'Baghdad on the Seine': the Tale of the Thief and the Bookseller
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For Mycean, who said she'd read it
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Lafitte stepped forward and began the sonorous opening of the fifth act of Phèdre. Sonorous as it was, Dorian shifted a little, uncomfortable in his plush seat. After the singing beauty of the fourth act, everything went downhill. Phaedra was dead, Hippolytus soon would be- offstage, without even the Mishiman thrill of a beautiful young man's death to contemplate; and Dorian's nerves, still strung to the high pitch engendered by Phaedra's feverish avowal of love, were responding unfortunately to Sergei's presence in the seat next to his.
He reached over and took his friend's hand. Sergei's pale hair glinted in the footlights as he turned his head in enquiry. Dorian put Sergei's fingers on the problem and Sergei sighed a little.
"C'est Vénus toute entière a sa proie attachée," <![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Dorian whispered in explanation.
"Ah well," Sergei whispered back, resigned. "Then I suppose we must go and detach her." He made low-voiced apologies to the couple on his right, and he and Dorian clambered over them and out.
"But really, m'ami, you should have done it before we left the house," Sergei chided him as they made their way to the main floor.
"I did. And I'm crushed that you don't remember me doing it. Where are we going?"
"To get our coats." He had the mother of pearl counters for his black coat and Dorian's feather-trimmed purple wrap ready in his hand.
"We can just use the gentlemen's if you want to see the last act. We don't have to leave."
"Anything worth doing is worth doing well. And somehow the idea of washroom sex at the Comedie Française-" Sergei twitched his shoulders to show what he thought of the idea.
"I think it may come to that anyway," Dorian said as they descended the great stairs and found themselves in the busy Place de l'Opéra, roaring with late Saturday afternoon traffic. "It'll take forever to get a cab at this hour."
"No need. Paris has all the conveniences." Sergei crossed the broad Place, took them one block down the Rue de l'Opéra, and then turned a corner into a narrower street. Several more turns, and in five minutes they were standing before a gate of black iron set in a high stone wall on a small side street. Tall cypress trees showed above the rounded coping stones, incongruous next to the ground-floor store fronts of the apartment buildings on either side. One was a patisserie and the other a purveyor of funeral wreaths, but the building between seemed a private residence. Sergei rang the bell, and a box set in the wall asked in tinny French for their names.
"M. Lifar. I don't have an appointment."
"No trouble, monsieur. Pray enter." The latch clicked and they went into a diminutive garden, crunching up the yellow gravel path to a narrow house. Its walls abutted the flanking buildings- no side gardens in downtown Paris- but its style was reminiscent of a country residence, with external shutters flanking each of the long windows. The front door opened for them, ushering them into a hallway tiled in small black and white squares. A middle-aged woman greeted them with the brisk French which is politeness in Parisian circles.
"The usual, monsieur?"
"If it's available."
"Bien sûr, at this hour." She passed Sergei a key from a small ring that she carried. "Do you wish refreshments?"
"Thank you, no. We won't be long."
"Enjoy yourselves, messieurs.
Sergei took Dorian up an oaken stairway carpeted in a faded Turkey pattern rug and to one of two doorways on the second floor.
"Lifar?" Dorian asked.
"The establishment requires pseudonyms. It reassures those guests who wish extreme privacy."
The room was spacious and comfortable, dominated by a large canopied bed piled with bolsters and pillows, its hangings embroidered in a cheerful pattern of cherries and green leaves. Dorian went at once to the long windows on the facing wall. Their opaque muslin curtains filtered the sun, filling the room with a pearly glow. He reached between them, turned the painted iron handle and opened the casements wide to let in the fresh April air. Outside birds whistled in the budding lindens of the back garden, and the high grey-green conifers by the wall blocked any view of the neighbouring houses. There was no indication at all of the roaring Parisian traffic only a few blocks away. Dorian took blissful breaths of the piney air. Really, one could be in the countryside.
Sergei raised an expressive eyebrow at the mad English penchant for drafts in the bedroom, but said only, "About that matter you wanted to attend to?" Dorian broached the subject in question and Sergei proceeded to attend to it with devoted skill, but the precise details of his inquiry are beyond the scope of the present narrative and need not concern us further.
Suffice to say that Dorian was soon pleasantly relieved of the venereal itch, and then found it necessary to perform a like service for Sergei. It was while engaged in this activity, and his attention being perforce somewhat distracted, that there was a sudden thud behind him at the window and the sound of running footsteps in the room. He raised his head in time to see a slender youth standing before the door to the hallway. The boy was half naked, clad only in tight velvet pants. Waves of red-gold hair curled halfway down a back the colour of fresh milk. The enchanting apparition hastily turned the key of the door and flung it open. But instead of disappearing through it, he then flew to their side, said "Messieurs, I implore you," and dove under the covers. His thin form disappeared into the sea of sheets and disarranged pillows, becoming to all appearances just another bolster in the large bed. Sergei raised himself up on an elbow in surprise, but before either he or Dorian could say a word another, larger, form had come through the window and landed with a louder thud on the carpet. It was a man of maybe thirty, his clothing in disarray and a wild look in his eyes.
"A boy! He came- Where did he-?" The man's eyes darted around the room. Dorian looked by reflex at the open door, and the man smiled in triumph. "Your pardon, messieurs," he said, and dashed out.
Sergei snorted, got up, and relocked the door, this time bringing the key with him. "The quality of the clientele has gone downhill," he said. "I'll have a word with the management." He gave a cool look at the boy Dorian had rousted from his burrow in the bed.
"Well, mon vieux, have you an explanation of all this?"
The boy shook his mass of curls out of his eyes- eyes that were a real shade of lavender- and looked from one to the other.
"I must apologize, messieurs, for my unorthodox and ill-timed entry. I must also thank you for saving my life." His voice was a light alto and he spoke with a composure beyond his years. "I expect to put up with a good deal in my line of work- what it is you can no doubt divine- but devil-worshipping madmen is beyond what my fee covers."
"Devil-worshippers?" Dorian said in surprise. "Here?"
"I assume that's what he meant by his babbling. He seemed a perfectly ordinary client until we came here and I began to take off my clothes. But when he saw this birthmark of mine"-- the boy raised a slender white arm and revealed a red stain above his right ribs- "he cried out 'The Mark of Sephiras!' and began a rigmarole about the rites of the ancients, and certain adepts that meet near the Bois de Boulogne, and how I must come to meet my master and be joined to him. I could only think he meant rape or worse, and so I fled."
"How absolutely extraordinary," Dorian said. "Well, my dear, I'd suggest you make your escape out the back way-" he nodded towards the garden beyond the window- "since your pursuer has gone out the front."
The boy turned large, almost flirtatious, eyes at him. "Couldn't you let me stay a little longer- seeing as the madman is sure to be still in the neighbourhood? It's not often I meet two such noble and beautiful gentlemen, and I could wish to thank you properly."
"Don't mention it," Dorian murmured. "We merely did what was natural." Give the boy a few more years and his answer might have been different, but as it was the youth's sangfroid was the only adult thing about him. Judging by the smoothness of his face, puberty itself must have been a very recent occurrence.
"And as you see," Sergei pointed out, "we are rather occupied."
"Then I'll join you," the boy said merrily, slipping off his trousers and tossing them from him so that he stood before them stark naked. He was indeed exquisite, with the finely modelled figure of a Donatello David and the same winsome face.
"Thank you," Sergei said unsmiling. "But I doubt we could afford your fee."
The boy tossed his head, perhaps a shade too much the outraged gentleman. "Fee? What kind of talk is that? There's no fee for the friends who saved my life. And surely-" he flaunted himself a little- "you can have no objection to a playmate like myself?" He smiled winningly at them both, but though Dorian smiled politely back it was clearly not enough. The smile vanished and the boy knit his brows.
"Do I take it, messieurs," he asked with hauteur, "that you have some objection to me personally?"
Oh dear, Dorian thought, the vanity of the young and the touchiness of the powerless. Best tread softly.
"Not at all," he hastened to assure him. "You're very lovely, darling, and-" no harm in stretching a point- "quite beautifully endowed. But," he smiled helplessly, "I did come here to be with him," and he put a tender hand on Sergei's thigh. The boy cocked his head, looking from one to the other.
"Love, is it? Ah well. Mit den Liebe kampfen Gotter selbst vergebens."2 His German was exquisite. Sergei raised an eyebrow.
"No doubt you think the original more applicable."
"But of course," the boy smiled. "You'll be kicking yourselves in the morning, you know." He retrieved his pants from the sheets and drew them on. "Your last chance. No second thoughts? Ah well, then. Farewell, my beautiful gentlemen. Amusez-vous bien." He threw a narrow leg over the rail of the balcony, blew them a kiss from his fingertips, and was gone.
"Ouf," Sergei said, as he had with Klaus. "A close call, that."
"What do you mean? An angel like that dropping down from the sky- it was exquisite. If only he'd been older."
"Hardly an angel. And how old do you need your men to be? Over thirty, is it?"
"Over eighteen at least."
"But he was."
"But he wasn't. I doubt he's seen fifteen yet."
"Nonsense. Twenty if he's a day. No child could-" He fell silent.
Sergei turned a somber regard to him. "You didn't see? Even after the Major-"
"Darling, I'm not sure what you're talking about."
"Varieties of men, m'ami, especially the kind who sell their bodies on the streets of Paris. You may be right after all. And meanwhile--" he drew Dorian's attention back to the matter which had brought them there, and for the next little while Dorian was kept busy in a contemplation of the artistry of practised maturity. That Sergei was both practised and mature was undeniable, and if Dorian had had any time left for intellectual comparisons, he would have concluded that his present partner was preferable to any nubile stripling.
"Dinner, I think? I know a good restaurant in Montmartre."
"Certainly. And an evening on the boulevards observing Paris at night, why not? Or did you have plans for tonight?"
"None at all." Sergei buttoned up his black coat as Dorian tidied the various impedimenta that had come from his bag. Tissues into the wastepaper basket, poppers into their case, cream and cigarettes back into the bag, and the lighter... The lighter was nowhere to be found. Clicking his tongue in vexation he began a search of the bed. Why were the French so prodigal of their linen, he wondered in annoyance, as he paddled among the sea of sheeting that balled and clumped so perversely. There was easily twice as much here as there needed to be. He released the heavy bolster from the closed end and tossed it to the floor, thereby freeing the upper end of the sheet. Sergei watched him in silent wonder.
"My lighter. It's here somewhere." He got hold of the upper corner. Sergei pulled the other side free and Dorian gave the clinging mass an angry flip so that the lighter flew up glinting metallically in the air. Sergei caught it.
"My ligh--" But it wasn't. His lighter was lying there on the mattress. He slipped it into his pocket and turned to look at what Sergei held in his hand.
It was a round coin, a dull old gold, with a geometric lattice-like pattern, but the writing was too faded to read. Sergei turned it over. The other side had a dancing figure waving flowering branches.
"How lovely." Dorian took it and squinted at the faded lettering. "Roman, is it? or Greek? I wonder how it came here-"
"Our young man. This must have slipped from his pocket when he took his trousers off."
Dorian cocked his head at Sergei's tone. "You think he stole it?"
"Isn't it obvious? Why else would that other man be chasing him?"
"To get him to come to his Black Sabbath. The boy has the mark on him, after all."
Sergei rolled an expressive eye at the ceiling.
"Well, I suppose he might be after the coin," Dorian conceded, wishing to be fair. "But that doesn't mean it's stolen. It could be the boy's own property. It could be the one valuable thing he owns and that other man is an obsessed collector who wants it at any cost. Or maybe it's the heirloom that will prove the boy's the son of a multi-millionaire, and the other man is his stepbrother who wants him to stay an impoverished whore. Or what about this? He's the heir to a throne in Eastern Europe who was abducted as a baby and sold as a prostitute, and he's trying to return to claim his rights and the present government has sent assassins to take the proof of his paternity from him. Or maybe--"
Sergei gave a sigh of exasperation. "Then why tell us that nonsense story about devil-worshippers in the bois de Boulogne?"
"Just in case we turn out to be obsessed collectors too, or agents of his half-brother or in league with the Communists. It's obviously valuable. I'm not surprised he doesn't want people to know about it, poor boy."
"This is all very pretty, m'ami, but you ignore one fact. Your 'poor boy' himself is a killer of no little experience."
"Your acquaintance with the breed has been limited. Mine hasn't. There's something in the eyes. One can tell a man who's used to killing just as you can tell when a woman is no longer a virgin."
"I can't tell when a woman's no longer a virgin, actually. Why would I want to?"
"I was using it as an example."
"It's a bad one. You think virgins look one way and killers look another way and you can tell them at sight. I say it's nonsense. That nice young boy wasn't old enough to kill anyone."
"My dear, people do what they have to. In war a fourteen-year-old can kill with the best of them. I know. I've met ones who have."
"Perhaps, but there aren't any wars on in France at the moment. And I'll tell you one thing. If that boy stole this from the other man, he's a rotten thief: losing it the minute after he'd got it. No real thief would be that careless with something so valuable."
"That's a point," Sergei said thoughtfully. "But if it's valuable, then why was he so careless with it? Why didn't he remember the coin was in his pocket?"
"He might have been distracted by something else."
Dorian smiled at Sergei's naivete. "Us, of course. You'll recall that we were quite naked at the time. How could he resist? You saw how eager he was to join us. Really, I'm beginning to feel badly now about turning him down."
Sergei had a peculiar expression on his face. "I think you can spare your concern, m'ami. I doubt he's as susceptible as you think. And for the coin, whoever its real owner may be, it isn't us. We should give it to the management and wash our hands of it."
"How boring. We should keep it and let it lead us back to its owner. This is Paris, the city of romance and adventure. Anything can happen here."
"This is Paris, the city of rationality and civilization," Sergei corrected him, "and about as romantic as the turnips they sell at Les Halles."
"Oh, if you're going to take that line, you might as well move to Putney," Dorian said in disgust. "Why live in Paris if you're not ready to follow an adventure when it crosses your path? Come, Sergei. A violet-eyed beauty, Amor incarnate, drops into our bedroom in the midst of a delightful tryst." He gave his friend an appreciative kiss on the ear. "He leaves- perhaps on purpose- a mysterious coin as the sole clue to his identity. And what do you want us to do with it? Hand it over to the local gendarmerie like good bourgeois. Wouldn't you rather follow the trail it leads us on, into the secret labyrinths of this ancient city?"
"You English are addicted to fantasy." Sergei shook his head at the obstinate romanticism of Albion's sons. "It must be the foggy climate. It makes your thinking all woolly."
"That, from a sheep farmer's son, is the acme of praise," Dorian retorted, and Sergei laughed silently. "There's nothing wrong with wool. It's natural and it keeps you warm." Dorian tossed the coin into the air. "Go find your owner, little talisman, and take us with you." He caught it again and put it into his pocket.
When they reached Montmartre the talk had gone from Circassian sheep farmers to Circassian beliefs. Sergei was giving him a highly-coloured account of his country's creation myth in which the parts of Adam and Eve were taken by two stones, one red and one blue, who had each produced one of the two highland tribes by some form of crystalline parthenogenesis.
"The myth probably contains the memory of a prehistoric invasion, when the Aouilles- the blond Circassians- entered the territory of the Acailles, the original dark inhabitants. Evidently there was a period of peaceful coexistence at first, which the myth refers to as the time when the two tribes built the kingdom together; but as the Aouilles grew in number they began to covet more land. There was a war, or a series of wars, which ended with the Acaille defeat and their withdrawal into the mountains."
"But wouldn't there be some mention of a victory then? All the myth says is that your tribe left the country and the Acailles stayed behind. It sounds quite peaceful to me."
"It's the part about withdrawing into the mountains that says otherwise. Like the Celtic Sidhe withdrawing into their fairy mounds, it marks a retreat in the face of an enemy."
Sergei had been leading him up the winding Rue Caillaincourt, and now turned off to a restaurant set back beneath two or three plane trees. The waiter greeted him as an old customer and installed them side by side on a comfortable banquette where they could watch the street outside in the evening twilight. He returned after a minute to take their orders, bearing a carafe of house red, unbidden, and the inevitable French bread.
"The special for me," Sergei told him.
"What's that?" Dorian asked.
"Tripes de veau, monsieur. It's very good."
Dorian swallowed hard. "I think not. Steak poivron, medium rare."
"Very good, monsieur." The waiter vanished and Dorian looked at Sergei reproachfully as he filled their glasses.
"Really, Sergei- have you no soul? Eating a calf's stomach after an afternoon like this one?"
"I'm a peasant, Lord Gloria. We eat everything."
"Everything takes in a lot of territory. You could have something less- well, revolting."
"But why would I want to? French cuisine is peasant cooking that has ascended to Heaven. For once the meek really do inherit the earth. All the despised parts of an animal that you English wouldn't feed to your dogs, in France become the food of the aristocrat. The heads of calves, the tongues of cows, the lungs of-"
Sergei fell silent, his blue eye dancing.
"You did that on purpose," Dorian accused him.
He smiled. "Just a dose of reality to counteract your highflown ideas, m'ami."
"It did that, alright. I'm not sure I have any appetite left. Now will you change your order?"
"Of course not. I like tripe."
