A Sergei/Dorian sidestory, sequel to Baghdad on the Thames
Green vines grew over the window, the vines that are found only down in the lowland plains. They blocked the sun and filled the room with dancing shadows that flickered on his closed eyelids. Warm and drowsy, not quite awake, he saw in his mind the leaves shaking in the wind-- a wind blowing from the forested hills in back of the school, herding puffy clouds across the blue sky. Morning: the rough linen pillowcase rucked under his cheek; the bedclothes tossed off somewhere in the night; the heavy breathing warmth that was his roommate wrapped about him in sleep, their arms and legs tangled up together as always. But no, as he remembered, and amazement catapulted him fully awake, not as always, because last night- he and Jahn- last night they had-
He opened his eyes in shock and joy and disbelief--
-saw blue eyes and a glory of ringletted hair and the unearthly carved features of a Botticelli Apollo gazing wordlessly at him, and his soul stumbled in wonder and dismay-- You? I thought it was him-- Was it you after all? Too beautiful to be mortal, touching a small chord of otherworldliness that made his heart contract in undefined fear. But at the same time his senses registered all this as familiar, the faint perfume of roses and the firm warmth of this body he knew--
"I'm real," the divinity said. A slight English trace to the French words- French--
"Yes," he said in the same language, "Yes. I know." But who are you? His mind said 'Dorian', and he knew it was Dorian, his two days' lover, but Dorian wasn't-
"I think he's gone," Dorian said. Yes. Yes, Jahn was gone. He remembered now, like a fact learned in school, that Jahn was dead, that he'd died twenty-one years ago. But at the same time he knew that Jahn had been with him last night, warm and alive, and his soul quaked at the thought. "That boy," Dorian specified.
That boy. That boy. That disconcerting redhead, the immature and experienced killer... The one with the talisman, yes, and the puzzling little ritual, and the things that had followed from that-- The strangeness rippled through him again, and the hairs rose on his neck. "Good," he said.
"And to think he seemed so young," Dorian mused.
"Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings..." he said, trying for a light tone.
"Don't be so beastly literal."
He laughed, but stopped at once. Hysteria was too near. "Would you prefer the one about 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio?'"
"A sensible man, Shakespeare," Dorian said, the sensible Englishman.
"Dorian." Solid, real, the unshakeable essence of here and now. But last night-- where had Dorian been last night, when it seemed to be Jahn who lay in his arms?
"I'm here, Sergei. I'm me."
"I know." Sergei held him closer. "Dorian. Let's stay in today."
"You're afraid?" Dorian asked him, as he himself had once dared to ask Majek, and "Yes," he said, as his oldest brother had answered in a surprising moment of honesty. "A little. And I'm not- not quite ready for-" He stumbled, unused to speaking his heart, "--for the sensible world out there- the one that's as ordinary as the turnips they sell at Les Halles..." Not yet, not for a while yet. Somehow, he didn't know how, Jahn had been here. He'd held Jahn's hot body in his arms; he'd seen Jahn's black eyes smiling into his own. And he'd made love with Jahn, made love at last, the way he'd always wanted and never dared ask to do when Jahn was alive. But last night Jahn had wanted it; Jahn had wanted him; finally, finally, he'd been granted the aching wish of his youth and the everlasting regret of his manhood, and the joy of it even now was like a flame eating his heart. It was impossible. Of course it was impossible. Such things don't happen, and when he was back out in the ordinary world he'd know that for a fact. But here in this room, in this bed, with this man beside him, he could believe otherwise. And so he'd linger a while longer in the place where that sweet desolating consummation had been possible, and hope Dorian would forgive him the small infidelity.
"Alright, Sergei. We'll stay in."
Dorian moved closer, the skilful carved mouth settling on his own, and Dorian's hand closed about him below. His body responded at once. Such a relief, as always, such a pleasure, to have warmth about him, to have strong fingers stroking the loneliness of his flesh- soothing it, making it worse, soothing... to feel the boundaries of his self beginning to loosen and dissolve into the other world of sex. And if it felt a little like making love on a grave, well, no matter. Let this be his farewell to the miracle and the memory; when he came back he'd be himself, living in a sunlight world of reason. But just now, at this moment, he felt himself slipping free of the bindings of the present and the memory of the past, felt himself sinking into that familiar place where there was no Sergei or Savijc, no Paris or Circassia, only the insistent ache between his legs and the hand that worked at it and the wet tongue in his mouth and the hot body pressed to his own and no words, no words at all...
The jangling phone roused him from his luxurious post-coital nap. He rolled off Dorian and caught it on the second ring.
"M.Serge?" A man's voice, and a Faubourg accent.
"Oui, c'est moi."
"My apologies for waking you. It's Gontran de Lavallée. We met yesterday evening..."
"But of course, M. le Duc. The apologies are mine." He propped himself on an elbow. "Please excuse our abrupt departure last night. A contretemps with an acquaintance." Dorian, awake, leaned his warmth against Sergei's back, and Dorian's mouth found the nape of his neck.
"Not at all. I know it's short notice, monsieur, but I wondered if you and Lord Gloria would be free this afternoon? I have a dealer coming to the house with what promises to be an interesting discovery." Dorian's hand reached in front and began playing with him distractingly. "A seventeenth century painting. The provenance is unknown but it belongs to the school of Giorgione." Sergei's chin came up in surprise and interest, but Dorian's hand-- He caught hold of it and held the fingers still, trying to pay attention to the duc.
"-- can't be sure, but there are features which suggest a possibility- well, you'll see."
Dorian was prising Sergei's fingers loose with his other hand. "Indeed? A Giorgione, you say?" Dorian's hand froze on the instant. "But of course, monseigneur. An honour. What time, and where?"
"Shall we say three o'clock, number 25 Quai d'Orsay?"
"Certainly. We'll be there."
"Oh, marvellous. A bientôt, then."
"A bientôt, monseigneur." He hung up and turned smiling to meet Dorian's eager gaze.
"We're invited to the Duc de Lavalleé's this afternoon to view a new picture from the school of Giorgione. I hope you don't mind."
Dorian kissed him in exasperated affection. "You said *a* Giorgione, liar."
"It seems there's more to it than that. The duc wouldn't say what, but there's a little mystery to this piece."
"Ah well- that's better." Dorian collapsed back against his pillow. "A possibility for the afternoon." He smiled over at Sergei. "It seems you made a conquest last night."
"Or you did." Sergei smiled back. "He seemed to like you kissing him. The direct approach works so much better than discussing painters' techniques."
"Maybe we both did. Shall we tell him we're a matched set- can't have one without the other?"
Sergei laughed. "You're jumping the gun a little, m'ami. The duc's interest in us- or you, or me- could be quite platonic at this point. Remember that before you start suggesting threesomes to him."
"So we're going out today after all?"
"Yes, of course."
"A shower first." Dorian's arm encircled his waist at the word. "Separately, if we want our breakfast sometime before lunch." He swept out of bed and into the bathroom, locking it against his outraged lover. But as he soaped and washed himself leisurely he was still aware of Dorian, naked, standing just outside the door. The insistent pounding penetrated even through the racket of water from the shower head. Naked and pounding on the door- what a good image for the Earl of Red Gloria. That walking aphrodisiac, that half-trained cocker spaniel, had bounded into his life with an effect little short of miraculous. He noted ruefully the half-reaction even now to the memory of Dorian's body. Maybe he should let him in after all? But no. Dorian was no respecter of place: they'd be here for hours if he once let them start. He smiled, and noted how strange it seemed to smile like this- at nothing, for no reason.
Less than a week ago his world had all been known and mapped, its pleasures certain and settled but devoid of surprise. That was what he'd wanted: a calm, civilized life with a few friends and a few lovers; graceful affairs followed by graceful partings that left pleasant memories and no regrets. And then he'd looked up from a folio a few days ago to find a dream made flesh standing at his side, introducing itself in slightly accented French. Dorian's beauty had seemed impossible then, and so indeed, in quite another sense, Dorian had proved: a stranger to restraint, unacquainted with decency, an unrepentant thief, and so exuberant that there was no defending oneself against him. A good-natured earthquake that had quite unmaliciously shaken Sergei's careful house to pieces.
Sergei lathered his sponge with Aramis soap and began washing his back, thinking that after all the Chinese had it right. A revolution every so often does wonders for the system. He hadn't felt this alive in years. Dorian was as enlivening as an amphetamine, and no doubt could become as addictive. A good thing, perhaps, that the Earl's affections were rooted elsewhere. It would be too easy to become greedy, to try to keep that vivid golden energy all for oneself; and that, he knew without even thinking, would be fatal. Whenever he reached his hand out for something, disaster followed. At least he'd learned that lesson, finally. Into his head, faintly, faintly like a song heard out in the street, came the sensation of black eyes fixed on him, full of admiration and boyish devotion... He shut the door on the memory at once. Never again. He was Sergei in Paris now, a man who took the casual bounty of the world when it came to him without asking for more. It was just that the world had never thrown a Dorian up on his shore before now. He smiled again and unlocked the bathroom door.
The Earl was waiting with an aggrieved expression.
"I had to go all the way downstairs to pee," he said reproachfully, as he took possession of the bath.
"Pauvr' petit." Sergei gave him a kiss in passing, then addressed himself to his shaving. The mirror, misting from showers past and present, needed constant wiping, but he was in no hurry. He soaped his jaw in slow contemplative fashion, listening to Dorian's vocal exercises in the shower. The concert began with a few bars of 'Voi che sapete' to clear the lungs, then a song that was partly in English but hard to follow, about someone or something called Bonnie Doon. Sergei started on the tricky area below the ear on his blind side as Dorian shifted to a minor key and informed the world that he'd had a dream the other night.
...Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
I had a dream the other night,
After one plunge of his heart, Sergei went on calmly shaving. A common English name, John. A coincidence.
I dreamt my love came standing by,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
Came standing close to my bedside,
His hand stopped abruptly. Staring unseeingly at his face in the misting mirror, he listened to the rest of the incredible words.
He lies beneath the windy lowlands,
Lowlands, lowlands away, my John,
And never more coming home to me,
He lies beneath the lowlands low,
...where the shadows of clouds blowing down the mountains darken the deep grass...
Lowlands, lowlands away, my Jahn,
And nevermore shall I him know
Deliberately he brought the razor back to his cheek and finished removing the stubble, while Dorian began an exhortation to the men of some place called Harlech that took him out of his natural tenor range. Sergei shaved in quick strokes and left the bathroom before Dorian was finished his shower.
The coffee was perking away in the samovar when Dorian finally descended, shaved and dressed.
"Croissants or bread?" Sergei asked him, putting on his coat and taking the string basket for his visit to the baker.
"Both, why not?"
"As you will." He kissed him briefly and went out onto the chill staircase, willing the familiar sensations of Paris to dispel the small strangeness that lurked in a corner of his heart like a disquieting shape seen at the edges of one's vision. He descended slowly, one hand caressing the time-smoothed wood of the bannister, noting as if for the first time the shallow dip in the centre of each stone stair made by the passing feet of past inhabitants. How many decades, how many centuries, had that taken? A hundred years, a hundred and twenty... The flagstones of the passage leading to the street showed the same worn channel. Quite without intention, merely in the course of everyday life, the human element of Paris had marked even this Normandy granite. As a monument to the power of the everyday, it was, in its quiet way, impressive.
The Rue Galand was empty on this Sunday morning under a cloudy sky that showed, from time to time, patches of pale blue far above. A city sky, the accustomed ambiguous sky of civilization: shifting silvery light that softens all lines, making everything compromised and undecided. Hard to tell even which is sky and which cloud here. It becomes simply a matter of opinion...
...unlike the deep blues and pure whites of the other place, where all is definite and unarguable and one man's opinion counts for nothing. Unlike the unyielding mountains that refuse to let you even step on them-- pinnacles of stone and broken crevasses that remind you of your little place in the universe... Unless perhaps you were a giant like Majek, who could crumble mountains and turn the course of rivers like the old songs. But for an ordinary man like himself...
Who could still, if he wished, break down that wall over there with a thought. His footsteps stuttered at the realization. Could he really? Somehow, in this Parisian street, it seemed unlikely. Among the mountains and the savage air of Circassia, perhaps, but here? Surely it wouldn't work. He half-stretched his hand out in the old gesture and then stopped. And if it did work there'd be damages to pay, far more than he could afford, and the police to be satisfied that he was not in fact carrying explosives, and probably an overnight stay in jail at the very least. He gave a wry smile, aware of relief. His family's power belonged to the other place, untamed and primitive. Let it stay there. There was no room for it here in this civilized world of francs and centimes, of police and property and indemnification: of all the man-made institutions that make the world safe.
"Bonjour, M.Serge." The concierge of the apartment two doors down, sweeping the pavement by the entrance, greeted him automatically.
"Bonjour, Mme. Vigneault." He returned to the casual daily contacts of Paris, brief, civil, and reassuring.
"Bonjour, M.Serge." Farther along the thin little daughter of the family who lived above the pharmacy was skipping in the port-cochère.
"Bonjour, Nadine. Ca va?"
"Pas mal," she said with six-year-old nonchalance. "Vous allez où?"
"To get croissants for breakfast."
"It's almost noon." She frowned her disapproval of his irregular habits.
"We went to bed late last night," he explained.
She clicked her tongue, evidently writing him off as a wastrel. "It's bad for you," she said, severely. "C'est vachement mal, se coucher tard."
"That's true," he agreed humbly, and she nodded emphatically before skipping away into the courtyard.
He entered the bakery, empty of the morning crush of buyers.
"Bonjour, Mme. Bellemain."
"Bonjour, M. Serge." A brisk little woman, no longer young, which in this country meant she was now at her best- certain, civilized, mature, her auburn hair skilfully coloured and her eyeshadow subtly but impeccably applied. One of the exquisite Parisians, so reassuring because they were, like himself, basically so unbeautiful. Art is a necessity among these people, and so the Parisians create the necessary artifice to supply their lack, and then gild the whole with intelligence, sensuousness and charm. Yes, even the bakers' wives. Maybe only in a city like this could he have had the success at love that he'd had. And he had, god knows, been successful...
"A baguette, please, Madame. And are there any croissants left?"
"Three or four."
"I'll take them all." It had the feeling of being a hungry day. Evidently Dorian had managed to excite more of his appetites than one. He smiled again and caught the quirk of Mme. Bellemain's plucked eyebrows, curious, speculative, and apparently pleased by something she'd just noticed. Well, naturally. The French have a sixth sense for these things. He gave her a swift smile under his lashes, inviting her inquiry.
"A new friend, M. Serge?"
"Yes," he said. "An Englishman."
"Chouette. Is he nice?"
"Decidedly. Blond, beautiful and very spoiled."
"Oh là là," she smiled, and handed him his change with distinct satisfaction.
A trifle bemused, he headed back to the apartment, looking curiously at the houses in the Rue Galand, where he'd lived for more than three years now, as if he'd never seen them before. Today they seemed to glow with an undefined splendour beneath the brisk clouds of spring. Somehow, without his noticing it, the city of his exile had become home. He found himself experiencing an odd fondness for this little street on the Left Bank, with its old apartments crowding each other wall to wall. Mundane and functional, these Third Empire buildings, but beautiful in their own way. Not unlike the people who lived in them, in fact. Rational and solid, his Parisian friends, good bourgeois with their feet on the ground and their minds on business; but vivacious as well, a spirited and argumentative race. Intellectual and sensuous both, insisting on the importance of food and ideas, of sex and love, of good workmanship and good manners and good conversation. Good republicans that they are, the Parisians make sure the best life has to offer is within reach of everyone, aristocrat, bourgeois and worker alike; available even to the passing foreigner like himself.
