by Kadorienne and the Duchess
Klaus was spending a rare evening alone in Bonn. Dorian had had to shoot back to England for a day or two to deal with some business regarding his estate, and Gaby had locked Gunilla in their suite and didn't seem inclined to let her out unless the castle started to burn down.
That left the Major to recapture his solitary bachelorhood, with the aid of a bottle of Mosel's and his favourite translation of The Thirty-Six Strategies. It wasn't a bad thing -- it was just different. He wouldn't want to do it too often, but now and then... he felt the quiet might be good for him. God knew it was difficult to spend an evening quietly with a half-naked Earl on the premises.
And, although Dorian hadn't yet sissified him to the point where he'd articulate such a thing, even to himself, he liked missing his husband. Not having him there allowed his mind to dwell on each aspect of the man he was being deprived of... when there was a head of blond curls facing him across the dining table, or resting on his shoulder, he couldn't see the forest for the trees. But without him, he could contemplate Dorian's loyalty, the inner strength he hid so cunningly behind his flashy exterior, his steadfastness and his devotion... and, of course, his beauty.
The Strategies weren't getting a fair deal, really.
At length Klaus withdrew from his -- well, from his daydream -- and applied himself to the ancient manual of warfare. It contained so much wisdom, so many truths that remained applicable today... even after having memorised large sections of it, he could still find intriguing ideas in its well-thumbed pages.
His butler came noiselessly up to his chair, holding a silver salver on which rested a cordless phone. "A telephone call for you, sir, from a Madame Roccanera."
Klaus's eyes clouded. But his homicidal impulse was, inexplicably, weaker than usual when that woman's name was mentioned. "Ja?" he said curtly as he picked up the phone.
"Is that any way to say hello to a lady?"
"I doubt it. 'S why I used it," he growled, secretly enjoying a chance to really bait someone. His life companions all had decidedly different senses of humor from his. If only he could be certain she had no ulterior motive...
"My favourite boor," she said indulgently. "Aren't you going to ask me to dinner?"
"I'm a married man. Just imagine the gossip."
"I'll wear a veil, if you like. You can tell people I'm your maiden aunt."
"I'm sure that won't arouse a bit of suspicion," he grumbled. He looked at The Thirty-Six Strategies. He'd read the same paragraph several times without grasping it. "I believe that if we choose a place the pack of aesthetes I live with drag me to on a regular basis, people will assume I'm not sneaking around."
"So that's a yes? Where shall we rendezvous?"
It was only then that Klaus realised he'd acceded to her demand almost without a murmur. Dammit. That ought to have been good for at least three rounds of verbal combat.
He named a restaurant with which he'd unwillingly become very familiar. "It's French, but it isn't too bad."
"Shall we say half an hour? All right. A tout a l'heure."
There was a limousine idling at the curb when Klaus approached the restaurant. A man in a neutral-coloured suit opened the door when he drew level with it, and Madame stepped out gracefully. She was all in black, and despite the promised veil he knew it was her -- no other woman of his acquaintance wore such damned big hats.
As an afterthought, she took off the hat and tossed it into the backseat of the car, which drove off.
"Ja?" she greeted him, mockingly.
Not bothering to reply to this sally, he offered her his arm properly and without a smile. It was a relief, he had to admit, to be around someone who didn't expect too much from him in the way of pleasantries. She put her suitably gloved hand through his arm, and they went in. She was carrying her own handbag for a change, a black crocodile one that matched the rest of her sombre ensemble.
Glancing around, she said, "Not bad" -- again throwing his own words back at him.
"My... companions like it. I thought you probably would too." He cast a dismissive jade glance over the exquisitely appointed room with its many mirrors.
"It's nice to know someone at Schloss Eberbach has taste."
The maitre d' recognised the Major, naturally, and showed him to the table he'd inquired about the availability of a few minutes ago on the phone. It hasn't been available then, but miracles could be achieved for such loyal and big-spending patrons. The lady in black didn't look down-at-the-heel either.
Madame Roccanera divested herself of her scarf and gloves, and signaled that she'd like a third chair on which to deposit them and her handbag. It was produced so promptly that even she couldn't find a complaint to make, which was unusual; usually she disapproved of at least two or three things every time she went out to dinner in a restaurant she didn't own.
Once they were settled she looked over at Klaus, her gaze opaque.
