 'Would that the night were come,' he thought fretfully, and the Bard admonished him 'Til then, sit still my soul. Foul deeds will rise...'
"Shall we go?" Sergei's voice interrupted his meditation. He was dressed in his old high-collared tunic-coat and black boots, somber as the night outside. He locked up and they walked down the alleyway to the street.
"A taxi? Or the Metro?"
"We'll have to go to the Boul'Mich. This way."
The street was virtually deserted, the inhabitants all at home behind the lit windows overhead or else sampling the delights of Paris out on the main boulevards. Above them the lowering night sky redly reflected the city lights, hinting at showers later on. Sergei's boots and Dorian's shoes sounded very loud on the pavement. Sergei walked swiftly, deep in silence. The slight uneasiness that had troubled Dorian on and off through the evening intensified into a definite sense of something wrong.
"Sergei, what's the matter?"
"You keep asking that, m'ami. Nothing's the matter."
"You keep saying that, and I don't believe you."
"It's an old wound that bothers me from time to time."
"You're in pain? Why didn't you tell me?"
"It's nothing. I should be used to it by now."
They stopped together, senses prickling. A smell, suddenly strong in the airless night above them- naphtha--
Sergei's hand caught him and flung him towards the nearest alleyway as the street behind burst into flames. Weird shadows chased them as they fled to the courtyard at the alley's end. Safety lay upwards, in the direction from which the fire had come. Dorian located the outside staircase of the nearest building and raced up it, with Sergei pounding behind him, past the third and fourth floors, the fifth, the sixth, and on to the roof. Crouched below the level of the coping, he scanned the neighbouring buildings for signs of life before creeping to the edge and looking over. The smell of naphtha was strong but there were no flames to be seen in the street below.
"A narrow focus incendiary," Sergei murmured. "Did you see which side it came from?" Dorian shook his head, hand on his knife. "Damn it, where is he?" Sergei's head moved slowly, trying to pierce the shadowy blocks on the neighbouring roofs. Even under the heavy clouds his pale hair caught the refracted light of the sky. Dorian's own would be at least as obvious.
"Sergei, let's move. We're too exposed here."
"Mm." He pointed. "That way."
They moved silently across the roof and onto the next one which slanted at a much deeper angle. Sergei was easily his equal in stealth and surefootedness, which surprised him more than a little. Even a master of the fighting arts might have trouble coping with a forty degree roof. But of course Sergei had been bred in the mountains. Briefly he wondered if his friend might consider a sideline in illegal activities- the talent was definitely there- but given the way he talked about thieves, perhaps not. And first, Dorian reminded himself, they had to escape from their fire-throwing pursuer.
After five minutes they stopped to listen. Sounds of voices and carhorns came up from the street but the world around them was silent. Their glances met. Dorian shook his head grimly and Sergei's mouth tightened. "He's still there but he won't come close enough for hand-to-hand combat. We'll have to keep moving."
Dorian pulled his knife, shielding the movement with his body.
"How good are you?"
"Very very good." Sergei looked at him in surprise. "Even Klaus says so."
A smile flashed across his face. "Then let me go draw his fire."
"Literally," Dorian grimaced. "Be careful."
Sergei rose up and walked to the edge of the building.
"Maaqa!" he yelled suddenly to the night, and followed it with a cascade of Circassian. The words were incomprehensible but the tone was enough to strip skin from bone. Dorian saw the imperceptible movement, black on black, on the next house off to Sergei's left.
"On your left!" he cried even as he moved, and threw the knife running at the same moment, seemingly, as a paw of flame batted the spot where Sergei-
Dorian dove to avoid the fire, hearing the cry, rolled away and came up, blood turned to ice-
--had been, for now he was on the opposite roof, staring down into the street.
Dorian joined him, nerving himself to look in the same direction.
"Dead?" he asked palely.
"No. He caught a balcony on the way down and landed almost on his feet. But he's not moving fast. Were you trying to kill him?"
"No," Dorian confessed. "I'm sorry. It's not something I can do."
Sergei turned away, wincing.
"Are you hurt?"
"No. Just the old trouble. Let's be off. Wounded or not, it might be an idea to put a little distance between ourselves and M. de Roussaye."
"How did you know it was him?" Dorian asked as they started out again.
"Logic. He's been the contact so far, and pyrotechnics are his specialty. I'm surprised Halim can spare him from the siege."
"So Halim did send him after you."
"No," Sergei said heavily. "He sent him for the President. I'm just the reward he's giving himself for that job. It seems Takamatsu was right after all."
"Does that mean-- the President's dead?"
"So it would appear." Sergei kept his face averted.
"Sergei- don't feel guilty about that. He would have killed your brother. What else could you do but what you did?"
"I know. The President was a dead man from the time he came in with Halim. It's just- sometimes it seems that damage follows me wherever I go, whether I will it or not."
"It's nothing to do with you. It's what Klaus said- when you deal with violent men, violence happens."
Sergei looked at him, eyebrows drawn. "You're being very philosophical about this. You might have died horribly just because you were with me tonight."
"I might have been killed any number of times, working with Klaus. I might have died any number of times in the course of my career. I might have fallen from a roof or been shot by a guard or got trapped without air inside a vault. It didn't happen. And if it had, it would have been worth it. It's better than sitting at home doing nothing."
"Sitting at home doing nothing- cultivating one's garden- is a dream for some people. Any one of my countrymen would thank God for that luxury instead of wondering whether they and their families will be alive tomorrow morning."
"Give the General a little time and they'll have that luxury back. That's what Klaus says. And they wouldn't if the President or Halim were running the country."
"How consoling you are, m'ami. One of your unsuspected talents. Like that knife. I didn't realize art thieves trained so hard. Or is that part of being an agent?"
"No- the agenting is just a lark I do from time to time because Klaus asks me. But stealing isn't a sedentary occupation, you know. Not the way I do it. I'm in it for the adventure and the romance, and so I have to be in good enough shape to handle adventure and romance when they happen."
"A thief with philosophy and scruples. So there is something new under the sun after all. I think we might chance returning to earth and taking a taxi the rest of the way. What do you think?"
They arrived at the apartment in the 16th and went up to the fifth floor in the small gilt cage of the lift. Takamatsu's eyebrows rose when he opened the door and saw Dorian, but he said nothing untoward.
"Come in, come in. The place is still at sixes and sevens, but I've made it semi-habitable. This way. The dining room is doing double duty as a salon. Samh' Gunmar is using the original living room as a study."
He led them into a large untidy room with pale maroon walls and dark brown wainscotting. Faded engravings of a vaguely botanical nature stood in a row, their glass reflecting the light from the chandelier. One end of the room held a sofa covered in ox-blood leather, not new, and two or three tapestry armchairs jumbled together. The other half was taken up by a large carved sideboard of polished oak and a rectangular dining table pushed closer to it than was originally intended. A number of boxes stood here and there about the room, lidless and disgorging their contents. The dining room chairs all had stacks of paper or books on their worn leather seats, and there was scarcely a clear spot to be seen on the table. Takamatsu removed files from the tapestry chairs.
"Do sit down. It's the landlord's furniture, so I won't apologize for the quality, and we've only just arrived, so I won't apologize for having nothing to offer you but vodka."
"Vodka will do," Sergei said, throwing himself on the sofa. "Where's Gunmar?"
"In his study. Do you have to disturb him?"
"Not at all." Sergei's gaze went off indifferently to a corner of the room.
"Lord Gloria? Vodka? There's lemon if you like it."
"That will do nicely, thank you."
Takamatsu brought them a fat tumbler each and sat on a tapestry chair with one of his own.
"Prosit." He raised his glass. Sergei had already begun drinking. There was a moment's silence, as of two sides readying their forces. Takamatsu was smiling a little as his eyes flicked between Sergei and Dorian.
"So," he said in Russian, "you brought your lapdog with you."
"And a good thing too. Halim's Maaqa is in Paris, carrying- as you guessed- a sizable grudge. He nearly incinerated us, but Lord Gloria dealt with him."
"Really?" Takamatsu said in surprise. "Well, well. Functional as well as decorative, is it? It must be brighter than it looks."
"Yes indeed," said Dorian. "For one thing, I speak Russian."
Takamatsu's eyebrows jumped, but he smiled broadly.