He thought of his graceful high-ceilinged apartment, of the books that crowded his study and the pictures that hung in his hallway; of his dark canopied bed from Lille, the Recamier sofa he'd bought for a song at les puces and had recovered, of his desk from the Belle Epoque glowing with the polish of ninety years. Beautiful, comfortable, and eminently functional, all of it. Whether he ate at home or out in a bistro, his meals were the best domestic cooking, cheap but satisfying: patés, mussels and sweetbreads, the occasional entrecote or roast lamb, accompanied always by mustardy salads, crusty bread and a sturdy red wine. Night brought pleasant companionship, easily acquired and easily parted with. For the day there was his small but flourishing business, his circle of clients and acquaintances, the trips abroad in search of rare and beautiful items. He'd never thought much about his life in Paris, the little daily details like this, and so had never realized what a delight in fact it was. Except for the taxes and the traffic, of course; but such are the drawbacks of civilization everywhere. Paris was a charming affectionate lover, not one for tantrums or reproaches, not one that would demand your soul of you in return for lodging. One who, like all the best lovers, makes you feel beautiful yourself. Paris gave him happiness and success with no hint, no possibility even, of the failure and shame that dragged at him elsewhere. He'd found a life for himself here that was right- settled, polished, complete. Satisfying. 'And like a man long since prepared', his mind said, 'like a courageous man...'
His steps faltered.
'As it becomes one who has had the honour of such a city
Bid farewell to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.' 
He stopped, unseeing. The pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Strange, the ways of the mind. Was that what it was, then, the cause of this present nostalgia? Was that all it was, that had brought the past from its grave and conjured a dead man into his arms last night? The promptings of the subconscious and half a bottle of wine. Well, yes; it seemed only too likely. His own mind had brought him close enough to insanity before this for him to doubt its power. But he hadn't thought- or hadn't wanted to think, perhaps- that it could have such an effect on him, this return to his native country. To Circassia.
Circassia. The very thought of it was darkness. He'd thrust the thing away from him completely: put it all behind him and made another life for himself out here in the light. And tomorrow he was going back there, back to the source of all the pain and wrongness in his life. Going back because he had no choice: because if he didn't his brothers would destroy each other. They'd abandoned him in his worst need and he'd cast them from his heart forever. But still... Majek and Halim still had power over him. If Majek was dead, if Halim was set free with no check on his desires, something of himself would be lost. He needed them, needed to have them alive- safely far away in a different world, where he could see them as small and human-sized and even a little ridiculous: but there, if only to mark the distance he himself had come.
The distance. He smiled painfully. What distance? A leaden weariness was closing on him, a soulsickness he knew from long ago: a sense of coiling vines and stagnant water and rot. Nothing had changed. They were all still there, all the fetid and poisoned emotions of the past. The confused unwilling love that never made anything different; the corrosive anger that harmed only himself; and the grief- oh god, the grief and guilt that made the very air of Circassia stink. For Jahn, whom he had killed; for Szincza, Jahn's shadow, whom he had-- He cut the thought short, but the pain that always came with the memory of his nephew was like a physical ache. It was still waiting for him, that old old dance. If he went back, Sergei the successful civilized Parisian would vanish, and he'd become Savijc of the Aouilles again: Savijc the cripple, Savijc the failure, Savijc the traitor who had turned his back on the birthright of his clan. Savijc who could never make atonement enough to silence the accusing ghosts of Circassia.
'I'm insane,' he thought in anger and misery. Like a fool who leaps unthinkingly into a chasm and sees the jagged rocks below only as he falls. What had he been thinking of when he'd made that rash plan Friday night? Had he really believed he could just go to Circassia and leave again untouched? 'This is suicidal. I swore I'd never go back.'
Just as you swore never to kiss another man, his mind reminded him. He blinked in surprise. Yes, he had. He'd made that silent vow twenty years and more ago, and he'd broken it Friday as well. And look what amazing- what unbelievable- things had come of that... Thoughtfully he began walking again. That vow of his- it had been a boy's romantic fantasy from the sagas of his youth. A grave-offering to his friend's spirit: what had been Jahn's would never belong to anyone else. Past time, surely, that he'd given it up. He was a man now, a rational man who lived in a rational world, much too old for pointless sentimentality. And someone else had come to demand his kiss, someone who refused to be denied. Dorian Red Gloria, beautiful and desirable and no respecter of anything at all. Eroica the thief had taken what was Jahn's--
Well, no. He might as well be honest. Dorian made him want to give it. The man was like that- so beautiful himself and so transparent in his desires that you wanted to give him what he wanted just for the pleasure of seeing him happy, like a much-loved younger brother. Who knows? Perhaps the paintings Dorian stole also felt a wish to belong to that perfect unconscious beauty, and slipped off their museum walls happily into his hands. He smiled at the conceit. The man was a menace, quite unfit for civilized society-- and the man was waiting now, impatiently no doubt, for his breakfast. Sergei's spirits rose. Well, the impetuous Earl of Red Gloria would have to wait a little longer, because now, since he'd thought of it--
He rang Mme. Vigneault's bell. The Parisian concierge is a third sex, like the Catholic religious, and the charm and tact that belong to other Parisians is not encoded in their DNA. He believed Mme. Vigneault was not ill-disposed to him, but being a concierge she could only express her goodwill through a manner that was, marginally, not one of total disapproval. He'd always known better than to try any kind of pleasantry or familiarity with her. Even a smile could be taken for a sign of damnable frivolity and self-conceit, so he kept a blank face as he explained to her pursed mouth that business called him from the country for a few days, asked that she look in on his place once or twice during that interval, and gave her his key to the apartment. No mention was made of what she was to do there, though they both knew she'd collect the mail and water the plants and pick up any details of his private life she could, it being the business of concierges to know everything. Neither was there mention of any remuneration. He merely handed her a folded hundred franc note along with the key. Oddly enough, Mme. Vigneault gave no indications that the sum was either too small or too large. She even allowed him to leave without trying to make him feel a fool. Surprised, Sergei saw that she must really like him.
The discovery touched him oddly. Returning bemusedly up the stairs to his flat he found that contrary to expectation, Dorian had actually locked the door behind him after he'd left. He rang the bell and waited, but it was an unfamiliar step that sounded in the hallway before the door opened.
"Well, there you are finally. What kept you?" The red-haired young man from last night took the string bag off his arm without so much as a by-your-leave. "Come on in. They're in the salon. I'll be ready with this in a jiffy." He turned and started down the corridor to the kitchen.
"Make yourself at home," Sergei said politely to his back. The youth turned a startled head, but Sergei walked on past and into the living room. Dorian stood up as he entered. His friend was looking distinctly put out, either by this high-handed invasion of the apartment or, like himself, by the unexpected reappearance of the uncanny young man himself.
"Oh Sergei, love. Good. This is Major Bancoran from M15. He wants to debrief us, I think. We were waiting for you to get back."
The man sitting in the armchair with his back to Sergei rose up, and a waterfall of liquid black hair rose with him. Impossibly long, heavy and silken, whispering a little silkenly as well, it swung with a life of its own as the man turned to face him. 'Formidable,' Sergei thought, only a little sardonic. Some gestures are so overdone that admiration is the only possible response to them. Anything else looks churlish. He could have guessed that the Englishman would be a different kettle of fish from Dorian's Major, but he wouldn't have guessed at this much of a difference. He pulled his gaze upwards, prepared to find the face an anticlimax. Why cultivate that mesmerizing sea of hair, if not to compensa--
His stomach lurched in shock as though dropping through space. Only his years of training in the fighting arts kept him on his feet and stopped his knees from buckling. How did the man dare-- A wave of heat, sweet and unbearable, washed up through him, blurring his vision, even as part of him registered fury at the unspeakable effrontery, the hand placed openly on his crotch, offensive and intimate and appallingly exciting--
"Monsieur Serge," Bancoran said in a perfectly ordinary voice. He was holding his hand out. Sergei shook it automatically, mind spinning in confusion. The man had- had- had done nothing, evidently. But all the evidence of his senses, the tingling warmth that ran through his veins and the aching hardness of his groin, said otherwise. He looked at Bancoran in puzzlement and felt the hot erotic flush again. There. The eyes- dark eyes, knowing eyes, jaded and debauched-- saurian, almost, under bluish lids-- Those heavy eyes stripped his clothes from him and surveyed his nakedness as if they were already lovers. 'I know you,' those eyes said, 'I know what you've got under those trousers, don't pretend with *me*. I know what you want, now you can have it, you can have me in your mouth, you can have me up your arse, I'm everything you've ever wanted--' He was used to men looking at him with longing or lechery, but their small human lusts were a world away from this intimate authority. Intimate and familiar- he knew this man already, he'd known him all his life. This was the one he'd been looking for in every lover he'd ever had, this was the one he'd wanted. The dark eyes were like masterful fingers on his flesh, squeezing his buttocks and cradling his cock- like a voice murmuring in his ear, low and tender. 'We're in this together, you and me, no need to pretend, I'm closer to you than your own skin-' and hot powerful hands pulled his pants down and held his cheeks open...
Sergei's fingernails bit into his palm and he heard Bancoran's voice saying in an unremarkable fashion, "--telling Lord Gloria, your involvement last night will be kept quite unofficial, but naturally--"
"But naturally you want to be sure we won't run off and tell the world," Dorian said with irony.
"You're vouched for, Lord Gloria, but M.Serge is an unknown quantity. I just wanted to see the lie of the land for myself."
"Well, and how does the land lie?" Dorian challenged him.
"I don't know yet," Bancoran said, with a trace of impatience in his voice. "Look, couldn't we sit down?"
"Of course," Sergei said, realizing the Major had been waiting for his invitation. Such punctiliousness after that open lechery was-- was-- unlikely, at the very least. He took a chair diagonally across from the Major's, watching him with a curiously split vision. Bancoran's voice and his manner were all business. There was nothing suggestive in his mouth, his posture. And yes, it was reasonable that he'd come to check the two of them out, after they'd got themselves mixed up in his investigation yesterday. It all made sense-- if he didn't look at Bancoran's eyes. He chanced another careful glance, met their knowing stare, and looked away hastily, blood pounding. Those insinuating eyes seemed unconnected to the rest of the man. It was as though Bancoran was sitting there with his fly open, talking mundane business while he waved his penis in their faces. Sergei's groin informed him of the inadvisability of thinking along those lines. He dropped his gaze to the carpet, resisting the urge to look up again. The animal sensuality radiating from the Major spoke directly to his gonads, bypassing the brain completely. He'd never felt so at odds with his own body before. Some obscure impulse made him reach under his hair to cover his wounded eye. He wanted the man gone- out of here- and now.
"Yes," he said, hearing his voice from far away. "What is it?"
"Is something the matter? You seem not to have heard--"
"Nothing is the matter, Major. If you're concerned about my discretion or my bona fides, apply to Major von dem Eberbach of NATO. He'll vouch for me as well as Lord Gloria."
"Really?" Bancoran sounded surprised. "Are you an agent too, then?"
Before Sergei could answer the youth had come into the salon, carrying a tray that rattled slightly with crockery and spoons. The smell of coffee and hot milk came with him.
"Here it is," he said, putting it down on the table. "Café au lait. And he's not an agent. He thinks we're all the same as assassins." He gave Sergei a friendly smile and seemed put out when Sergei didn't respond.
Bancoran said, "Then why do you say Eberbach will--"
"You ask a lot of questions," Dorian interrupted. "Why do you think you're entitled to know all our business?" He brought two bowls of café au lait and croissants over to Sergei and sat down on the sofa next to his chair. "And if you'll excuse us, this *is* our breakfast. We'd like to eat in peace." To demonstrate, he dipped a croissant claw in foaming milk and put it in his mouth.
"Lord Gloria, you know better than that, and if you don't, you should. I'm sorry to intrude on your weekend, but you were the ones who intruded on our investigation in the first place. I just need to get you properly placed in the scheme of things and then--"
"Easily done," Dorian said, chewing and swallowing. His casualness seemed intended to offend and, given his usual courtesy, probably was. "I was asked by Major Bancoran of M16 to open a safe for an M16 operative in Paris. I did. I was promised my usual fee-" he smiled sweetly at the redhead- "but under the circumstances I'll waive it. That's all. Now you can go."
Bancoran gave an exasperated groan, the sound a man makes during sex with his mouth buried in your hair. Sergei's fingers tightened on the bowl of coffee, letting it scald him. The pain was a relief. He was going mad, with that man sitting over there radiating sex at him like heat from a wood-burning stove, and Dorian sitting here next to him, his warm rose smell carrying insistent memories of nights past. Sergei wanted to rip his clothes off and fall on one or the other or possibly both of them at once.
"Fine. That's your part of it. And where do you fit into this, M. Serge?"
Concentrating on the distracting discomfort in his hand, he answered, "As I said, you'd better ask Major von dem Eberbach."
"I don't have the time. I want to know what your story is."
"Story?" Sergei gave him a cool glance, which was a mistake. Their eyes met again and his cheeks flamed. Enough. He was going to have that man now. And as he gathered himself to spring, the telephone rang out in the hallway. The strident shrilling cut through the red mists in his head. He put his bowl down carefully, got up, and managed to walk not too crookedly out of the room. His mind made sardonic noises about his vanity, and he smiled a little grimly as he picked up the receiver.
"M.Serge? This is the Hôpital Général. Your friend M. Fersen has regained consciousness. He's somewhat upset at his present condition. Perhaps you could come and explain what happened? He seems to desire-" there was a distinct bureaucratic sniff- "that we let him go home and he refuses to understand how unadvisable that is."
"I see," he said. Good. That should get rid of them. "There are friends of his here now. They'll be along shortly." The voice nattered at him querulously and he answered automatically, "Yes indeed. Of course. Quite. Good-bye."
He turned and found the young man standing not a metre away from him.
"What was that all about?" the youth demanded fiercely.
"Fersen's regained consciousne--"
"Damn Fersen!! You know that's not what I meant!" The violet eyes were full of fury, but beneath it Sergei sensed angry bewilderment. Bewildered himself, he frowned at the boy. "What did you mean by that scene back there in the salon?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Bancoran- you blushed when you looked at him, you could barely stand up in front of him-- You--" He clenched his fists. "How old *are* you, anyway??"
Sergei raised astonished eyebrows. The boy was raving. A fever, perhaps?
"What does it matter?" he asked, moving to get past. A fast knee came up, aimed at his groin, and made slow by surprise he blocked it barely in time. His other arm moved, a little obviously, into an attack position. The boy, no fool, backed off a little, but there was no easing of the intensity of his attitude.
"What does it matter??" he hissed. "What does it matter??? You twenty-five if you're a day. Why are you acting like this?"
"Thank you," Sergei said. "I'm forty next February. And I still don't know what you're talking about."
"Fourteen?" the boy said dazedly. "You can't be." Definitely a fever, if he was having such trouble with basic French.
"I don't understand," he said, sounding almost like a child. "It's impossible."
"I am. Why does my age make such a difference?"
"Because-- You want Ban. You can't deny it. Anyone can see." His eyes went pointedly to Sergei's groin. Thanks to Circassian tailoring, Sergei knew perfectly well that anyone couldn't see, but the hint cast some light on the young man's behaviour. A pathological jealousy, then- and quite justified given the Major's behaviour.
"In that case, you should get him out of here as soon as possible. The sooner the better, as far as I'm concerned." He walked past, unhindered this time, and into the salon. Resisting the drag of Bancoran's gaze, he addressed himself to the room in general.
"That was the Hôpital Général. Fersen's awake and acting up. If he tries to check himself out, I don't think they'll stop him."
"Better get over there then," Bancoran said to the youth who stood glowering at Sergei's back.
"And leave you here?? With him?? In your dreams!" the boy retorted fiercely.
"With whom?" Bancoran sounded astonished.
"Him!!" The boy pointed an hysterical finger at Sergei.
Bancoran threw a brief uncomprehending glance in his direction before turning in concern to his companion.
"Maraich, are you well? Do you have a fever?" He put a hand to the young man's forehead. "No-
Maraich struck it away ferociously
"I don't have a fever and I'm perfectly well and I saw what you did to him and I won't have it! I won't *have* it!!" He was flushed red and his voice was going shrill. "I don't know how or why but if you're going to go sniffing after men now you'll have to do it over my dead body!" His voice cracked in rage. Dorian, wide-eyed, caught Sergei's glance. Sergei tapped a finger to his temple. Dorian grimaced and looked uncomfortable. His friend was a proper Englishman at heart, and embarrassed by the open display of strong emotions. Even his extremely improper compatriot seemed at a loss.
"Don't 'look, Maraich' me! We're leaving and we're not coming back! *Now*!!"
Bancoran took a deep, resigned breath.