He began with his typical subtlety. "What do you want?" he asked flatly.
"I told you."
"Since when do you do anything without an ulterior motive?"
"It depends how you define ulterior motive. I do all kinds of things simply because I think they might amuse me." She smiled charmingly at him over the top of her menu.
"And is this one of those things?" he demanded skeptically.
"Absolutely. I've just come from a funeral, darling, and I need cheering up. I thought you were just the chap to put a spring in my step and a song in my heart."
"I can only think of one other person insane enough to have come to that conclusion." He frowned and tried to gentle his tone. "Whose funeral?"
"No one you know." She paused. "The first one of the old gang to hand in her knife and fork. I keep thinking, that's me in five years. What do you think, the '91 or the '85?" This was as she perused the wine list.
He glanced at it quickly. "Neither. Get a German wine -- I'll order it. So what old gang is that?"
"All right, seeing it's your turf." She conceded that point, knowing she'd be able to make up for it later. "There was a group of us, about a million years ago -- we were all terribly good-looking and terribly amoral -- going into business for ourselves for the first time. We've always kept close."
Klaus gave the familiar menu a cursory scan and considered his next words. He felt certain he did not really want to know what business Madame and her friends had been in. "May I ask how she died?" he asked at last, quietly.
"Cirrhosis of the liver," said Portia, "aggravated by an AK-47." She smiled. "We always said we'd be gunned down in our prime."
"Has the killer been brought to justice?" Was this the woman's true purpose in contacting him? He just might oblige her, depending.
"It depends how you define justice. It was a long vendetta and, depending how you apportion blame, a lot of it might be laid at her own door... there'll be justice as I see it, but justice in the eyes of the law wouldn't be fair to her family, who really know nothing of these things... There's a lot of history, going back to the early days..." She played with her water glass, weighing her words, rather inclined toward telling him more than she should.
"It was around that time that I first dealt with the Turk whose mountain you and I skiied on... I absolutely bullshitted him; I didn't have the expertise, let alone the resources, to pull off the things I suggested... but he didn't call my bluff, and to seal the deal we went hunting together in Anatolia, in the east. I didn't approve of his prey, but I laid down a little justice there too." She smiled faintly. "It was four days after I gave birth and I could hardly keep in the saddle. What a little idiot I was.
"Pardon me for frog-marching you along memory lane with me; there's obviously not enough alcohol sloshing about in my system or I wouldn't be so serious. You'd better fix that."
Faintly disoriented as he usually was when listening to this decadent woman spout off, he was relieved to promptly have the opportunity to do just that as the waiter arrived for their order. He ordered the simple seafood dish he nearly always got for himself and a chilled bottle of very dry white German wine for them both.
"I'll have the same," she said to the waiter, surprising the Major, who mentally associated her with ridiculously complex banquets.
"What have you been up to lately?" she asked when they were alone again.
"The usual. Stopping disasters before they can happen. Cleaning up the messes made by my statesmen. Trying not to let my husband turn me into an art-loving fop. I don't believe he really wants to do it, it just amuses him to try." He paused. "I'm sure you heard that he's married now, too. That is -- well, you understand me."
"Of course I know... your wives were both part of my world for a little while, albeit peripherally. You never were."
"You know them?!" he demanded, instantly alarmed.
"Has Gunilla ever told you about her first lover?"
His face warmed. "Yes," he said cautiously.
"Well, the woman in question is one of the old gang I mentioned."
"I see. You were involved in her... matchmaking business?"
"My dear, who do you think pays for it?"
"I thought the... ah..." His voice trailed off.
"You don't think someone says to Maurizia, 'Five foot six, blonde, green eyes, speaks French, likes Ibsen and plays the flute', and we deliver the goods within ten days, do you?" she said patiently. "It's not commercial. No money is expended by either party until one takes the responsibility of taking care of the other. I'm quite happy to pay the costs from my private purse; I don't even notice them."
"But you are reimbursed when the, ah, match is made."
"Actually, no. It's not very businesslike, is it?" She laughed.
He looked at her for a moment. "Then why do you do it? Is this some bizarre form of philanthropy?"
"I suppose so. I build and staff small state-of-the-art orphanages and put poor but high-achieving children through university, too, just so long as no one expects me to go anywhere near the brats. I hate children, I really do. But it's not their fault if their parents are irresponsible deadbeat pigs, is it? I believe in private charity -- I don't believe it's the business of the state." She looked at him abruptly. "You're happy?" she changed the subject. "Wishing you hadn't wasted so many years?"