Dorian shuddered and contemplated revenge in the form of a trip to Scotland and a plate of haggis. Maybe he could lure Sergei away in the fall for the pheasant shooting or something. But at that point Sergei said "Ah!" and straightened up beside him. Dorian followed his glance out the large plate-glass window and was rewarded by the sight of a quaint figure straight from a Daumier print: a round little curé in old-fashioned soutain and broad-brimmed hat who was leaning with both hands on a fat furled umbrella, deep in conversation with a taller man in a more prosaic beret and coat. As Dorian watched, the two took their leave of each other. Rather to his surprise, it was the little blond priest who trotted away down the hill and the other man- Sergei's acquaintance, evidently- who entered the restaurant.
"Mon père," Sergei called to him, and he turned in their direction, eyes lighting in pleasure.
"Ah, M.Serge," he said. He was a smooth, smiling man in his sixties, with an accent that held the clear purity of the Nantes region. Sergei rose and shook his hand- energetically, since the French are as prodigal of their handshakes as their kisses- and indicated Dorian beside him.
"Mon père," he said, "my friend, Dorian Red Gloria, the comte of Gloria, from England. This is Father Paramelle of the Jesuit order." Dorian extended his own hand for the more natural social function of sealing an introduction and smiled into the lively brown eyes.
"Monseigneur," the Jesuit said, "an honour."
"Please," Dorian demurred, "there's no need to be formal. 'Monseigneur' is for dukes and up. I'm Dorian."
The waiter was already hovering by. "Can you join us?" Sergei asked, "Or do you have a rendezvous?"
"No rendezvous now. I was going to dine with Father Buraun there, but he had one of his eccentric fits and decided he had to catch the boat-train to Calais." He smiled and gave an indulgent shrug over his confrère's peculiarities.
"Then allow us to take his place." Sergei nodded to the waiter, who drew up a chair for the priest and took his order, which to Dorian's relief was for a perfectly respectable truite Normande.
"Father Paramelle is director of the Institute for Ecclesiastic Research over on the Blvd. de Jéna," Sergei told him.
"That only means that I sift through manuscripts of the Greek Fathers and compare them with the existing editions. Very boring. But M.Serge was instrumental in putting me on to a real find in a private collection in Italy. It was one of Athanasius' less famous treatises that had been scraped and reused as a missal. Are you a bibliophile, M. Dorian?"
"An art collector, actually, though Sergei has one or two things I'd love to own." He sighed as he thought of Watteau's shepherds locked in Sergei's safe.
"Ah yes. Our friend drives a hard bargain," Father Paramelle said. "I do sympathize."
"So do you, mon père," Sergei murmured. "You'd have liked me to lower my commission for that Athanasius."
The priest waved his hand. "Since it was to become part of the cultural patrimony of la France, I thought you might want to forego your usual fee."
"Precisely. Since it was to become public property, I thought la France could at least pay me my five percent. For rich clients I make it ten."
"Frankly, if I'd realized how complete the text would turn out to be, I'd never have thought of haggling. The sections we uncovered shed a whole new light on an old area of controversy. I think I know now why Bishop Athanasius was charged with witchcraft."
"He was?" Dorian said in surprise. "Isn't this the Athanasius who wrote the Creed?"
"The one it was named for, yes. A pillar of orthodoxy in the early Church, which was enough to make the opposing faction accuse him of everything from magic to sodomy." He smiled indulgently. "The old Fathers had a lot of fun calling each other names, but it makes it hard for us later scholars to tell how much was fact and how much just a difference of opinion."
The priest turned out to be a surprisingly amusing companion, given the dry area in which he worked. He kept them entertained through dinner with accounts of some of the dottier heresies the Church has known: the Neminians, with their cult of the immortal Nemo- No Man- for 'To No Man has it been given to escape death' and 'No Man has seen the face of God'; the Bogimilians who fasted from all flesh except fish, because fish procreate without the polluting act of copulation; the Catharii whose celibate Perfect Ones had achieved their purity by the previous indulgence of unbridled sexual desire in order to purge it from the soul- "Which practice," Father Paramelle said, "might explain why many Cathars only took the final vows of a Perfect One on their deathbeds"; and the Flagellants, who formed huge, strictly all-male processions that literally flogged themselves across the country, stopping at towns to put on two exhibitions a day for the edification of the inhabitants.
"There are still a few of those around," Dorian murmured, thinking of some clubs he knew in London. He wondered if any leather fanciers today would want to take their show on the road, as it were, like their brethren a thousand years ago. It seemed unlikely. Most of them had good jobs in the City.
"Tell me, mon père, have you ever come across a mention of the name Sephiras in any connection?" Sergei asked casually.
"Sephiras?" The priest's eyebrows rose. "Ah, now you speak of a truly obscure sect, one that's shrouded in mystery. May I hope,"- a light appeared in his eyes- "that you've found an account of the Sephirites in some old book or manuscript?"
"I'm afraid not. I merely heard the name in passing. What is it?"
"Hélas," the priest shrugged philosophically. "Well, the Sephirites seem to have been one of those pagan hold-overs that survived into Christian times: perhaps the members of a Roman mystery religion or a Germanic cult. There are mentions of them here and there until quite late, but our only detailed account comes from the fifth century- a letter of Sidonius Apollinaris about an incident at the court of Theodoric the Ostragoth. His story suggests a confusion of the old pagan traditions and the new Christian theology. Remember that the Ostragoths had only just been converted to Christianity and were a little unsure in their grasp of it. Van Bechtel argues that Sephirism incorporates the myth of Hyakinthos- the pure youth sacrificed to make the crops grow- but myself, I think that's a little farfetched. More likely some Germanic myth like Baldur-"
"But what's it about?" Dorian asked urgently.
"But no-one knows, M.Dorian." Paramelle waved a Gallic hand. "The young son of one of Theodoric's principal retainers disappeared. A serving man whom Apollinaris calls 'hindered in his wits' said the boy had borne a certain mark upon him that showed him to be 'the fiery one, the creator and destroyer, the sun on earth' and hence he had ascended to take his rightful place in the heavens. The mark was called the mark of Sephiras, but as far as Apollinaris was concerned the whole affair was one of deviltry and witchcraft. His letter is mostly concerned with urging the neighbouring bishops to seek out and destroy any similar heresy in their congregations."
"But it involved the ritual sacrifice of a boy, didn't it?" Dorian pressed, looking triumphantly at Sergei.
"Not exactly. He was a young man by the reckoning of the time, meaning fourteen or fifteen."
"But he was murdered."
"Evidently. But there may be another explanation. A chronicle of the period says there had been much unrest among the younger men at Theoderic's court, and a tendency to start the kind of feud that could mushroom into real trouble. The youth in question had already faced one charge of manslaughter. There seems every possibility that he was put out of the way by the family of the man he killed, and the simple serving man given a story to tell that would shift the blame where it could do no damage. It removed a source of trouble and gave the boy's father a wild goose to chase after in the form of this heretic sect. Given the results, some people think Theodoric himself connived at it."
Dorian bit his lip in annoyance, aware of Sergei's 'I told you so' glance beside him.
"You said there were other mention of the sect?" he prompted. "What are they?"
"Mentions, merely- in the records of the Inquisition, in the trials of the Templars, we hear of 'the abominable rite of Sephiras' and 'those who bear the accursed mark of Sephiras.' Apollinaris is the only source we have for their actual beliefs."
"Would it involve anything like this?" Dorian succeeded in extracting the coin from the tight pocket of his pants.
Paramelle looked at it, both sides. "I have no idea, really. I've never seen a coin of this type before." His intelligent eyes moved between Dorian and Sergei. "Dare I ask where you heard the name Sephiras and how you came by this coin?"
Dorian related the encounter this afternoon, not bothering to gloss the circumstances- the man was a Jesuit, after all- and found his trust rewarded in Father Paramelle's unblinking acceptance, not to mention his scholarly enthusiasm.
"I know it's very unlikely, but if you should happen to meet that man again- the one who was talking about Sephiras-"
"The one who was said to be talking about Sephiras," Sergei corrected him gently.
"I concede the point. If you meet either him or the young man again, could you perhaps question them a little more closely? It would be interesting to find a lead, after all these centuries."
"Of course," Dorian said.
"If we meet them," Sergei added dubiously. "Myself I think them both better avoided."
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They bade the priest farewell and took off down the slope of Montmartre.
"There are cafés for our kind around here, if you wish," Sergei said.
"The sights of Paris? Or were you thinking of making a threesome for tonight?"
"If that's what you like," Sergei said, indifferent. "Myself, I'm not so used to variations this early in an affair, but-"
"Oh good. Me neither. But tastes vary, you know. I just thought I'd check."
"Speaking of tastes-" but whatever Sergei was about to say was cut off by a sudden diversion. Quick footsteps overtook them from behind and a figure stepped abruptly into Dorian's path. He found himself facing a young man with the dark triangular eyes of many Frenchmen, a long bony face and a large nose that was almost Bourbon. Dark hair was parted in the centre above a high forehead and descended in two wings to just above the collar. The face was distinguished rather than beautiful but its expression spoke of intelligence and good sense. Unfortunately that impression was somewhat marred by the man's first words.
"Monsieur, may I have a moment of your time?"
"I'm sorry, I'm an Anglican." Dorian said politely.
The young man blinked in astonishment. "I beg your pardon?"
"Au contraire. I beg yours. I misunderstood your purpose. What can I do for you, monsieur?"
"I saw you as you passed the café where I was sitting, and I wished to verify if my first impression was correct. Might I ask you to come into the light?"
Shrugging good-naturedly, Dorian stepped closer to a tobacconist's lighted window.
"Marvellous!" the young man murmured. "It needs only the beard."
"Permit me to introduce myself. I am the duc de Lavallée, and I have been invited this evening to a party at the home of the American hostess Elsa Dubarry. Monsieur is perhaps American?"
"But you are acquainted with the game of the scavenger hunt?"
"Well, yes-" Dorian said, beginning to see where this might be leading.
"Scavenger hunt?" Sergei asked, perplexed.
"A number of people are divided into teams, and each team must find, in the course of an evening, a number of different items," the duc explained. "The first team to find all the items on their list wins. Mme. Dubarry has refined this game. Each team is to find certain specified people and produce them at the start of her party. The team who finds the most people on their list wins. We received our lists by messenger this afternoon and have from six until eleven to search. As it would be inconvenient to traipse around Paris with three or four strangers in one's wake, we are to give each of our 'trouvés' this marker-" He produced a black lacquer oval with a tulip painted on it- "and beg them to present themselves at the house in the Blvd Haussman at eleven o'clock tonight. I hope you are not otherwise engaged, Monsieur?"
"Well, my friend is here. Could I bring him with me?"
"I'm afraid not. Only the trouvés are to have entrance to the house. There will be such a lot of them, you see."
"Then I'm sorry, but I'll have to decline."
"Don't be silly," Sergei said. "You can't miss the chance to see one of Elsa Dubarry's famous parties. Go, by all means. I'll want a full account afterwards."
"We have tonight and all tomorrow, m'ami. I can spare you for an hour or two. And I'm dying to hear the details of Madame's menage."
"But- Oh well, alright, then. But why do you want me?" Dorian asked the duc.
"One of the items on my list was 'Albrecht Durer'. I searched the telephone directory, but there's no-one of that name living in Paris. I thought I wouldn't be able to find that item until I caught a glimpse of you, Monsieur. Except for the small matter of the beard, you are the very image of Durer in his famous self-portrait."
That was a new one to Dorian, but complimentary nonetheless. He accepted the counter and tucked it into his pocket.
"If I may ask your name, Monsieur?"
"Dorian Red Gloria, earl of Gloria."
The other brightened. "A pleasure, my lord," he said in English. "Please do not fail me tonight," and took his departure with a bow.
"Well, well," Sergei said as they continued onwards. "Some people have all the luck. The Dubarry parties are society affairs, and competition for invitations is ferocious."
"Society," Dorian said thoughtfully. "New money and not much background, I suppose."
"It's not the old aristocracy, true, but the old aristocrats can be immense bores. They're all related and they associate only with each other. You rarely find artists and scholars at their homes, while Mme Dubarry is not only a collector herself, she numbers several well-known patrons among her acquaintance."
"Third generation. Her husband's family specializes in seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings." There was no hiding the note of envy in Sergei's voice. "A private collection, never open to the public. I'd give a year of my life to see what you'll be seeing tonight."
"Oh, indeed. Well, that makes it different, doesn't it?"
"Well, as long as it's for work, not pleasure, I don't mind. I'm prepared to make sacrifices for my career. But you do know nothing else would have kept me apart from you on our first weekend together?" Dorian passed a tender arm around Sergei's back.
"Work?" Sergei looked confused. Then comprehension dawned, and his eyebrows knitted. Dorian felt him stiffen away from his arm. "Lord Gloria, perhaps it would be better not to remind me what your chosen profession is. You can't expect me to approve."
"But I *am* a thief, Sergei. There's no use hiding from the fact."
"I'm not hiding, m'ami. I've agreed with myself to ignore it, and I can do that only so long as you don't bring it too often to my attention."
"Selective moral vision?"
"Very much so. It's the only way I can live with a brother like the General."
That made sense. Of course it was a little early in the day to expect Sergei to have shed all his peasant's prejudices. Give him time...
"Let's have a bargain, m'ami," Sergei said. "I won't hold your thefts against you and you won't tell me you do them."
"Done," Dorian said and sealed the pact with a kiss. He twined his arm in Sergei's and they continued through the winding streets of Montmartre. Aware of a slight tension still in his friend's body, Dorian looked for some means of distraction. A lighted sign advertised a below-ground nightclub called The Black Cat and a poster nearby boasted of the famous American singer Léonie.
"Do you know her?" Dorian asked.
"I've heard of her. She's supposed to be good. They call her 'The Evening Star' because she only performs before ten at night."
Dorian peered at the notice. "The first show is beginning soon, if you want to go."
It was a nightclub like any other, and already crowded. The maitre d' found them a single table free at the side and they squeezed in. Sergei ordered Campari and soda, Dorian champagne, and a few minutes later the band took its place on the floor below the small stage. Applause broke out as a black woman stepped into the spotlight and took the microphone. She was tall and lean, with full, rounded features and a mane of black hair to her shoulders. Her deep red gown followed the lines of torso and legs, making of her a sharp splash of colour in the darkness, like a rose petal on a rain-wet street. And when she began to sing, it was impossible to think of anything else.
She sang in both English and French, in a husky but powerful voice. She sang the old standbys, songs that had become banal decades ago: Les Feuilles d'Automne, Yesterday, Ne Me Quitte Pas. But coming from her mouth, imbued with the electricity of her personality, they echoed in Dorian's head like ancient poems he had known in another life. He melted at their bittersweet lyrics, pierced by images of lovers' partings in the cold rains of autumn, of withered yellow leaves falling against an empty grey sky. He ached with the sadness of love's inevitable ending, at the heart-breaking transience of all that is sweet in this world. Those songs spoke to him of the basic and not unsatisfying melancholy of life, and a tear stole unnoticed down his cheek.
Léonie began to sing 'Anyone Who Had a Heart,' and from the audience response Dorian could tell it was her signature song. The words pierced his soul:
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Anyone who ever loved
Could look at me, and know that I love you.
Anyone who ever dreamed
Could look at me, and know I dream of you
Knowing I love you
Anyone who had a heart
Would take me in his arms and love me too.
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'Klaus,' he thought in sweet raptures of grief, 'oh Klaus,' and the tears ran in rivers as the song reached its crescendo, a storm of love and longing as impassioned as the one he'd heard on stage this afternoon, though perhaps not metred so strictly:
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Anyone who had a heart
Would love me too.
Anyone who had a heart
Would simply take me in his arms and always love me
Why won't you?
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Dorian rose to his feet with the rest of the club and applauded wildly as the set ended. The singer bowed, flashed a white smile at her audience and was gone.
Dorian threw himself back into his chair, feeling the orgasm of his soul fade into a pleasant languor. He gave a wet and happy smile over at Sergei who was sitting in silence, head bent, with a hand over his right eye under the concealing hair. Who was he thinking of? Had someone rejected him because of his mutilation? Knowing the shallow butterflies of Paris, it seemed only too likely. He laid a consoling hand on his friend's arm.
"What is it, love?"
Sergei looked up. "I'm still not used to this. You're certain nothing shows?"
Was that all? "Nothing at all," Dorian assured him. "No-one would ever guess."
"Ah. Well. I'm glad." Sergei sounded uncertain.
"You've never thought of getting a false one?"
"Never. It would be the most shameful kind of charade, pretending that a piece of glass was the same as what I lost. In this," he smiled wryly, "I can't settle for a counterfeit."
"Your own flesh and blood," Dorian murmured. "I suppose not." He noticed that the blond man at the table next to them had turned his attention to their conversation and was gazing at Sergei with a concentration that bordered on the offensive.
"You excuse me, monsieur," the man said, leaning forward towards Sergei and speaking with a marked accent. "I must ask you a personal question." The man was good-looking enough in a florid fashion, but that bold stare and the settled complacency behind it put Dorian's teeth on edge.
"Must you indeed?" Sergei asked unencouragingly.