"Alright. Alright. We'll go." Sergei heard the frustration in his voice and caught a glimpse of his expression. Fingernails deep in his palms, he rode the physical reaction without changing countenance. Just a little longer-- "But you're still a security risk as far as I'm concerned, M.Serge. I won't be forgetting you."
Sergei decided. "Major-- Alright. I'm known as one who keeps his own counsel. But if that's not enough for you, I'm also working in conjunction with NATO. I leave tomorrow on a confidential mission for them. Eberbach can confirm that."
"A mission? Where?"
"Circassia. My native country."
"Ahh- I see." Satisfaction loosened the tension in Bancoran's body. "That's what you weren't telling me?"
"And for the rest," Dorian said, "as far as we're concerned we didn't meet your friend yesterday and we didn't meet you today. Alright?"
"Fine by me." Sergei heard the smile in Bancoran's voice. "Alright, Maraich, I'm coming." The boy was dragging him bodily towards the corridor.
Sergei went with them. There were no good-byes. Sergei was counting from one to ten in his mind, repeatedly and monotonously, as he let them out and locked the door and bolted it and returned back down the corridor. He wasn't running by the time he got to the salon, but it was a near thing.
"Serg-- Oh my," Dorian said to the expression on his face. "Here, let me--" Sergei gave him no opportunity to say more but tumbled him onto the sofa and ripped his fly open forthwith. Dorian helped out by pushing his trousers and briefs down as Sergei's frantic fingers found what he wanted and got it at last into his mouth. The musky smell and the sweet taste of flesh made everything worse, but Dorian didn't keep him waiting. His lover's sensitive body responded at once, as much to Sergei's desperation as to his efforts, and almost instantly became rigid against the back of his throat. Sergei straightened, quickly, quickly, and got his own trousers undone and off while Dorian protested, "Sergei love, we should go upstairs--"
"No," he said, standing up. "Here."
"But the lube's upstai--"
"Here," he said in the Aouille voice that brooked no opposition, and made Dorian take him then and there over the arm of the sofa. Open mouthed, face pressed to the dusty fabric, he cried aloud as Dorian's hardness first breached him, and went on yelling at the hot almost-pain of it and the violent orgasm that broke over him almost immediately. He arched blindly as his body rid itself of the torturing longing as of a fever. Oh God- Oh God- oh yes, better, much better- his shaking calmed a little and he became aware of his surroundings again: registered the sweet, consoling ache behind as Dorian moved dryly in and out of him. His voice sank to a low happy moaning- purring, almost, it sounded like- at the feeling of Dorian's body entering deep into his own, and at the sense of being himself again... though he couldn't ever recall being this noisy with a lover before. Well, no matter. Dorian had a way of tempting him into novelty. And after all it was a pleasure to be groaning like this, to be opening his lungs and belly and all of him to welcome his guest more fully.
Sweet Dorian. Such delicacy, such concentration; such warmth and so much gentleness. It was like being taken by spring sunshine. He wriggled a little against Dorian's thrusts, and felt the tension beginning again in his groin. Amazing. He'd thought this long gone, disappeared well before he was thirty. 'How old are you?' that demented boy had asked, and right now he felt like answering 'Fifteen.' What Dorian had wrought-- He laughed a little and Dorian said 'Mmph?', vaguely questioning with whatever part of his brain was still functioning. Sergei tightened himself to draw his lover's attention back to business, and Dorian's pace increased. So, with a little help from his hand, did Sergei's excitement. When Dorian arched one last time, fingers sinking into Sergei's shoulders, he was half-hard again and aching with slow desire. He put Dorian's hand to his crotch, solely for the feel of another's flesh around him, since his partner was still in no condition to register what was going on. But the Englishman's reflexes were better than he'd bargained for. Dorian pulled the two of them down onto the sofa, with Sergei lying back against him. He felt the heavy rise and fall of Dorian's chest as Dorian's sleepy hand tightened about him.
"Take your time," Sergei murmured.
"Give me a minute," Dorian mumbled in his ear, "I'll use my mouth."
"No need. This is fine." The warmth of Dorian beneath him, the sweet and acidic smell of roses and sex mingling together, Dorian's hot hand working at him, Dorian's heavy arm around his chest-- delightful, delightful, all of it. He floated in a happy sea of arousal, blue as the Mediterranean and as warm; blue as the skies of Circassia...
"Wait," he said, and shifted around in Dorian's arms so he was facing his lover, looking into the dreamy blue eyes under their immensely long lashes. He pushed Dorian's legs apart a little, hampered by the trousers around the other's knees, and shoved himself into the warm space between them. "There." He kissed Dorian and Dorian kissed him back, squeezing his legs together.
"This will take a while," Sergei told him. "You don't mind?"
"Not at all. I like being your woman. Makes a change."
"You're not my woman." His tongue slipped in and out of Dorian's mouth, and he gasped unexpectedly as Dorian's hands covered his buttocks and kneaded their flesh.
"Whatever," Dorian murmured, and their mouths joined again. Sergei closed his eye, the better to concentrate on the pulsing massage between his legs and the insistent fingers working at his arse and the slippery feel of Dorian's tongue winding about his own. It was too much- he let go and sought the softness of Dorian's hair, the bounty of curls like a sea one could dive into. Too late he realized that in turning his head he'd left himself vulnerable. Dorian's tongue slid into his ear, the warm wetness sending shock waves from testicles to the top of his head. Sergei writhed to get free, but Dorian had an arm about his neck and another about his torso, holding him motionless. Dorian's prisoner, Sergei cried aloud at the intrusive maddening tickling and lost himself in a moment, vision going and groin exploding and spine arching as if a string of landmines had gone off along its length.
"A while, did you say?" Dorian asked, unbearably smug, as Sergei panted and gasped on his lover's chest.
"You," Sergei said. "An adolescent's trick. You're asking for it, m'ami."
"Yes," the Earl of Red Gloria grinned back at him, "I am. When am I going to get it?"
"Not now, certainly, and not for a while yet," Sergei pointed out with small-souled satisfaction.
"Your own fault."
Sergei turned his head at Dorian's tone. "Meaning?"
"Oh come, Sergei. It's obvious what was causing your desperate ardour back there. Believe me, I sympathize completely. Talk about cold fish- Bancoran is a flounder on ice. Like trying to get a reaction from a rock, that one." He sounded distinctly miffed. Sergei blinked in surprise.
"And was given the cold shoulder. Also the cold hand, eye, chest, back and cock. I'd have sworn the man was straight. In fact, I get more reaction from most straight men I know than I did from him." Dorian looked at Sergei for sympathy. "What's the matter?"
"That wasn't what I saw. Quite the reverse."
"I thought so too, naturally. All that hair, and those leather gloves of his--" Gloves? "But no. Misleading advertising. Dry as a ledger, not one hint of a response--"
"And his eyes?"
"What about them? They were eyes. I've seen better." He shrugged.
It was Dorian's turn to look puzzled. "You don't agree?"
"He has the eyes of a goat. He was stripping me naked in my own livingroom. Another minute and I'd have attacked him- for looking at me like that--" His hands clenched at the memory of that knowing lecherous stare.
"You're joking. He wasn't, Sergei. I'd have noticed."
"He was. How could you miss it?"
"I noticed you fizzing and popping away in your corner, of course-"
"Thank you, m'ami."
"You know what I mean. I thought he'd got you running too. You know it's impossible to ignore you when you're turned on. You broadcast it like- well, I won't say a bitch in heat, but-"
"Dorian," he said warningly.
"I'm serious. Every cock in the room hardens in sympathy. I felt for you when I saw you limping out the door like that, truly--"
"Ca suffit." Sergei sat up with dire intent. Satisfaction flashed in Dorian's eyes. That settled it. In a moment he had the impertinent young man pulled across his lap and was informing him, firmly and many times, of the inadvisability of ill-considered personal remarks.
Dorian yelped and kicked, obviously unprepared for the effort Sergei was putting into it. "Ow! Sergei!! Ow! That hurts!"
"This is what happens to dirty little boys," Sergei told him.
"I'm twenty-five, for god's sake!"
"Really? I'd never have guessed it from the last ten minutes." He could feel the effect he was having on Dorian pressing against his own leg, which gave him no incentive to end the Earl's punishment.
"Ow! Sergei, cut it- ow! Sergei-" Dorian bellowed mightily, his pleas for mercy somewhat undercut by suppressed laughter, and wriggled so energetically against Sergei's thigh that he was soon returned to fully active status: so that Sergei ultimately found himself bending a second time over the sofa's arm to afford his friend relief.
"A shower, I suppose," Dorian panted resignedly when he was done.
"Another shower," Sergei agreed.
"I can't think why we bother to wear clothes," Dorian said, removing the rest of his as they made their way to the downstairs half-bath. "We just keep having to take them off. Adam didn't wear anything and *he* did very well for himself."
"Adam didn't live in Paris."
"We need another Eden, just for us. Somewhere warm and green where we could live like the plants- lying in the sun and pollinating whenever we felt like it."
Sergei laughed at the image, but it struck a chord in his heart. A deep jungle, warm and lazy, and a vegetable mentality- slow, natural, caring only to fulfil the needs of the body. Dappled sunlight filtering through thick branches, himself and his other self naked together, turning to each other wordlessly as the swell of desire prompted them, one in thought and desire like twins in the womb-- He put his head down on Dorian's wet shoulder. Yes, it had been like that once, himself and Halim in their narrow bed, never quite certain in the slow moments of sleep and waking which body was whose, and not after all really caring. It hardly mattered whose sex he touched, Halim's or his own. It was all the same- it felt the same. But that mutuality was a long time ago, in the innocence of childhood. Very early on Halim had discovered the pleasures of the will, the satisfaction of asserting his selfness over another. Maybe because they were twins and uncertain in their identities? He'd never thought of that before. But then, it had always been hard to think of Halim as a separate human being and not merely some strange, unknowable part of his own self.
Frowning a little, he tried to imagine what the world looked like to his twin. Halim was a human tornado, full of a restless energy that never seemed to find its proper outlet. Could it be that his constant, unsatisfied activity was caused by this- uncertainty? The desire to prove that he was a separate identity, one that could affect the outside world: not just the prisoner of a solipsistic reality where everything he touched turned out to be only another part of himself...
For himself there had been Jahn. Jahn, who was so close to him yet so utterly different from everything he'd ever known, had marked the boundaries of otherness for him. He'd given Sergei something to define himself by: the thing which is not me but still so very much mine. And who had done that for Halim? Who could? Halim was too much an Aouille, dominating those about him without thinking. Perhaps only Majek was strong enough for him, Majek who was always the strongest of them all. Could that be why Halim was going after the ultimate prize of their older brother? To bring Majek down would certainly demonstrate Halim's effectiveness.
But therein lay the trap. If Majek could be killed, that would mean there was nothing that could stand against Halim's will. His brother would be back in his prison, still searching for the thing that could remain distinct from himself. Halim needed Majek if he was to exist at all. Sergei had to believe that Halim was aware of that fact at some level, because otherwise this mission to Circassia would be dangerous indeed. If Halim refused to back off... He finally let himself consider that possibility. If Halim refused to abandon his plot, he'd have to die. Sergei saw that now. If it came to a choice, it was Majek who must live. It wasn't even a question of personal feeling. Majek had boasted himself that he cared for only two things in the world, power and his son; but those two obsessions had driven him to weld the feuding fragments of Circassia into a united country, one that he could pass on to Szincza as his inheritance. Order wasn't his goal, yet order was what he produced. But Halim- Halim could see only the desire in front of his eyes, and not the chaos that lay beyond.
"Mmmh?" Dorian asked of his long silence, turning his head to nuzzle Sergei's hair.
"Nothing, m'ami." He kissed the hollow of Dorian's eye, happy to forget what was going to begin after today. If Halim must die, it was Sergei who would kill him. He couldn't- wouldn't- leave his twin for Majek to deal with. But he didn't know, if it came to the worst, whether he'd be able to let Halim go alone into the dark. His mouth moved across Dorian's moist skin, smelling now of sandalwood, and his hands wandered down to slide over the wet hardness of Dorian's belly and flanks. Why go out again, out to the rational streets of Paris, when there was this waiting for him inside? He was leaving tomorrow for an encounter that he'd give his hope of heaven to avoid. Death was a possibility, pain a certainty. Surely it made sense to spend the rest of the day in his lover's arms?
Dorian pushed the shower handle down and turned around to kiss Sergei back. Sergei held him against the tiled wall, the hot water from the faucet running about their feet, pressing groin to groin and chest to chest. His fingers consoled themselves with the round edges of Dorian's buttocks, and he slid one soapy finger into the hotness between them. Dorian arched his neck, smiling up at him.
"You're so amorous today. You really want to do it again?"
"Want--" Sergei said, mouth against the smoothness of Dorian's neck. "Not can, alas..."
"I'm not so sure." Dorian ground his hips around Sergei's intrusive finger. "I think we're a little more than human since last night."
Coldness clamped his heart. Dorian raised an eyebrow at the momentary rigidity of his body and Sergei made himself relax.
"I doubt it, m'ami. Drugs or hypnotism or whatever it was only give the illusion, not the reality." He withdrew his hand and turned to wash it under the faucet.
"Drugs?" Dorian said in an odd voice.
"Hypnotism, more likely." He met Dorian's gaze with a little smile and saw the uncertainty in the earl's eyes. "Wouldn't you say? Whatever we may have thought it was, you know it was only that." Briskly he stepped out of the tub and reached for a towel before Dorian could reply.
The de Lavallée house in the Quai d'Orsay was grand indeed; also dim, well-furnished and full of anonymous plants and ferns growing near the windows of almost every room. Sergei found himself relaxing, nerves soothed, as the manservant conducted them along the dully gleaming parquetry of the hallway, past little parlours and the double doors to the dining room. Sheer curtains over the long windows filled the rooms with pearly light. Polished tables and burgundy armchairs glowed mellowly within, enlivened by the sparkle of a chandelier's crystal or the winking silver candelabra on the sideboards. All here spoke of care, order, and a devoted cleaning woman. The blue and red Oriental carpet of the salon was thick underfoot, a softness that went with the low sounds of conversation among the five or six guests. The duc greeted them warmly as they entered and took them at once to where an old woman was sitting in a low armchair. Traces of a once classic beauty lingered in the carved cheekbones under the age-softened skin. She looked up at them from faded but alert blue eyes above a high-bridged nose.
"Bonne maman, may I present the Comte of Red Gloria from England, and M.Serge, the antiquarian art dealer? Gentlemen, my grandmother the Duchesse."
"Enchanted, Madame la Duchesse," Dorian said, taking her extended hand. She smiled and her face went into a million wrinkles as she held out her other hand to Sergei.
"Ah, how marvellous," she said. Her voice was like a cello's, oddly deep for an old woman, but mellow. The hand that held Sergei's was twisted with arthritis, but the skin was still soft and the grip firm. "My grandson has brought me the sun and the moon together. Merci, mon gosse. I always wanted them."
"De rien, bonne maman." The duc gave her a tender glance. "I'll leave them with you for a moment, then." There was another party entering the salon door. Sergei and Dorian sat, one on each side the duchesse, and a manservant appeared with glasses of sherry on a silver tray. The duchesse loosed their hands.
"You have come to see this new painting of Faucon's?" she asked them as they took their glasses. "You are collectors?"
"In a small way," Dorian said modestly. "We have an interest." His eyes were assessing the male guests present, automatically and without thought.
"I sell and he buys," Sergei murmured. "You said Faucon, Madame? It was he who found this new painting?"
"Yes. 'The angels spoke to him' once again. In Padua this time."
"Angels?" Dorian asked, turning his head back.
"The dealer Faucon is a man inspired," the duchesse told him. "In most ways an ordinary man, very amiable and agreeable. He knows his business, he is a good merchant. But sometimes- sometimes the angels speak to him. They tell him- go down this street and knock at the brown door, go talk to that man and ask him if he knows of any paintings for sale. This time- well, I'll let him tell you the story himself."
"He's among the stars," Sergei said, looking to where Faucon was talking to what he recognized from the society papers as a Bourbon prince of the blood and the second Rothschild brother in the older generation. "A little out of our reach. If the duchesse would be so kind...?"