"Naughty, naughty," he said, waving a finger at Sergei. "You might have told me. Well," he continued, to Dorian, "appearances are deceptive. You must be good to have killed young Maaqa. What did you use?"
"A knife. But he's not dead."
"You should have finished him off," he said in disapproval. "He'll be back now. Sergei, you'll have to be more careful."
"No need. I wasn't his main target. He came for the President."
"What?!" Takamatsu sat up. "Why?" Sergei looked into his glass and didn't answer. "Is this something to do with your trip to Circassia? Oh yes, it is, isn't it? What? Was our charming Halim plotting with the President?" Sergei grimaced and Takamatsu's expression darkened. "Well, well. You know what I think of Halim, but even I wouldn't have thought he'd stoop that low."
Sergei's mouth crooked, but he still said nothing. It was Dorian who took the offensive. "You're hardly the one to talk, Takamatsu. Who was that buyer the General wanted to oblige so much with the Garden of Eden? Not the President, surely?"
Takamatsu looked at him in surprise but recovered quickly.
"Lord Gloria, it seems I seriously underestimated you. My apologies."
"Why, Takamatsu?" Sergei asked, looking up. "What did you do it for?"
Takamatsu shrugged. "Samh' Gunmar's university fees were beyond what Majek had allowed us. I needed to find the money somewhere, and the opportunity just fell into my lap."
"But- the President. Have you no shame?"
"No. I can't afford it. You know that. I'll do anything for Samh' Gunmar's welfare. You know that too."
"You don't realize you've put him in danger with this stunt?"
"Hardly, or I wouldn't have done it."
"Takamatsu, you never think. What were you supposed to have done with the cup?"
"Delivered it to a Belgian manufacturer. But I thought the President might be willing to pay more if I offered it to him, and I was right."
"And the Belgian complains to Majek and Majek feeds your balls to his dogs. And that's only the beginning. How do you think you'll get away with this?"
"By telling the truth. I say I found a buyer willing to pay more and I hand over the former price plus a little extra. Majek's in the middle of the crucial siege of this campaign. All he cares about is getting the cash to pay his men. Trust me, he doesn't have the time to read the European art news. So I'm safe, unless either of you tells him." He smiled genially. "Especially now the President is gone. You know, I never thought to be in young Maaqa's debt, but one takes one's benefactors where one finds them. The man was vermin. Let's drink to his death."
He reached for the bottle.
"If money was what you wanted you could have had mine," Dorian pointed out. "I'd have given you twice what the President paid, and no little secrets to hide from Majek."
"Yes, Lord Gloria, but that wouldn't have given me the satisfaction of handing a valuable item over to Majek's bosom enemy. I take my own little commissions on these sales when I can."
"Still?" Sergei asked.
"Still," Takamatsu said. "What do you expect?"
Sergei shrugged, and Dorian heaved an interior sigh. Much as he approved of romance there were times when high emotion could be a nuisance to a simple thief like himself. These Circassians with their plottings and assassinations and carefully calculated revenges belonged in an opera by Verdi, not running around Paris ruining what had promised to be one of Eroica's most wonderful coups. Of course it was a relief that the Garden of Eden was no longer in danger from the President, but now he'd have to take it from the house of a dead man and the idea offended his sensibilities. It was necessary, of course: the precious object had to be rescued, and soon. But the satisfaction had vanished from the mission. He would almost rather have paid cash for the cup, even to Takamatsu. My poor love, he thought pityingly, what horrible people you've had pawing you over. Hang on, dear; I'm coming for you soon.
Takamatsu was filling his glass.
"Congratulations, Lord Gloria. Clearly this is your chance. French death duties are ruinous. I'm sure the heir will be delighted to part with a few pieces to defray some of the costs. You might want to make preliminary enquiries before it comes up at auction."
"Who is the heir?"
"One of the daughters, I assume. His son managed to get himself killed in a car wreck a few years ago in Monaco. It will be in the papers tomorrow, probably, when the death is announced. Or I could make enquiries for you. I still have the secretary's number."
"Thank you. I'd appreciate that," Dorian said mendaciously. In fact, he was going to acquire the cup much more directly, much more cheaply, and much sooner than Takamatsu thought: and the knowledge gave him an immense satisfaction. He glanced at his watch. Another three hours at least. Too long.
"Do you have to be going?" Takamatsu asked.
Only too clearly he wanted him gone, and Dorian had no desire to stay. But he was damned if he'd leave Sergei alone with this man. Time for social ineptness.
"Oh no, I just thought it was later than it is. It's been quite an evening."
"No doubt. Would you care for something to relax you? I can provide something more effective than that vodka."
"Illegal pharmaceuticals, Doctor?" Dorian looked dubious.
"Illegal drugs. Our Circassian kif is famous."
He caught Sergei's eye. So this was what he'd come for. Well, the night was young and he didn't think he could take three more hours of Takamatsu's company sober. It wouldn't hurt to get high for some of them.
"Umm- well, I've never tried it-" he lied. "Does it have any side effects?"
"Hardly. A temporary euphoria, maybe a little sleep, with pleasant dreams-"
"I have to be home by midnight-"
"The effects won't last nearly that long."
"Oh, well then, alright. Show me what to do."
"I'd suggest you take the sofa if you're not used to smoking. You'll probably want to lie down when the effects begin." Dorian, shrugging, changed places with Sergei. Takamatsu brought an inlaid box from the sideboard and removed two thin cigarettes. Dorian took one, sniffed it experimentally and put it in his mouth, looking for his matches; but it was Sergei who leaned over and lit it for him before putting the flame to his own. Something moved in the back of Dorian's mind but the impression was gone almost before he was aware of it.
"Now breathe in deeply and hold the smoke in your lungs as long as you can," Takamatsu instructed him. Dorian did so with practised ease; let it go and inhaled again- and again-
The streets of London were flooded. Dorian's gondola drifted down Bond St. in company with many others, all painted pink and green and yellow and bobbing happily on the blue water. He lay back on the leather cushions, sleepy in the sun, and watched with appreciation the muscular buttocks of the straining gondoliers in the neighbouring boats. Beside him Gunmar was singing in his pure castrato's soprano:
In the Garden of Eden, planted by God,
"They all have snakes." Dorian drowsily mentioned James' objection.
"But they still work," Gunmar said. "Right now I'm trying to refine the speed factor. It's a machine that does what a real snake does but differently. When you eat the apple you know and the poison begins."
"That's why knowledge is dangerous," Dorian told him kindly. "You're better off not knowing. Look at your uncle."
They pulled in at the water steps that led to the palazzo. Dorian walked along the colonnade to where Sergei was sitting writing at a small escritoire. He looked only sixteen, but he was older. His blonde hair was tied back in a long ponytail, and he wore a highnecked cassock because he was chaplain to the Duke. Sergei smiled up at him gravely- he had two eyes, Dorian noted, the pale blue of the earliest morning sky-; rose, and preceded him down the corridor. This was an interview of some kind. Dorian prepared himself.
He walked into the room. Sergei was naked, lying on the bed in the arms of a black-haired man. A knife went through Dorian's heart.
Klaus looked at him with a small contemptuous smile.
"Lord Gloria. Sit down and be quiet."
Dorian collapsed onto the cracked leather sofa. Tears welled out of his eyes as he watched. Sergei's hands were bound and Klaus was doing terrible things to him.
"Klaus, this is too brutal," he pleaded.
"Your friend is a sentimental idiot. He has to learn. Watch."
He held Sergei from behind and spoke in his ear, abusing him, reviling him with Russian words he had learned from Mischa.
"Pervert- whore- assassin- degenerate- traitor-"
Sergei wept, shaking his head in piteous denial, his bound hands trying to pluck Klaus' iron arms from his body. Klaus pulled him up to his knees and entered him from behind, brutally, without tenderness. Dorian wanted to hide his eyes but he was compelled to know. Sergei arched in agony, blond hair falling away from the bleeding hole of his right eye. His cock was blood red as well, and iron hard, and Klaus' hand pumped it fiercely in time to his thrusts from behind. Dorian felt a huge relief wash through him. This was an exorcism. Thank God. Thank God. He'd thought it was real. White liquid spurted from Sergei's body and Dorian smiled. It would all be alright now.