The man smiled, but his eyes remained rivetted to Sergei's face as if reading the secrets of his soul. An amateur, Dorian thought critically. The Svengali routine only works on virgins, and not always then.
"I am looking for someone and I think you may be he."
"If you're looking for Serge the book seller, I am."
"Not by that name exactly-"
"That's the only one I have. And for the rest, I have all the company I wish for this evening." He nodded briefly at Dorian.
"You misunderstand me." He gave an amused laugh. "Perhaps I should introduce myself."
"What a good idea," Dorian said with hearty approbation. The man finally gave him a glance, not certain if that was irony or fatuousness. Dorian's smile didn't enlighten him.
"I am Count Fersen. My family is of the old Scandinavian nobility, but business brings me often to France and England."
"Fersen?" Dorian asked in surprise. "Are you descended from the Count von Fersen who was the lover of Marie-Antoinette?"
"Also the lover of Gustavus III of Sweden, Gustavus IV and Charles XIII," the count said with pardonable pride.
"Those were the days," Dorian sighed enviously. Well, with such a distinguished lineage, maybe the man could be allowed a little arrogance. The count was watching to see what effect his family connections had on Sergei, but the Circassian looked unimpressed. Evidently the name meant nothing to him.
"The original Count von Fersen was in love with Marie-Antoinette," Dorian informed him. "He attempted to rescue the royal family on the night of their arrest, in vain of course. Her death so embittered him against the common people that when he went back to Sweden he oppressed his peasants grievously. They rose up in a mob and murdered him, so that in the end he died for the same reasons as the Queen he loved. I always think that's such a romantic story."
"You're well-informed," Count Fersen said, sounding surprised. That his surprise also sounded insulting was no doubt unintentional. "Might I ask who--"
"Dorian Red Gloria, earl of Gloria, from England."
"An English lord? Why then, I may claim kinship. My ancestors were your countrymen." He smiled graciously, a cosmopolitan aristocrat acknowledging a rustic fifth cousin. Dorian's opinion of the man, that had been teetering between annoyance and amusement, fell abruptly onto the latter side. How could one take such marvellous conceit seriously?
"Your family came from England?" he prompted.
"Yes. The original Count von Fersen was a McPherson from Scotland."
Useless to explain to a European that the Scots and the English weren't even the same race. Dorian smiled agreement while several of his own ancestors turned in their graves.
"Then I hope, mon cousin," the count said, "that you'll persuade your friend to agree to my request. I've been invited to a party at Mme. Dubarry's this evening and I need to find a number of people before eleven o'clock-"
"The scavenger hunt!" Dorian said in surprise.
"You know of it?"
"I've already been 'found' by someone," he explained. He fished in his pocket for the lacquered counter and pulled it out. The coin came with it and fell to the floor where it twirled for a moment and then rolled into the shadows under their tables. This led to one of those tiresome searches where everyone's feet seem to be in everyone's way as one gropes in sticky darkness, and the desired object itself retreats from touch as if endowed with both animation and malice. In the end a waiter with a flashlight went on his hands and knees and retrieved the gold object from under the next banquette. After apologies to their neighbours and a large tip to the waiter, Dorian was at last able to regain his seat, feeling by this time both grubby and foolish.
"What is this, Monsieur? Some antiquity?" the count asked, taking it in his fingers.
"A coin I picked up today," Dorian answered, "dropped by a charming creature who passed through our afternoon. Have you ever seen its like before?"
"Yes, in fact. I believe it's a fairly common coin of the reign of Tiberius. If you'd care to leave this with me, I could check with my friend Prof. Krepler, the numismatist."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I don't want to let it out of my sight."
The count raised a wondering eyebrow. "Why ever not? I can assure you it's not at all valuable."
"Just a superstition," Dorian said lightly. "I'm on a hunt of my own, for its owner, and I'm trusting to the coin to lead me to him." The count could well be wrong about the coin's origin, and as long as the possibility existed Dorian was not about to take the chance of hearing some Krepler person say he was right.
"Ah. I see. Good luck then, milord." The count handed it back. "And if M. Serge will consent to be one of my trouvés-" Fersen took a black lacquer counter from his breast pocket, this one with an enamelled lily, and placed it before Sergei with an intimate smile.
"Certainly," the Circassian said, not picking it up. "But what requirement do I fill? Does your list specify an antiquarian bookseller?"
"No, actually. A one-eyed man." He seemed not to register the small stillness that went across Sergei's face. "I gathered from your conversation that you do indeed have only one eye?"
"I do," Sergei said. "Will I have to demonstrate?"
"Oh, I doubt it. Though I trust you'd be prepared- if someone were to challenge your authenticity..."
"But of course," Sergei said, turning to him, and flipped the hair away from the mutilated side of his face. Fersen swallowed hard.
"Excellent," he said, unable to hide the shaking in his voice. "Then I will see you later this evening, gentlemen." He rose and left abruptly.
'And serve him right,' Dorian thought in satisfaction.
Sergei let his breath out in a disgusted 'hmph' and picked up the counter.
"Every man has his price. Evidently this is mine," he said sardonically. "The entree to Madame's house and a glimpse of her collection, in return for being useful to that unpleasant Swede. At least I didn't have to sleep with him."
"He may proposition you later tonight," Dorian said encouragingly. "After he's separated you from me by a promise to show you the Dubarry etchings and gotten you alone in a small salon with a convenient chaise longue..."
Sergei gave a short laugh. "Never. I keep clear of types like that. They have unhealthy fantasies."
"Unhealthy?" Dorian asked, surprised by the quaint word. "What do you mean?"
"Nothing you'd know about, m'ami. Your fantasies are-- fantastic, but charming. Like yourself." Sergei smiled and gave him a kiss. Lovely as it was, it had the feel of a fence suddenly appearing in his path. Dorian knew he was being steered away from one of Sergei's many private areas, but he felt disinclined to take the hint.
"And Count Fersen's aren't?" he pressed.
"I suspect not."
"In what way?"
Sergei shrugged. "I may be wrong, Lord Gloria. But there are men who find the idea of mutilation arousing."
"Oh. Oh I see," said Dorian, who didn't. It sounded daft to him, not to say unlikely. "Well, that's their problem, isn't it? It's nothing to do with you."
"Evidently." Sergei looked away.
"Truly, Sergei, do you mind as much as that?"
Sergei didn't answer.
"I'm sorry. That was an idiotic thing to say. I didn't mean to be--"
"No-- No, it's alright, m'ami. I'm just not used to talking about it." He hesitated, then went on. "My eye... It's all mixed up with my friend dying. It happened just after..." A pause. "The two always seemed the same-- as if losing my eye was somehow just the physical expression of losing him. It's always been- I don't know. Too private, maybe, to let other people see. And here I am, flaunting it, merely to shock a man with no manners." He shook his head ruefully. "You're a terrible influence, Lord Gloria."
"Am I? I just don't see the need to hide things. And the amiable count wants a little taking down- him and his McPherson ancestors."
Sergei smiled at some private joke. "The count is a thorough fraud. His famous ancestor wasn't killed by oppressed peasants at all. He was attacked by a group of unknown men on the streets of Stockholm who beat him to death with walking sticks and umbrellas."
"Umbrellas!" Dorian said, aghast.
"Alas, yes. I'd respect the present Count Fersen more if he'd corrected your romantic version for you."
"I'm glad he didn't. There are some things a man can't be expected to admit, and having an ancestor beaten to death with an umbrella is one of them." Dorian looked disconsolate at the collapse of that lovely story. "Shall we go? Just let me wash my hands first."
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Paris is a city for walking. The two of them descended the many steps from the heights of Montmartre, following the line of glowing white globes that plunged down the steep escalier. They traversed the twisty medieval streets below the Sacre Coeur and continued southward by the slightly more rational street system that prevails in the Ninth. Eventually they crossed the broad avenue which was, a few blocks to the west, the Blvd. Haussman, though here it was having one of its many identity crises and calling itself the Blvd. Poisonnière. A block to the east it became the Blvd. Bonne Nouvelle, then the Blvd. St Denis, then the Blvd. St Martin, and then- well, etcetera. Shortly afterwards they passed the dark bulk of the Bourse and the long wall of the Louvre, and came at last to the Seine.
"This way, m'ami," Sergei said, turning left onto the avenue that bordered the river. Dorian, who had automatically assumed they were turning right for the Pont des Arts, the Rive Gauche, and home, made a noise of surprise.
"I think we should go to the Marais. There's someone I'm hoping to find."
Dorian was nothing loath. An evening walk by the Seine seemed just the thing to suit his mood and his digestion. The night was cool, with a little breeze beginning, and a new moon hung in the sky like the white smile of a celestial Cheshire Cat. Other couples were out strolling beneath the budding chestnut trees, hand in hand or, like themselves, with arms about each other's waists. Stray snatches of lovers' French and the occasional low laugh came from the dark as they passed. Dorian and Sergei walked in slow contented silence, past bridges ancient and modern whose storied names were as familiar and comfortable as those of old friends. Pont Neuf, Pont au Change, Pont Notre Dame... From riverside restaurants and cafés came the clink of cutlery and brief enticing smells of lemon and garlic and grilled meat. Over on the Ile de la Cité loomed the bulk of Notre Dame, bathed in yellow floodlights, a huge ship of stone motionless in the current. Around it the little pleasure boats passed to and fro, frivolous with coloured lanterns, the noise of the tipsy merry-makers within carrying clearly over the waters. Pont d'Arcole, Pont Louis Phillippe, Pont Marie... Sergei's steps kept automatic time with his, and Sergei's hip brushed his own pleasantly, and Sergei's waist moved pliantly within his encircling arm. Memory began to recall how that same waist felt when Sergei was naked, and pictured in detail the strong narrow buttocks below it, and then moved on to certain adjacent areas that he'd grown quite fond of in the last day or two. Dorian found his trousers becoming too tight for comfort. To make matters worse, Sergei's hand had drifted down his back and was resting warmly and insistently on his behind. Obviously once again they were thinking the same thing.
"Where to this time?" Dorian said, stopping and turning to his friend.
"We're close enough to home," Sergei murmured in his ear, pressing nearer.
"Not if you keep doing that." Dorian writhed at the pressure of Sergei's concealed hand between his legs.
"True. Would you like to be a little déclassé? Have me up against a wall like a matelot with his girl?"
"I would adore-" Dorian said with difficulty, "to have you up against a wall like a matelot, but not if it means spending the evening explaining ourselves to the gendarmes." He grasped Sergei's hand and held it away from his crotch. "We have a party to go to."
"As I said, Paris has all the conveniences, including places to be déclassé in."
"Even in the Fourth?"
"The Marais is in the Fourth, remember." And the Marais, Dorian knew, was a centre of gay nightlife in Paris. He followed Sergei across the Quai des Celestins and into the narrow web of streets beyond, heading presumably to some club. He hoped it would be at least private. Discreet exhibitionism was one thing; screwing in front of a whole room was something else.
After a few minutes Sergei turned down a tunnel-like entrance that brought them to the courtyard of some eighteenth century house. Without stopping he took them out through a rear passageway, and they emerged into a squarish open space bounded by the backs of ancient leaning buildings. Dorian looked around for the expected doorway or cellar stairs. The thin moon did little to light the blank walls about them. The one yellow lampbulb in its grilled cage over the passage's mouth showed an unassorted pile of lumber and iron and not much else. "Where is it?"
"Here. A convenient place for a piss or a shag, or both." It smelled faintly of the first, certainly, the sharp vinegary urine of a wine-drinking nation mixing with the cold breath of ancient stone and plaster coming from the dilapidated houses about them.
"Where is here?"
"Between the Rue des Lions, where Charles VI kept his menagerie, and the Rue du Petit Musc."
"It's not just a little musky," Dorian pointed out.
"That's a corruption of the 14th century name, the one that meant 'Where the whores are'."
"Too déclassé for you? Or not private enough?"
"Neither." There was, in fact, something exciting at the thought of having sex in this tiny human spot, humble amidst the historic grandeurs of the city, where for centuries Parisians had come to attend to the basic needs of the body. Around them writhed the ghosts of who knew how many generations of drinkers and swivers, lovers-for-a-moment snatching a little pleasure and relief together. Almost one could see them, the long line that began with the cod-pieced subjects of mad King Charles in their high-necked houppelandes and dagged sleeves, and ended with the two of them now in prosaic twentieth century trousers, preparing to add their signatures to the psychic graffiti of the place. And all those generations, like them, had known this present ache of the flesh and had bowed to the demands of an unsatisfied cock. That thought made Dorian's flesh ache more. He put his arms round Sergei, lipping the smooth skin of his neck, and murmured, "What do you want me to be? A sailor on leave? An apache dancer with a knife in my shoe?"
"Or one of the King's lions." Sergei bit his ear, surprisingly hard. Dorian took him by the shoulders and pushed him back against the wall, kissing him fiercely and forcefully. Sergei fought to evade him, writhing so that his hard body brushed deliberately against Dorian's own hardening parts. Miming mastery, Dorian managed to pin him down briefly and tore open the fastenings of the long Circassian coat before Sergei twisted again out of his grasp. It was like dancing a tango, taking overstated but exciting attitudes of conquest and resistance. Hindered by Sergei's arms thrusting at him, Dorian got the other's belt buckle undone, jerked open the fly, and pushed his trousers down to his knees. Sergei's struggles became more frantic as he fought like a virgin to keep Dorian's hands from his body. Dorian pinioned Sergei's arms above his head and took hold of his sex, working at him mercilessly. At that his friend gave up the fight and collapsed against the wall, submitting to Dorian's will and his own pleasure. Dorian stroked him hard, drawing a choked low moan from Sergei's throat. Hardly more than a deeply indrawn breath, it was the only sound he ever made during sex. Some day, Dorian vowed as he milked him fiercely, some day Sergei would cry out aloud beneath his touch. But not today. Sergei's head fell back, his spine and loins arched, and his seed spilled hot across Dorian's palm.
Willessly the Circassian let himself be turned around, and bent obediently to the instructions of Dorian's hands. He braced his arms against the wall so that his long hair, sliding forward, concealed his face, and offered his narrow buttocks to Dorian in an attitude both graceful and generous. Dorian slipped his fingers between them, making use of whatever moisture Sergei's own body could provide. At last he loosed his own aching organ, covered it with a mouthful of slippery spit, and squeezed his way inside to the familiar warmth. Sweet hot tightness was about him, lovely yielding flesh enclosed him, and his head began to swim with the thrill of possession. His fingers sank into Sergei's hips and he began to pump at him hard, using his friend's body without compassion as he gave his whole heart to this game of domination. He was a lion mounting its mate, he was a sailor in tight pants trulling a dance hall whore, he was... moving back and forth, the pace going beyond his control, he was a man making love against a Parisian wall under the Paris moon at the heart of the city of Love. Too swiftly the fire mounted to his brain and took him away. He felt rather than heard his cries joining to Sergei's moans and became aware at the edge of his consciousness of the changed rhythm of Sergei's thrusting hips. Then for a little he ceased to be aware of anything at all, until the flashing lights before his eyes faded into the natural evening darkness. His partner finished shortly after himself and they lay propped against the wall for a moment, drawing shuddering gasps. Dorian's lips nuzzled a little at the back of Sergei's neck, less in passion than from an obscure need for comfort. It was all so lovely, and Sergei was so lovely, and this small cold melancholy at the bottom of his heart was just the price he occasionally had to pay for his pleasure.
After a moment they put themselves to rights. The night was chilly in spite of the coursing blood that warmed them, but once dressed it seemed necessary to push Sergei against the wall again and go on kissing him: or else Sergei found it necessary to lean against the wall again and go on kissing Dorian. But who could resist those beautiful warm lips of Sergei's, full and talented, and his twisting tongue and sweet breath, and the hard muscles of his chest and legs braced to support Dorian's? The ghostly melancholy vanished like frost in sunlight as Dorian's attention became focussed on the delights of the present activity. A cat prowled on the wall overhead, calling for a mate of its own, which made Sergei's chest jerk a little in soundless laughter beneath Dorian's; and a lone merrymaker entered the little cul-de-sac, glanced their way and then went to relieve himself in the far corner. At last they loosed each other, both by now inclined to giggle, and turned to leave. They reached the passage entrance and paused to let the other man go first. He was about to do so when he stopped abruptly.
"You!" he cried in surprise. "It was you- this afternoon-"
They peered at him in the uncertain light. The voice certainly seemed the same.
"At the Maison Valvert?" Sergei asked. "It was you chasing that thief?"
"Thief?" the man said. "Was that what he was?"
"Wasn't he? I assumed-"
"He's a mannerless little whore, is what he is," the man said in disgust. "And he got clean away without a word of explanation. I'm going to say a few things to his pimp when I see him."
"You mean he took your money and ran?" Dorian asked, confused.
"I never pay in advance. What kind of fool do you think I am?"
"Then what happened?"
"I'd arranged a rendezvous," the man said, aggrieved. "He was all ready and waiting as promised, but as soon as I started undressing- it was incredible- he jumps out the window and runs from me. From me! I ask you, am I so ugly- so ill-favoured- as to deserve that kind of treatment from a tart?"
"Not at all," Dorian assured him truthfully. His features were hard but handsome, and he had the same manly arrogance as the Major. He wasn't the Major, so Dorian's pulse beat no faster, but as a customer he was nothing to complain about unless one was very discriminating indeed.