The duchesse patted his hand. "It is you who are kind, M. la Lune. Eh bien, M Faucon was on a train passing Padua, and saw, a little distance from the city, a house with a green roof. The angels spoke to him, they said 'Go there', but what could he do? The train was going fast, it was not due to stop for another forty minutes. He is a man of resolution. He rushes to the corridor, he pulls the communication cord and the driver applies the brakes at once. You can imagine the guards were annoyed when they discovered the reason. M. Faucon gave them his card- the train company will levy a fine on him some day, in the course of Italian time- then he took off on foot across the fields. At last he sees, from the top of a small hill, the house with the green roof. Inside is an old couple, they speak only the dialect, and they are very hard of hearing, but M. Faucon perseveres. 'A painting? A painting for sale? Si, signor, we have a painting, we might think of selling it'-- and they show him in the salon the portrait of an ancestor, a picture of some hussar with terrific moustaches from the time of the Napoleonic Wars. 'Oltra peintura? Ma no, signor, this is the only painting in the house.' M. Faucon entreats them- in the attic perhaps, or an outbuilding? They let him search, but no, there are no other paintings in the house or outside it. M. Faucon is puzzled, but he trusts his angels. He buys the daub from the old couple, and you may well believe they charge him high for it. He returns to Paris, he puts the canvas on an easel, he stands for a long time looking at it, and the only thing it tells him is that the dealer Faucon is an idiot. And then an idea comes to him. He takes his solvents, he removes a little area of the painting- oh, tiny, tiny, just at the bottom- and up comes the edge of a stone and the leaf of a plant next to it, in a style much earlier than the nineteenth century. At once he is on the phone to our own M. Lemieux, 'Mon ami, come look at this, I need your services at once.' Lemieux cleans the canvas and finds our little mystery."
"Mystery?" Dorian murmured in an entranced voice.
"Il mistero del ritorno," the duchesse smiled.
"Or to put it in plain French, L'Enigme du Retour," the duc said from above them. Sergei frowned.
"This is a joke, Monseigneur? What can a seventeenth century painting have to do with De Chirico?"
"No joke, merely an odd coincidence. Come and see: we're having the showing now."
Sergei and Dorian arose. "Madame la Duchesse--?" Dorian asked, offering her an arm.
"Ah no, thank you, milord. I've seen it already and this chair is very comfortable. Run along with my grandson."
They joined the company as it moved to the room next door, Dorian nodding in passing to the Rothschild baron as to an acquaintance. The baron looked puzzled and Sergei stopped himself from speculating what connection there might be between them. That branch of the family had a famous and supposedly well-guarded collection of Italian art that he suspected was now missing a canvas or two.
The painting was not large. It stood on an easel placed to catch the light and was covered by a cloth. The low expectant hum of voices ceased as Faucon stepped forward and addressed the company.
"Messieurs, mesdames, I think you have all heard the story of how this painting came into my hands. It is unsigned, but the style dates it clearly from the early 17th century. And for the rest- well, look at it." And with no more ado he removed the cloth.
There was a collective intaking of breath. Newly cleaned, its original colours protected from the elements by the painting placed over it, the picture was startlingly fresh. On the left side was a wilderness of rank grasses and shrubs, ending in a forest of thick trees that backed up against the encircling cliffs. Their foliage was dense and verdant, surrealistically so: like green cumulus clouds boiling over a hillside. The sky above boiled too, whirling grey clouds of the sort that precede a storm. To the right an outcrop of mountain thrust forward, filling the middle foreground. A triangular fissure like a door opened in the rock face, a gate of blackness showing nothing beyond.
Before that opening, very near the centre of the picture, stood a young man in three-quarter view, with dark hair nearly to his shoulders. His head was half-turned to the side, so that he gazed out of the picture at the spectators. The intent of his posture was ambiguous. Perhaps he was pausing a moment before entering the cave, but equally he could be in the act of turning away from the door completely. His expression gave no clue. The dark eyes were shadowed, and there was a sadness in his expression that seemed directed, not inward, but outward at his viewer. It was as if he grieved over some knowledge that he had to impart. Sergei found himself assailed by an overwhelming anxiety. The uneasy threatening sky- the breathless motionless trees- above all the pity and sorrow in the young face... Hands gone cold, feeling the hairs rise on the nape of his neck, he stared at the figure in the foreground as at a dire portent whose meaning he could not read. Beside him he vaguely heard Dorian give a long sigh of pleasure, the way he did in bed.
"No signature..." someone murmured.
"No," Faucon agreed. "It's unsigned, as all of Giorgione's works are."
"There's no painting like this listed among his oeuvre," the dealer Scudéry objected.
"You know how much that means. In Giorgione's case, nothing." That was L'Espinesse from the faculty of beaux arts at the Sorbonne. As one waking from a dream, Sergei looked away from the painting at the men about him.
"It could be a pupil of his," the baron de Rothschild said. "A real Giorgione turning up-- it's beyond belief."
"A pupil of genius, who painted in his master's style and left no other works?" L'Espinesse said. "I think not."
"What's that written at the bottom?" an Italian voice asked.
"The only clue to the picture's subject. 'Il mistero del ritorno.' The riddle of the return."
"Appropriate," de Lavallée said. There was an odd dreaminess in his voice.
"Not the only clue," L'Espinesse was arguing. "Obviously this painting depicts the myth of Orpheus. That writing at the bottom- well, we'll need to go over this canvas with a finetooth comb, but I'm certain it will turn out to be a later addition."
"Does it matter?" Dorian asked. His face was alight. "This painting- it's enchanted. It glows with mystery: the mystery of its subject, the mystery of its origin, the mystery of its discovery. Why would you want to dispel those veils of mystery with vulgar scientific measurement?"
"Because a definite attribution would add five hundred thousand francs to the value," the Prince said dryly.
"The value of the painting is in the painting itself," Dorian responded at once, "in this young man and his mysterious errand. Why has he come? Was it a choice or was it necessity? Is this truly Orpheus about to descend into the underworld in a vain attempt to win his love back from the shadows? Or is it Theseus about to penetrate the labyrinth of his own soul in whose centre lies the monster all men must face at last? Or is it Adonis, ill-fated and early dead, entering the narrow house of death and looking his last upon the sunlit world? That's where the importance and value of the painting lies," Dorian finished, looking at them all with shining eyes, "and all the rest is simply accounting."
"Bravo," de Lavallée said, clapping his hands. "I am with the Comte of Red Gloria. The painting is what matters, and the provenance is a detail."
"The art world won't agree with you," L'Espinesse said. "The experts will be arguing about this one for decades to come. Is it a true Giorgione or not? And until we know--"
"We'll never know, maître, and you know it," Scudéry said grimly. "This painting will upset more worlds than the scholars'. What price can you put on a possible Giorgione?"
"What the market will bear," Faucon said, and the others laughed.
Conversation became private after that as dealers and patrons consulted with each other and the scholars present stood before the picture arguing specialized points of composition and technique. De Lavallée came over to them, smiling at Dorian who beamed back like a man enraptured.
"This is marvellous," Dorian said. "Simply marvellous. I haven't the words to thank you for letting us see it."
"The thanks are mine. I didn't think anyone else would feel about it as I do. I'd expected to hear- well, a lot of 'simple accounting' this afternoon. I suppose our attitude will seem like heresy to M. Serge-" He gave Sergei a rueful glance, as ever the graceful Parisian, but Sergei's ear detected a different note from last night. Today there was an unwonted trace of shyness in the duc's manner that went oddly with de Lavallée's position as an aristocrat and his own as a simple dealer.
Sergei shook his head. Unwillingly his eye went back to the sad ones of the young man in the canvas and a small shiver went up his spine. "No. There are some works that can't come under the heading of business."
"They come under the heading of love," Dorian said. "Love at first sight. It happened to me before, and that time too it was a youth painted by Giorgione."
"So you are in love with this one?" the duc asked. "Will you be making an offer to Faucon?"
"Are we to be rivals for this young man?" Dorian smiled. "Won't you be putting in a bid yourself?"
The duc sighed. "I couldn't afford a real Giorgione. I doubt I could afford even a possible Giorgione: while the baron de Rothschild can afford the former and the Prince du Condé would buy even the latter. But if it can be authenticated and goes up at auction, the Americans and Japanese will take over the bidding and knock us out in the first round." He smiled. "That's why Faucon wants to find a buyer here in Europe. His fortune's made by this, whatever happens, and he can afford to be chauvinist."
"It's not chauvinism, it's an act of charity. A masterpiece like this should never fall into the hands of investors: people who look at the price tag, not the painting. I think the better of Faucon for having principles. Scudéry would give it to Michael Jackson if he came asking."
"Who's to says Michael Jackson doesn't love Giorgione's young men as much as you do?" Sergei asked mildly, and Dorian was momentarily silent in surprise.
"It's business," the duc said, sighing, "and unavoidable, I suppose. It's the way of the world... but sometimes I wish the world wasn't so very much the way it is. An occasional miracle would be nice." He laughed deprecatingly. Sergei mentally subtracted a few years from his estimate of the duc's age, and then, in light of the way de Lavallée was looking at him and Dorian, reconsidered. The duc's present awkwardness came not from excess youth but from a simple and perfectly natural lack of experience. Men older than he, famous for their amorous histories, had shown the same maladresse when they first encountered Sergei's attractiveness and first found themselves responding to it. Anger and braggadocio were not uncommon reactions, but de Lavallée handled his innocence in a more charming fashion. The confident, polished aristocrat had simply reverted to the well-brought-up boy he must have been not too long ago, shy and fascinated in the presence of two fabulous creatures, as it might be a unicorn and a griffon, that he'd only read about in fairy tales and never thought to encounter in real life.
"Here's your miracle," Dorian was telling him. "A three-fold mystery that was hidden away for a hundred and fifty years, and only discovered because a man who hears angels talking was looking out the right side of a railway carriage as it passed a farmhouse in a country he happened to be in by chance. What more could you ask?"
"That this didn't need to end with one glimpse of a stranger's face seen from a moving train, before he gets packed off to Tokyo or a private collection." De Lavallée's intelligent eyes were losing the battle with the impossible beauty of Dorian's gold curls and warm eyes and eminently kissable lips.
"'I did but see him passing by, And yet I love him till I die.'" Dorian quoted in English, moving a little closer to the duc. "A brief tryst is better than nothing, surely? Though he becomes another's, the memory stays to console you." Yes, and Dorian was responding to the duc's response. That was Dorian's genius: he never pretended. It was all natural. However inexperienced his partner might be, the man couldn't fail to register the genuineness of Dorian's reaction. Unlike Sergei himself, who was willing to use art to satisfy his partners when feeling for them failed, as it did often enough. He'd thought it an unavoidable fact of life: one couldn't take without giving, but the natural impulse to give didn't appear for the asking. Now he knew differently. It was because he was lacking in whatever it was that Dorian had, that let him appreciate the man he was with for what he was and stopped him from regretting that his partner wasn't something else.
"That almost sounds like an offer," the duc said with a manful return of his aristocratic sang froid.
"Take it as one if you like," Dorian told him cheerfully. "You won't be wrong."
"Oh là là." The duc threw up his hands, playing at being overcome, but a smile was lurking in the corners of his mouth. He looked questioningly in Sergei's direction.
"We're a matched set," Dorian said. "Like pepper and salt."
"I think not, m'ami," Sergei said swiftly. Let these two innocents find their happiness together with no clouds to dampen their sunshine. "Not today, at least. A third party breaks the necessary concentration. M. le Duc will excuse me? A vin noble like Lord Gloria should be savoured on its own, without side dishes."
"In matters of importance I defer to the experts," de Lavallée said, "though not always without regrets." There was more than courtesy in that. Sergei smiled at him.
"Should M. le Duc find himself in the mood for a vin ordinaire some day, why, he has my number." He bowed slightly and passed back into the salon.
It was full of his acquaintances, and he nodded and smiled automatically, murmuring greetings where necessary. The place felt dark without Dorian beside him, as if night had fallen unnoticed. In his mind was a heavy oppression, the aftereffect of that picture. It was like an airless summer afternoon before a storm: suffocating, mother of migraines, inducing faint horror. Some paintings were like that: too intimate, too real, pressing obscure psychic nerves. They could bruise the soul just as they could bring it to rapture, like dreams given flesh and sent out into the light of day, carrying all their strangeness with them. The Baron de Marquère was right. Oils weren't rational. But this one especially clung to his mind like cobwebs. That dark-haired figure with the unreadable expression standing before the door that opened onto nothing... Sergei nodded to Scudéry, who at once buttonholed him with an aggrieved expression. Sergei focussed his attention on him. Desperate ills crave desperate remedies: serving as outlet to the dealer's wrongs would divert his thoughts satisfactorily enough.
"Well, M. Serge. Quite a find, isn't it? Faucon's little lunacies have paid off big this time."
"Some people have all the luck. Who would have imagined a thing like that happening? Pure chance. It's lucky he has those angel voices to guide him. If he had to make a living off his own eye for things, the poor fellow would starve."
"It's not proven to be a Giorgione yet," Sergei reminded him.
"And it won't be. Giorgione never painted anything like that."
The Italian scholar Miraglia, passing by, caught the last remark and joined them. "That means he had a pupil who was nearly the equal of himself or Titian. Who might that have been, do you think?"
Scudéry waved an annoyed hand. "It could be anybody. Some poor fellow who died young with that one painting under his belt, say."
"Not likely, surely?"
"Giorgione himself painted for less than a decade. He's a three-days' wonder himself."
"But this hypothetical young man of yours would have appeared on the scene with his technique already perfected. How can that be possible?"
"It's happened elsewhere," Sergei said. "In Japan there was an artist called Sharaku, whose prints have a brilliant originality. There was nothing like them before or after. He produced them for nine months and then simply vanished."
Miraglia turned to him.
"I don't believe we've met, Monsieur. I'm Leonardo Miraglia from the University of Milano." He held out his hand.
"This is Serge," Scudéry cut in. "Sells 18th century prints and books."
"Ah, so prints are your field? How do you do?"
"I read your monograph on Caravaggio," Sergei said as they shook hands. "It was most instructive." Miraglia smiled and returned to the topic.
"Still, I can't see how a painting of this order can be the work of a beginner or even a prodigy. Where did our putative artist acquire his skill? There should be some evidence of him elsewhere."
"I'm sure there is. He's probably one of the assistants who worked on the group canvases. Or the Orpheus is a shared work- designed by Giorgione and finished by his pupils after his death. Anything like that is possible."
"You're convinced that's the subject?"
"It's obvious to me. What else?"
"I liked your friend's suggestion of Adonis," Miraglia said to Sergei. "There's a- what would you call it?- a loneliness to the figure as I see it. This cave is one he clearly enters unwillingly, looking behind him with regret at the ordinary world he must abandon. It reminds me of that Greek fragment: 'Most beautiful of what I leave behind/ Are the sun and the moon and the glorious stars/ But also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.'"
"Cucumbers?" Scudéry snorted. "Don't be silly."
"Well, the Greeks thought the same thing." The Italian shrugged. "But I see it as one entering a darkness who looks his last on the light."
"I believe the buffet's being served," Sergei murmured.
"Oh good." Scudéry took himself off with alacrity but Miraglia stayed. He gave Sergei an interested glance.
"And you, Monsieur Serge? What do you think it's about?"
Clearly he was not to escape the subject so easily. "I'd rather make it Orpheus than Adonis: though if it is, I wonder why he has no lyre."
"A good point, that, though I'll let someone else suggest it to Scudéry. But why Orpheus?"
"Orpheus came back."
Miraglia cocked his head. "Now why does that make a difference, I wonder?"
"Superstition. Tomorrow I go back home for the first time in years, and I look for portents."
"You think, like Adonis, you may be compelled to stay?"
"I've no intention of staying." It came out shorter than he'd intended. "Though my family may think otherwise."
"Ah, family." Miraglia said wryly. "And where is home, Monsieur?"
"Circassia." That information stopped most conversations dead.
"Ahh. I see." His expression changed to one of understanding and concern. "Take care, Monsieur Serge. Should I wish you luck?"
"Good luck, then. Come back safely."