They got back into the gondola. There were two Sergeis now- the old one in his funereal black with the black patch over his right eye, and his twin, his mirror image, dressed for the carnival in blue velvet robes and a blue velvet turban. He wore silver filagree earrings in each ear, the same colour as the platinum hair that spilled across his shoulders, and a blue velvet eyepatch covered his left eye.
Dorian smiled at them both. "Now, isn't this better than having Halim here?" Gunmar had turned himself into a Lhasa Apso with silky blond hair tied in a pink bow, and sat panting openmouthed on Dorian's lap.
Dorian opened his eyes, momentarily disoriented. A chandelier, unlit. Maroon walls shadowed from below by one or two table lamps- a row of pictures, too dark too see- Takamatsu's apartment. He turned his head and found himself looking through the dining room door, across the corridor into the bedroom beyond. He could see a dark carved headboard and white sheets and Sergei's blond hair tumbled over them. He sat up slowly.
"Awake?" said Takamatsu's voice off to his left. He was sitting at the oak table with a pad of foolscap before him and books open around him. His horn-rimmed glasses made him look momentarily like a stranger but he took them off almost at once. "No ill effects, I trust?"
Dorian went to the table, moved a pile of papers from a chair and sat down across from Takamatsu.
"How much of that was real?" His throat was very dry and his voice came out husky.
"I don't know. What did you see?"
"You and Sergei- you might call it making love."
"You might. We do."
"Why any of this?"
Takamatsu shrugged. "Because it's necessary. No-" he raised a hand to stop Dorian's protests- "I don't think it's necessary. He does. And I do what he wants me to. I always have."
"That's not true. He couldn't want-" he indicated the bedroom- "that."
"But he does."
"Maybe he say he does, to make you happy. He likes to please the people he sleeps with. But he's not really like that."
"I say he is, Lord Gloria, and I've known him for over twenty years. How long has your acquaintance been?"
"I don't care how long you've known him. You're seeing what you want to see and you're wrong."
"Could you be in love with him after all? He said you already have someone."
"I do. But I'm his friend and I won't let him be hurt."
"You're too late for that. Twenty years- maybe, forty years too late. The only man who could have saved him from being hurt is dead, and I'm not sure even he could have done it. And now it's not possible. Jahn has become just another source of pain for him- something else to bind him to Circassia and the past."
"That was his name? Jahn?"
"What was he like?"
"Normal. Stunningly everyday normal. Well, maybe a little more mature than the rest of us. He came from somewhere in the south and they grow up faster there. But otherwise, like anyone else you might meet on the street. He must have seemed like an exotic beast to Sergei after his brothers."
"His family can't be that strange."
"You haven't met them. They are. The General- well, you'd have to see for yourself. He's more than human- like one of those sorcerers in our fairy tales. Koschei the Deathless. He almost makes me believe in demons, and I'm a man of science."
"You're romancing," Dorian said, fighting the brightly- coloured images that Takamatsu's words were conjuring in his still too-suggestible brain.
"Hardly. It's a fact. There are people like that from time to time, who break all the rules of what a human being is and what it can do. Like Alexander and Napoleon- and Ivan the Terrible and Hitler. They fascinate historians but it's different, being related to them."
"Whatever his brothers are like, he's left them behind," Dorian said stubbornly. "He has a life of his own here, now, in Paris. This trip may have started bad memories but they'd die down if he could just be allowed to forget, without having you there to keep them alive. I'm asking you to leave him alone after this. Will you?"
"How like an aristocrat," Takamatsu remarked approvingly. "You say the most impudent things without turning a hair. What admirable arrogance you have, Lord Gloria."
"I suspect you could give me lessons, Doctor."
"Thank you. I appreciate the compliment. But you're also touchingly ignorant, young man, with your talk of leaving one's past behind. Halim is his twin. You can't just drop an attachment like that as if it were a handkerchief. You might as well talk of leaving yourself behind."
"I don't believe it."
"Do you have any brothers?"
"Then you don't know what it's like: and you don't know what Halim's like. He's next door to being a monster, but he has an energy about him that draws people like a magnet, as you should realize after what happened tonight. Try to imagine the kind of man who could gain the loyalty of a snake like Maaqa."
"I'd guess at another snake."
"But a fascinating snake. Like a python. He's had all his life to coil himself around Sergei's soul, and believe me he has, in ways I hope you never find out. He's like all that family, enchanting and repellant at the same time. It's a curse. You can love Halim or you can loathe him, or, like Sergei, you can do both together. But you can't leave him alone. You'd understand if you knew him."
"I do know someone like that," Dorian said reluctantly. "It's like being drugged."
"More like being ensorcelled."
Dorian frowned. His head was finally beginning to clear from the effects of the kif. This fairy tale Takamatsu was spinning was all very well, with its sorcerers and its curses and its demon brothers, but Sergei wasn't like that- nor Gunmar- and Takamatsu was no drugged slave either--
"So how do you resist them, Doctor?"
"Who says I do? I've always done everything Sergei wanted me to, usually against my better judgment."
Still maintaining the fiction that Sergei controlled him. Better try to bring him back to reality. "What about Gunmar?" Dorian asked pointedly. "Does he have this family curse too?"
Takamatsu snorted. "Samh' Gunmar is mine. I raised him from an infant. Do you see anything demonic in him?"
Dorian shook his head. "Absolute innocence, if anything."
A gleam of pleasure lighted Takamatsu's face, though Dorian hadn't meant it as a compliment. "Samh' Gunmar is a triumph of scientific training. I was determined he wouldn't turn into his father, and I succeeded."
Dorian saw his opportunity. "Sergei said his brother was gentle- a scientist and a scholar. Gunmar sounds exactly like him." Bar the sexual irresponsibility, perhaps.
Takamatsu looked at him oddly. "Sergei is an idealist. He sees things the way he'd like them to be. He never knew his brother."
"Not at all. They believe in Circassia that when twins are born, one of them has a stranger's soul. They used to believe that it was necessary to kill the stranger but now we live in civilized times."
"How could they tell which one was the stranger?"
"Oh, easily enough. It was the weaker of the two. Pragmatists, the Circassians. Peasants usually are."
"And Sergei is the weaker?"
"Be careful of your language. He's the smaller. Halim would make two of him. But my point, Lord Gloria, is that he has a stranger's soul. He's not really one of the family. And Samh' Ruza was."
"A demonic sorcerer?" Dorian said sarcastically.
Takamatsu looked irked, finally. "In his way. He was a scientist, and a brilliant one, and he could charm the birds from the trees when he wanted to. I'd have given him my soul happily if he'd asked it. But he had a tormented nature. Like an April day, all sun and storm together: going from smiling contentment to terrifying anger in the blink of an eye. When things went wrong he raged like an autumn tempest or fell into despairs blacker than a black winter's night. Sometimes I feared for his life, or his sanity. He'd say things that no man and no Russian could forgive, and the next minute be so lovable that I couldn't remember what it was he'd said. He didn't do it on purpose, of course. He just didn't care. I didn't count, you see. No-one was quite real to him except his brothers and nothing was important but his work. He wasn't kind. He certainly wasn't gentle. You see my arm-" Takamatsu pulled up his sleeve so Dorian could see the odd bend in the forearm. "That was his doing. My remembrance of him."
"You didn't love him, then?"
"Oh, but I did. I do. When he died he took the sun with him, and my life has been autumn ever since. He was the only person for me, ever. I wouldn't stop loving him just because he wasn't nice to me." He smiled at Dorian. "Do you find that strange?"
"No," said Dorian. "Not at all."
The smile left Takamatsu's face. "No, you don't. You always surprise me, Lord Gloria. Amazing what lurks under that brainless exterior."
"You're the expert on brainlessness," Dorian said deliberately, "after twenty years of making Gunmar your witless mechanical doll."
A slow broad smile spread across Takamatsu's face. "You dare?" he said gently and rose to his feet.
"I dare. We've been talking of sorcerers and demons, Doctor, but the only person I see pulling strings and using people is you. You should be stopped. It's too late for Gunmar, poor child; he'd be lost without you. But I won't let you have Sergei without a fight."
"Have Sergei? You think I can have Sergei? You think I even want him?" Takamatsu sat down again. "Very well. Go ahead, noble lord. Ride in on your white horse and rescue the princess from the sorcerer. Try. And don't blame me when you fail. No-one can free Sergei from the past but Sergei himself, and I'll tell you a secret. He doesn't want to. He doesn't want to be freed from Halim and Majek and the whole ungodly mess back there. He wants to try and fail. He wants to know he still belongs to his brothers and his clan. He thinks he deserves no better than them- and me." He leaned back in his chair and gestured towards the bedroom.