"Did you say something that frightened him?" Sergei asked. "You know these street boys can be a little skittish."
The man snorted. "Not unless 'Fine weather for April. The daffodils are out in the Tuileries' sounds like a threat to you. I suppose the boy could be touched in the head. In which case-" his face darkened again, "what did they mean by sending him to me in the first place? It's an insult."
"Indeed." Dorian shook his head, thinking with deep regret that one had to believe him. The man's vanity was iron-plated. When that kind of person makes a story up it shows him in a flattering light, not in a farcical one like this- chasing after a boy-whore who'd taken against him, of all the undignified things. Just at that moment Dorian was strongly disposed to share the boy's dislike, though he knew he was being unfair. It was surprising how much he minded the collapse of his little mystery. That story this afternoon had had such possibilities- ancient societies of beautiful youths, secret ceremonies with a hint of darkness to them, arcane talismans from the pagan world. And in the end it had only been the fantasy of an imaginative and high-strung boy, trying to cloak the hard realities of his profession in a little romance. Poor child.
"So," he asked, preparing to abandon his last small hope, "you didn't mention the rites of Sephiras to him or anything like that?"
The results were dramatic. The man turned to stone, eyes bulging. "Sephiras?! What do you know about Sephiras?" His fierce glance darted between them. "Who sent you? Who are you?" He moved to block the entrance to the alleyway with his broad body. An ugly gleaming gun, fat and black as a spider, appeared in his fist. "Stand over there- together! At once!"
Dorian gave a shriek that borrowed heavily from Lucia's mad scene. "A GUN!! It's a GUN!!!" He tottered back and collapsed in a graceful swoon, drawing the man's eye towards him for a second. In that moment Sergei kicked out with lightning swiftness, knocking the gun onto the cobblestones. He followed up with a fast hand chop to the arm. The man howled, but instead of collapsing in his own turn, he disappeared down the alleyway at frenetic speed.
"Fast thinking," Sergei said as Dorian got to his feet.
"That was a reflex, I'll have you know. I always faint at the sight of guns." He regarded the one on the ground with distaste.
"I suppose we should take that with us," Sergei said, making no move to pick it up.
"You take it. I can't stand the things."
"Nor I." He prodded it well into the pile of rubbish with his foot. "Let's go before he comes back with help."
Swiftly they retraced their steps through the maze of buildings, but this time turned onto the bustling Rue de Rivoli. Amidst the strollers and café fronts they would be safer from attack. Dorian's eyes were still busy scanning the crowds as they walked.
"Were you serious about the guns?" Sergei said beside him.
"Not exactly. I don't faint, but my hands go all wobbly if I have to hold them."
"So you weren't just trying to distract his attention from me?"
"Of course I was. You said you'd studied the martial arts, so I naturally assumed--" Actually, he realized, what he'd assumed was that it had been Klaus there beside him. He tried to explain. "I guess it was a reflex. The only times I have guns pointed at me is when I work with Klaus, so when I see a gun I naturally think-- well, you know-"
"That the Major's there to save your skin. You should school your reflexes better, m'ami. They could prove dangerous."
"The Major doesn't save my skin unless he absolutely has to. I take care of myself," he said. "If you hadn't been there I'd have thought of something else." Sergei said nothing, and said it very clearly. "Really," Dorian assured him and was about to give examples, but remembered in the nick of time that he wasn't supposed to remind Sergei what narrow fixes his chosen hobby could get him into. "Where are we going?" he asked instead, as Sergei paused at a light that would take them across the Rue de Rivoli. "Don't we want to be going back home? We really should change for the party."
"The man I'm looking for, if he's here, will be in one of the restaurants on the other side. In view of what's just happened, I think we should try to find him."
"Who is he?"
"Yes?" Dorian prompted, as no further information was forthcoming. "Who's Thompson?"
"When he's sane, he's one of the best curio dealers in Paris. The rest of the time he's at least amusing."
Sergei stopped and scanned the crowd in front of a brasserie. "A moment, m'ami." He disappeared inside but emerged almost immediately. They repeated this manoeuvre at three more establishments. At the fourth Sergei gave a small 'Ah' of pleasure. "That coin, please, Dorian," he said, and Dorian fished it out and passed it over. Sergei took them to the far corner of the sidewalk part of the café. A small man was sitting alone at a table, peering intently at a catalogue. He was so short his legs didn't reach the ground. Heavy spectacles of greenish glass concealed his eyes and his head was covered by an outdated bowler hat. His mouth was invisible behind a drooping handlebar moustache and the rest of him was muffled in a shapeless black overcoat. The whole effect was unprepossessing in the extreme. Dorian hoped Sergei knew what he was doing.
"Good evening, M.Thompson," Sergei said, standing by the little man's table.
"M.Serge," the other mumbled in a rusty voice, not looking up.
Sergei placed the coin on the table and stood as before, saying nothing.
"What's this?" the other said incuriously, picking it up and squinting at it. "Ohh-hohh. Hmmm. I see, yes. You've been fishing in deep waters, young Serge- deep and muddy. You don't need this kind of thing, not with your looks. Go home and forget about it." He dropped the coin onto the table and went back to his book.
"But it's just a common coin of the reign of Tiberius," Dorian said, retrieving it again.
"Who asked you?" the other asked angrily, looking up. "Oh. Ohh. Beautiful stranger, what heavenly realm did you drop from?" Dorian blinked. The dry voice had turned suddenly beautiful, become melodious and caressing as a deep cello. "Hair of Phoibos, eyes of Hyakinthos, face of the divine seraphim, sit down and share a glass of wine with me." He took off the spectacles to reveal eyes of a clear and commanding blue and Dorian unthinkingly pulled out a chair. Sergei's hand dug into his arm and he blinked, feeling momentarily disoriented, as though he'd fallen asleep unawares.
"He does not eat of mortal food who has tasted the food of heaven," Sergei said gravely.
"But he who eats with me shall tonight be in Paradise," the other answered in an unspeakably coquettish manner.
"My friend is still too young to take up an eternal sleep. To business, M. Thompson. I'm told this is a coin of Tiberius' reign. What will you pay for it?"
Thompson batted his amazing eyes at Dorian and gave him the tribute of a regretful sigh before turning his scowl on Sergei. "It isn't a coin and I wouldn't give you a centime for it if centimes still existed. But I'll give you advice for free, mon beau. If you have any regard for your beautiful face and that of your beautiful companion, you'll drop this into the sewer it came from and let the rats break their teeth on it. Good-night, messieurs." He turned back to his catalogue.
"But what is it then?" Dorian asked, frustrated.
"The sign of the secret society that has its tentacles in all corners of the world, the mark of the international conspiracy that controls stock markets and banks and countries, the signature of the pack of robbing murderers who want to drive me from my kingdom." Thompson spoke perfectly calmly. "Also- and quite incidentally- the passport to heaven or hell, depending."
"On what?" Dorian couldn't forebear asking.
"On whom you meet there, of course." He turned the page to an illustration of precious stones.
"I see. Thank you for your advice," Sergei said. "Good-night, Monsieur." He nodded Dorian out of the café.
"He's cracked. He really thinks he's a king?" Dorian asked as they left.
"Sometimes, yes, he thinks he's the ruler of a principality over the sea. The rest of the time he knows he's an English emigré with an encyclopedic knowledge of gold and gems. There's never any telling which one you'll be talking to."
"How much of what he said do we believe then?"
"It's not a coin of the reign of Tiberius, that's certain. Which rather raises the question of why Count Fersen told us it was."
"Oh." Dorian thought about that. Was it a genuine mistake on the count's part, or a deliberate one? "You were suspicious of him from the start, weren't you?"
"Father Paramelle is a classicist. Coins may not be his specialty but he'd know what a real Roman drachma looked like."
Dorian grimaced. He should have thought of that for himself.
"And the rest? Could it really be the mark of a secret society? That matches what the boy said."
"Believe that part if you like. It means you also have to believe that Thompson is the beautiful boy-king of the Diamond Islands. I think we can take it that the international conspiracy is just one of his delusions."
"And the passport to heaven or hell? What does that mean?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. Probably nothing at all."
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Showered, shaved and changed into clean clothes they took a taxi to the Blvd. Haussman where Madame's eighteenth century townhouse stood behind high walls and a wrought-iron gate. A servant stopped their entry at the latter and asked for their invitations. He wore a powdered wig and livery of yellow silk, and displayed a formal courtesy that perfectly matched his costume. They showed their counters and were escorted by another minion part way up the curving drive and thence along a gravel path to a side portico. This took them into what had once been a reception hall, where they were relieved of their coats.
It was a large room with many chairs, and long tables against each wall laden with wine and refreshments. The guests present were unexpectedly diverse for a society party. Faubourg accents mixed with Algerian, large-framed Europeans towered above small-boned Asians, and highbridged Gallic noses stood in contrast to thin, carved Sudanese ones. From the conversation it appeared that all those present were 'trouvés' though some were also guests of Madame. Dorian had half expected that he and his fellow found objects would be treated as just part of the entertainment, but there was no suggestion of that in the excellent food and drink provided for them. It was only the minion's deprecating "Please remain in this hall until Madame arrives, messieurs," that showed they were in some fashion limited in their movements.
Not that either was about to complain. Six large canvases covered the walls, specimens of the Dubarry collection. Sergei went at once to a Fragonard and stood expressionless before it, eyes slowly taking in its details. In a green dell a young shepherdess, all pink and white, sat playing with the nosegay her kneeling swain had given her. The young man leaned smiling towards his love, and the woman's downcast eyes and mischievous curling lips were giving him permission for the kiss that was clearly just about to take place. The kiss, and the inevitable decline backwards onto the long grass, and the rustle of petticoats as a seeking hand found soft warm flesh among the smooth silk, and... Dorian pulled himself away before his sensibilities could be further affected. He began a deliberate tour of the room, noting what might be a minor Rubens and a Phillippe de Champagne, but in the end the fascination of the pastoral world drew him back to his friend's side. They stood in silent contemplation of the sweet colours before them, the fingers of Dorian's right hand half-consciously twining with the fingers of Sergei's left as he looked.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" a voice asked beside them, and they found themselves accosted by a round middle-aged man in a skull cap, with steel-framed spectacles and a goodly amount of beard.
"Exquisite. You like Fragonard?" Dorian asked.
"Very much." He smiled. "My religion forbids me the making of graven images, but fortunately it allows me to enjoy other people's."
"My name is Henri Samson. And you?"
They introduced themselves, and in the course of conversation it transpired that M. Samson dealt in theatrical properties and costumes from a store in the Rue des Rosiers. It was he who pointed out that the room's five tables were each adorned with only one kind of flower and wondered if that fact had any bearing on their counters. His own bore a delicate painting of a bunch of violets.
"And how do you qualify for the hunt, Monsieur?" Dorian asked.
Samson smiled. "The list required a singing Jew, which is what I am on certain occasions. Friday evenings I serve as cantor- the man who sings the sacred texts- at a synagogue in the 17th."
"How on earth did they find you?" Sergei wondered.
"Easily. One of the Violets, Mme. Barmann, is a member of my congregation. She gave me a phone call."
"Easy when you know," Dorian agreed. "I'm here as Albrecht Durer."
"Aah." Samson looked at him critically. "A close resemblance, except for the beard and moustache."
"Well, there was no time to grow one between this afternoon and now," Dorian remarked cheerfully.
"But something could be contrived. Your hair, if I may say so, has much the same texture as Durer's beard in the portrait- the same silky softness. Now perhaps three or four centimetres of that and some spirit gum..." His eyes surveyed Dorian with professional interest.
Intrigued in spite of himself, Dorian objected, "But we don't have any spirit gum."
"Ordinary flour and water paste would do. I wonder if one of the servants here..."
In the end a lackey obliged them with a pair of scissors and some homemade glue from the kitchen. Samson snipped and pasted the curly hair while Sergei made grave suggestions as to placement. Dorian suspected that his friend wanted to laugh, but he really didn't care. Disguises and dressing up were second nature to him. This was just part of the fun. A pity he hadn't thought of finding a cambric shirt like Durer's that opened enticingly over his chest.
They were barely finished when Madame and her guests arrived. The trouvés were asked to assemble at the table bearing their flower symbol. Dorian repaired to the Tulip table to find a number of people already there, including a thin blonde girl in a Dior original, a snowy-haired old Dutchman, a dark woman in her forties, and- Dorian's heart gave a great leap of amazement and delight- Klaus' butler!
"What are *you* doing here?" he demanded, taking him by the arm. "Is the Major in town?"
"I beg your pardon?!" the other said in English, turning in surprise and displeasure. Dorian let him go at once. The man had an American accent, and Dorian could see now that the moustache was much too heavy to be Fritz's. But otherwise the resemblance was striking- the small pointed nose, the thinning black hair combed across his forehead, even the same chronic anxious frown.
"Oh- uh, I'm sorry," Dorian stammered. "I mistook you for an acquaintance. Your pardon, Mr.- uhh?-"
"Somers," the man said. "Patalyke Somers of the Euchary Art Gallery in New York. And you?"
"Oh," Dorian said, dismissing the small disappointment from his heart. "I'm Dorian Red Gloria."
"How do you do?" Somers shook his hand. "Did you say 'Wredd-Gloria'? You English sure have some funny names." Dorian was about to retort that anyone who sported 'Patalyke' as a Christian name was in no position to talk, but at that moment the duc de Lavalée came to join his team. He smiled in delight at the sight of Dorian.
"Perfect, absolutely perfect," he said with simple pleasure. "How clever of you to have thought of that!" Dorian looked modest. He glanced across the room to where Sergei was standing, pointedly not responding to Fersen who had placed himself on his blind side. Expression neutral, Sergei was half-nodding at something the count was saying to him, but his own gaze was on the shepherd and shepherdess on the far wall. It was perhaps as well that he couldn't see the other's face. Fersen's eyes held an unpleasant gleam and were fixed on the veil of hair that covered Sergei's mutilated eye.
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The judging began. Dorian's companions turned out to be, among others, 'The Four Seasons.' The dark woman was the Duchesse d'Autun, the Dutchman was mayor of Winterthur, the blonde girl was the heiress to the Printemps department store chain, and Mr. Somers supplied the remaining season. There were deprecating groans as the names were announced, but Madame Dubarry, the final arbiter, laughed aloud with hearty appreciation. In the end, however, the prize was awarded to Fersen and his fellow Lilies, for having found everyone on their list: personages as diverse as an Iranian bus conductor, who turned out to be a cheerful woman in a head-veil; a Gascon traffic conductor, located by the team member who was a bigwig in the police force; and a German orchestra conductor, Herr von Furtwengler himself. Madame insisted, however, on awarding a special prize to the Tulips for sheer ingenuity and charm, and presented the Limoges vase to Dorian as most clearly representative of both. Dorian smiled at her as winsomely as he could and handed the prize over to the duc with a kiss. Lavallée looked surprised but not at all displeased. At another time Dorian might have pursued the matter, but Sergei had come over to his side with the persistent Swede in tow.
"Congratulations, m'ami," he said, giving Dorian a kiss in his turn.
"Well done, Count," Lavallée was saying to Fersen. "That was luck, having Furtwengler in town tonight."
"Not at all." Fersen brushed him off. "Let's go tour the collection," he said to Sergei. It might only have been his northern diction that made the invitation sound like a command.
"First I think we need to tidy Lord Gloria up a bit. M.le Duc will forgive me for making off with him?"
"But of course, Monsieur," Lavallée said. "The footman will direct you to the cloakroom." Observing the graceful exchange Dorian mused, and not for the first time, that nothing about Sergei indicated his country background. He could have been born a Parisian.
"Thank you for an interesting experience, Count," Sergei was saying. "I trust you'll have a pleasant evening." He took Dorian's arm and steered him away. In fact, Dorian thought, Sergei had mastered the French art of being surface-polite and submerged-arrogant as if to the manner born.
"Temper, temper," he said to Sergei's flat mouth as they walked to the door.
"Ah well." Sergei loosed a long breath. "I meet that type from time to time, though I usually don't need to hide behind my lover's back. He's persistent, whatever else he is. I hope you do want to tidy up a bit?"
"Definitely," Dorian said. "This is much more uncomfortable than spirit gum."
The periwigged serving man by the door gave them directions and they started down the long corridor with its hanging tapestries and occasional sideboards. Other guests were leaving the reception hall as well and making their way into the various rooms opening from the hallway, whose doorways gave enticing glimpses of the framed pictures within. Dorian couldn't help craning to see as he passed, to get a taste of the delights that awaited them in a few minutes' time. Just as they reached the large dining room to which most of the guests were headed, a man came running out of it and stood peering myopically up and down the corridor, obviously in a pother about something. Behind the thick lenses of his glasses his eyes looked like a goldfish's, and his agitated mouth worked like a guppy's as he accosted Sergei and Dorian.
"Messieurs," he said in frantic tones, "Messieurs, have you seen the Professor? An old gentleman with white hair and moustache? He was here just a minute ago, I'll swear, you must have passed him-"
"Not here," Sergei said. "But there's a man of that description back in the reception hall, by the tulip table." He nodded in the direction from which they'd come.