"Thank you." Sergei gave him a small bow and left. The Italian's goodwill was like a shaft of sunlight, warming the coldness in his heart. Heading for the dining room, he found his feet taking him instead past the doorway with its clatter of plates and loud discussion and back towards the room where the picture was. He was aware of a vague annoyance with himself. These fancies were getting past the point of a joke. Since last night he seemed to have turned into an exposed nerve that everything had the power to affect. It was time he pulled himself together. His ambivalence about going back to Circassia was a fact, but it had nothing to do with this interesting painting and the mystery of its origin. He should look at it with rational eyes while he still had the chance. The mystery of the return... And how long would it take Dorian to initiate the duc anyway? Well, given Dorian, quite a while, probably, in spite of having done it three times today already. The man could make a very little go a very long way. Sergei smiled in memory as he entered the salon. Lemieux was there with another man he didn't know, evidently on the point of leaving and continuing their discussion elsewhere. Sergei nodded to them both as they passed and stood in front of the painting.
He met the painted gaze of the young man and felt his chest tighten again. No, it was no good. It seemed that the young man was looking at him directly, as if trying to convey a message that Sergei instinctively shrank from understanding. And behind him was the blackness of the unknown, of some ending, or of something worse than an ending... Everything was wrong in this picture: the trees too green, the sky too threatening, the rocks themselves too twisted and mounded, as if themselves alive. The landscape hinted at things unnatural, at some terrible secret about to be revealed. It gave him an obscure horror that had no source. His fancies, only his fancies. This picture had nothing to do with himself. Why couldn't he see it as the others did? Scudéry saw a set portrayal of Orpheus' descent into the Underworld, Miraglia saw the loneliness and regret of a fated godling, and Dorian... Dorian saw only a lovely painting with a lovely mystery behind it. Dorian was all sunlight and his presence banished shadows. But he himself belonged to the dark and the nighttime world. As Madame la Duchesse had said...
"Ah. M.la Lune."
He turned as she came walking into the room, leaning on a heavy cane.
"Madame." He took her arm and helped her to an easy chair near the painting.
"Merci, monsieur. A little promenade is necessary from time to time to stop these old bones from stiffening. But now I'll rest some more."
She sighed as she sank down and stretched out her legs like a little girl.
"Ah, to be young again. When I was your age, M. Serge, I enjoyed gatherings like this. Those west bank evenings before the war, with all of us talking at once and keeping the poor waiters from closing the café. But now- ohlala. The noise."
"Ahh?" Sergei looked an inquiry. Faubourg duchesses were not usually found in company with Rive Gauche intellectuals. A piece of information slipped into place in his head and his eyebrows rose. "But of course. Madame is the poet Sibylle de Lavallée."
She nodded, but the faded blue eyes looked surprised. "Yes, I published a few poems many years ago. It's strange that you would know that."
"Not at all. The intellectuals cherish you like a jewel. Calmus of the Petit Revue lent me the two volumes of your verse like a man confiding the address of a marvellous restaurant he doesn't want the world to find out about." She looked amused. "I think your poems have a lovely melancholy to them, like fountains under rain.
Tu es inscrite dans les lignes du plafond
Tu es inscrite dans les yeux que j'aime." 
At that she laughed aloud. "M.Serge, you should be a diplomat. Such beautiful tact is wasted in a dealer."
"It's not tact, Madame." He gave her a small smile in return.
"Merci, Monsieur." She patted his hand. "But you understand- that melancholy was the emotion of a young woman who knew nothing of true sadness. It was an intellectual game, no more. Then the war came, and the Germans. My country was defeated and my city occupied. I stopped writing poems after that."
"But after the war? Why didn't you return to your art?"
"Life got in the way. My husband was hurt in the war, my son was growing up..." She shrugged. "My husband died young- his poor heart gave out- and my son even younger. He and his wife were killed by a terrorist bomb on the Champs Elysées during the Algerian war, leaving my poor little Gontran an orphan of two. And so I became a mother again. But these are things of long ago, Monsieur. I don't mean to bore you with the past."
"It's not the past for some people," he said without thought, and felt compelled to add, "I come from Circassia."
"Ahh. Then perhaps you will understand. When you've lost someone..." There was a silence. "It's the reason I wonder about this painting... It haunts me a little. The enigma of the return, it says. The return. Some see this as a return to the earth which takes us all to its breast: a young man going into the darkness of death. But that is the course of nature. There's no enigma there. No, to me it seems to be the opposite: a young man coming back from the dead, like Lazarus. One who has stepped forth into the light again from the darkness. Maybe that's why the world about him seems so strange and unnatural: because the natural order has been reversed. And the sadness in his eyes- surely it's because he knows he no longer belongs here. What home has he now, what place is there for him in the world? He will go to those who once loved him, and they will stare in shock and disbelief and terror at the sight of him, as I would if my son were to walk into the room now, alive and unchanged from twenty years ago. 'Who are you? Why are you here? How can you be here?' This the young man knows, and so he gazes a last time at the darkness to which he properly belongs as if wishing to return-- M. Serge?"
"Ah- nothing, Madame. You could well be right. A guest out of place. Someone safely dead- mourned, missed, yes all that- but someone who should be gone. And who comes back to stir up all the old emotions again, the ones that were safely buried with him. How true, that the dead should know their place and stay in it."
"You are angry, M Serge?"
"I don't know, Madame. It may be that I am."
"Might I ask why?"
He shook his head. "I don't know myself. Things are never clear, are they? Would you be happy if your son walked into the room now, or terrified, or angry that he died and left you in the first place?"
"All those things, perhaps. Yes, I think you are right."
There was a step behind them and a manservant entered the room. He bent by the duchesse's chair and murmured in a low voice, while Sergei turned his eye back to the painting. The duchesse's words had touched that cold knot of fear within him that he'd been trying all day to ignore. That-- dream-- last night, and the picture before him now, the two mysterious returns-- Both symbolizing the turmoil in his soul, both adding to it. The return of his past, his return to the past. Was this himself, then, a dead man- or a man as good as dead in his family's eyes- returning to the land of his birth? Returning to face Halim, his other self, the self he had so shamefully failed to be? Last night he had wept with joy because Jahn had come back to him, but Halim would show no such joy at his own return. Sergei was everything Halim hated and despised. He'd be like a walking corpse to Halim, something nauseating and unnatural. Unnatural... His mind winced away from the thought. A cold avenging ghost, prepared to kill his own twin if he thought it necessary...
The duchesse touched his arm.
"Monsieur Serge, one of the guests is looking for you. He said it was urgent."
Dorian. Thank God. But what could be the trouble? "Of course, Madame. I'll just see what it is." He rose and followed the servant out of the room. The man took him back to the front of the house and the dim vestibule. Sergei stopped dead, frozen by Fersen's glare.
"A word with you, Monsieur Serge," he said in a half-whisper. Suppressed rage tightened his body like a cord pulled too far. "Outside."
"Thank you," Sergei said to the manservant, who bowed and left them. "And do you have your little thug waiting out there with his blackjack?" His nostrils flared in anger. The anger was real enough, even if the cause was feigned. "There's no need to crack my skull a second time, thank you. If you've come to apologize, here will do just fine."
"Apologize??" Fersen's voice was still a thick whisper. Obviously that kick to the neck last night had damaged his vocal chords at the very least. The man was mad with frustration, wanting to bellow and not able to. "After what you did?"
"Yes. Apologize for making it necessary to attack you, and thank me for taking you to the hospital afterwards. Then you can go. I have no further business with you."
Fersen seemed to swell with fury. "I'll see you in hell first, you pompous little whore." Only a fool would turn his back on the kind of hatred that stared from those eyes. "Bien," Sergei said. "Then I have no more to say to you," and turned his back on him, heading down the corridor. Fersen's heavy step came right behind him. Sergei swung round suddenly so they stood chest to chest: and then checked abruptly.
"It's a gun," Fersen whispered, "and I will shoot you, you snot, without thinking twice. Outside. Now." Blunt and heavy, it nudged underneath his ribs. The damage would be fatal, if Fersen took the chance of firing. And he could, and be out of here before anyone else arrived to see what had happened. Sergei walked forward slowly, and the gun moved to his lower back. Fersen hugged close to him, an arm about one shoulder, concealing the gun with his body.
On the Quai d'Orsay Fersen hailed a cab and sent them back to the apartment. He passed a fifty franc bill to Sergei, who paid the driver and retrieved the change. Incurious as only a Parisian can be, the man didn't even turn his head when they got out of his cab, which allowed Fersen to keep the gun almost in open sight as he backed out first. Sergei waited for an opening to come- and waited. The gun was trained on him, far too close to miss, and Fersen was alert for the slightest tensing of Sergei's own body. He gave Sergei the key and made him unlock the apartment. Fersen took him down a corridor and into a room dominated by a large bed.
"Undress," Fersen said.
"You intend to finish what you were doing last night?"
"Yes. Get undressed."
Sergei didn't bother to look at him. "I think not. If you're going to kill me, do it now. Spare me your embraces, at least."
"I'm not killing you. I don't sleep with corpses. You'll stay alive, M. Serge- lacking a leg, perhaps, or an arm. One bullet from this would shatter anything it hit. Your shin, say- I can't miss at this range--" the gun dropped down a fraction, but Fersen's eyes didn't follow it. "Or your shoulder..." The muzzle came up again. "Shall I turn you into a dinner plate, Monsieur? No arms, no legs..." The whispering voice made the words even more obscene. "Well, maybe later. Or maybe you'd like to walk out of here in one piece. You don't really want to die, do you?" Fersen smiled fiercely. "And never screw that brainless Englishman again?"
"You're quite right," Sergei said. "I don't want to die. Equally, if I am going to die, I'd rather do it unravished by you. I'm afraid, M. Fersen, that I place little confidence in your sanity."
"Forget the poses," Fersen snarled. "I don't believe them. You'll do what I say or die-- after I've fucked you to ribbons." The gun pressed into his abdomen. This one would be tricky- before Fersen got angry enough to make a mistake he might have done real damage.
And tomorrow... He had to be in one piece to go to Circassia tomorrow. Or Majek would die and Halim- and Szincza- and the country itself- be destroyed.
"Oh yes," Fersen whispered. "I mean it. I really mean it."
"Yes," Sergei said in a whisper of his own. "I see you do." He began to unfasten the snaps of his coat and heard Fersen's sigh of satisfaction.
He undid the coat and removed it, then took off his boots and socks, unfastened his trousers and removed them as well. He seemed to be watching himself from far away with a mind quite empty of feeling. He slid off his briefs.
"The bed," the man behind him said, and he turned to it. Not an ordinary bed after all. From an ornately carved headboard hung leather and steel handcuffs on long ropes of twisted gold silk. "Sit down and fasten the cuffs around your wrists." He obeyed. He had to sit with his back pressed against the headboard, but the ropes were long enough that he had about half a metre of play in front of him. Or rather, as he discovered, there was only one rope threaded through the headboard. With one hand against his chest he'd have a full arm's reach with the other. The cuffs locked together with a snap.
"Now," the other said with satisfaction, and sat down at the foot of the bed. "You can reach yourself like that. Good. Begin."
Sergei looked at him blankly. The muzzle of the gun indicated his groin. "Caressez-vous," the whispering voice commanded. So. The man wanted a show. Sergei felt no desire to give him one, but the reluctance was far away and unimportant. 'You must live' a voice in his head told him and he registered that that was indeed the business of the moment: to satisfy this tiresome man in front of him so he could go to Circassia tomorrow. He began the motions even as he doubted they could have any effect. Pleasure was a concept a million miles away.
"Harder," the whispering voice said a minute later. "If you don't come, you'll lose it. Pretend I'm your fancy-boy lover, why not?"
Fancy-boy? Dorian, did he mean? But Dorian had nothing to do with this. The smiling golden face swam into his mind's eye and he sent it gently away. Dorian belonged to the light, and this was a matter of dirt and darkness, of expediency and need.
"Damn you," the hoarse voice whispered, cold with rage. "You think you're too good for this. You still think I'm the mud on your boots. Well, think again. I'm going to wipe that self-satisfied smirk off your face once and for all. When I tell you to come, you'll come. When I say open your arse, you'll open it. And you'll do it with a smile, monsieur, if you want to walk out of here alive."
"And will I walk out of here alive?" Sergei asked. "And be allowed to report you to the police?"
"Oh yes," Fersen assured him. "Yes indeed. That's exactly what I want you to do. Tell the police your story. Try to make them believe the hysterical accusations of a foreign pervert. That's the part I want to see- the one where you find out how little you really count for in the world. But first you'll do exactly as I say, however humiliating, however much you hate it, or I'll have to remove some very important pieces of you. And you know-" the hard eyes smiled, "if you make me do that- and give you something to back up your whore's story for the police- why, I'm afraid you won't walk out of here at all. There's your choice, monsieur. Now proceed."
So that was it. It wasn't simply his body Fersen wanted. Well, if he had to suffer humiliation, so be it. Should he weep and beg?-- pretend his fear was too strong and wouldn't let him respond? But he knew he wasn't a good enough actor. It had to be the real thing or nothing, and he had no idea of how to beg for mercy. He looked away and reached into his mind, willing it to do his bidding- <<give me something... not Dorian someone else something to keep me alive or Majek will die and what will become of us then me and Halim and Szincza...>> His vision became fixed suddenly as he saw it- (long hair, so black, his naked back turned to me)- and swiftly he invited the deadly vision in before his self could refuse as at once it tried to do, but 'You must live' the voice told him, an unquestionable command, and he saw--
...it felt he'd fallen asleep unawares watching Dorian and the boy, and he started as he woke suddenly to a hand plucking at his coat, working at the fastenings. 'He's waiting for you' the young voice said, unplaceably familiar, the one that went with the hand, and Sergei stood up obediently, stepping out of his coat and looking over to where the other man stood, naked muscled back and sturdy buttocks turned towards him, black hair inky in the candlelight. Black hair... An amazing joy blossomed in his heart as he realized who it was. 'He's been wanting you so long' the voice said as hands helped him out of his clothes 'don't keep him waiting now' and he knew it was true, finally finally it was going to happen he hardened harder and harder where the hands drew his trousers from him and a wave of happiness and desire carried him over to Jahn's side. Sergei clasped him from behind, registering the aching familiarity of that body, remembering clearly how much he'd wanted this: to feel Jahn responding joyfully to his touch, to feel Jahn's need and his relief that Sergei was here at last at last to bend him over so the hard buttocks came up to meet Sergei's own clamoring need. Sergei slid inside him, quickly quickly, and lodged at last in the hot narrow channel oh at last at last the two of them were together at last how long he'd waited they'd waited for this- happiness and relief and pleasure floated his spirit into the sky so long so long they'd waited always wanting this. Sergei moved a little, slowly, delicately, feeling all the tiny sensations, all the details of this possessing slowly out a little then in, out a little then in, feeling the other's desire and frustration mount, Oh yes trust me his heart sang trust me I know what I'm doing this is the best way it only gets better after this and the body before him bent at a sharper angle thrusting harder against him Oh yes oh yes this is what you've always wanted my love trust me trust me. His own body was screaming at him 'more, more, harder, do it faster' and he reined himself in wanting to laugh as he played with the need, his own and the other's, holding it back a moment another moment so that when he let it go it would be like a cliffside falling on them it was coming it was coming it was crashing down on them he pulled his partner up as the wave peaked and buried his face in the black hair-- but how? Jahn topped him by eight centimetres and his mouth opened to scream in horror as orgasm hit him- not Jahn it's not Jahn it's not Jahn oh god help me it's **Szin---
He cried aloud, hideous sweetness and terror together arching his body and dropping him back against the fretted wood behind him. Nausea filled his throat at the memory, so horribly clear again. That was what had happened, that was what really happened. And he'd wanted it, he'd wanted it to happen, it was disgusting and unnatural not even an animal would do it to its own and he'd loved it, the feel of entering his nephew's young buttocks, the pleasure of mounting his own kin-- Betraying the innocent boy who'd loved him-- trusted him... He put his hands over his face and howled in silent agony. Dry heaving sobs racked his gut like a man trying to vomit poison from his body- too late it was too late he was poisoned-
"Good, good, oh that's good," the caressing whisper said beside him. Hands ran through his hair, pulled it painfully away from his face, pulled his head up. Mouth still constricted in horror he looked up at the blond stranger smiling down at him. "Was it that bad then? I'm glad." The touch like a lover's, fingers that raked through his thick hair, blue eyes that devoured the sight of his agony and his mutilation, the hideousness of his soul made manifest in the gaping hole of his right eye. Weeping Sergei could only gaze at him dumbly. "It gets worse," the man assured him, hand clenched in the hair at the back of his head and hard eyes glowing. "You'll see." The face went still a moment. Fingers moved through his hair, over his scalp, light feather touches running everywhere, back down his neck behind his ear...