He stopped the smile before it actually formed, but its precursor was just discernible on his face. He said nothing, but she took in his expression and her own smile widened.
They were sitting in the smoking section, of course, and she took advantage of their silence to fit a cigarette into her twelve-inch black-lacquered cigarette holder and invite him with a gesture to light it. He obeyed in a gentlemanly fashion.
"I sometimes think about the things we talked about on the mountain," she said at last, exhaling fragrant smoke.
He didn't have to ask which things. "As do I."
"I'm not sure I believe you."
That surprised him. "Why wouldn't you?"
"Because you can't stand me." She grinned impudently.
He scowled. "Does this have a point?"
"I don't know. Do you?"
Another of her classic manoeuvres -- blatantly returning responsibility for the direction of the conversation to him, trusting that he'd feel obliged to at least try to answer. Well, he wouldn't let her get away with it. "Why did you bring it up in the first place, then?"
She adopted the novel approach of telling the truth. "Because I don't recall ever talking to anyone like that before. It interests me that I did."
"Should I be flattered?"
"Probably not. I just wondered if you were the same."
"I am. Now you know. And here's our fish."
They didn't say a thing for a while. But then she couldn't help herself: "Why were you alone tonight?"
"Dorian's in England. Some business with the Gloria estate. Or more likely, he's stealing something and didn't want me to know about it. The ladies are -- otherwise engaged."
She responded in kind, with, "I don't take Darcey to funerals. The only one she's ever been to was her mother's and I think it might upset her."
"Kind of you." The woman was kind, in her paradoxical way.
"Milk of human kindness running through every vein," she agreed sanguinely. "Do you know why I like you?"
"I didn't know that you did like me," he agreed, matching her blithe tone.
"I do. It's because you're nothing at all to do with my usual world -- seeing you is rather like a holiday."
"It is as I thought." He nodded sagely. "You are insane."
"That's hardly news, Major darling. Leading experts have been confidently prophesying my imminent nervous collapse for years. But I'm still here, and I plan to be for a while yet."
Then she demanded, "Tell me what it's like to live with someone you love. You're the only person I'd believe."
He hesitated, frowning. Speaking of deep feelings went against his nature and training. Except for a very few occasions when Dorian had managed to make him forget his normal restraints, Klaus generally expressed affection by looking marginally less irate than usual. Dorian had learned to decipher the signs, and even seemed to find the game amusing, but that hadn't stopped him from continuing to campaign for more.
After a full minute of scowling concentration, he said slowly, "You find that you want to know everything about him. Even the trivia, like what toothpaste he prefers. Because those trivial details are part of what makes him him. And..." He took a sip of the wine. "You find that even when he annoys you, you don't mind."
La Roccanera looked at him for a little while, computing what the words had meant to him. She knew him rather better than he thought she did. Enough to know what it had cost him to speak so frankly, and enough to read the deep layers of meaning in his eyes and know just where they should have been present in her own and weren't.
"The fish was lovely," she said at last. She gathered her things without meeting his eyes. Then, pulling on her gloves with quick, slightly nervous motions, she walked out.
He stood quickly and followed her out. They all knew him here; they could charge the dinner to the account Dorian had insisted upon opening. He expected to see her being helped into her limousine, but instead he saw her golden curls, pinned up instead of loose like Dorian's, fading into the crowd on the next block.
Portia had lit another cigarette, quickly, as she stepped into the brightly-lit street. She'd picked a direction at random and set off as fast as she could. Her security team would follow her at a discreet distance, as they always did, but for a little while she could pretend to be no one in particular. Perhaps it would be long enough that she'd remember how to like herself, because quite suddenly she'd found that she didn't.
It was not difficult for Klaus to catch up with her, but once he did he found that he had no idea what to say to her.
So he simply fell into step with her. When she realised he wasn't going to speak, she slowed her pace a little and they strolled along in silence for a time.
"I'm a big girl, you know," she said finally, meaning it as a reproof.
He snorted. "I know. After all," he gave her a quick sideways glance, "...I'm a big boy."
She took his meaning and sighed, defeated. At least, as close to defeated as she ever got. They stopped, and stood facing each other on the pavement, ignoring passersby.
"She makes me want to be a better person. Does that count?"