"There he is. Go take him."
Dorian closed the door gently but firmly. Sergei didn't stir as he sat down on the bed beside him and took his hand, noting the red chafing at the wrists. His thumb moved over the palm and the soft mound above the wrist, stroking gently. Sergei opened his eye and looked at him without expression, like a stranger.
"Sergei, love, let's go home. It's over now."
"Over?" His voice was barely more than a whisper.
"Over. Circassia and the past- Majek and Halim and Takamatsu- they're behind you now. You're here, in Paris, and none of them can touch you any more. You have your life and your work and your friends and your lovers. The past was a nightmare and it's over. Now it's daytime."
"Daytime," said Sergei. "Where you are, the sun is always shining." He stroked Dorian's cheek with his other hand.
"Yes," said Dorian, "and I'm with you now."
Sergei shook his head. "I told you once, Lord Gloria, that we belong to different worlds. It's still night where I am and has been for more years than I can remember. But you've let me know that the sun still shines somewhere, even if not for me. For that you have my thanks."
"Sergei, this is silly. You're no different than you were two weeks ago and you were happy enough then."
"I was asleep then. Paris is a dream- a dream of beauty and order and pleasure; civilization, art, literature, ideas..." He looked wistfully about the room. "But I've woken up now, and I remember the reality."
"It's not a dream," Dorian said with energy. "It's the truest reality there is. The other- the cruelty and barbarism- that's the nightmare the human race has been trying to wake from for milennia. You don't belong to it; you belong here."
"I do belong to it. You don't know, Dorian, what sort of man I am."
"You're loyal and kind and brave, and gentle and generous. I've slept with you often enough to know by now."
Sergei shook with a tremble of laughter. "Oh my love," he said, and rose up to kiss him. "Thank you. Thank you. But you're no judge of character, m'ami. You simply see yourself in others."
"That's not true."
"It is true. You wouldn't have fallen in love with the Major otherwise."
"You haven't known the Major long enough to know what he's like," he said, with the certainty of one who did. "And you don't know what you're like if you can lump yourself together with Majek and Halim. They're killers-"
"So am I."
"You fought when you were young, of course. You didn't know any better. Now you do. It's different-"
"I'd have liked to believe it. In my little dream world I did believe it. But I had the reality of what I am pushed in my face last week, and now that I know I can't not know. You wouldn't understand, Dorian. You're an innocent-- no, wait." He stopped Dorian's protest with a finger on his mouth. "Of course you don't believe it. You wouldn't be innocent if you did. You're like Adam before the fall, who didn't know that he was naked. You have no knowledge of good and evil. Like a child. You break the law time and time again, and you still manage not to become a criminal. But I'm not like you. I have eaten the apple, and I can't stay in this little Eden of mine any longer."
"I'm not Adam, Sergei, for pity's sake," Dorian said in exasperation, "and neither are you."
"No. I'm Cain. Like my brothers. Worse than my brothers. I'll tell you, so you'll understand." He sat up straighter as if nerving himself to an ordeal. "It was back when I was eighteen- in my first battle. Our side was wiped out, all but my friend and me. We were hiding in a ravine and a troop of the enemy found us. He told me to run and he ran out to draw their fire- and they turned their guns on him- I- all I could see were those guns aimed at him and I tried to save him--" He took a deep breath. "I killed the enemy. All of them. But- I killed him as well. He was caught in my line of fire. He died because of me- because of my failure." He stared down at his laced fingers and white knuckles. Dorian put both arms around him and held him tightly.
"Sergei, my poor love. It was an accident-"
"Accident- such a meaningless word. I only wanted to save him. But I wasn't good enough. I thought I was, and I wasn't. If I hadn't been so arrogant- thinking I didn't need to train- no matter. I killed him, and all the rest is the price I pay."
"You can't blame yourself for that, Sergei. Not everything is your fault."
"He blames me. I've always known. And now his spirit has taken on flesh and come back to haunt me."
"What do you mean?"
Sergei looked around him. "Where's my coat?"
Dorian got it from a neighbouring chair. Sergei reached in the inside pocket and took out the photograph encased in plastic.
"Look," he said. "My family are all blond. We marry only blond women- it's a stupid vanity of ours, to show we have no Turkish blood in us. There's never been a dark-haired child before. But now there's Szincza- my brother's son-- "
Dorian looked where the long finger pointed. Black hair, black eyes-
"He's his image. I don't know how--" Sergei gazed at the picture, face shadowed. "I can't explain it. There is no explanation. My brother's wife and-- They never met. They couldn't have met. But there he is. Jahn's- son? I don't believe it. They're too much alike. Like twins. Identical twins." His mouth lengthened in pain. "They're exactly alike. Body and soul. When I left last time, it was him I was running from. He was growing into a man- looking like him, sounding like- I couldn't bear it."
"Is that what happened last week? You saw him again?"
"No, thank God. But I saw Halim. And he told me he knew, had always known-- how I felt. About Jahn. He knew I wanted him." Sergei looked away, shoulders hunching. "He's my twin, of course he would know. And he guessed that I- I feel the same way- about Szincza. He- reproached me. Naturally. I'd taken something from him, he needed to revenge himself- but oh God, Dorian--" Sergei put a hand over his mouth in distress. "He called me a monster. He's right. My own nephew- to think of him like that. And- Dorian, don't look at me. I can say this is you don't look at me."
"I'm not looking at you, Sergei."
"I'm looking at that little blue vase over there. What is it, Sergei?"
"I've made Szincza- like myself. When he was a boy we were very close. I drew him to me; I did it on purpose. To be even with Majek. He took my brother from me; I would have his son. Majek asked me to train him, when he was seventeen- he had no choice, Szincza was beyond his control. For six months, alone, up in the mountains. And he was so much like--"
He paused, and Dorian waited. "I made him fall in love with me. As if I was seventeen too, again, back in the high school. But I wouldn't touch him. I told myself- that made it alright, if I didn't-- And when it got too strong for me, I ran. Now he's- Halim says he's famous for-- what he does-- with the other young men." Sergei wrapped his arms about himself, head bent. "No-one will say anything. He's the General's son, Majek won't hear a word against him. But Halim says-- and it's all my doing. All."
"Sergei, you haven't done anything. If he's like us, then he's like us. You couldn't have changed his basic nature. It's not possible."
"I knew you'd say that. You Europeans- so rational- you don't understand. If I'd not been there, pulling him to me, he'd have grown up normal like any other young man. He wouldn't have known any different. I was the one who perverted him. Halim's right- I should have died when Jahn did."
"Sergei, listen to yourself a minute. You're talking nonsense. Whose example were you following when you fell in love with Jahn? No-one's. And you still turned out the way you are. Halim's just trying to poison you. He's angry- and jealous-"
Sergei had gone very white. He sat up stiffly. "Jealous? What are you saying?"
"Well, twins- you know- they can get a little strange about each other-"
"Strange?" Tension rose from Sergei's skin.
"Possessive. You know what I mean. Wasn't he jealous of Jahn, back-"
"NO!" Sergei's tone was violent and his blue eye blazed. "How dare you? How dare you suggest Halim's like that? I've told you what a monster I am; you can judge me as you please; but don't ever call my brother a pervert!"
Dorian was dumbfounded. "Sergei, I'm not saying-"
"You're saying Halim is the same as I am. A degenerate- unnatural and- and- incestuous--" Sergei's voice shook. "You don't even know him, and you dare-- Get out, Lord Gloria. Get out of my sight now. Don't make it necessary for me to break your neck."
Dorian got up. In his time with Klaus he'd met enough killers to know the real thing when it was before him. Sergei meant it- for the moment, at any rate. He turned and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.
"Lord Gloria!" Gunmar's happy tones greeted him as he walked into the salon. Dorian managed a smile for him. Whatever his feelings right now-- and underneath the surface shock they were all very complicated and none of them pleasant-- he couldn't be unkind to the boy. It would be like kicking the dog.