"Oh dear, oh dear," the man said, actually wringing his hands. "How did he get there? I *must* find him, before--" Not finishing his sentence he darted down the corridor, arms flapping a little.
"'Oh my fur and whiskers'," Dorian remarked in amusement. Sergei looked startled.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Oh- nothing. A literary reference. I wonder what he wants with Mynheer Vrielands?" They rounded a corner and found the promised cloakroom, empty and with all the necessities provided. The paste and water washed off easily with the help of a little sandalwood soap. Dorian sent it gurgling down the drain and stood up his own clean-shaven self.
"All off?" he asked Sergei, who was watching him with one hip perched comfortably on the counter.
"Just a little here." Sergei wiped the corner of Dorian's jaw with a towel, then kissed the spot and the ear above it. Dorian kissed him back, and was about to pursue the exercise when they heard the door opening.
"Messieurs," a small, forlorn and familiar voice addressed them. They turned to stare. The red-haired apparition of this afternoon had come into the room and was hesitating by the door, shoulders drooping and eyes fixed on them pathetically. There was none of the assured sprightliness of his earlier appearance. In fact, he looked rather like a spanked puppy.
"What are you doing here?" Dorian asked.
"I followed you," the boy said, "after I saw you getting into your taxi on the Blvd. Ste. Germaine. I've been looking for you all evening. Please, messieurs- that coin I dropped in your room: you must give it back to me."
Sergei said before Dorian could speak, "I doubt that it's a coin, mon brave, and you're not getting it back until we have some answers."
"We met the man who was chasing you," Dorian said more gently. "He gave us quite another version of what was happening. Suppose you tell us the truth now?"
The boy sighed. "I have no choice. I'm at your mercy. But it will mean telling you some of the story of my life."
"Go ahead," Sergei said, unencouragingly.
The boy perched on the counter and proceeded to speak.
"My parents died young and I was placed in a boarding school by my guardians. It was the sort of place you might expect, and having the looks I did I was quickly forced to become the catamite of the senior boys who terrorized the rest of the school. My guardians turned a deaf ear to my pleas to be removed from the place, and in the extremity of my misery I ran away. I was only eight at the time. I knew nothing of the world. Within days I was sick and starving, but I had resolved to die rather than return to that life of intimidation and brutality. At the last moment I was discovered and taken in by a gentleman who found me, feverish and nearly incoherent, in the street. He fed me, cared for me, educated me. You might say he treated me as a son, save that my feelings for him were stronger than a son's. When I was twelve we became lovers, and for a year or two we lived a life of cloudless happiness."
"He began to train me to succeed him in his business. He was a merchant of sorts, working under the auspices of a large syndicate with branches in many countries. We travelled extensively and moved in elegant circles. But I became aware that his business and his associates were not all they seemed to be. Naturally I was never party to his meetings at the Syndicate's offices, but when men came to the house he would secrete me in a curtained alcove of his study and tell me to listen carefully to what was being said. This I did, and to my horror learned of the illegal and dangerous schemes the Syndicate was involved in, and of the no less ruthless and dangerous men he dealt with."
"He himself began to change under their influence as he worked his way higher in the organization. He who had always been so kind became hard and grasping and selfish. He would bring other boys to the house and parade them before me, implying that they were to be my successors. My life became a misery of suffering and apprehension. At times I thought he had gone insane. Maybe he had. In the end his overweening ambition made him enemies in the organization. The men below him manufactured evidence to show he was a traitor and his employers had him murdered out of hand. I got wind of the fact before the assassins could come for me and I fled- fled the city, fled the country, and came here to Paris."
"I was scarcely fourteen and had no way of living but one. I became a whore on the streets. My reputation spread to knowledgeable ears, and I acquired-- let us call him an agent. I owe the man something, after all. He saved me from the dangers a boy alone faces from violent men, of which I'd had too much experience, and he raised the quality of my clientele. My agent caters to the tastes of certain well-placed men who prefer at least the appearance of unspoiled innocence, and who can afford to indulge those tastes in houses such as the one where I met you this afternoon."
"This afternoon, then, I had been sent to meet a client at the Maison Valvert. My agent's boys are all provided with a token. It identifies them to the proprietors of the houses as being from my agent's organization, and identifies them to the client so that there's no mistake that the right boy and the right man have met. In this business, you understand, a case of mistaken identity could prove ruinous to both of us. I arrived at the room before the client and was disrobing as he came in. I had never seen him before, but as soon as he spoke I recognized the voice. I'd heard it often in my hiding place in my lover's study. It was the man directly below him in the Syndicate- the man who brought him to his death. My blood froze. I was paralyzed, unable to move as he stood there speaking trivialities. Almost I could see the blood of my first lover on his hands. The curtains were drawn, the room dim. He hadn't recognized me yet, but I knew when he saw me close to that he must. My life would be worthless from that moment on. The thought released me. I leapt through the window and swung down into the room below, where to my infinite good fortune you gentlemen were staying. I was not lying, messieurs, when I said you saved my life." He gave them a somber look from his violet eyes.
"But in my haste I didn't notice that I'd lost my agent's token as I removed my trousers. When I found it gone I even dared a return to the house to look for it, but naturally I failed to find it. I knew then that you must have picked it up. Please, messieurs, I dare not let my agent know that I lost my token. He'll be angry enough that I turned down a rich client. I beg you, give it back to me." He spoke with dignity still, but there was a muted desperation in his manner. Dorian took the coin from his pocket and handed it over. Relief rushed through the thin frame.
"Thank you, messieurs, thank you a thousand times." He smiled with fervent gratitude.
"So that man this afternoon," Sergei asked, "he's a member of a criminal organization called Sephiras?"
"Oh no." The boy looked surprised. "You've got it all confused. The Syndicate isn't the Mafia or Cosa Nostra. It's a legitimate trading company and most of what it does is totally respectable. And Sephiras is something else entirely."
"What, then? A secret society of devil-worshippers?" Sergei asked sardonically.
"No. A private club for pederasts. I was told they practise the rites of ancient Greece: the worship of the phallos and the love of boys. Its members have a preference for redheads, and that's why I was chosen for Cr- I'm sorry. For your own sakes I mustn't tell you his name. For that client. My agent said the man would instruct me more specifically in what acts he required of me, but thank God I never had the chance to learn. That's all I know of it. What I said about devil-worshippers this afternoon was a fabrication, of course, made up on the spur of the moment."
"Let's say I have a mind to join this pederasts' club," Sergei said. "How do I go about it?"
"I have no idea," the boy said with hauteur, drawing a little away from him.
"But your pimp does business with them and will know how it's done. Suppose you introduce me to him."
"If you wish, Monsieur," the boy replied, frowning in displeasure. "May I have your name so he can contact you?"
"Why not take me to him now?" Sergei pressed, smiling without humour.
"Sergei," Dorian intervened firmly. "You're being horrible. Stop it." Annoyance that was near to anger flashed across Sergei's face. "We're not going after any boys or any private clubs tonight. We're staying right here and taking our once in a lifetime chance to look at Madame's collection."
Sergei blinked. "So we are. So we are, m'ami." Expressionless he reached into his breast pocket for his card case. "Here is my address and phone number. Ask your agent to call me at his convenience."
"Certainly, Monsieur- Serge," the boy said, looking at the card. "And now I must be off before someone realizes I'm where I don't belong." He slipped quickly through the door before Dorian quite realized he was about to go.
"What was that all about?" Dorian protested. "You were being downright nasty to him, Sergei. It's not like you."
"M'ami, he was lying to us from beginning to end."
"How do you know?"
"Don't be ridiculous. That well-rehearsed story, those dramatic details... who could believe a word of it? The boy's a practised liar."
"No he isn't."
"Yes he is. Look how easily he made up that tale of devil-worshippers this afternoon, when he was running from that other man, whoever he is. Out it came, without even pausing for breath."
"You've simply got this prejudice against him and you won't listen to reason. What will you say when his pimp calls you up and asks you to come join in the rites of Greece for a hideous sum? You know you'll feel like an idiot."
"He won't call. The young man has thrown my card away already, and just as well. You're right. I don't like him and I was trying to prove him a liar. It was stupid of me to bother. Let's forget him and go look at pictures."
"I'd never have thought you could be so hard," Dorian expostulated as they made their way back through the guests in the long corridor. "That boy's had a horrible life and you don't feel at all sorry for him. What do you have against him? Does he remind you of someone you didn't like at school or something?"
"You have the strangest ideas, Lord Gloria. You can't believe I ever knew anyone like that at home."
"Why not? I can see that Circassia produces beautiful men." Sergei flashed him a sideways smile. "So of course it must produce beautiful boys as well."
"That one isn't just beautiful. He's deadly," Sergei pointed out.
"Like you," Dorian said fondly. Sergei turned a startled look on him. "I mean, the way you dealt with that gangster back in the alleyway- you really are dangerous, you know. It's so enticing: velvet on the outside,"- his hand brushed down the softness of Sergei's coat- "and steel within." He curved his palm around the hardness of Sergei's buttock and squeezed, beginning to grow excited.
"Dorian," Sergei said warningly. "I'm not the Major. Don't try to pretend that I am."
"I know you're not." Dorian lips worked along his jawline. "You're ever so much nicer. Klaus hits me when I try to do this to him-"
"I can see why-" Sergei's voice grew choked as Dorian's fingers insinuated themselves into a warm section of his groin. "Have you no sense of place, Lord Gloria?"
"Who-" Dorian mumbled as his tongue slipped into Sergei's ear- "wanted to play matelot back in the Rue du Petit Musc?"
"Ohhhh- Guilty- I confess," Sergei groaned. He pushed Dorian away by main force. "But this is someone's house..."
"So there must be a spare bedroom we could borrow."
In fact, finding an untenanted room was surprisingly easy. They went back past the cloakroom and into the western wing of the house that had, as so often, its own separate living suite. Opening doors at random they found not a bedroom but a small study that proved most amenable to their use: thickly carpeted, dim, with a walnut ottoman covered in old velvet brocade that invited them to curl up close together on its sagging springs. They left the lights off, making do with touch and the reflection of the one or two second storey lights on the grass outside.
With the episode of the Rue du Petit Musc so recent, full-scale congress was naturally out of the question. Still they managed to turn the frailties of the flesh to good advantage. In their present state they could kiss and caress to their heart's content without worrying about a precipitate climax, and they did so for an unmarked interval. Their clothes drifted off them naturally, without volition, when one or the other found himself impeded by a shirt here or a pair of trousers there. Dorian, nearly naked but nowhere near chilly, ended up stretched out beneath Sergei's partially clothed length and given over to an intimate exploration by the other's lips and tongue. Meanwhile his fingers conducted their own survey, sporadic and often interrupted, it was true, of the warm hills and firm plateaus of the Circassian's body. At length Sergei slid off him, rolled him onto his stomach, and began nibbling enticingly at his bum. Dorian wriggled and pressed his pleasant half-on into the dusty brocade. It was at that moment that they heard a door open in the next room and voices speaking.
"You got it?"
"But of course."
Sergei's mouth stopped abruptly and Dorian's head came up, all attention. The first voice was Fersen's; the second belonged to the red-haired youth.
"They should never have had it in the first place. When I find out whose it is he'll be sorry. I hope you didn't make them suspicious?"
"So untrusting. I'm a pro, remember?"
"Then how did you get it from them?"
"I told them the sad sad story of my life on the streets. I said this was the token my procurer gives all his boys and horrible things would happen to me if I didn't get it back after losing it so foolishly."
"And true as well."
The boy chuckled. "Oh yes, mon ami, this is my own token. It was I who dropped it- foolishly, I'll admit that- as I was fleeing from the man you sent me to meet this afternoon."
"Fleeing-?? Are you mad? What did you mean by--"
"You're in grave danger, Count. Don't you know who Crespin really is?"
"He's the number two man in the Syndicate."
"He's a member of the Sureté. I've entertained him before when I was working the streets. Then he made no secret of his profession. He used it as a reason to demand services without pay."
"He's an agent? A policeman?"
"Yes to both of those. I ran before he had a chance to remember me as one who knows his true identity. He's on a cover mission now. He's infiltrated the Syndicate, and now he's about to infiltrate you."
"That won't last long," Fersen said grimly. "The Syndicate will be grateful for that information. They'll take care of him."
"And you? Aren't you grateful?"
"Of course I am. Don't be tiresome."
"You haven't said how clever I've been," the boy pouted.
"You're clever, and extremely naughty, and in ten years time you'll be irresistible."
"There are those who find me irresistible now," the boy said, his voice becoming muffled. There was the sound of a slap.
"Stop that. I'm not one of your perverts."
"Monster," the boy said lovingly. "Why are you so horrid to me? There are men who'd think they'd died and gone to heaven if they found me in their arms."
"You're starting to believe those lines you spout. You're only an underage whore, not the vessel of a divinity. Try to believe that your charms are no match for those of a real man."
"What real man do you have your eye on this time?" The tone was distinctly sulky.
"That blond from this afternoon."
"The one I got this back from?"
"No, his friend. This man Serge."
"Oh, the icicle. You're welcome to try. I'll warm your frostbitten fingers for you after."
"You can do me better than that. Keep Goldilocks occupied for tonight so I have a chance at the other."
"There's no use my saying you've no chance with the other, so I'll leave you to find out for yourself. Need I remind you not to leave your guard open when he's near? I'd hate for this to get damaged."
There was a definite thud this time. "Keep your hands where they belong. And get rid of the Englishman."
"I suppose I could sandbag him," the boy mused. "Nothing else is likely to work."
"I'm sure he'll think he's died and gone to heaven when he finds you in his arms," Fersen said sarcastically.
"He doesn't see me for the same reason Serge doesn't see you. Come back in a month and it might be another story. Hein, but I'll do my best for you, my ungrateful darling." There was the sound of a kiss, then a door opening and closing.
"Well!" Dorian was about to say, but Sergei put two fingers on his lips. A few minutes later the door opened and closed again next door.
"So," Sergei said into the darkness.
"So," Dorian sighed. "Well, you must admit he can tell a good story, at least."
"I never doubted it."
Dorian sighed again at the asperity of Sergei's tone. "I suppose we should tell the Sureté that their man's had his cover blown, though frankly--" He didn't finish the sentence.
"Frankly, he's not much of a loss," Sergei said for him.
Dorian nodded. "Still, he is on the side of the angels, even if a little fast with his gun."
"Not to mention venal. Ah well- the duties of a citizen. But I've no idea how one goes about giving anonymous tips that the police might act on. Do you?"
"Oh, as for that-- If I could find a telephone..."
Sergei reached a long arm to the small table by the ottoman and switched on the light. "Over there," he nodded to the desk.
Dorian padded over and dialled the familiar long distance number. "Mr.A? It's Dorian Red Gloria. How are you? And Mr.G? I'm so glad. Is the Major around by any chance? No? Oh dear. Look, A. love, could you possibly do me a little favour? It would make the French Sureté very happy as well. It's about this French undercover policeman we've met..." Quickly he gave Mr.A the bare outline of his information, omitting all details that might bring a blush to A's peach-like and oddly virginal cheek. "I've no idea what syndicate he's investigating, and I'm sure Crespin isn't his real name, but the French will have all the details. I don't suppose they'll share them, but you know- it never hurts to have a little good will on account. You will? You're a darling. Thank you." He hung up to find Sergei smiling at him.
"Connections. How useful."
"So now what do we do?" Dorian sat down again on the divan and reached for his briefs.
"Let's finish what we were doing before."
"Fersen and his catamite are out there waiting to ply their wiles on us. Let them wait, say I." He kissed Dorian's bare thigh, then moved a few centimetres over with his lips, and Dorian suddenly saw the good sense of what he was saying. He flicked off the light, allowed himself to be pulled back down onto the ottoman and gave himself over to the sensations of the dark.
<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>
Considerably later they rose, dressed, and slipped out of the room. Back in the main wing the party was still in full swing, as it would continue to be until at least the next morning, when the guests could expect to breakfast with their hostess before going home to bed. Dorian and Sergei wandered through the crowded rooms, eyes on the oil paintings that adorned the walls. There were heavy fleshy nudes from the early seventeenth century done by someone trying to be Rubens, and highflown allegories from the eighteenth replete with classical figures in anachronistic armour and wigs.
"Not much of the first-class stuff," Dorian murmured.
"Private collections are always a hodgepodge," Sergei agreed. "This one has never been catalogued properly. No-one knows what's in it. There may be a masterpiece hidden upstairs or there may be just more of this." He nodded at an undistinguished landscape marked 'school of Lorraine'. Whichever pupil of Lorraine's it was that had painted it deserved, in Dorian's opinion, a D for the effort.
"That Fragonard is the best we've seen," Dorian said.
"True. Let's go back there." They turned and made their slow way along the crowded hallway.
"You really do like it, don't you?" Dorian asked.
"Yes. It hurts to know I'll never see it again."