"Where?" the man said incomprehensibly. "Where did he hit you? Answer me, damn you!" His hand cracked hard against Sergei's cheek pushing him sideways with the force of the blow. Sergei huddled, face averted from the madman who was hitting him and screaming in a strangled whisper, "That whore! That little liar! What are you two playing at?" Then he was gone from the room. Sergei heard his heavy boots pounding down the corridor, somewhere far away as he lay frozen in the realization of what he'd done last night. 'A dream,' a voice said inside his skull, 'it was only a dream' but it wasn't a dream, it had been real, as real as the feelings that brought it to birth. There was his true desire, dragged out into the light at last, and he thought the shame of it would kill him.
A hand pulled him up, cruel and painful in his hair. "What did you do with them?" the voice demanded, thick with rage and fear, and he knew it was the voice of death. He looked up, welcoming what was to come: and felt the barrier again, the absolute command, Majek's voice laying the curse of life on him. He had to live to expiate his crime- but he was like a man woken suddenly from sleep with no idea of what is going on about him.
"What?" he whispered. "With what?"
Hot pain ran down his spine as the man jerked a finger into the nerve centre at the base of his skull. "The papers. You're from the police. Talk now or I'll start shooting pieces off you. Where are they?"
Papers? He knew nothing of any papers. And somewhere in the rest of the apartment he heard a noise, heard a voice calling "Count? Are you here?" a young voice, ambisexual like a male contralto, the voice of his dream-- And as if remembering a dream, he remembered: Count Fersen. Sephiras. Spies or something. The red-haired witch boy whose step was coming closer down the corridor as Fersen snarled and moved like a great cat, white-faced and intent, to where he had a clear view of the door and held his gun steady with both hands, preparing to shoot first. "Count?" the voice said outside the half-opened door which moved a little into the room and simply as breathing with no thought at all Savijc called his will to him and stretched out his right hand so that the other pulled tight against the headboard. Blue light shot out and dropped the count, and the gun went off with a roar just as the door opened on the youth crouched to spring and casting a surprised eye from the falling body to himself on the bed. Sergei curved himself over, legs up protectively, riding the familiar reaction- the ballooning feeling in his gut, the reflex erection, the brief euphoria- all of which would be over in a moment. In a moment--
"Here," the voice said just by his elbow and he recoiled violently, pressed like an animal against the headboard.
"Keep away," he snarled and saw the boy freeze not a foot from him.
"I've got the key for-"
"Don't. Touch. Me," Sergei told him, teeth bared. The other saw he meant it. He laid the key carefully on the bed, looking puzzled and put out. Sergei glared at him until he backed away a few paces, then reached for the key and unfastened his cuffs.
"Oh," said the boy in a different voice. "I see. I'm sorry. Do you want- should I call a doctor?"
Sergei didn't answer. He wrapped his arms about his knees and buried his face in them, doing deep breathing routines to still the shaking in his body and his soul.
"It's happened to me too," the boy was saying diffidently. "I know what it's like. Let me get you some brandy-"
"No," he said heavily, to shut him up. "You're mistaken. I don't need your help and I don't want your company. Leave me. And take that--" he jerked an arm at Fersen- "with you. He knows the papers are gone." He added, with the last of his patience, "He was going to shoot you as you came through the door."
"I thought he might. That's why I had my bulletproof outfit on," the youth said. He went to the window, opened one side of the casement, and gave a brief two-note whistle. A minute later a body came through off the balcony.
"Here?" Bancoran's voice said, and then "Oh," as he took in the scene. "Is he dead?"
"No, just unconscious by the looks of it."
"By the looks of it? Don't you know?"
"Not a clue," the boy said grimly. "Serge there took him out as I was coming through the door."
"Serge did?" He sensed Bancoran turning towards him and kept his own eyes averted. The black gaze took in his naked state, the undone chains. "How?"
"I'd like to know too," the boy said with an edge in his voice. "All I saw was this blue light."
"Blue-- Oh. Ohh indeed."
"Indeed," Sergei said, addressing his knees. "And don't ask me what it was because I'm not telling you. Now go away. I want to be alone."
"Certainly," Bancoran answered, unexpectedly obliging. "But perhaps you could tell us how long he'll stay out?"
Sergei shrugged. "Five, ten minutes."
"Then we should hurry. Maraich, is there anything to tie him up with?"
"Those fetters on the bed would be best," the boy pointed out. Sergei looked unbudgeably fixed in place. The boy sighed. "Well, there are some cords in the other bedroom."
"Fine." There was a grunt as Bancoran hoisted Fersen off the floor and carried him from the room. Sergei sat still, spirit in darkness. He had to get dressed- get out of here- and go where? It didn't matter where he went. Back to Circassia or back to Dorian, what difference did it make, since his monster self accompanied him? 'Stop,' he told himself. 'Stop this. You did nothing. You never touched him.'/ Yes I did. Last night--/ 'That was a dream, an hallucination- a mistake. Remember--'
'But I wanted it-' The old old familiar voice, Savijc's voice, eaten by guilt and pain. 'I wanted it to be him.' His stomach curdled in shame at the admission.
'But it wasn't,' his other voice said, the commonsense voice of sunlight and rationality. 'It wasn't him. He doesn't know. He's safe back in Circassia with his father, doing the things young men do, and wondering sometimes where you are.' He saw that, briefly, the dark-haired boy among all the other boys, chasing a ball or having a fight, all wild arms and legs, the way he'd been on Sergei's visits home. 'That's all. You did nothing to change him. He may even be married now.' Married- his heart contracted in a fierce spasm of jealousy that took him by surprise. 'You're in love, you goop,' his other voice said in amusement and exasperation. 'That's all.' Goop? Oh yes- what Dorian had called him the other night when he'd- well, never mind. His chest heaved with a shaky half-laugh at the embarrassing memory- the contretemps that can happen during sex, even among the experienced. And for the other- I never touched him. I wanted to. I wanted him: so much like Jahn come back to me, so exactly alike... But I never touched him and I never will. He sat still, seeing the two realities as if with split vision: the one in his head, the other out there. The poisonous and cherished fantasy in his head, the one that had seemed real last night; and the daytime reality, safe and desolating as the truth: I never touched him and I never will. Like Jahn. Exactly like Jahn.
There was a step behind him. "M.Serge?" Bancoran's voice said. "Perhaps we could have a talk?"
"M. Serge," Bancoran said. "Please look at me a moment. It's quite safe. I'm not using my eye." Sergei's head turned involuntarily at the word. Bancoran-- He found himself looking into two intelligent and slightly amused black eyes, with lines of habitual wariness about them. Eyes, as Dorian had said. He'd seen better himself. Bancoran smiled a little. "Maraich said you dropped Fersen from across the room with a blue ray of some sort. He's seen the same sort of thing from me. So-- do you have some version of our Bancoran eye?"
"What?" His heart stopped. "What do you mean?" In spite of himself it came out as a whisper.
"The Bancoran eye- eyes, actually: either will do, or both- have a- well, what would you call it? You experienced it this morning, Maraich says." Sergei was dumb. "Well, a sexual power, shall we say? that acts on young men. It doesn't work on anyone over eighteen or so, so I couldn't quite believe it was affecting you. But if you've got the same characteristic as us-- I suppose-- maybe there's some kind of sympathetic reaction involved?"
"You're mistaken," Sergei said automatically. "I've nothing of the sort."
"Indeed?" Bancoran looked unbelieving. "You don't find that young men fall in love with you a lot?"
"*No*." The snarled word stopped Bancoran short.
"Of course, if you say not," he said politely. Sergei clenched his shaking hands. "But there are definite points of resemblance between us. As for instance- if you'd look at that mirror over there-"
He looked up automatically and saw the blue flash that broke it into a million fragments. Stone cold, ice cold, he turned his head slowly to look at Bancoran again. Black hair, black eyes-- dear god--
"Acaille," he whispered, coldness creeping up his spine and muscles tensed to spring. The ancient enemy of his line, the red stone clan, twins to his own blue clan family... Encountered at last, but here, a thousand miles from home-
"I beg your pardon?"
"You're Acaille-- But how? How did you come here? They've never left the mountains of Circassia before--"
"Circassia? I'm afraid not. My family have been Cornishmen since before the Romans left."
"From Cornwall in the south-west of England. Celts."
"Then how can you have the eye?"
Bancoran shrugged. "We just do. We always have. All the men in the family."
"And you- Acailles, did you say?-"
Sergei shook his head violently. "Aouille. The Acailles are the other Circassian tribe."
The other frowned in confusion. "I don't understand. Which tribe has the Bancoran eye?"
He took a deep breath. "Each tribe is led by a family, descended from the priest-kings of old. The men of those two families in the direct male line, and only those men, have- the power you spoke of."
"The power to destroy, I take it. But not the power to attract, you said?"
"I--" He tried to gather his scattered wits. "In our family, yes. It has to be different from yours. It- it's destructive, and very-" he had to swallow. "Very hard to control. And it's only one eye." Except for Majek, he thought, but belated caution stilled his tongue. "I don't know how it is for the Acailles. I never met one of the guardian family. They secluded themselves in the mountains centuries ago. But they're dark, like you, with black eyes..."
"Hmmm..." Bancoran mused. "I don't know what the relation can be, then. I suppose it's just a coincidence- the same mutation happening in different parts of the world. How often do you use your eye, then?"
Alarm bells went off. "Why do you want to know?"
"Interest, purely. I thought my family was unique."
He was lying. That Sergei knew, though he didn't know why. He looked at him sombrely.
"What's the matter?" Bancoran asked. "Do you have- I don't know- some taboo about discussing it?"
"No. I don't use it, to answer your question. I did once and this was the result." He pulled his hair aside, hearing Bancoran's startled breath. "I said it was hard to control. Not something you can turn on and off for amusement, as you seem able to." He heard the asperity in his voice and stopped himself.
"I beg your pardon," Bancoran said, sounding sincere. "But then how did you take Fersen out?"
"With this." He raised a hand and sent a thought along it that picked up an armchair and hurled it gently at the wall. "It's different. Don't ask me how. A matter of focussing your will. You don't need the eye to use it." And he wasn't even going to consider the sexual aspect of it, though in his present state its manifestation was clear enough.
"Hmmm," Bancoran frowned. "Focussing your will- that's like us, but--" At that moment the bo-- Maraich came into the room.
"What are you two doing? It sounds like you're throwing furniture."
"We were," Bancoran said. "Or M. Serge was, by way of demonstration."
"And so nothing, evidently. An odd parallel to the Bancoran eye."
"Really?" Maraich looked suspicious. "And what's that all about?" He nodded at Sergei's groin.
"That's a reflex reaction to its use," Sergei told him, "caused by my well-meant but superfluous attempt to save your life."
Maraich blushed. "Oh. Well, I mean- well, thank you anyway. It was nice of you."
"You're welcome. Now if I could have a little privacy, I'll take care of this and not trouble you further."
"Maraich," Bancoran said, "maybe--"
"Yes, I think so too. Here, let me look after it for you," he said smiling, and approached the bed. Sergei hissed and his hand came up automatically. He glared into the violet eyes that stared outraged back at him.
"It's me, isn't it? You don't want me near you, isn't that right?" Indignation and hurt pride warred in the boy's face. "You do have your eye on Ban--"
Sergei said a word he normally never used, vulgar and convincing.
"Then what the hell's this all about?" the youth demanded.
"You have to ask?" Sergei said, breathing deeply.
"Yes I have to ask! The last time I saw you yesterday I thought we were at least friends."
"The last time you saw me was early this morning in my bedroom," Sergei corrected him. "Have you forgotten what happened there?"
"What happened?" Bancoran demanded.
"Oh." Maraich looked startled. "But- It was exactly like all the other times. I started doing it-"
"Doing what?" Bancoran sounded outraged.
"And then there was this gap like always and then there you two were asleep on the bed so I left. What- what happened?"
"That's what I want to know!" Bancoran insisted. "Maraich-"
"Oh, Ban. This rite I used to do for Fersen's clients that I could never remember what happened when I did it. I did it for them last night--" He nodded at Sergei.
"And?" Bancoran was looking at him too. Sergei looked away.
"I don't know what happened," he said at last. "I only know what I thought happened, and you may well believe no-one will ever find out what that was. But I won't risk a repetition."
"Was it so terrible?" Maraich asked round-eyed.
Sergei ran a tired hand over his face. "It's that medallion. Someone told me it's the key to heaven or hell, depending on who you meet there. It's true. You called something down with it, some- some power." He shuddered briefly, as Bancoran said roundly, "Oh nonsense."
"I'd have said the same thing this time yesterday. Now I know better. Don't ever do it again," he told the boy. "Whatever it is, it gives men the wish of their hearts, and no-one can forgive that."
"Why?" the boy protested. "What's wrong with getting your wishes granted?"
"You're too young to understand."
"Don't be ridiculous!"
Much too young, but he might understand one part at least. After a minute Sergei said, "Have you ever loved someone you couldn't have?"
There was a silence. "Yes," Maraich said, in a different voice. "Sort of."
"And if," Sergei went on, looking at the wall, "one night, past all possibility, they came to you, wanting you as they never did in reality- if you found them in your arms, not a dream, but real, living, warm--" He felt his voice about to break and stopped dead.
"I'm sorry," Maraich said helplessly.
"Maraich," Bancoran said.
"Yes- alright. We'd better go. Serge- I- look, I really--" He flailed about for words.
"Maraich," Bancoran repeated. "I think you owe M.Serge something. For this afternoon if not for last night."
"Yes but- he doesn't want--"
"I know. So give me fifteen minutes alone with him."
The boy went white. "Ban!!"
"Just this once, for a very good reason. You know it won't happen again."
"With *him*, you mean!"
"Yes, with him I mean. What about it?"
Maraich's eyes darted from Bancoran to Sergei. Before Sergei could protest, the boy burst into tears and ran from the room, slamming the door behind him.
"You might as well go too," Sergei said with dislike. "There's nothing for you here."
"Is that a fact? I rather think there is myself..." Bancoran murmured, moving towards the bed. The warm voice caressed Sergei like brown velvet, familiar, friendly, exciting-- the voice of the lover he'd known all his life, speaking directly to his groin--
"Use that eye on me and I'll take it out of your head," Sergei informed him viciously. "Or them, as the case may be." The subliminal warm feeling, like sliding into a deep perfumed bath, ceased abruptly. "Now go."
"Oh come," Bancoran said in a reasonable and perfectly ordinary tone of voice. "Let me give you a hand at least. How're you going to get your pants on in that state?"
"Thank you," Sergei said. "I'll manage."
"But why bother when I'm here to do it for you? Experienced, willing, and able to turn necessity into pleasure." Sergei chanced a glance in his direction. The hallucinatory sense of familiarity that had misted Bancoran a moment before was gone, replaced by something much more mundane. Certainly Sergei had seen the Major's like before: highly-sexed, available, and attracted to Sergei himself. Not unattractive, really. In fact, with that waterfall of hair, rather the reverse. In any other circumstances, not a partner to complain of...
"Keep your talents for your boyfriend," he suggested. "Why do you torture him when he minds so much?"
Bancoran sighed. "One of these days Maraich will come to his senses and understand the situation. He owns my heart. He rules my soul. He's my life and my reason for existing." Sergei snorted at the hyperbole. "Well, he's the one, whatever. I can't live without him and he knows it."
"Then why not be faithful to him?"
"I am," Bancoran said. "It's my cock that isn't. No-one owns that, including me." He sounded both proud and rueful. "I do what it tells me to do. Don't think I have a choice."
"Pauvre petit," Sergei murmured. "Just an animated dildo."