"Hullo, Lord Gunmar. I didn't see you earlier on. Well, Doctor-" He met Takamatsu's eyes-- no, not gloating and satisfied: with an edge of worry to them, in fact-- For Sergei? No, of course not. "Pas devant les enfants, I think," Dorian said. It was possible that Gunmar knew nothing about the darker aspects of his family, and best to keep it that way if so.
"What?" Gunmar asked.
"Nothing, Samhet. Say good-bye to Lord Gloria. He has to be going."
"Oh dear. I did want to talk to him. Come again soon, Lord Gloria. And next time tell me when you come. It doesn't matter how busy I am."
"I will. Good-bye, Doctor."
"Let me show you out." So he wasn't to escape that easily after all.
Takamatsu walked him to the front hallway. They stood together in momentary silence, the overhead light casting long shadows on Takamatsu's face and emphasizing the downward slant of his eyes.
"I tried to warn you. Do you believe me now?"
"No. But Sergei does, it seems. Is this revenge, Doctor?"
"Is what revenge?"
"What you've done to Gunmar. What you're doing to Sergei."
Takamatsu stared at him. "I don't know what you're talking about. Revenge for what?"
"It's pretty obvious. Ruza never loved you the way you loved him. What better revenge than to make his son totally dependent on you? And tell yourself that it's for his own good?"
"You're being absurd."
"As for Sergei- you've a grudge against Majek already and you detest Halim, as you've made quite clear. I wonder if you aren't a little jealous, even. Those two mean far more to Sergei than you ever will-" Takamatsu stiffened, and Dorian pressed his advantage. "Always the outsider, aren't you? Now you've a chance to get some of your own back. You like your revenges small and underhanded, Doctor. When you're with Sergei, do you imagine what his brothers would say if they knew what you were doing and gloat because they never will?" Takamatsu's face was dark with anger. "I don't believe this is devotion. What you're doing looks like deliberate malice, to me."
"You don't know anything about it," Takamatsu said, his voice harsh and tight.
"So people keep telling me. I know what I see."
"You English. So arrogant." Takamatsu's eyes glowed. "For your information, young man, I had my revenge on the family years ago. It was underhanded, if you like, but not small, and it was very, very satisfying. I still enjoy it to this day."
"What was it?"
"The best kind: one that no-one will ever know about. Including- most definitely- you. But I'll tell you one thing. It settled me for life. The three of them can do what they like now. I don't need any further repayment. I just enjoy thumbing my nose at the General from time to time."
Dorian's hands clenched. "That's what you call abusing Sergei? Just thumbing your nose?"
"I do what I do with Sergei because Sergei himself wants it. It's your egotism that won't let you see the facts."
"My egotism doesn't come into it. The facts are that you're in a position to help Sergei get free of his demons-- maybe the only person who can now-- and you pull him farther into the dark. You could help him, and you don't."
"I do what I can. With me he's a man, at least." Takamatsu flinched a little at the look that came into Dorian's face, but didn't draw back.
"Good-bye, Doctor." Dorian turned and left.
Down in the street he shook in rage and indignation and, increasingly, misery. What a horrible man. What a horrible family. Poor, poor Sergei. Tears streamed down his face and he wiped them away with the palms of both hands. How on earth was he ever going to get him free from that flock of vultures? He fumbled for a cigarette and lit it with trembling fingers, blinking at the bright flame- and stared at it as ice closed over his heart. Incendiary weapons- Maaqa's specialty- if the President had been killed at home-
He hailed a taxi and fell into the back seat.
"St.Cloud," he said in a voice that barely obeyed him.
"Too far," the driver said laconically.
"An emergency. A matter of life and death." Dorian pushed a handful of hundred franc notes at him. "I'll double this if you're there in twenty minutes."
More than the money, the carte blanche to drive like a demon seemed to decide the man, for the taxi sprang forward suddenly, catapulting Dorian against the back cushions. The car screamed through the late night streets, while Dorian prayed "Faster, faster" and clenched his hands on his thighs. Desperately he thrust from his mind the vision of the President's suburban house standing in charred ruins, dripping with water and wreathed in acrid smoke. No- no- it must have been his office- or his club-- But he knew the man had been killed at home. Where else was as safe, as secluded, as removed from witnesses as that bijoux mansion behind its high privet hedges and stone walls--
Dorian put his head in his hands and moaned aloud.
"Monsieur est malade?" the driver enquired over his shoulder.
"Non- non- pas de tout- mais ma pauvre- ma pauvre-- Si belle- et je l'ai peût-etre perdue! Je l'ai perdue!" Sobs choked his voice.
"Ah, monsieur est amoureux. Enfin- plus de vitesse! Restez tranquille, monsieur. On arrive tout de suite." The driver floored the accelerator and the speedometer's needle passed 120.
Dorian took a deep breath, consoled in spite of himself by being in a place where people understood properly. It made the next fifteen minutes nearly bearable.
They roared into St.Cloud, and Dorian gave quick directions to the quiet backstreet where the President's house stood. And it was quiet. There were no fire engines, no police cars, no-- Dorian put his head out the window- no smell of smoke. Relief made him so weak he nearly collapsed. He instructed the man to pull up three houses away from the one he wanted and gratefully thrust the price of a Balenciaga shirt into his hand.
Professional instincts returning after his scare, Dorian walked into the dark yard of the neighbouring house to recover his equilibrium and wait for the taxi to go. All was silent along the street and the street lamps spaced widely apart. A light rain had begun, pat-patting on the twiggy trees: a blessing for the slight discouragement it might give to midnight strollers. The break in the hedge that would let him into the garden was at the front. He'd have to climb the wall on the street side, and his white jumper was hideously light-catching. Well, there was no help for it at this juncture. Skill must make up for lack of precautions.
There were no indications of a sensor alarm system on the outside wall, any more than there had been on the previous occasion. Whether the President had decided to ignore Klaus' warning or simply hadn't been able to get one of the perverse French security companies in on five days' notice, Dorian would never know: but there was a similar absence of gadgetry around the doors as well. Dorian circled the house, checking. Yellow light came from a window at the side. The servants, Dorian remembered, lived elsewhere. With luck this was only a lamp they had left burning when they went home, but he mustn't discount the possibility that some of the family- the daughters or their husbands- were still present inside, attending to the tedious housekeeping that follows a death. He peered in to a kitchen floored in polished red flagstones, with shiny copper pans hanging on the rough plaster walls. An open door gave him a glimpse, in the unlit room beyond, of a dining room table covered by a linen cloth, its attendant chairs all neatly pushed in. There was a feeling of emptiness to the place that was very reassuring.
Dorian moved round to the rear of the house and found the French doors that led on to the terrace. Tall trees screened him from the neighbours' view. How lucky that the French treasured their privacy. The small pick-and-knife set he carried for impromptu jobs like this one had the door unlocked in a moment, and he slipped inside, pulling it to behind him. No torch, alas. Well, let his trained eyes do their work. There were glass- fronted cabinets against two walls and Dorian peered at their contents, seeking for the right shape. Not on this side, though that oval sparkly thing looked very like a Faberge Easter egg, and the small square object next to it might be a Chinese snuff box. This house would repay a third visit on another occasion... He was moving towards the next wall when the two wall sconces flanking the door came on, revealing a wooden parquet floor, white wallpaper figured in small red flowers, and a handy armchair that he had just time to duck behind as the living room door opened.
A heavy male tread came towards him but stopped a few feet away. Head as close to the ground as possible, Dorian peered around the skirts of the chair. The man had stopped to deposit a bottle of wine on the small table in front of the adjacent sofa and was now going to the cabinet on the opposite wall. He was wearing very expensive Italian shoes and clearly had a nice taste in tailors. The clever lines of the suit managed to disguise a lot of the excess bulk he was carrying but it was still impossible for Dorian to see the head from his present ant's eye viewpoint. He heard the creak of a cabinet door opening and ducked again as the man turned around, came back, and collapsed onto the sofa with a heavy grunt. There was the muffled pop of the wine cork being removed and Dorian chanced another look during the brief seconds while the man was filling his glass.
His eyes grew round. It was the Garden of Eden sitting on the table and the man was the President. Still alive, and about to profane his- Dorian's- cup.
Dorian pushed the chair violently forward and rose up in righteous wrath.