Dorian bit his lip. It would be the easiest thing in the world to secure the painting for his friend, but he knew Sergei wouldn't accept it. On some points the Circassian was totally beyond his understanding. How could a man deliberately choose to do without the things he needed? Sergei must have an unsuspected streak of asceticism in him: asceticism amounting to masochism. Or was it sadism? His scruples were really quite selfish, in the final analysis. He was denying Dorian the pleasure of making his friend happy by giving him the beautiful things he wanted. It was very unkind of him. Dorian was about to take him to task a little on that point- gently, of course- but just then he was jostled roughly from behind and turned in surprise to look. It was the White Rabbit again, but this time it was only too clear that something was seriously wrong with him. His fingers latched on to Dorian's arm and gripped it with surprising fierceness while the bulging gold-fish eyes goggled at him and the flapping mouth opened and closed without sound.
"Are you alright?" Dorian cried in alarm, half-expecting from the man's state to see a dagger sticking out of his back. "Sergei-"
The Circassian was supporting the man under his other shoulder.
"I- no-," the man said in a strangled voice. They carried him over to the wall and leaned him against it, and he at once buried his face in his hands. One or two of the guests watched them in momentary interest before continuing their prior conversations.
"Are you faint? Sick?" Dorian asked the trembling man. Sergei took out a linen handkerchief and put it into his hand. The other wiped his sweating face, removing his glasses to do so, and when he looked up Dorian blinked in surprise. The man's eyes were perhaps the most beautiful he'd ever seen- a flat grey outlined in thinnest black, fringed by gold-brown eyelashes of an impossible length, below eyelids that had a natural tinge of blueness to their pale skin. Dorian knew that myopics become ravishingly soft-eyed when deprived of their glasses, but the effect was far, far more than that.
"Can you tell us what the matter is?" he asked with the tenderness that those amazing eyes deserved.
"You're in danger," the other said, and they both stiffened in surprise. The voice was completely different from before. Dorian looked him over in perplexity. He *looked* the same...
"Danger from what?" Sergei demanded.
"The One- you bear his token. He will have you- both of you..." The voice faded a little. Dorian went cold. He remembered now where he'd seen flat grey eyes like those before: in Cornwall, in an old woman who was calmly accepted by the village she lived in as 'fey.' "She'm a good soul but don't you be letting her say good-bye to 'ee," he'd been warned. "When Mrs. Trevithic says good-bye she means for good, she does."
"Have you -- seen-- something..." Dorian faltered.
"He is coming," the man said, "to find his prey. I feel his power. It shakes the earth. I'm sorry, monsieur. There's no place to hide from him. You are his." The grey eyes cleared a little, and the ravishing lashes blinked once or twice. "Yes, aren't you just," he said in a completely different tone, and an expression Dorian knew only too well came into his face. Surprise, attraction, calculation...
"Sorry, I'm spoken for," he said automatically as he always- well, nearly always- did.
"Oh. Well." The other shrugged in cheerful resignation. "Just thought I'd tell you. By the way, have you seen an old man with white hair and a moustache?"
"We already told you where to find him," Dorian said. "Look, just what-"
"No you didn't," the other interrupted. "I've never met you before. Have you seen him about?"
"Well, someone who looks just like you asked us. And I've no idea where Vrielands is now. What-"
"Not Vrielands. The Professor. He looks a bit like a sheepdog-"
"*No*, I haven't seen any Professor who looks like a sheepdog. What did you mean just now, about someone coming? Who?"
"You'll know when you meet him," the man said. He gave Dorian a sudden cocky grin. "And I'd say he's in for a surprise, frankly, when you do."
"M'ami," Sergei intervened. "Let's go."
"But Sergei--" Dorian expostulated, but Sergei had already swung away and was walking swiftly down the corridor. Dorian ran to catch him up.
"The man's insane, m'ami. There's no use talking to him."
"He's not insane, he's psychic."
"The same thing."
"But if someone's after us--"
"Someone is. There." He nodded with his chin, and Dorian caught sight of the long redgold hair moving determinedly towards him amongst the guests.
"Oh. I guess I'm about to be sandbagged," he said in bemusement.
"I wonder what he'll try?" Sergei murmured as the boy stopped before them.
"Messieurs," he began but Dorian interrupted testily.
"Oh not again. Is there no getting rid of you? You said you were going to leave an hour ago."
"I can't. I've been told to separate you two so my agent can try his arts on Monsieur here."
That stopped them dead. Sergei was as near to gaping as he could come, and Dorian hoped he himself didn't look as poleaxed as he felt.
"And who is your agent then?" Sergei asked, wrestling his expression under control.
"I can't possibly tell you his name. You know that. Just see who first accosts you after you leave your friend here."
"I don't have to. It's Count Fersen. That damned Swede keeps reaching for my crotch even when Lord Gloria's standing right next to me."
"Lord Who?" The boy looked startled.
"Dorian Red Gloria. Me," Dorian said.
"You're an English milord?" The boy was eying him oddly, as if he were a fabulous beast with a bad reputation.
"An earl," Dorian said in irritation.
"Then I'd like to have a little conversation with you," the boy said in perfect English. "Alone."
"So you just said, and the answer is no."
"If I mention the name Eberbach, would that persuade you?"
Dorian went very still. "It might. But I suggest you be careful about what you say about him." He turned to Sergei but the Circassian merely nodded in understanding.
"Be careful, m'ami," he said gravely, putting a brief hand on Dorian's arm. "I'll meet you here- after we've both finished." He gave the boy an unfriendly look and left.
"We need somewhere more private," the boy said, frowning. "Let's go to the west wing." Dorian let him lead the way back. Not surprisingly he took them to the room that adjoined the study, which was a sparely furnished salon. They closed the door and stood looking at each other.
"Now," Dorian began, "what's all this got to do with the Major?"
"So you are the Lord Gloria who works with Eberbach?"
"Yes I am. How do you--" A small alarm bell went off as he took in the boy's wary stance. That tiny twist to the shoulders was only too familiar. It came from keeping a hand ready to draw one's knife without warning.
"Let's have an agreement now," Dorian said firmly, to forestall any bloodletting. "You don't use your knife and I won't use mine."
"Your knife?" He sounded surprised.
"Mine." It was in his hand like magic and as quickly disappeared. He and the boy measured each other for a moment, then the other relaxed a little.
"Agreed," he said, still giving nothing away in his face. "Now why is a NATO agent here?"
"I'm not a NATO agent. I'm a freelance operator and I was invited by the Duc de Lavalée as part of the scavenger hunt. I'm not here in any professional capacity, if that's what you're wondering. Now what about you? It's Eroica who works for NATO, not Lord Gloria, but that's not something the average street boy would know, or his pimp either. Who are you and what are you really up to?"
The other snorted. "Surely you don't expect me to tell you?"
"Something illegal, then. More illegal than peddling your underaged flesh to the wealthy. Blackmail, I suppose, or drugs." No response to tell him if he'd hit the mark or missed entirely. "And you think I'll call the police? If you know who I am, you know where my sympathies lie."
"I know that you work for NATO."
"I don't. I work for Major von dem Eberbach."
"There's no difference."
"Every difference in the world. I'm not madly, passionately, eternally in love with NATO. But for the Major I'd make any sacrifice, even to working on the side of law and order. I do it against my convictions and my conscience, of course, but love is the ruler of gods and men."
The boy looked at him with contempt. "And where does Serge come into all this, then?"
"He consoles me until the Major can be brought to see reason. And what business is it of yours, dare I ask?"
They glared at each other. It was the boy who looked away first.
"You want me to believe it's purely accidental that we keep coming across each other?"
"It's no accident," Dorian said in annoyance. "It's because you keep following us."
"You're at the Maison Valvert this afternoon in the room below mine. You're in the nightclub where the Count is dining this evening, at the table next to his. You wangle an invitation to the party the Count is attending tonight. But you have no interest in the Count's activities, you say."
"Oh for god's sake. You think I care about the Count's vice ring? I'm sure it's all very unsavoury and I'm sure a lot of blackmail goes on, if not worse, but it's no concern of mine. I'm an honest thief and I believe in live and let live."
"Alright," the other said slowly. "I'll accept that you're not working for NATO this time. Live and let live, but don't get in our way. In fact, if you want to keep yourself and your friend safe, you'll leave here at once. I'm telling you that for your own good."
"You're much too kind. You haven't yet told me how a procurer comes to know so much about my work for NATO. What's Fersen's connection to Klaus?"
The boy regarded him consideringly. "No connection to the Major himself, of course. What do you think? But there are men near him who, let's say..." He let the sentence trail, waving a hand in vague indication of his own charms.
"If you're thinking of blackmailing the Chief," Dorian said in fury, "I'd suggest you forget it right away. I'm telling you that for your own good."
The other sighed in exasperation. "It was you who mentioned blackmail, not I. I provide a service for those who need it and can afford it. Of course the Count checks my clients out in advance: their backgrounds, their tastes, any risks they might run in using my services. That includes possible reprisals from their own organizations. It's a simple business precaution." He spoke as if to an idiot.
"The Count sounds like a paragon of an employer," Dorian said sarcastically. The boy's condescension was an echo of his lover's and, for some reason, much more galling.
"He has his uses," the boy shrugged. "I could do worse."
This last dissimulation was too much. If Dorian hadn't known the truth, the pretence of indifference would have sounded completely genuine. Sergei had been right to call the boy a practised liar. And, like Sergei, he found it impossible not to try to catch him out in his lies.
"What uses? Fersen's a self-besotted oaf with unnatural tastes who doesn't know when he's not wanted," he said, deliberately offensive. "If you'd try to stop that smug pervert from sniffing at my friend's coattails, we'd both be grateful," he added, and awaited the explosion. It didn't come.
"I don't play nursemaid to grown-ups," the boy said contemptuously, apparently not even noticing the bait, let alone rising to it. "Serge will just have to look after himself. There's no doubt he's quite able to."
"So you have a dossier on him as well?"
"Don't be stupid. You can tell by looking at him that he's a killer. What are you laughing at?"
"Nothing," Dorian smiled. "Only that he's a better judge of character than you are."
The boy looked at him as if he were mad and took his leave without another word. Dorian stopped smiling, his brief amusement gone. What a disgusting child, cold-blooded as a snake. He, Dorian, could never have listened so calmly while a stranger insulted the man he loved. Not unless there was a very good reason, like saving that man's life. But this boy had never once turned a hair. No crack in the facade, no hint of his true feelings...
He stopped and stared into the darkness as another possibility occurred to him. Could one so young be such a complete actor? Liar or not, everything he'd said just now had had the feel of truth. And if that was so... If that was so, it was Fersen he was lying to. Lying about his devotion to the count, lying about... What else might he have lied about? Dorian had a sinking feeling that he already knew. He went into the next room, switched on the light and dialled the same number as before. "Mr.A? It's me- yes- yes, I wi--" There was an infuriated roar as Klaus came on the line.
"Lord Gloria, what the HELL do you think you're doing? What's this assholery about the Sureté? Do you know that giving false information is a crime in this country? Or were you just playing one of your air-head pranks? Let me tell you, it's not funny!" There was a break in the invective as Klaus momentarily ran out of steam, and Dorian grabbed the opportunity to get a word in.
"What did they say about Crespin?"
"There's no such person! There's no investigation of any Syndicate at all! Do you know what idiots we looked?!"
"It's a deep cover operation, then- they're just-"
"The hell it is! I can tell when people are hiding things and they weren't. Oh no, it was just the frogs being sarcastic and condescending and polite as you please to the thick-headed Boche who were dumb enough to believe what a thief told them! Do me a favour, Lord Gloria. From now on, don't do me any favours. And stay away from A! Got it?"
"Got it," Dorian agreed as he heard the crash of the telephone on Klaus' end.
Well. So- so- So the boy had lied to Fersen about Crespin being a policeman. Crespin really was the thug he seemed to be, the number two man in the Syndicate. And the boy's attachment to Fersen was just as false. It was all part of the game he was playing. It took Dorian only a minute to reach the obvious, unpleasant conclusion as to what he was playing it for.
Dorian hastened back to the main hallway. There was no sign of Sergei at all. Impatiently he made a tour of the rooms, and found him, as he'd half expected, under the Fragonard and in the company of Fersen. The count was holding an empty champagne glass and clearly fuming. The reason for that was the duc de Lavallée standing on Sergei's other side and patently occupying all of Sergei's attention.
"The use of ochre here in the folds of the sleeve," the Duc was saying, gesturing with an elegant hand, "is quite innovative for the period. You can't get the full effect because of that varnish applied in the 19th century. I've begged Madame to permit an expert to clean it-"
"Look, you two, the buffet is being ser-" Fersen began, but Sergei simply cut across him.
"You have such an expert in mind, Monseigneur?"
"The man who attends to my family's collection- Lemieux- is a genius. The Louvre called him in to advise on the Courbet-"
"I remember. A problem with the disintegration of the pigment he used-"
Dorian put an excited expression on his face and burst upon them.
"Sergei, love, the most amazing thing-- Oh, I'm so sorry, gentlemen, but really-- Love, you have to come out and see this--" and by main force he pulled Sergei out into the hallway and thence into one of the most crowded rooms. With shoves and apologies he wormed his way through the crowd, wincing at his manners, and entered a second room which they crossed in the same fashion. At length he turned into a salon at right angles to the previous room and made his way to one of the long curtained windows that, by his calculations, should give out onto the terrace. He pulled Sergei into hiding behind it and leaned against the cold leaded glass of the casement.
"M'ami, you were very rude to the Duc," Sergei said reprovingly. "I hope you have a reason."
Dorian was certain that Fersen couldn't have followed them through the crowd, but he had one eye on the terrace outside in case the Count had guessed his intended destination. At Sergei's words, though, he flicked a glance at his friend.
"You seem to be getting on very well with M. de Lavallée. Should I be jealous?"
Sergei smiled. "You were the one who kissed him. Shouldn't I be?"
"Oh but Sergei- he's just a handsome young man-"
"Agreed. Handsome and knowledgeable in my field. An acquaintance worth pursuing."
"Purely professionally?" Dorian looked dubious.
"But of course. And if later on one thing led to another, who would complain? But I'm sure he thinks me a barbarian now."
"We can apologize afterwards, and if one thing leads to another, *I* won't complain. But before that--" and he told Sergei all he had learned in the west wing salon. Sergei's face grew dark.
"So," he said. "The boy is out to revenge his lover."
"Using Fersen as his catspaw," Dorian nodded. "Crespin will die the same way as the other man did, executed because of a lie. It's elegant, you have to admit."
"I admit it. But I think-" Sergei said slowly, "if this boy is carrying on a feud against a gangster, we don't want to find ourselves in the middle of it. Life is too short to spend with dangerous and unpleasant people, and becomes even shorter when you do. We should leave."
Their heads turned as one to look out at the terrace.
"Faster outside than in," Sergei agreed. "I've no idea where our coats are, though."
"Back of the reception hall, probably. And still faster outside than in."
They opened the casement and slipped into the windy dark night. Tall trees groaned against the muffling clouds that had blown in since sunset. There was no moon to light their steps, but Dorian's instinctive sense of the layout of houses led him unerringly to the side entrance. They stopped a lackey and demanded their coats, surrendering their counters as proof of their identity. The man made no comment, spoken or otherwise, about eccentric aristocrats who wandered the chilly night in shirtsleeves, but brought their wraps with promptitude. Sergei threw his coat on, then hesitated, biting his lip.
"Just once more, m'ami," he said. "I'm sorry-"
"Go ahead," Dorian said. "I do understand."
Sergei slipped inside while Dorian cooled his heels, watching the dark garden and the lights over by the main gates. Taxis were still arriving, letting off groups of late-arrivals who wandered up the drive to the front entrance. Judging by their laughing remarks, they were coming from other parties or after-theater dinners and were already in a happy state of inebriation. Just after one such uproarious crew had passed out of Dorian's sight, Sergei came striding back out of the side entrance. Dorian sighed. Sergei's Scandinavian shadow was right behind him.
The two walked unheedingly past, Sergei silent and the Swede expostulating. Dorian followed them down the path until Sergei came to a stop, halfway between the house and the driveway where there was least chance of being overheard. Then he rounded on the Count.
"Monsieur," he said, cutting across Fersen's insistent demands. "You seem not to understand what I've been saying. Let me say it again. No I don't want you. No I won't come home with you. No I'm not interested in your family or your history or your person. Men like you disgust me. Your attentions are an insult." He stopped to draw breath, nostrils flaring. "You force me to be rude, monsieur, and if you continue you will force me to be violent. That would be regrettable. Good-bye."
He put his arm through Dorian's and turned to go.
"You bitch," Fersen roared. "Who do you think you are? Where does a blind cripple get off talking to me like that?" Sergei walked on, unmoved, and Fersen trotted after, bellowing in rage. "Afraid of being with a real man, is that it?" From the reek of wine that came from him, he was clearly no more sober than the late-arriving guests. "What's this empty-headed Englishman got that makes him so wonderful? Damn you, answer me when I talk to you!"
"Fersen!" a voice called from near the front door, and a man detached himself from the last group of arrivals. "Fersen! Is that you? I want to talk to you!"
Fersen turned back with a small snarl that only Dorian and Sergei heard. Dorian half-turned himself but Sergei's iron arm kept him on course down the garden.
"Sergei- that's Crespin! We should-"
"We should go home," Sergei said through set lips. Meanwhile the conversation happening in the middle of the lawn behind them was only too clear.
"What did you mean by sending that boy this afternoon? It was an insult- a downright insult! He behaved unforgivably! I'm not going to forget this in a hurry."