Bancoran gave him a sex-charged smile under his eyelashes. "Exactly. You should be complimented. Normally it never looks at anything over seventeen. You must be very unusual to have the effect on me you're having."
Yes, there was something very familiar about Bancoran. Nothing mystic, merely that teasing déja-vu sense that Sergei had slept with him or someone very like him before. The impression wouldn't get any clearer than that, but of course he'd met enough men who boasted about being slaves to their cocks. Normally he left such types alone: they usually thought that being a randy stud excused them from any need for technique. But this one- well, there were intriguing peculiarities to this one. If nothing else, it might be that Bancoran was some long-lost and many-centuries removed cousin of his own. And he was attractive, damn him. And at the present moment, if he were being honest, he had no wish to be alone. It would be a long time before the idea of self-pleasure brought anything but nausea.
"I suppose I'm not above accepting a mercy fuck," Sergei mused aloud. Annoyance flickered across the other's face, to vanish at once in a tide of lust. Yes, and he'd seen that happen before too.
"Just close your eyes and think of Circassia," Bancoran said, gently pushing him onto his back with a gloved hand. "This won't hurt at all."
"'Your cheque is in the mail and I won't come in your mouth,'" Sergei supplied.
"You're quite free to come in mine," the other said, and his mouth closed about Sergei's groin. Sergei cried aloud before he could think. Oh god- oh god it was- it was- Clever probing, cunning pressing, all the right spots- yes, just there- oh god, and there, my god- In a minute he was soaring out of his skull, thrashing on the bed and yelling out loud in Circassian, "Iyaaa- iyaa da- hanase--" Bancoran's hands grasped his wrists and held them down, which somehow made his hips try to arch off the bed. But Bancoran's torso was there to pin him in place, as Bancoran slid up him and fastened his mouth first round one nipple and then the other. Sergei twisted and wailed as his cock felt the heavy pressure of Bancoran's body, and Bancoran's hair slid across his chest and arms like silken tentacles, and Bancoran's tongue did unspeakable things to all of him. "Ikasete-" he begged, and the Englishman understood his tone at least and slipped back down to engulf the throbbing need between his legs. A finger moved back behind his balls and pressed with wicked accuracy on that one spot, and the top of Sergei's head came off. All of his gathered self exploded at once and darkness took his sight.
Lying panting and content and empty, he was aware of someone lifting his legs up and pushing them back. Heat slid into him, solid and satisfying, and he rocked with his rider, back and forth, the gentle plunging motion consoling him. He opened a languorous eye and watched Bancoran's straining face above him, twisted as if in pain with the sensations of sex. Eyes closed, lips drawn back like a snarling wolf's, mouth a rictus-- like a man possessed by a demon or a god... Bancoran's rhythm became more violent as he whipped himself to the peak of ecstasy, his hair flowing about him like a black cloud. Like Samson, was that it? his strength in those long strong coils of midnight black? Bancoran's fingers sank into his shoulders as Bancoran arched in the sexual spasm, and Sergei noted the sensation of soft calfskin against his flesh, providing the right decadently discordant note. Bancoran collapsed on top of him. Sergei laid a little bet with himself that he'd fall asleep at once, counted five, and heard the gentle snore. He didn't awake even when Sergei pushed him away and went to retrieve his clothes.
He dressed slowly, and as he did so a number of seemingly unconnected elements came clicking together in his mind. He looked at them, and looked at them again. They made a convincing and disquieting pattern.
He slipped out the door and walked down the hallway. The boy was in the second room on the left, hunched in white-faced misery on the edge of a bed. Fersen was laid out on top of it, face-down, wrists bound behind him.
"Still unconscious?" Sergei asked.
The boy glared at him, traces of tears on his face. "What do you care?"
"I'd rather not have an audience for what I'm going to say."
"He's out. I used sleeping gas. What do you want?"
"Does the Major ever take his gloves off?"
The boy looked wary. "In the bath, yes."
"Not in bed?"
"Does it matter?"
"It might. What I used to take Fersen out- it comes from here." He held his hand open, palm up. "I think Bancoran may have a sensitivity there he doesn't know about."
Maraich frowned. "Ban- it's all in his eyes."
"As far as he knows, yes. This one-" he gestured with his hand- "needs training to produce. The other's a reflex."
"We- my family- we have the same power in our eyes." Maraich's gaze sharpened, travelling between Sergei's left eye to the one hidden under his hair. "It was the one I lost," Sergei told him. "I'm not sorry for that. It's deadly. It draws on a power outside ourselves that's too great for most of us to control. The one time I used it I killed-- more people than I want to think about. Now I keep to the minor form. That one at least responds to my will." He took a deep breath. "I don't know what the connection is between my family and Bancoran's. Maybe it's just a coincidence, as he says. But I do know this. I have a --a kinsman-- who can use the power in his eye for his own purposes, as Bancoran does. He's the only one. And he's a man possessed. When he wants something he can't stop until he has it. He doesn't care how long it takes or who gets hurt along the way. When he loves, it's the same. He becomes obsessed- infatuated, possessive... Ridiculous, even. It's painful to watch. We all say he's the one man of our family who can control the eye, but now I wonder. After seeing the Major, I begin to think that maybe the eye controls him. A parasite relationship: the more he calls on its power, the more that power dominates his soul."
Alarm flashed across the boy's face. "You're saying that Ban--?"
"He thinks he uses his eye. Consider the possibility that it uses him. And don't blame him too much for what it makes him do. It could make him do much, much worse." He turned on his heel and walked away without another word.
Out in the street he began walking, not to shake his thoughts but to put them in some kind of order. The Bancoran eye, so mesmerizing, so directly sexual; and Majek, with his two Aouille eyes, who could bring men to his side virtually against their wills. They had to be related. Majek used his to compel others to obedience, Bancoran used his to entice them to sex. Conquest or seduction: not really so very different after all. And the driven quality was the same in both. Majek and Bancoran-- and Halim as well. Halim's endless unsatisfied need and the bright sexual charisma of his personality- that too could be from the same source.
The peasants talked of the blue curse on their family, that term he'd never understood. Could this be what it was? That they were bound to the power in their eyes that drove them to dominate? Bound to it and driven by it: like his brothers and Bancoran, unable to resist the commands of their own lusts and ambitions.
But that had never been true of himself. He had no memory in his youth of feeling bound by anything or driven by an alien will. His desires fulfilled themselves naturally, almost without effort on his part. He'd never experienced the sort of gnawing need that Halim did. And what of Ruza, his gentle brother, the even-tempered man of science? Both he and Ruza had had the eye without the will to power that the other two had.
And neither of them had survived.
His heart jumped a little in shock. But yes. Exactly. Himself and Ruza, the mere mortals, hadn't been sufficient to the demands of their blood. The force in their eyes must be like the one in their hands, drawing its strength from the soul-strength of the user. He hadn't been strong enough to control his eye, as he'd learned only too bitterly: but neither had he been strong enough to be controlled by it. Neither he nor Ruza had ever wanted anything badly enough to awake the eye's devouring spirit in themselves. Only in their family was lack of desire a weakness, but a weakness it was. It made them vulnerable to the ones who possessed the full power. It had led Ruza to his untimely death- the old grief came again at the thought: it made him unable to resist Majek's desire that he die. And the same weakness was the only reason he himself was alive now.
Memory came back, the memory that was never far away, of that afternoon twenty-one years ago when he'd lost his heart and his eye together. He'd been on the point of suicide. Death was the only thing left for him, because life was no longer a possibility to one who'd done what he had done. But Majek had been in time to stop him. Majek with his unfathomable desires- no, he corrected himself impatiently, with his insane capriciousness-- Majek wanted his younger brother to live, just as he'd wanted his second brother to die. And like Ruza, he was no match for the force of Majek's will. With three words from his brother he'd gone from knowing that he must die to accepting that he would live. Only now did that complete reversal of feeling strike him as strange. And so- and so he'd lived on, not realizing what an anomaly he'd become. Because he was Aouille, of the guardian family, but free from the family curse. That curse lay in their eyes, and he'd been free of it from the moment he lost his own.
Free. He'd never thought of his mutilation in those terms before. He was outside the old patterns now, free of the never-ending dance, while his brothers stayed locked in their old loves and desires, bound by whatever power it was that lodged in their flesh. Like Halim, obsessively battling the older brother whom he so much resembled. Caught in a spell that bound him closer to Majek than to his own twin, and wanting forever to be free of the one he would die without. And Majek- too clearly he recalled his brother's smile, the smile that had changed imperceptibly as Sergei was growing up, from the loving if exasperated older brother of his childhood to the half-mad General he'd met three years ago: the one who'd said, "War gets rid of unnecessary mouths," and smiled as he said it. That was what their family trait had done to him. If only it worked the same way as Bancoran's... He half-smiled at the thought, and then, remembering Maraich's tear-stained face, stopped smiling. But it's true, he said to the boy in his head. It could be much worse.
And he himself was free. He could go back to Circassia, he could face Halim down-- and he could leave again. His family had no more power over him. He took a deep breath and let it out, feeling strangely light. Halim and Majek belonged to a world in which he no longer had a part. And Szincza- his heart cramped a little. He soothed the thought of him and let it go. Szincza too belonged to a world in which he had no part. Szincza with his two ordinary eyes was safe from the dangers of their family's power, and safe from Sergei himself. There was nothing left to fear. The bonds of the past were undone, and it was now, in Paris.
He looked about him, at the bright empty air of freedom. Solid and rational, the buildings here; calm and dispassionate, the light of civilization. The strong sun, deep colours and turbulent emotions of that other place were no longer his. It was now, and he was on the Boulevard Raspail. The afternoon sun was westering low on the horizon and he recalled, as from some old piece of business, that he had friends and people waiting for him elsewhere. Hailing a cab, he returned to the Quai d'Orsay.
He entered the de Lavallée mansion again. Dorian ran over to him at once as he appeared in the doorway of the salon. The living gold of Dorian's hair and his deep blue eyes made Sergei blink. Somehow he'd forgotten just how vivid Dorian was, and it struck him anew as the Earl threw strong arms about him and pressed his rose-scented warmth close.
"Sergei, love, what happened? You just vanished. I'm sorry. I thought you didn't mind." The worry and guilt on his lover's face made him want to laugh. Sergei gave him a reassuring kiss and a hug, and then found he had no desire to let him go. Like coming up from the earth and into the sun again-- How amazingly alive his lover was. Colour, yes, there was colour in this world too. Sergei wound a lock of the golden hair about one finger and smiled into the sky-blue eyes.
"M.Serge?" The duc came to his side, displaying a shadow of the same worry as Dorian in his manner. Courtesy won over desire. Sergei loosed Dorian and turned to his host.
"I'm sorry. An urgent matter came up. I didn't mean to worry you."
De Lavallée looked relieved. "Ah, non. Did you get it settled to your satisfaction, then?"
"Yes, thank you." He smiled without intention, contentment swelling his chest. The other two looked at him, happy too at his happiness but a little puzzled.
"A new discovery?" the duc hazarded.
"Yes," he said, unable to stop smiling. "I'll tell you about it when I'm able to."
"I look forward to hearing it," the other said. Such a nice young man. Some day, perhaps, he and Sergei might find themselves where he and Dorian had been this afternoon. Some day in the future that had suddenly been restored to him. A future in Paris, of a piece with his golden past. The pleasant life of friends and lovers, of beauty and ideas, of good food and good wine and good talk: all of it was still to be his. Only now, when he had it back again, did he realize that he'd thought it gone for good. Part of him truly hadn't believed he would come back from Circassia.
"We should be going," he said to the other two.
"Let's just have another look at the Giorgione," Dorian suggested.
"Of course," the duc said, as his attention was claimed by another departing guest. "A bientôt, messieurs."
Sergei stood before the easel and looked at the young man with the sombre eyes and the unreadable message in them. Dorian reached for his hand.
"Orpheus, do you think?" the Earl murmured. "Or Adonis?"
"I think-- neither," Sergei said slowly.
Nothing had changed here, after all. The riddle remained unanswered. The return of the title wasn't his own, he knew that now. He'd already descended into the underworld and come back; found the one he loved in the dark, and lost him again. Compared with what had happened this afternoon, his return to Circassia would be a mere excursion. He was free of the shadow that had haunted him all day, yet still the sadness and unease of the painting remained.
"I think you're right," Dorian said. "This mystery has no answer. Maybe that's what it's for: to stay in the mind and tease it with possibility."
"Or maybe the answer is for the future."
"Oh, yes," Dorian said with enthusiasm. "It's a picture of Fate. Somewhere this young man is waiting for you, and some day you'll meet him. What a lovely thought."
"Is it?" Sergei murmured, looking at the unnatural world behind the young man and the threatening sky above him. "Myself, I don't look forward to that meeting in front of the cliff face."
"Really? Why not, Sergei? He's so beautiful," Dorian said.
"Yes." There was a longing note in Dorian's voice that troubled him. "You like this painting?"
"I love it."
"Are you going to steal it?"
Dorian's eyes moved away sideways at the blunt question. "I didn't say that."
"M'ami--" He hesitated. Dorian would think him mad. "Don't."
"I know you don't like me stealing pictures--"
"No. It's not that. But this picture.... Dorian, it's not for you. There are too many shadows, too much darkness. You don't belong in this world."
"Sergei love, you're being so fanciful. This isn't like you."
"No. I admit it. But I haven't been like myself for some days now." He conceded the truth wryly. "Not since I met you."
"Sergei love." Dorian gave him a tender kiss. "But in all honesty, would you rather it went to the Rothschilds or into a closed collection? You'd never see it again."
He played with one of Dorian's curls and didn't answer.
He spoke with an effort. "It would be safer in a private collection than anywhere else. If you had it-- m'ami, it wouldn't be good for you. It would shadow your soul."
"You don't like the painting," Dorian said as if making a discovery. "Why not? The technique is a master's, I can tell you that, even if it's not Giorgione. The colouring here in the trees- that's stunning: I've never seen it done before; and as for this lovely young man in the centre..."
"There's a mystery to him and I don't think it's a nice one. Best to leave it alone."
"Sergei- Are you alright?"
"Yes, of course. I'm quite sane, Dorian."
"That's not what I meant. These fancies of yours... You've got something on your mind. Was it last night?"
He winced involuntarily. "Last night was- last night. I don't know what happened and I don't want to know. But it showed-- there are things outside of reason. Things that can't be explained. That was one and I think this is another. Leave it alone, m'ami. It can't bring anyone happiness."
Dorian put a consoling arm about his shoulders. "Alright, love. Let's go home, then."
They stopped for an early dinner on the boulevards, and in the restaurant met a painter acquaintance of Sergei's and his friend, a novelist. Bertrand the painter knew Dorian by reputation and was charmed at meeting the famous collector in the flesh. Caillot the novelist was charmed, period. They ended up sharing a table, while Dorian gave a spirited account of the afternoon's soiree and the newly discovered masterpiece. Bertrand sighed at the thought of seeing the painting, and Caillot sighed at the sight of Dorian. Sergei ate his grilled sole in quiet amusement as he watched his friend expanding in the light of the other's worshipping eyes.
Bertrand gave him a swift glance at one point and leaned over to ask sotto voce, "This milord, is he..." He waved a vague hand in Sergei's direction.
"Yes." Sergei smiled at him. Bertrand raised eyebrows. "The English are such a kind people, n'est-ce pas?"
"Indeed. But certainly he's charming, mon ami. You do have luck. Where did you meet him?"
"At the Marquères' last week."
"Oh really. I must start attending the Baronne's 'at homes' more often. And this afternoon? Was there anyone amusing there?"
"The usual critics and dealers. What one might expect. The Duc himself is a most pleasant young man, and his grandmother of course is fascinating."
"'Of course'? Why? Do I know her?"
"Perhaps, though M. Caillot may know of her better. She's Sibylle de Lavalée."
Caillot turned his head in surprise. "The poet? I didn't realize she was still alive. What's she like?"
"Pragmatic. Surprisingly so for one who wrote such romantic verse."
"Pragmatic?" Dorian looked puzzled.
"We had a chat about the Giorgione while you were otherwise occupied," Sergei said with a straight face.
A reminiscent half-smile touched Dorian's mouth. "And what did she say?"