"Barbarian!" he cried, and sprang forward while the President's glance was still moving from the chair to himself. The cup was in his hand. He flung the contents in the President's eyes and turned and ran. He was out in the wet black garden and had rounded one side of the house before the first shot came from behind him. He began to zig-zag through the shadows as he made for the front, knowing his jumper could be seen against the foliage. The break in the hedge that would let him over the wall was- here, he knew- somewhere along this side-- A second bullet whined near him. The President would have to be a good shot, Dorian thought aggrievedly- and here was the break--
A black figure rose up out of it and Dorian instinctively ducked to the side. There was a solid, muted 'thud' somewhere in back of him and the grass and trees and budding twigs of the hedge were all momentarily visible in a lurid red-green light. A hideous scream came from the middle of the garden, freezing his blood, but it was cut off at once by two more flashes that lit the lawn in quick succession. Then it was dark and silent, save for the splat of raindrops and a low, hideous sizzling from the night behind him. Dorian lay still, a hand clamped to his mouth, hoping for sounds from the neighbouring houses-- the empty neighbouring houses-- or up the street-- the dark street...
"So," said a low voice not half a metre away, "it's the pretty boy's pretty boy. The one with the knife. We have some business to settle, Monsieur."
Dorian sat up, carefully keeping his gaze turned towards the hedge and breathing through his mouth. Nausea constricted his throat but his voice when he spoke was steady enough.
"Yes indeed, M. de Roussaye. Why did you try to kill me earlier this evening?"
"Why not? What does one tapette matter, more or less?"
"Careless thinking, my friend. And dangerous." Dorian listened to himself. I sound like someone in a Renoir film, he thought, the cool and disillusioned hero. But no Frenchman can resist the dramatic and at least this may buy some time. "Myself- well, let's say you're right. Major Eberbach of NATO might not think me worth avenging." Dorian could swear there'd been a reaction to the name, but he mustn't press it too hard. "Or he might. Skilled operatives are hard to find."
"NATO," said Marquère, and there was a gleam of white as his lips curled back on the name. "It was you who suborned that damned pédé, then. And you expect me to pass that over? If not for you and your filthy lover my captain would be the ruler of Circassia now. You owe us, Monsieur."
"If not for your captain, that pédé would still be my lover. I think you owe me." The bitterness in his voice surprised him.
Marquère hissed. "Keep your insinuations to yourself, espèce de merde, unless you want a slower death than the one I have planned for you two."
"Speaking of slow deaths- have you thought what will happen to you when your captain learns you've killed his brother?"
Marquère smiled. Dorian could just see the narrow teeth below the wolfish lips. "Je m'en fous. That vampire has his fangs in M. Halim's soul. If I can put a stop stop to that I'm indifferent to what follows."
"You're mistaken. It's your captain who has his claws in Sergei's heart; but I don't flatter myself that I can prise them loose. Come, M. de Roussaye, you're not unintelligent. Admit the facts without jealousy. We don't have a chance, either of us. There's no room for outsiders in that ménage--"
A snarl from Marquère and Dorian dodged the fast swipe of his fist just in time.
"Oh, calm down," he snapped, irritation getting the better of him. "This has nothing to do with the love of the body. It's far worse than that. Those two are Siamese twins. Joined at the soul, if you like. No-one else is real to them. No one else counts. Kill one of them and you cut the other's heart out. And what do you think will happen to your captain after that?"
"He'll be a free man," Marquère said through his teeth, "who can call his soul his own."
"Do you think so?" Dorian asked in wonder. "Oh, mon pauvre, how little you know. A free man? Hardly. Think for a moment. It's not Sergei himself Halim loves, it's the image of Sergei. Kill the real Sergei and you bind him to that image for good. He'll set up an altar to him in his heart and make you the first sacrifice on it: the fiend who murdered his beloved brother. He'll cast him as a saint, he'll assign him all the virtues, he'll tell everyone what an angel he was- and he'll believe it. Every word. You'll enslave him to a lie forever. That can't be what you want for him? "
"You pig. You- Englishman." Dorian had the knife in and Marquère was wriggling.
"Let's not waste time on name-calling. You want to free your captain? I'll tell you how. Halim has built up a dream image of his brother after all these years apart. Only reality can shatter it. So you wait. Simply wait for Sergei to come back to Circassia. He will- he can't keep away. He has his own image of Halim calling him. Then make him stay. However you have to do it- keep him in front of your captain's eyes long enough for him to see what he's really like." Marquère's dark eyes, shifting, caught a stray gleam of the streetlamp coming through the twigs. He was listening, at any rate. "It's easy to be obsessed with someone who's not there- someone you only see at long intervals, without warning. It's like being a fish on a hook. You think you're over him, and then he calls again. You see him for a day or two, or even a week, and then he goes, and the hook's sunk in even deeper. It works. Believe me, I know." He rubbed a tired hand over his face. How long could he keep this up? Where were the police when you really needed them? "It's familiarity that breeds contempt. Give your Captain a chance to compare him with real men, and see if the fascination lasts."
There was a moment's silence. Marquère regarded him down his long thin nose.
"An interesting idea, M. Tapette. I'm touched by your concern for my captain. Just what's your stake in all this, besides saving your skin and that of your boyfriend?"
"Revenge," said Dorian, as transparently as he could. "He's not my boyfriend any more after tonight. I tried to make him see the truth about himself and his brother and he threw me out of his bed. No-one does that to me. No-one."
"Hmh. A pervert's quarrel. Well, you may be right. It takes one to know one." Another pause, and Dorian tensed to meet Marquère's attack. It still didn't come. "I should have asked before- what are you doing here tonight?"
"Fetching something I wanted." Dorian held up the cup so the faint light from the street winked off the golden figure.
"NATO pays so badly?" He sounded amused.
"I'm a thief by profession, and an agent as a hobby."
Marquère snorted. "A thief and a spy and a pervert. Hardly worth wasting energy on. I'd find a new line of work, if I were-" His head jerked suddenly. From not so far away they could hear the mommy-mommy-mommy sound of a police siren, and it was coming closer. Marquère wasted no more words. He backed into the shadows of the hedge and was gone. Dorian saw the slowness and stiffness that betrayed the fall he'd had earlier. He had to follow- he would, in just a moment, when he could make his legs move--
A flashing blue light cast lunar shadows on the lawn through the front gate. The loud voices of French officialdom invaded the garden, rising in shock as the harsh light revealed the horror in the middle of the lawn. Dorian grasped the cup, waiting till the last possible moment to follow Marquère. A snake indeed- the police were almost preferable...
"La-bas!" a voice cried. He'd waited too long. Now was the time for speed.
He dove into the hedge, found the rough surface of the wall and vaulted over it, well ahead of the grasping hands. He hit the street running and raced down it to the most shadowy part. Ahead of his pursuers for the moment, he looked about him quickly. Tall trees surrounded suburban houses and lined the streets of an area he knew not at all. He began to run again.
It was three a.m. before he got back to his hotel, exhausted by the game of hide and seek he'd played through the suburbs of Paris. Odd that he should be so tired after a few hours' exercise. He'd got almost to St.Germain-en-laye before he dared look for a taxi to take him home.
Leadenly he collapsed into an armchair and put the Garden of Eden on the table in front of him. The little ruby apples glowed in the lamplight and the dark green leaves took on a deeper shade. The bowl held the dried dregs of the President's wine, the colour of blood. The President-- now horribly dead-- the last in a long line of violent men whose hands had held this cup since di Capono had first fashioned it...
...the Doge's agent, some subtle Venetian factotum who had bought it for his master, the wily and politic Doge- Dorian's mind pictured an old man in a red brocade cap, pale skinned and jowly, with cold calculating eyes- who had traded it in turn to that monster, Ivan the Terrible. His hand contracted a little at the thought that he was touching something Ivan had held, however many centuries ago: as though evil were undying and contagious. But Ivan had thrown his treasure in the mud, sending it off to the barbaric chief of the Circassians, whom Dorian's sleepy mind insisted on giving Majek's features- a true hillsman, with a pathological distrust of outsiders... And there it had stayed, in the windswept hills of Circassia, until this year-- the Circassian chieftain, outlandish in beaded braids and long moustaches, turned into the short-haired clean-shaven General, who had given it to Takamatsu-- why did Takamatsu look like the Doge's agent?-- who had treacherously sold it to the President, who was dead this night... A reputation for bad luck, indeed...