"Did he now?" Fersen asked heavily. "Why, I'm so sorry, Monsieur. What can I possibly say to make amends?" His voice dripped with drunken sarcasm.
"If you want my favour, Count, this isn't the way to gain it. The Syndicate doesn't put up with insults to its members. I want an apology from you and from him, and I want him back for a double session, and I want a guarantee that this time he'll behave."
"But of course. Anything you like. I'll have him trussed up and dropped on your doorstep, shall I?"
"What's the meaning of this?" Crespin's voice was enraged. "Last week you were crawling to get me to join with you. You were promising me heaven and earth if I'd come in to your upstart organization, and today you spit on me. Let me tell you, Count, Sephiras hasn't yet got the arms or the money to be acting so high-handed. You can still be crushed like that." The man snapped his fingers.
This time Sergei stopped as abruptly as Dorian. Both turned to stare at the two men near the house.
"I'll take my chances," Fersen was saying. "I think Sephiras can manage just fine without the help of your organization."
Sergei took three steps towards the men. Dorian was right behind him, but a strong if small hand grabbed his arm and held him.
"Don't even think of moving," the young voice hissed at him. Sergei turned at the sound.
"You'd better come back," Dorian called to him softly.
"But not too close," the boy said. "I have a knife under his carotid."
"What do you want?" Sergei demanded.
"I want you two to stop getting in my way," the boy said in tones of extreme exasperation. "And right now I want you to walk quite slowly and naturally down to the gates and to get into the car I'll show you."
"You're going to walk past the servants holding a knife to my throat?" Dorian asked with interest.
It disappeared, but Dorian, feeling the point placed precisely between his third and fourth ribs, failed to relax. The boy knew exactly what he was doing. Dorian said as much to Sergei.
"Now let's go. And you, M.Serge, will keep your distance and do only what I say."
Sergei looked him over. "As you please."
"Now, another man might be annoyed that you so obviously think my friend more dangerous than me," Dorian complained as they went. "But I'd like to know what you think he'd do if you had a knife-" the point dug into him a little in evident annoyance- "oh, speaking quite metaphorically, of course- poised to slip between his ribs--"
"I begin to see why Eberbach talks about you as he does," the boy said.
"So you have met him, then?" Jealousy spasmed in his heart. "And just how did you come to be discussing me?" The most obvious possibility occurred to him and he went cold with fear. "You don't- you haven't- you couldn't possibly have- have- slep-" His voice gave out at the thought and tears sprang to his eyes.
"Is he always like this?" the boy asked Sergei in disgust.
"There's a thing called amour à la folie, which you wouldn't understand," Sergei explained gravely as they passed the gates. "It only affects those with hearts."
"Meaning that you must be immune to it," the boy snapped.
"Where's this car?" Dorian interrupted the incipient fight.
"Here." The boy took a set of keys from his pocket, opened the back door left-handed, then tossed them to Sergei. "You'll drive. We'll sit in back to make sure you do as I tell you."
"I'm one-eyed," Sergei said. "We could get hit broadside by anything coming in on my right."
"I'll take my chances. You've learned to compensate for it. If anything happens I'll know it was deliberate and I won't hesitate. You want to save your friend's life? Then don't try to be a hero." Sergei stood stone-still, looking at the boy from his single eye, and Dorian felt someone walking on his grave. Even the youth shivered a little- surprising in one so insensitive. But Sergei got into the front seat without another word, and Dorian found himself urged into the back, the knife never wavering. Whatever else he was, the boy was a professional.
"Drive to this address," he told Sergei, and named a place near the Luxembourg Gardens. "You two have a genius for being in the wrong place at the wrong time," he added, aggrieved. "It's going to cost you your lovely necks one of these days, and that day might be today."
"So what are we going to do now?" Dorian asked.
"Since you've got yourselves into this, you're going to see it through to the end. I've had to change my plans now and finish sooner than I'd expected. You're going to help me."
"Are we? How?"
"You're going to open a safe for me."
"Do you think so?"
"Of course. You've been opening safes all your life," the boy said shortly.
"I meant, do you think I'm going to open one for you?"
"You'll be paid your usual fee, of course. Though given the trouble you've caused me so far, I think you should do it for free."
"I'm an honest thief, remember? I steal for my art and my love, and not because some little boy's shoving his penknife in my ribs."
"Insults won't get you anything," the other said. "You'll do as I tell you or die."
"Then I'll die," Dorian declared, "with my honour intact and your safe still unopened. I am Eroica and my services are not for sale." He crossed his arms defiantly, ignoring the digging blade.
The boy made a noise of exasperation. "You," he said to Sergei, "tell him to do as he's told or I kill him now."
"A man has to do as he thinks right," Sergei said without expression. "If Dorian prefers to die rather than sully his honour, I'll back his decision. And if you kill him, I'll make it my life's work to see you follow him."
"You two are insane," the boy said, vexed. "Who do you think you are? When thieves babble about their honour and booksellers threaten revenge--"
"But this thief is a nobleman," Sergei pointed out, "and this bookseller is a Circassian."
"Circassia," the boy said more thoughtfully. "The land of the blue-eyed wizards at the back of the North Wind."
"Just so," Sergei agreed. "I see you've read your Tacitus. My country hasn't changed much since his day. We're still a race of barbarians who do unpleasant things to our enemies." He swung the car to a sudden stop. "We're here." He turned off the ignition and sat back, looking calmly out the windshield.
The boy chewed his lip, eyes darting between them and back at the street behind them.
"Very well," he said. "Time's running short. Come inside and maybe you'll see why I want your help." The knife vanished from Dorian's ribs.
"Shall we?" he asked Sergei.
"If you like," the other said, indifferent.
"It's just that I hate unsolved mysteries."
They clambered out of the car and into the apartment building. The boy took them to the door on the fifth floor landing and let them in.
"This is Fersen's apartment and that's his car. He won't be pleased to find it gone," he said as he turned on lights in the salon. "For your sake it would be better to be out of here before he arrives. Now." He pointed imperiously to the phone. "Dial the number I give you, Lord Gloria, and tell the person on the other end who you are and where, and maybe things will make more sense."
Dorian dialled the overseas number which, by its area code, must be in London SW1, and the phone was answered after only one ring.
"Bancoran," the voice said on the other end, and Dorian's heart gave an involuntary flutter at those masculine tones.
"Hello?" he said, and could have kicked himself at the slight seductive elongation of the final 'o'. He hadn't meant to say that...
"Who is this?" The voice was still like leather and tobacco, warm and brown, even with the miniscule edge that crept into it.
Dorian pulled himself together. "I'm Dorian Red Gloria, Earl of Gloria, calling from Paris. There's a-- rather good-looking young person standing six feet from me, with very long red hair, who's had a knife held at my back for most of this evening-"
"Fifteen minutes, Ban!" the boy called in the direction of the phone.
"-and he seems to think you'll shed some light on his quite extraordinary behaviour."
"I could do that. Is there a reason I should?"
"He wants me to open a safe for him."
"A very good idea. You're the art thief Eroica, of course- the intimate of Major von dem Eberbach-"
"Not yet, alas," Dorian said. "But the rest of your information is correct, however you came by it."
"Oh, we all know each other's business in this business. I'm Jack Bancoran from MI6- another Major, actually. You can call Eberbach and check on my bona fides. He knows all about me too, of course." He chuckled. "Ask him about my redhaired friend there and see what he has to say."
"Oh," was all Dorian could answer as several lights dawned. "Your friend's involved in intelligence work."
"Of course. Investigating a suspect organization. What did you think?"
"Helping to run a vice ring, actually. Well, that's what he implied-" he added defensively.
"A simpler explanation than the reality. Are you under some kind of time constraints there?"
Dorian glanced at the redhead who was patently trying not to fidget.
"We're expecting the owner of this place to show up in the near future."
"Well, then, Lord Gloria- it's a touch unorthodox, but-- MI6 as an official agency of a NATO country would like to ask you, as an occasional NATO agent, to lend your services to our operative in Paris who's engaged in a mission of value to all of England and Europe. What about it?"
"Ohh- alright then--"
"Thank you. Will you put Maraich on?"
The boy was at his elbow to grab the receiver. "Ban? Yes- No, a piece of bad luck. Crespin from the Syndicate's shown up to join Sephiras-" Dorian clearly heard Bancoran's 'damn' though the rest of his sentence was inaudible. "Yes. Yes, I will. Love you." He made a kissing sound into the receiver and hung up, the trace of a fond smile on his mouth.
"Alright," Dorian said. "Where's this safe?"
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The safe was well hidden in the floorboards of the dining room, but easy enough to open when you knew it was there. In minutes the boy was pulling thick folders from it and shoving them into a canvas satchel.
"It took me weeks to get the secret of this place out of him," he was explaining. "Luckily he thinks me just some intelligent rat off the streets."
"You didn't tell him that you used to be with the Syndicate?" Dorian asked as he held the bag. "Come to that, were you in fact?"
"Oh yes," the boy said absently, as he checked the contents of a file. "That was more or less true- the bit about running away from school and being taken in by their man and all."
"And becoming his lover when you were twelve?"
"Eleven. I was precocious."
"And you really aren't carrying out a feud against Crespin?"
"Feud?" He looked up in surprise. "No of course not. Why would I?"
"He killed your lover," Dorian said impatiently.
"Oh, no no no. That was all an invention. It wasn't Crespin who killed him. It wasn't even someone from the Syndicate."
Sergei was wrong. The boy wasn't a practised liar, he was a reflex one. "Then why did you run from him this afternoon?"
"What a silly question. He knew I was trained as an assassin. That's hardly something I'd want Fersen to find out. He'd never have trusted me if he knew my background."
Dorian gave up. "So what happens now?"
"Ban will be here tomorrow to get all the documents, and then the crackdowns can start."
"But Fersen will be alerted--"
"Fersen's here," Sergei said from the front room window.
"Out the back way, you two," the boy said, shoving the last of the documents in and pushing Dorian towards the kitchen. "The fire escape. Take this to Serge's. I'll follow when-"
"Mendhok'sai," Sergei said in tones of disgust.
"What?" Dorian asked from the door, watching in astonishment as his friend began stripping off his clothes.
"Circassian for nuisance. You, get that light off and get over here. You knocked me out and brought me here as a present for him and you'd better be ready to hand me over when he comes in."
The redhead hastened to his side while Dorian slipped out onto the fire escape. Instead of going down, though, he climbed up half a flight, put the sack on the step above, and slid back down to see what he could see.
It wasn't much. He could see through the kitchen to the darkened dining room, but the boy had closed the doors that led to the salon. Dorian eased the fire escape door open and slipped back in. His favour for MI6 had ended with opening the safe; now he had to make sure Sergei was alright.
He could hear Fersen's voice bellowing in the front hall.
"What the hell game are you playing at, damn y-- Oh."
"I said I'd have to use a sandbag," the boy said, sounding smug, "and I did. Well, a bookend, actually, but the results are the same."
"Is he dead?"
"No of course not. Just out for the count. That's a pun," he said reproachfully after a moment. "Out for the Count- you."
"I got it the first time. Get me the cords we use in the ritual. I'm not taking chances. And then make yourself scarce."
Footsteps went off to the left and came back after a moment.
"There you are. Need a hand?"
"Of course not. Get lost. Don't come back before tomorrow."
"Ah well. Have fun. A demain." The front door opened and closed.
Dorian skirted the upturned floorboards and put his eye to the crack of the door. Sergei was naked, lying limply on the long backless sofa. Fersen had tied his hands together above his head and was leaning to fasten the rope to the sofa's leg. Even as Dorian watched, Sergei's knee swung up and caught him in the groin from behind. Fersen jerked spasmodically upright and Sergei's foot caught him under the jaw. There was a distinct cracking sound as it dislocated, but in the same moment Sergei had rolled upright and clubbed Fersen with his two fists. He fell unconscious to the floor.
Sergei sat back, working at the cords around his wrists, and Dorian ran over to help him. The rope was smooth and bright gold, but knotted tightly for all that.
"That would have done my circulation no good," Sergei said, rubbing at the purplish rings it had left. "Why are you still here?"
"I had to make sure you were alright. I know you wanted me to get away, but-" he shrugged. "But Sergei, what do we do with him now? When he comes to and finds the records gone, he'll think you took them. You're in danger--"
Sergei started to get dressed again. "No, I don't think so. The count is going to a hospital after that unfortunate drunken brawl, and I think by the time they let him out other people will be interested in him. What did you do with those papers?"
"They're on the fire escape."
"No they're not," the boy said furiously, walking into the room from the back of the apartment. "They're here. I told you to take them back to Serge's place. Anybody could have picked them up and walked off with them--"
"I wasn't going to go and leave my friend in danger."
"I told you, he can look after himself-"
"Enough," Sergei said with unexpected authority. "This is over. Lord Gloria and I are leaving and we're taking Fersen with us."
"Where to?" the boy asked, startled.
"That's not necessary-"
"I fancy it is. You have your papers, you can do as you please. Just stay out of my way from now on. And we're taking the car." He snapped his fingers for the keys.
"Who do you think you're talking to?" the boy said in fury.
Sergei gave him a sardonic smile. "Annoyed, are you? Sorry to deprive you of your victim. He may well deserve to die, but he doesn't deserve to be murdered. The keys." White-faced, the boy threw them over. "Give me a hand with him, Dorian."
Bewildered, Dorian helped him raise Fersen and they carried the limp body between them down the lift to the street. Sergei dumped him in the back seat and handed Dorian the keys.
"You think he meant to kill Fersen once we were gone?" Dorian asked, sliding in behind the wheel.
"He told you himself, he's an assassin. He knew Fersen would notify the other members of his ring the minute he saw those floorboards disarranged, and all the other birds would fly the coop. What else would he do, do you think?"
"Oh," Dorian said in comprehension. "Yes, I guess he would. Just to be safe. And here I was thinking you were sacrificing yourself to buy me time and cover up for him."
"And instead I was just saving a spy from being murdered. Life isn't a romance, m'ami. I wish it was."
They drove in silence to the Hôpital Général where they consigned Fersen to the care of Emergency. A carefully edited version of the truth got them through the worst of the night staff's bureaucratic interrogation: a late night party, the Count a little drunk, a pass at an unwilling man who took exception and left the Count unconscious by his car. Fersen's wallet and passport were still in his pocket, which expedited matters a bit, and in the absence of any other Parisian contacts, the hospital promised to inform the kind friends who'd brought him in when the Count regained consciousness. The car they left on the street, keys in the ignition as an incitement to theft, and took a taxi back to the Rue Galande.
It was past two o'clock, ordinarily the middle of the day for Dorian, but he found himself yawning as they traversed the stone passage to the stairs. A bath was what he wanted, and a perfectly chaste cuddle with Sergei and a long long sleep-
Sergei's voice was ice. "I told you to stay out of my way."
"I have something of yours to return," the boy said just as coldly from the landing above them, "and I want an apology for that insult just now."
Sergei reached the top in silence, and in silence took the proffered card from the boy's hand. It was clear enough to Dorian's eye that both were expecting the other to attack.
"What insult?" Sergei asked at length.
"You implied I'd kill the chief suspect in an investigation. That was unforgivable."
Sergei's head lifted in disdain. "You admit yourself to being an assassin."
"I'm what I was trained to be before I was given a choice in the matter. It's a skill and I use it when I have to, and when I don't have to I don't."
"And just how often do you 'have to'?"
The boy flared up. "You think I'm some kind of amateurish nutcase who kills for the fun of it-"
"I'd never call you amateurish," Sergei said politely, and the boy went crimson with rage.
"Sergei," Dorian intervened, as understanding dawned on him. "He's an agent. He works for MI6. You've insulted his professional pride."
"Exactly," the boy said, looking at him with approval.
"Really?" Sergei was unmollified. "I see nothing to distinguish an agent from an assassin."
"Your acquaintance with the breed has been limited," Dorian quoted sardonically. "Mine hasn't. Secret agents really do have standards and values, just as much as you or I."
The boy looked dubious at the comparison but spoke up at once in confirmation. "Of course we do. How could we operate otherwise? I was given an assignment, to discover the workings of the international conspiracy called Sephiras. To do that I've spent three months pretending to be a street whore and sleeping with men who disgust me. And you honestly think the moment I'd made my breakthrough, I'd just up and murder my main lead to the organization?"
"Then how were you going to stop Fersen from discovering that you had his papers?" Sergei demanded.
"Easily," the boy said dismissively. "He comes home, angry that I've taken his car, angry that you've vanished, to find me in a jealous fury. His persistent indifference to me, his insistent pursuit of that cold fish of a Circassian-" he glared at Sergei- "are too much to be borne. I scream at him. He yells at me. I scream louder. He hits me. I go on a rampage, I throw things at him, and alas, one alabaster pot or marble bookend lays my indifferent darling out cold on the floor. Oh dear oh dear. I put him to bed- after tidying up the dining room, naturally- I nurse him tenderly, and I'm at his side to be arrested when the police arrive in a few days' time. But of course," he said, favouring them both with a scathing glance, "you couldn't just take off quietly and sensibly and leave the situation for the professional to handle. Oh no. You had to interfere and get in the way, exactly as you've been doing all evening!"