He couldn't completely smother the smile. "That counts," he said gently.
They continued walking. "More like the person she thinks I am, I mean. She's got this crazy idea that underneath it all I'm a decent human being -- I'm not; I made the decision to be otherwise a long time ago. That's what I've been thinking about tonight."
This time he smiled outright, though it was the kind of smile that prompted his alphabets to buy guidebooks to Alaska. "You made the decision to kid yourself, you mean. And it evidently worked." He walked on a trifle faster, not looking at her, grinning internally.
She spoke fast, getting it out before she could wise up and clam up. "You've no idea, Major, of the things I've done... and I don't mean always at several removes. There was never any noble cause -- I wasn't serving my country the way you were -- it was all for money and personal advancement. I believe in that, I always have. That's what makes me different from her... we believe in such different things. She's as cynical as I was at her age, but in such a different way."
"How is your cynicism different?" he asked. He didn't for a moment believe she was as bad as she painted herself. Bad, yes, but he had detected an underlying layer of scruple. A thinner layer than Dorian's, yes, but he knew firsthand what genuinely unscrupulous people were like. He had seen, too, the residue of kindness in her. He was one of its beneficiaries, after all.
"I know how horrible people can be, myself included; she only suspects it. Her father walked out, her mother was a drunk and I suspect mentally unbalanced, she can make deductions about the rest of humanity from her relatively few experiences." She glanced at him. "It's only when you're really desperate and have to choose between scruples and death, or at least scruples and misery, that you find out who you really are."
Klaus restrained a snort at that old chestnut. "Bull. Desperate people do what they think they have to. It's when people are comfortable that they show their true colours. In how they treat people they don't have to hurt."
She looked away. "I-- I've gone right down into the unpleasantness and taken part in it, and reveled in it and my acceptance of it. I've done whatever I felt was necessary to safeguard my interests. She looks at me and says she understands that, that I did what I had to do, but I don't think she does... I don't think someone so young can."
He brooded over that. It was his opinion that the three people with whom he shared his life were innocents. The ladies, indubitably. Not that they were naive, but they had never had to deal firsthand with life's shadier side, and their scruples had never been seriously tested. Gaby was still able to be seriously upset that her wife had once been with one other woman, for God's sake.
Dorian had seen a bit more of the seamier side of the world, but his own innocence had protected itself. He thought it was a lark to gad about with spies and assassins and mafiosi in the pursuit of pretty baubles. The few times he had seen genuine brutality, he had been stunned; he had heard of such things, but never really believed they could happen.
The innocence of his companions exasperated Klaus at times, but then, his profession, his mission in life was to protect just that. To battle the genuine evil in the world so that harmless people like Dorian and Gaby and Gunilla, and Portia's little pet Darcey, could continue to live in safety. And be happy. Happy in a way he could never be.
"Would you really want her to understand it?" he asked at last.
Madame shrugged. "She says she accepts me, but I think if she understood she'd run a mile. She ought to, anyway. Someday I shall probably be called upon to sacrifice her, and I don't know what I'll do when it happens."
He laughed shortly. "The fact that you have any doubt speaks volumes, Madame."
"I do doubt. I'm not capable of self-sacrifice. I wonder what will motivate me most when the time comes. I killed for the first time when I was twelve years old, and it was a selfish act."
Klaus remembered his own first kill. The victim had been thoroughly deserving, and he had performed his duty without turning a hair. But he hadn't slept a wink that night. He hadn't felt the least twinge of remorse, not for that maggot, but a deep awe at the enormity of what he had done, and what he now was. He never had been the same since.
He stopped, catching her elbow to make her look at him. The sidewalk wasn't very crowded, and the few pedestrians hurried past without paying them any mind.
Her expression was haunted, but only an observer of his calibre could have discerned the fleeting hint of actual vulnerability in her eyes, almost drowned in cynicism. She looked at him, waiting, and suddenly he noticed that the skin around her eyes was a trifle too taut, smooth from Botox treatments but without the suppleness of youth, and he realised she was getting older. She was still stunning and would be for years to come, but the signs were there.
"Madame," he said quietly, "in a way, you and I are the same sort. You know that. You did me a great favour once." He paused to draw a breath. "It's worth it." He held her gaze for a heartbeat, then turned and walked away.
It began to rain. After a moment or two she noticed, and went slowly back to her limousine.