Maybe Takamatsu had been right, after all. The President was a more fitting owner than some Belgian manufacturer, dapper in his blue suit, collecting art as an investment. But none of them was the sort of person di Capono had made the cup for in the first place. Beauty belonged to the beautiful, to those whose souls sang in harmony with it. After all these centuries in the possession of murderous tyrants and ignorant barbarians, the Garden of Eden had come to its rightful owner at last. His eyes were closing of themselves. He caressed the apple tree in parting, and stumbled to the bed.
"God damn it, Dorian!" Klaus was storming at him.
"That's my name, Major," Dorian murmured sleepily, and realized suddenly that his dream was continuing into daylight. Klaus really was standing at the foot of the bed. He leaped up. "Major! How lovely to see you."
"Put something on, dammit!" Klaus' eyes swung desperately away from his naked figure, and the beautiful white skin was stained a becoming crimson. "You fucking pervert! What the hell have you been up to!"
"Nothing particularly," Dorian said, fetching his peacock blue robe from the bathroom door and swinging it round him. "I'm decent, Major. It's safe to turn around."
Klaus peered suspiciously over his shoulder to ascertain whether Dorian was speaking the truth before rounding on him.
"Nothing particularly?! Then what were you doing at the President's house at the very moment he was murdered! God damn it, Dorian, don't you realize the police saw you there? You're the prime suspect!" He met Dorian's suddenly fixed gaze with an odd mixture of rage and satisfaction. "Well, I'm glad to see you're treating this seriously, at least. Don't worry. NATO's taken the case out of the Sûreté's hands- the Frogs are screaming, of course, but let them- it's an international incident. And of course I don't suspect you- you can't fire a gun, let alone a narrow range incendiary. But I want to know what happened. Who did it?"
Dorian continued to stare at him, mute. "What is it? What are you playing at, for God's sake?"
Dorian found his voice. "Actually, Major, I was wondering why you were calling me Dorian. You never have before."
Klaus' lips disappeared in a thin enraged line. "Lord Gloria," he said very deliberately, "I'm going to hit you in three seconds if you don't answer my question."
Dorian shrugged. "Oh well. If you're going to be like that-" Klaus' fist came up. "A certain de Roussaye, dit Marquère. You should know that perfectly well."
"I spoke to him. We had quite a long conversation."
"The nature of love."
"He's gunning for Sergei, Major. He already made one attempt earlier yesterday evening, when the two of us were together. I may have talked him out of another."
"Why does he want to kill M.Serge? Revenge for ruining the plot?"
"So it would seem." Klaus wouldn't understand any of the other things Marquère had said.
"Hm. Well, he's probably long gone, but--"
Klaus punched buttons in the telephone and began barking orders into it. His back was to Dorian. Maybe a little tidying-up was indicated before Klaus began asking impertinent questions. He slid over to the table and picked up the Garden of Eden.
"Ah," said Takamatsu's voice from the doorway. "You do have it then."
Klaus looked over in annoyance. "Whoever that is, get rid of it," he said to Dorian, and went back to his conversation.
Unperturbed, Takamatsu walked into the bedroom.
"Who's he?" He nodded at Klaus.
"Major Klaus von dem Eberbach, of NATO."
"Really?" Suddenly tense, Takamatsu looked from Dorian to Klaus. "What's the connection between you?"
"What do you think, Doctor?"
Takamatsu eyed Dorian's silk robe. "Knowing you, I don't suppose it's the obvious one."
"I said, get rid of him," Klaus snarled, hanging up and turning round. "Who is he?"
"My name is Takamatsu. I'm a doctor."
"He's the tutor to the General's nephew. They've just come from Circassia," Dorian said sweetly.
Klaus eyed Takamatsu narrowly. "What's the connection between you?"
"He knows Sergei."
"Oh. Well, then. Sorry, Doctor, you'll have to leave. Lord Gloria is involved in an official investigation at the moment."
"The President's murder last night, I take it?"
"What do you know about it?"
"I had business dealings with the President. I went round to the house this morning and found it a mob scene, but I managed to speak to his secretary. It seems a cup the President recently purchased from me went missing after the assassination.
He glanced down at the goblet Dorian was still clutching.
"I see." Klaus let out his breath in disgust. "Well, this is a matter for the police. Thank you for the information, Doctor. Now you'd better be going."
"Just one minute, if I may. I assume Lord Gloria isn't suspected of the actual murder?"
"Yes, I do. And for the other matter- well, there's a little detail. The President took delivery of the cup but had yet to pay me for it. Now, if Lord Gloria was minded to give me the price we'd agreed on, I'd be willing to let him keep it. How about it, Lord Gloria?"
Dorian put the cup on the table, picked up his shoulder bag and found his chequebook. He'd be willing to bet the President had paid the sum in full but this was by far the least tiresome way of disposing of the matter and of Takamatsu. Through tight lips, he said, "How much?"
"Two million francs."
Dorian wrote the sum, ripped the cheque out and handed it to Takamatsu. Klaus' hand clamped down on his wrist.
"This is immoral, Lord Gloria. I won't permit it. Doctor, if you want to recover your property, you'll have to apply through the Sûreté. It will take time, of course."
Takamatsu regarded him for a long moment.
"Permit me a question, Major. Was it your man who warned the General a month ago about a plot against his life involving the President?"
"You know about that? We attempted to warn him, yes. The General chose to ignore our advice."
"You don't understand Circassians. The General was most grateful for the warning but of course he couldn't say so. He'd have lost face if he'd shown that outsiders knew something he didn't. However, he took steps on his own to deal with the threat- but it seems that, thanks again to your organization, they were unnecessary."
Klaus' eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"Well, I take it that Lord Gloria here is your man-" he smiled knowingly at Dorian- "in whatever sense of the word you like-- and it was he who persuaded the General's younger brother to intervene and stop the plot at the Circassian end. The President's death evidently followed from that. We're not ungrateful, Major. Lord Gloria, please keep the cup. A present from Circassia, with thanks."
"You're the General's agent," Dorian said numbly.
"Authorized to sell Circassian art in order to raise funds," Takamatsu smiled. "No more than that."
"Authorized to give it away on the General's behalf as well?" Klaus asked.
"Oh yes. I think so. I understand him fairly well. The health of someone important to me rather depends on my being able to do so. Believe me, Major, he doesn't want that filthy thing in his country."
Dorian instinctively held the cup tighter. "It's not filthy."
"Really, Lord Gloria. I'm surprised- a man of your education. Don't you know what Venice was famous for in the sixteenth century?"
"Many things. Its painters- its glassware- its courtesans- its corruption-"
A small coldness went up Dorian's spine.
"Ivan knew where to shop. The Circassian chief who received the cup from him died in agony after five days. Modern historians suspect stomach cancer. Circassians, then as now, are no match for a Russian. Back then, for instance, they didn't understand about internal gears and levers. When you press that gnarl on the back of the tree, the trunk slides open." Takamatsu took the cup from him and demonstrated. "Inside you insert a wad of material saturated with a concentrated poison." He picked it out. "Wine poured into the cup moistens the material through these small holes in the design." He tilted it to show the filigree tracing in the bowl. "A small amount of poison mixes with the wine and so, over the course of time-- longer or shorter, depending how much the victim uses the cup-- you have death by poisoning. The chief must have been quite the toper." He slid the section of trunk back and handed the cup to Dorian. "It's yours, Lord Gloria. I really only came here to warn you against drinking from it, in case you thought of doing so." He was wrapping the cotton wad in a handkerchief. "May I borrow your washroom and some soap? I tend to bite my nails when I work. A bad habit."
He walked into the bathroom without waiting for an answer. Dorian, stunned, was gazing at di Capono's beautiful deadly masterpiece and remembering the cups at home: the snake-headed Discord, the fanged dragon-- all of them? All instruments of death? A piercing desolation was beginning in his heart.
Klaus followed Takamatsu to the door of the other room.
"Your general didn't care that the poison could be traced directly to him, of course."
"To me, Major. The story was that I sold it behind his back. It was supposed to be going to de Kuyper in Brussels and Majek has the letter to prove it."
"You'd be his scapegoat?"
"Naturally. I serve the family in whatever way I can."
"The whole plot was pretty harebrained. What made the General think the President would use the cup to drink from?"
"These peasants understand each other. A cup is a cup. Of course you drink from it."