Sergei looked at him, blank-faced and wide-eyed. Then a lovely smile curved his mouth.
"Monsieur," he said, "my suspicions were unpardonable and my clumsiness was inexcusable." He gave a small bow. "Accept my most profound apologies."
"Oh." The boy flushed to the hairline and became totally confused. It was quite a sight.
"Can't we go inside?" Dorian asked. "It's freezing out here."
"Of course." Sergei ushered them in, turning on lights. The boy hugged the canvas bag to his chest and looked about him with interest.
"If that has important information in it," Dorian said, "you ought to put it in Sergei's safe until tomorrow."
"I'm not putting it anywhere I can't get hold of it. And I don't need to tell you two not to try for it, I hope."
"Don't worry. It's not our thing," Dorian assured him. The boy looked unconvinced. An agent, most definitely, young as he was, and as unable as Klaus to believe that his work didn't occupy the centre of the universe.
"Is there anything to eat?" the boy said. "I didn't get fed tonight."
"I can make you an omelette if you like," Sergei offered.
"Thanks. Show me where the kitchen is and I'll do it myself." Sergei, eyebrow quirking, took him down the hallway and Dorian trailed along after. The boy placed the satchel carefully on a kitchen chair and began rummaging in the refrigerator, coming up with eggs, potatoes, a hunk of Gruyère and some shallots.
"No cream?" he asked.
"Just the milk in the door." Sergei got the chopping board and cutting knives out from their respective drawers.
"Thanks," the boy said absently as he began to peel and dice with enviable expertise.
"Were you going to boil those or saute?"
Sergei got a pan, filled it with water, added salt and put it on the stove. Dorian watched him with puzzlement.
"Sergei, let's go and have a bath. It's late."
"You go, m'ami," Sergei said, bringing out a cheese grater and a bowl. "This will be ready when you're finished."
"But you don't mean--" He looked from one to the other, perplexed, and they looked up from their work, perplexed by his perplexity.
"You can beat up the eggs if you like," the boy offered, as one anxious to include an outsider in the party.
"No thank you. It's not my thing either."
"You don't cook?" Sergei looked surprised.
"That's what I have a cook for," Dorian pointed out.
"Oh." Sergei and the boy exchanged brief, speaking glances. "Ah well, some people don't, after all." The note of condolence in his voice was no help at all.
This was becoming too cozy for comfort. Dorian sighed for his vanished bath and early bedtime. "Is there any wine?"
"Out the back." Sergei nodded towards the pantry. Dorian retrieved a chill bottle of red from the rack, opened it with the corkscrew Sergei fetched for him, and poured out three glasses. Then he betook himself to a chair and watched morosely as the other two continued their preparations. Neither spoke, but they worked around each other with the practised ease of ballet dancers. Sergei was ready with the colander when the boy came to drain the potatoes. Sergei silently mashed garlic and, at the boy's nod, dropped it into the eggs the other had beaten. Sergei had the skillet heated and oiled when the boy was finished mixing eggs, cheese and spices together. The two stood by the stove, exchanging monosyllables about the height of the flame and the precise moment of folding. Art, Dorian mused as he sipped his wine, comes in many forms. He remembered their encounter with Crespin in the alleyway, and how the automatic reactions of himself and Sergei had so perfectly complemented each other. He remembered the tryst that had preceded it, and that same unspoken give and take. And now here, in the kitchen, with this boy... Fighting- making love- cooking even- it seemed there were endless opportunities for the graceful balancing of two bodies...
By the time the omelette was ready Dorian was floating in a happy relaxation of spirit which the other two, only just starting on their wine, seemed to share as well. The discovery of interests in common, Dorian thought only a little sardonically, is a great promoter of intercourse-- no, no- I mean of combination- no, I mean-- and had to stop the thought there, because he wasn't sure any more what he did mean.
The boy brought his satchel with him to the dining room and put it beside him before sitting down. That satchel started a vague question in Dorian's mind, but didn't make it into words until the omelette was gone and they were sitting, replete, finishing the bottle of wine.
"I'm not trying to pry or anything," he said, "but I've been told so many stories about Sephiras today that I wouldn't mind knowing the truth."
"So many stories?" The boy was flushed bright red and there was a film over his eyes.
"Mostly by you," Sergei teased. "You said it was a private club for boy lovers as well as a spy ring."
"I never said it was a spy ring."
"And we heard it was an ancient heresy with human sacrifice and that it's a secret society that controls stock markets and banks," Dorian went on, with the loquacity of the drunk, "and that it's an international conspiracy that brings down governments, and a group of devil-worshippers with weird rites- and come to that, those cords back at Fersen's--"
"So which is it?" Sergei asked.
"All of those things."
"But how--" Dorian began.
"It's an international society, supposedly quite ancient, but I think most of its history is bogus. Unlike the Syndicate, its activities are just on the borders of the criminal most of the time and well over it the rest. Fersen is only a representative of the higher powers, whoever they may be. Their ultimate aim I don't know, but they do control small countries through financial manipulation. The society attracts powerful and influential members by offering them incentives like myself, and keeps them by allowing them to participate in the ancient rites of Sephiras."
"And what are those?"
The boy looked down. "Why do you want to know?"
Sergei said, "Rather a nice Jesuit of my acquaintance has an antiquarian interest in it."
"Oh." The boy smiled dreamily. "I don't think it's something for a priest's ears, even a Jesuit's."
"Boys," Dorian hazarded. "And sex. And Greek gods?"
"Oh come. Are you going to tell us or not?"
"Actually, I'm not really sure," the boy said, reluctantly. "There's a rite. I begin it-- and then- well, then I'm never quite sure what happens after. I don't know why. I thought maybe I was drugged, but the other boys say they always remember what happens." He frowned in annoyance.
"What does the rite involve?" Sergei asked.
"I wear this." The boy took the coin out of his pocket. "And nothing else--"
"How can you wear a coin?" Dorian objected.
"It's not a coin, it's a medallion. From Herculaneum, I think. It fits in a holder that goes round my neck. And I start saying the words of the rite and doing- well, you can imagine what- and then I seem to lose track of things."
"'You can imagine what' must be very very good," Dorian commented.
"It's much too early on for that," the boy retorted. "And if it is very very good it's more than I'm aware of."
"What do your partners say about it?"
"They're gone by the time I come to. Frankly, I'm glad it's over. I don't like losing bits of my life."
"There must be a reason for that," Sergei said. "Could you have some kind of petit mal epilepsy?"
"Of course not!"
"There's no flashing lights or incense? If it's an allergy, say--"
The boy shook his head.
"It's just me and my partner and a bunch of ordinary candles."
"Those ropes," Dorian suggested, "maybe some kind of semi-asphyxiation--"
"I've no idea what they're for. I can't remember."
"Tell you what," Dorian said. "You do the rite now and we'll see what happens when you do. Maybe it's just self-hypnosis. Do you chant or something?"
"Oh." The boy looked enlightened. "Well, not exactly a chant- but definitely there's a rhythm."
"Well then. Start it and let's see."
The boy sat back, eyes going distant, and opened his mouth. After a minute he shut it.
"It's no good," he said. "I can't just- just do the speaking. The words don't come. It's got to be all or nothing."
"Oh," Dorian said in disappointment. It was true he didn't like unsolved mysteries. He'd have liked to know what words could take a man's senses away like that, and whether he himself could have that effect if he used them. He glanced over to meet Sergei's eye and gave a small grimace of mutual regret-- and then felt the blood creep into his face as he realized what Sergei's calm regard was suggesting.
"Oh but- but-"
"I'm sure we'd all like to know what it's about," Sergei proffered mildly.
"Yes but-" He looked helplessly at the boy who was watching the two of them in wonder. "I'm sure--" He waved a futile hand.
The penny dropped. The lavender eyes went wide for a moment, and then furious- for a moment: and then turned speculative.
"I wouldn't mind," he said. "If it was you," he added pointedly to Dorian. Sergei gave a smiling little bow, acknowledging the hit.
"So what about it, Dorian?"
He wasn't going to be stuffy and say he didn't sleep with boys. And the boy was remarkably mature for his age, emotionally. But physically... He remembered the slight undeveloped figure from this afternoon. It still did nothing for him.
"Well- but- it's men who attract me," he explained. "Adolescents- well, to be honest, they might as well be women for all the effect they have. If you were just a few years older--"
"You're going to turn me down twice in one day?" The boy seemed genuinely displeased. Really, he did fancy himself a tad much. This man Bancoran should take a firmer line with him.
"It's just that if you need an active partner, I'm honestly not sure that I could."
"We'll see about that." The boy stood up indignantly. "I need something to fasten the coin with," he said imperiously to Sergei, "and we might as well do this in your bedroom. Show me where it is."
Sergei made no demur and Dorian, fuming slightly, followed the two up the stairs. Sergei retrieved a length of thin velvet ribbon from a drawer and bound it lengthways and crossways about the medallion while the boy stripped. Dorian took his own clothes off with reluctance. The boy fastened the impromptu choker about his neck and ordered Sergei to light the bedroom candles- the same candles that had illuminated their own late-night love-making the previous evening. Dorian glowered at his impervious friend, who was smiling slightly as he obeyed the boy's commands to the letter. Dorian had a sinking feeling that he was about to make a thorough ass of himself, and that Sergei was prepared to sit and watch him do it, all the while taking notes for his fellow antiquarians. Definitely- definitely- the Circassian was going to be making this up to him tomorrow, with interest.
Furious images of just how Sergei might do that brought on at least the beginnings of the necessary state, so Dorian wasn't totally at a loss when he found himself at last confronting the naked boy. And he *did* look halfway to being a naked little girl- the top half, at any rate. All that hair and pink skin, and those fringed bluish eyelids... To counteract the saltpeter thoughts Dorian went back to mentally listing the landmarks where he intended to have Sergei on the morrow. Atop the Eiffel Tower for a start, since the spot was both phallic and famous; by the tomb of Napoleon who had inspired the Eroica symphony; at the Parthenon, amid the gods; maybe, for decadence's sake, amongst the underground bones of the Catacombs; and finally, just to prove he could do it five times in an afternoon, under the Arc de Triomphe. He smiled at the idea, and was distantly aware of the boy's low voice speaking something vaguely Latinate and the boy's lips somewhere below him rhythmically, repetitively, kissing his nipples, his chest, his belly, his sex-- He was picturing Sergei at the top stage of the Eiffel Tower with his lovely mouth about Dorian and the panorama of Paris behind his head... And some day- yes, some day, he'd bring Klaus here on their honeymoon-- his cock jumped and stiffened at the thought. Oh yes-- and complete the same grand tour with him. Klaus at the tomb of the great conqueror, conquering Dorian; Klaus with the marble beauty of his body among the marble statuary, awaiting Dorian's homage-- Dorian's fingers dug into the shoulders he was grasping and he opened his eyes in excitement. Green eyes looked back up at him from his thighs, and the flickering candles bathed the long hair in blackness-- Klaus bending him over in the flickering lights of the Catacombs, while empty-eyed skulls watched their copulation and dropped jaw bones grinned in approval. Oh god. He was going harder than hard, he needed- he needed- he needed oh yes oh good the hot body that was behind him now, the masterful hands that bent him forwards to meet that sea of black hair and the sardonic mouth reaching up to kiss him and the strong arms that embraced and supported his torso as Klaus took him slowly, slowly from behind, filling and emptying, filling and emptying, slowly oh so slowly prolonging the pleasure past the point of bearing. It wasn't bearable, his cock ached aloud, he needed more, he was begging 'Oh please oh please'- Klaus' mouth left his in front, Klaus slipped forward beneath him so that Dorian's hands slid down from Klaus' shoulders to the small of his back. He found himself bent almost double, holding on to Klaus' waist while Klaus' mouth worked at his groin, and he gave a shout that was halfway to a scream at the double delight, front and back, he was Klaus' Klaus' Klaus' Klaus' the pulsing rhythm of tongue and cock moving to the beat of that name... His spine arched him upright as ecstasy travelled along its length, cock huge and engorged with need he fell back against the hot and panting bulk of Klaus' body that pierced him through in one last spasm.
And now it was Dorian's turn, Dorian turned, he bore the body backwards onto the bed and got his arms under the smooth long legs and raised them, and Klaus was there to seize the ankles and bind them upright with ropes of golden hair, Klaus knelt behind Klaus' head and laid him open to Eroica's triumphant attack, Eroica's greatest triumph as Dorian immersed himself in Klaus' body, stealing once and for all the chastity of those white buttocks. Klaus cried out, the strangest cry of grief and delight, Klaus wept for the loss of his marble immunity even as his hands clutched desperately at Dorian's shoulders and his arse clutched greedily about Dorian's cock. Klaus turned his face from Dorian and cried out in desolation and joy at the terrible needs of his body and his soul, at the terrible need to yield to the stroke of the god. With infinite love and no mercy at all Dorian gave his partner over to the use of the one in the room who was greater than them both. With that one's nameless name on his lips Dorian carried Klaus up to the peak of pleasure from which one could see the kingdoms of the world and the glory thereof, and clutching the narrow body tightly in his arms he threw them both from the height into the depths below.
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He opened his eyes. Faint sunlight filled the room and lit up the mesh of pale hair that lay over his eyes and nose and mouth. He raised his head a little, breaking the surface, and saw the long lashes of Sergei's good eye closed on his sleeping cheek. The Circassian's arms were about him and one long leg pinned his own thigh. Dorian dropped his head back into the warm hollow of Sergei's neck. In his soul there was only stillness and a vibrating emptiness, as at the moment when a symphony ends.
Sergei stirred, a long-fingered hand coming up to brush blindly at Dorian's jaw. His eye quivered, opened, met Dorian's. He stared, dazed, empty, amazed, into Dorian's face for a long moment, then pulled him close.
"I'm real," Dorian assured him.
"Yes," Sergei said. "Yes. I know."
There was silence.
"I think he's gone," Dorian said. "That boy," he specified.
"Good." There was a small trembling deep in Sergei's body that would have been unkind to mention directly.
"And to think he seemed so young," Dorian said, and felt the sudden quake in his own soul.
"'Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings...'"
"Don't be so beastly literal."
Sergei laughed, a laugh that was still too tight and short. "Would you prefer the one about 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio'?"
"A sensible man, Shakespeare," Dorian commented.
"I'm here, Sergei. I'm me." Briefly he wondered who he'd been, to Sergei's eyes, last night, but that he knew he'd never find out.
"I know." His hands still hadn't loosed their grip. "Dorian. Let's stay in today."
"You're afraid?" The question was out of his mouth before he'd thought.
"Yes. A little. And I'm not- not quite ready for- for the sensible world out there- the one that's as ordinary as the cabbages they sell at Les Halles...."
"Alright, Sergei. We'll stay in."
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This story owes a large debt to Arthur Machen's The Three Imposters (which in its turn was inspired by Stevenson's A Modern Arabian Nights), for many things including the title, which I adapted from Lin Carter's preface to the Ballantyne edition. It was after I'd decided to use Machen as a model and had written most of the artificial set speeches that I put in Maraich's mouth, that I discovered from the manga that Maraich actually does talk like that on occasion. As for the action near the end of the story, those who have also read the Patarillo series will probably have no difficulty with Maraich's various unsuspected talents, but for those who only know the kittenish figure from the anime, I should point out that Maraich is canonically a psychic (Keene vs Patarillo, vol 19). He's also a male who, alone of all his sex, is capable of becoming pregnant, even if the birth itself has to be a C-section (Love Child, vol.46). That fact by itself marks him as a little unusual. Furthermore his new-born son is possessed of extreme psychic abilities (same story) as well as what looks like some old acquaintances in the spirit world itself (Figaro, vol. 47.) Young Figaro didn't inherit these from his father, the rationalist Jack Bancoran, so I assume they came from his mother, the unwittingly psychic Maraich, and that's the Maraich I've written.
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I once remarked that it's a brave soul who would actually put Patarillo himself into a Patarillo! story. Now I have to amend that statement. It's impossible to keep Patarillo out. If he's not present in propria persona, he insists on showing up in disguise. In this case he appears in his frequent role as Father Brown on p.7, in his other frequent role of the unnamed 'English gentleman' on p.20, as the English version of Patamodoki the head of the Yukari Art Gallery on p.23, and offstage here and there as the white-haired Professor Schweitaro, pursued by a number of tamanegi in their concealing spectacles. Tamanegi #44, whom Dorian and Sergei meet on p.31, is the house psychic to the Marineran prince and particularly sensitive to the presence of descending deities.
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I should perhaps apologize to Father Paramelle of the Jesuit order, whom I met on a business trip to Paris in 1980. He treated me to an excellent lunch and told me about Sidonius Apollinaris. We only met once, but somehow this civilized and urbane scholar has become part of my own private conception of Paris. Should he still be alive, I hope he won't mind me having pulled him from his (real-life) Greek manuscripts in the Blvd. de Jéna to come have dinner with Sergei and Dorian in the idealized Paris I have them all inhabiting.
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1 'It is Venus herself fastened to her prey.' Racine, Phèdre
2 'Against love the gods themselves struggle in vain.' Adapted from Schiller's 'Against stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain.'
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<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> It is Venus herself fastened to her prey.' Racine, Phèdre