"He was just going to when I grabbed it from him," Dorian said sadly.
"Oh really?" Klaus turned to look at him, then whirled back as he heard the sound of a toilet flushing. "Doctor!!"
"Just disposing of the evidence, Major, in case you felt like holding something against us- or, more specifically, me." Takamatsu came calmly out of the bathroom. "I know NATO supports the General now but one can't be too careful with westerners."
Klaus snorted. "Well, no matter. It's tidy enough as it is. The President was killed by a Circassian soldier with a grudge. We don't specify what, and people will draw their own conclusions."
"Maaqa isn't a Circassian."
"He serves in the Circassian army. That's good enough."
"There is no Circassian army, remember? only the General's private troops."
"There is as of six o'clock this morning, Paris time. The capital surrendered then, so the General is now de facto head of the country."
"Well, isn't that nice." Takamatsu sounded mildly pleased. "Major, if you have no further use for me, I'll be going. Good day. A pleasure to have met you."
"The pleasure was mine." He and Takamatsu smiled at each other with mutual dislike.
"Lord Gloria, good day." Dorian looked away. "Look after him, Major. He needs a keeper." His hands clenched involuntarily, but he refused to look at the horrible man again.
"Get out, Doctor." Klaus' snarl expressed his own emotion perfectly. He heard the door slam. That would be Klaus, not Takamatsu.
"Well, Lord Gloria. I hope you're pleased with yourself. He's fucking right-- you do need a keeper. Mixing yourself up with a crew like that- what the hell did you think you were doing?!" Anger was taking Klaus' voice into the next register. "Answer me, dammit."
Dorian's misery felt ready to explode. "Keep your voice down, Major! And don't talk to me like that! Who the hell do you think you are, anyway?"
"Who the hell do you think you are? Running around with assassins, stealing poisoned goblets, hanging about with the likes of- of that!" He jerked an angry thumb at the door Takamatsu had just exited. "You might as well hand a stick of dynamite to a baby as let you run around loose in the world!"
"A stick of dynamite would be safer with a baby than with the likes of you!" Dorian yelled back at him. "You- and the General- and Takamatsu- and Halim and the rest of them- you poison everything you touch. The world isn't safe from men like you." Tears were running down his face. "Beauty isn't safe from men like you. You're the snakes in the garden of Eden. You're the ones who make what should be paradise into a desert."
"God damn it, Dorian, calm down. What are you yammering about? You talk like I'm the fucking anti-Christ when I'm only trying to stop you from getting yourself poisoned or roasted to death!"
"Why thank you, Major," said Dorian with a bitterness he didn't know was in him. "I didn't think you cared."
There was no answer. Dorian wiped his eyes and looked up, expecting to see Klaus' back taking its leave- but Klaus was still standing there. His mouth was open to say something- anything- but nothing would come.
'I didn't think you cared.'
Klaus should deny it- should say 'I don't, dammit'- but the moment for saying it was going by- was past- and the silence was lengthening between them, and rage and panic were growing in Klaus' eyes as he realized how much he'd given away.
"It's alright, Major," Dorian said swiftly, gently, to forestall the explosion. "Don't say anything. I understand." Now? Was it now? He could almost see towers falling in Klaus' eyes. But the Major had his back to the wall-- was readying himself for a last-ditch defense of the fortress-- "Just go," he said, and felt the knife cut his heart as he said it. "It's alright. You can go."
"I'm not going anywhere!" Klaus sat down violently across from Dorian, but his hands were clenched and white at the knuckles. "We're going to get this- this misunderstanding- cleared up now!"
"Alright, Major. Just as you like." He sat calmly, prepared to wait forever to see what Klaus would have to say.
Dorian walked in a dream under the chestnut trees, humming 'What a difference a day makes.' Actually, what with bureaucratic paper work and talking to Klaus and soothing the Sûreté and talking to Klaus, it had been closer to three days, by the clock, but it felt like a millennium. How odd to find that it was still April in Paris.
He turned into the Rue Galande and came to the familiar store. The shades were drawn- at three in the afternoon- on- what day was to-day?- a Saturday--
Dorian stood looking at the large 'For Rent' sign with an odd emptiness in his heart. After a moment he went over to the next building and rang the concierge's doorbell.
"Gone," the woman said, laconic as only a Parisian concierge can be.
The woman shrugged.
"He- he was well- when he left?"
"He didn't look ill." The woman's expression let him know what an idiot he was.
"I mean- he was- alive?"
Her eyebrows rose. "Evidently."
"I see. Thank you, Madame."
He turned and walked slowly back to the Boul'Mich, surprised at how very much he minded Sergei's leaving. 'I wanted to tell him--' he thought vaguely as he walked through the crowds of students, but he wasn't sure what.
Flying feet came up behind him and a hand touched his arm.
He turned in surprise to face Gunmar's happy smile: and automatically checked to see where Takamatsu was.
"He's back at the apartment," Gunmar said as if he'd asked out loud.
"What happened to Sergei?"
"He's left," Gunmar said, matter-of-factly.
"Just like that?"
"He always leaves just like that." Gunmar looked at him more closely. "I don't think he knows it hurts people when he does it."
"Oh. Do you know where he's gone?"
"No. He never says. Are you sad?"
"Yes, a little. We- we had a fight the last time I saw him. I wanted to make it up."
"I'll tell him the next time I see him."
"Will you see him?"
"Oh yes. He always comes back. What do you want me to say?"
"Oh- just- tell him--" He looked at the wide blue eyes in the child's face. "Tell him-- I wish him well. And give him this, from me."
He bent down and kissed Gunmar's young mouth. Gunmar kissed him back, with surprising skill.
"Where did you learn that?" Dorian asked before realizing he probably didn't want to know.
"My cousin, at home," Gunmar said. No, he hadn't wanted to know. "That's the real reason I'm here, you know."
"Of course. He doesn't want me to be with him. He's pretty rough, and Takamatsu thinks he isn't good enough for me."
"Gunmar--" But what could he say to him? He was so innocent. "It's important to do what you want, you know. What you want, not what other people want for you. If you want your cousin you should go after him."
Gunmar's mouth drooped. "It's not that easy. Szincza doesn't want me."
"He will," Dorian smiled at him. "How could he resist?"
"That's what I think," Gunmar said earnestly, "but he does."
"Just persevere. I thought the same thing once- about someone. I thought it would take a miracle to make him change. And- well- miracles do happen."
"Really?" Gunmar smiled like a child at Christmas. "Really and truly?"
"Really and truly." He smoothed the blond hair away from the flower-like face. "Tell Sergei that, too. When you see him."
"I will. Is this good-bye, Lord Gloria?"
"Au revoir. Until I see you again."
"In that case-" Gunmar reached up and kissed him again. Dorian kissed him back, saying good-bye to Sergei in the only way he could. Gunmar stood back, gave a little wave, and disappeared into the crowd of students on the Boul' Mich.
Dorian watched the pale hair disappearing down the street, and turned to go in the other direction, back to his own world and all the new possibilities that waited for him there.
Notes on Circassian Pronunciation sz= sh cz= ch jc= no English equivalent. Like the Dutch 'gh' or German 'ch': a guttural made forcefully in the back of the throat. Acknowledgements
My thanks go to:
-the nice people at SLASH-the APA for their kind comments on the first Sergei story, and particularly to Catt K-E for pointing out that I'd set it up for a sequel. Honestly- I hadn't noticed until she told me;
-Akemi Kishita and her sister for enlightening comments about the Circassian end of the story;
-Jean Dewey for help with the sticky spots (no, not the kind you find on the sheets);
-Mark B. for information on matters male and physiological;
-Amy Jo Cooper, Jane Carnall, and my family for long distance research and advice;
-Barbara, of course; and
-Nakamura Rumi, dojinshi artist and semi-psychic par excellence, who in her etchier moments publishes as Takamatsu Makoto: for her subtle, complex, brilliant Sheltering Sky, and for the constant inspiration of her work.
"Excuse me, where is the men's room?"
"But- but- uhh--"
"No problem. This really is the men's room."
"But the old woman's looking at me!"
"Are you sick?"
"No- no, I'm fine. But my poor darling- she's so beautiful, and I may have lost her. I've lost her!"
"Oh, you're in love. Right. Let's move! Don't worry, mister, we'll get there in no time."