"She thought it was a painting of Lazarus come back from the dead."
"Oh." Dorian looked startled, then thoughtful.
"That doesn't sound pragmatic to me," Caillot said. "Mystic, perhaps. She had a reputation in her heyday, you know, of being a little strange."
"Eccentric?" Bertrand asked.
"No, no. Not that. She used to read palms, you see. Just a party game, of course. There was a vogue for it between the wars. But she read one man's hand- the son of her publisher, just starting out in his father's firm- and she said, very puzzled, that he was destined to die in the line of his work. Everyone thought that so funny that they remembered it afterwards- poor Jacques Barbizet, doomed to be poisoned by printer's ink or buried under an avalanche of books. Only--"
"Only?" Dorian prompted, enthralled.
"Well, the war started and he enlisted in the air force and was shot down over Germany. She stopped reading palms after that."
"Ohhh," Dorian said. "Now you mention it, I thought her eyes were- well, never mind. I took it for age and cataracts. That man last night at Elsa Dubarry's- you remember, Sergei? She looked a little like him."
"I didn't see anything like that at all," Sergei said in automatic contradiction. "She seemed perfectly ordinary to me."
"Like the turnips they sell at Les Halles?" Dorian suggested with a smile.
"Yes," Sergei said, studiedly neutral.
"How can you call Sibylle de Lavalée ordinary?" Caillot protested.
"Mme la Duchesse is a marvellous woman and a marvellous poet," Sergei said, "and in Paris that makes her ordinary." The others laughed, and Bertrand raised his wineglass.
"To the women of Paris!"
"And the men," Dorian interjected, raising his.
"And the poets," Caillot chimed in.
"And the turnips they sell at Les Halles," Sergei ended.
Sergei and Dorian strolled back to the rue Galand, talking of nothing in particular, merely to have the touch of words between them like the touch of Dorian's arm on Sergei's shoulder and the touch of Sergei's arm about Dorian's waist. Sergei was watching his fellow Parisians about their Sunday evening business, which seemed to be much the same as theirs. It was full dark when they got home. Sergei pressed the button for the light that illuminated, for a whole twenty seconds, the passage to the back. It went out as they reached the stairs, but instead of pressing the button that lit them to the second floor, he pulled Dorian against the wall and kissed him in the sudden blackness. Warm, so warm, the Earl of Red Gloria. Sergei's fingers explored the curves and hardnesses his eyes knew so well in the light, that felt quite different here in darkness. Dorian was now only a rose-scented sensation- soft insistent lips and strong embracing arms, warm skin and hard muscle under his hands. The pulse of the neck, the little knobs of the collarbones, the fleshiness of an earlobe, the intricate whorlings of the ear itself... All this, all this, his for the taking, his for the night at least. An unwonted humility touched his soul. He felt for once favoured beyond his deserts.
"Sergei," Dorian said in his ear. "We can't do it here. It's too cold."
"Yes, m'ami," he agreed, loosing him with a small reluctance. This wasn't the place for it, and he knew there were things he had to do first. On Dorian's skin it seemed he could still detect the traces of the Duc. A nice young man, yes, but at this moment Sergei was disinclined to share his lover with anyone, even at second hand. And how much more did that apply to his own body. If he were to have all of Dorian, he had first to remove the remnants of his afternoon in the Faubourg St. Germain.
Inside he turned on the heat, and the two made their way without discussion to the second floor bathroom. No doubt it was superstition to think he could wipe out the events of this day with soap and water, but it seemed necessary on this last night to mark a space between past and future, to meet in love as only Sergei and Dorian, existing fresh and washed in a timeless now. He cleaned himself carefully, minutely, and did the same to Dorian. Smiling, Dorian submitted to Sergei's attentions, attentions which had the side-effect of completing the Earl's arousal.
In the bedroom he made Dorian wait while he found new candles to replace the burnt out ones from the night before. He wanted everything to be perfect. As he looked up from lighting them, he found Dorian's gaze upon him, blue eyes catching the shadows of the dark. As ever, his breath stopped at sight of the man's beauty. Too beautiful to be mortal... Did Dorian himself realize the wonder he held within?
"You're not going to change the sheets as well?" Dorian asked pathetically, as Sergei turned towards the linen cupboard. "I'm dying, Sergei," and he waved his hand at what looked like a very healthy hard-on.
"Well, I'd intended to," he began, amused. Godlike beauty sat oddly with this aching human need.
"How about a fast screw on the carpet instead?" Dorian suggested, eyes dramatic with desperation.
"Poor little boy," Sergei smiled, and let an infuriated Dorian grab him and wrestle him into the tumbled sheets and pillows of the bed. Their bodies came together like metal to a magnet, and Sergei laughed to find his arms full of delightful Dorian again. It seemed an age- an eon- since they'd been together. He kissed Dorian, and Dorian kissed him back, so that Sergei's own head began to swim with desire.
Dorian's mouth moved across Sergei's jaw and down to his neck, and thence to his chest and nipples and belly. Sergei writhed under the maddening kisses, the little blunted bites, the tickling teasing of Dorian's curls dragging down his too-sensitive skin. He wanted to laugh and cry at the same time; his nerves couldn't decide whether this was pleasure or torture. He pushed against the imprisoning weight of Dorian's body, biting his tongue to keep the 'Stop- Dorian-' from his lips in case Dorian did stop. At last- at last- Dorian reached his groin and then there was no doubt any more, this was wonderful, wonderful, the wetness moving around him and taking him in. Sergei groaned at the sensation. Pleasure was arcing him upwards, descending on molten silver wings to take him-- and then Dorian's damnable mouth simply stopped.
"Dorian!" It was somewhere between a roar of rage and a scream for mercy. Dorian's face rose above Sergei's thighs, obscure in the flickering candlelight, but his voice danced with mischief and a hint of malice.
"Oh but Sergei-- we have to make preparations--"
In spite of himself, Sergei had to laugh. "M'ami, you'll be lucky if you live to see thirty. Some man will kill you if you keep doing that."
"Oh, I don't think so," Dorian said with serene smugness, and came up beside Sergei again. "Mind if I'm on top for this? The duc, you know-- so enthusiastic. I hadn't the heart to slow him down, it being his first time and all, but still--" He grimaced momentarily.
"As you will," Sergei agreed. "If I can be on my face."
"Oh, Sergei. But then I can't look at you," Dorian said dolefully.
"Such a spoiled child. I shouldn't indulge you like this, m'ami."
"But you will, right?" Dorian smiled, and pulled the tube of petroleum jelly from under the pillow where he'd taken to caching it.
"As always." Sergei let him raise a leg and lay it across his shoulders. Dorian's strong slippery fingers came inside him and Sergei sighed in pleasure. This alone was delight enough, this foretaste of what was to come. Sergei stretched his spine flat and opened his hips. He loved this moment, even on his back like this: loved being probed, loved the unbearable anticipation of entry. Dorian raised Sergei's other leg and rose above him. Sergei smiled up as Dorian's smiling face approached him--
And a door seemed to open in his mind. His breathing stopped, his eyes became fixed. He was back in that other place and he saw- he saw-
cold as death and numb with terror as the young man turned in his arms he waited as for the fall of the executioner's axe to see the shame and horror in the black eyes, thinking blindly 'I'm sorry Szincza I'm sorry I'm so sorry,' and knew it made no difference, could make no difference with a crime like his. He must be judged and condemned by the one he'd betrayed. With the last of his courage he met his victim's eyes- eyes that smiled in excitement and happiness, eyes that overflowed with energy, eyes that said 'Well finally, Savijc, what took you so long?' Shock and amazement whirled through him like a tornado, he couldn't stand he was falling onto his back as the other bore him down, it was Jahn of course it was Jahn, how could he have thought otherwise, it was Jahn who was still alive of course he was alive, and the proof was that they were the same height now, now that Savijc was a man who'd reached his full growth.
Happiness like pain ballooned inside him, he was too small to hold the joy that was in him, it was going to kill him but he couldn't have wanted another death. Jahn was pushing his legs up, Jahn was pushing inside him, oh my God at last at last Jahn was making love to him at last as Savijc had always wanted him to, and he was laughing as they did when the two of them fought together, scrabbling on the ground for hand holds and leg holds, but it came out sounding almost like sobbing. Jahn's mouth worried at his neck and Jahn's thick arms held him prisoner and Jahn moved with unexpected grace and immense concentration in and out of him where Jahn had never been before and where no-one else would ever be afterwards because this was Jahn's now he and Jahn were together and Jahn would never leave him alone to find what happiness he could in the embrace of strangers, what an idea, he was laughing at the ridiculousness of it, laughing and crying with joy into the sex-charged black eyes that laughed with him as the violent electricity of orgasm filled his head with the emptiness of space
Blindly he grasped the hot body in his hands, not knowing where or when he was. Inside him was only amazement. Jahn. Jahn here, alive before his eyes, alive as he had been when-- alive. That energy of his, boundless and happy. The open face that showed all his thoughts so clearly there was no need to speak them. The enthusiasm, the warmth, and that quality Sergei had only obscurely been aware of when he was eighteen, but that he knew now was goodness- simple goodness, and as rare as rubies. That had been Jahn: his friend, a young man who glowed like the sun.
The body in his arms stirred, rolled onto its side, looked at him. Blue eyes, a glory of curls. Dorian. And still all he could do was stare, bereft of words, bereft of anything but wonder.
Dorian blinked sleepily at him.
"What happened there, Sergei? You went away from me."
"Yes." He looked at Dorian, not understanding, knowing he would never understand because there was no-one who could ever explain it to him.
"I saw- I don't know what I saw."
"Yes- Maybe. The thing that happened last night."
"It happened again? But Maraich's not here."
"Yes, I know. But I saw it. Again, or a flashback- I don't know." He touched the image in his head. "I saw it."
"Ahhh. But that wasn't a ghost, you know. Much too real."
Real. "Yes. A wish made flesh..."
"Oh, more than that, surely. A piece of time slipped out of its place, is what it felt like to me. Somehow making love to you I got flash-forwarded to when I'll be doing it with Klaus. I mean, I knew it was you, sort of- Klaus would never be that good the first time- but it was definitely him too."
"It was different with me." He looked away, still feeling Jahn's presence as though he stood beside him.
"Don't be too certain."
"He's dead, Dorian." It still seemed incredible that that should be true, when the feel of him was so much alive.
"Then I guess it was a ghost," Dorian said kindly. "A spirit coming from wherever he is now to- well, to attend to unfinished business."
"It's a lovely fantasy..."
"What makes you think it's a fantasy?"
"It's just... I can't think of him as a ghost. Something lost and wandering. He wasn't-- it wasn't like that."
"Not all ghosts are lost and wandering. Some of them know exactly what they're doing. Like my great-grandfather in the music room at home. I always thought he didn't see me, but my father said he just didn't like children. He was right. When I turned eighteen he took to nodding hello when we met."
"Is this a joke?" Sergei asked, puzzled.
"Not at all." Dorian sounded obscurely offended. "Ghosts and gardens are an English specialty. We do more of them better than anyone else in the world."
Sergei blinked a little at the matter-of-fact tone. What a strange world Dorian lived in. Ghosts and time warps, secret societies and descending divinities: to hear Dorian talk, one would think them just a normal part of life. Perhaps that was why he'd had a share in the miracle that had just happened. To Dorian's supreme self-confidence, impossible was a word with no meaning. In his world granted wishes were the rule, not the exception. Wanting a thing meant that he was sure to get, though all the laws of man and the universe decreed otherwise.
Once Sergei had lived in a world not unlike that. He remembered it now, in the newly living past that filled his head. When he'd been Savijc still, seventeen years old, in the high school below the green hills, sharing a bed with Jahn in that dim room full of dancing shadows. When he'd been Savijc of the Aouilles, the petted youngest brother of that powerful clan, living in a world of wonder with more love and happiness in his life than he knew what to do with. Serene and confident, and yes, spoiled too, no doubt: like Dorian, certain of his power, certain of love, certain that what he wanted would come to him as naturally as turning his face to the sun. Before he'd so hideously discovered the lack inside him; before his failure had destroyed Jahn's life and his own. Before he'd entered the drylands, where the name 'Jahn' was the word for grief, and the memory of Jahn was his endless punishment... before that, there'd been Savijc and his friend Jahn. There had been Jahn. Jahn who'd laughed with him and at him, Jahn whose touch he could still feel everywhere on his body now, Jahn whose warmth filled the rooms of his mind with light again.
"Why do ghosts come back, then?" he asked the flickering candlelight before his eyes.
"To be where they were happy, usually. Or to know that we're alright. And sometimes just to make sure that we remember them."
"Remember them..." That seemed right. To make Savijc remember what Jahn really was like, not the image of pain he'd become. That was reason enough for Jahn to come back from- from wherever his spirit was now, to pull Sergei out of the narrow little house he'd come to live in, where sadness was written in the lines of the ceiling and, eventually, in the eyes of every man who knew him. Jahn... Jahn would have been very impatient with that. 'Oh let it go, Savijc!', as he'd said whenever Savijc had insisted on whatever tremendously important point it had been.
"Adieu tristesse..." he murmured.
"Mmh?" Dorian asked.
"Nothing, m'ami." Sergei looked at the world inside his head as one surveys the new landscape caused by an earthquake. One where the sun shone, one where the walls had fallen down to become roads, one where old mountains had crumbled and opened up a way back to the land he used to live in. In a corner of his heart, he wasn't even surprised. As one pulls out a pebble from a wall, and another, and then another, until the whole thing collapses, so with him. This was the natural ending of something that had begun an unimaginable time ago- five days back, in that moment when he'd first looked up to meet Dorian's eyes.
Dorian. Indeed, Dorian. So Dorian was the gateway through which Jahn had been able to come? It seemed likely that one with so little regard for human rules might be exempt from natural ones as well. Well, there was no point in analyzing too far. Miracles are not to be explained, only accepted. But he felt with an odd certainty that in this man beside him was the point at which his past and present met.
Dorian nuzzled his neck. "Sergei, come back. Or at least take me with you."
Sergei turned on his side and put an arm around his lover. "I'm surveying the wreckage you've wrought, my dear. You really shouldn't be allowed to run loose."
"I've wrought? I haven't done anything."
"Maybe not. Or maybe a couple of miracles."
"Don't I wish," Dorian said. "Miracles are Maraich's line, not mine. If I could work miracles, I'd have had Klaus years ago."
And of course Dorian had no idea what he'd done. Just an unsuspecting time bomb, the Earl of Red Gloria. What a shock it was going to be for Dorian's chilly Major when Dorian finally went off in his hands. Sergei half-hoped he'd be around to see Eberbach's world explode as his own had done.
"You're like Maraich. You don't know you're doing it. Maybe you couldn't do it if you did."
"You think I'm some kind of medium? Not me," Dorian assured him. "I'm just a perfectly ordinary th- man. And to prove it, I've got to go pee. Let me up, Sergei."
Sergei freed him and watched him to the door. Happiness, small and ordinary as the smell of Sunday dinner cooking, came creeping into his heart. Jahn and Dorian. Circassia and Paris. All one. The same, no longer separate. He looked through his mind and found that there was nothing left to hurt him any more. He smiled and went on smiling, as though he hadn't done it in years.
May '98- June '99
Note: Mangaka never explain and never apologize. Certainly they never credit their sources. So I don't know if the 'mysterious stone eye' that belongs to the Blue clan in Shibata's Papuwa really bears any relation to the 'bishounen-killer eye' possessed by Bancoran's family in Maya's Patarillo! Ban's eye makes any bishounen within range blush and go weak in the knees and enter a state of advanced rut. (The effect it has on Sergei in this story has something to do with his protracted youthfulness, a matter of canonical comment if not explanation.) On occasion however Ban's eye emits a ray of light that crackles with energy. The Blue clan eye mostly blows holes in things, but one notes that Sergei's brother Commander Majek has formed an entire army from, as his nephew says, 'all the slightly perverted bishounen he can find.' Me, I see a connection.
Acknowledgements. My thanks to:
Lena Miraglia, for information on Giorgione;
Rita Johnson (no relation), for sending me a compilation tape containing Lowlands so that I got to hear that old folk song at last;
The Japanese circle $10,000,000 Man, who in their doujinshi 'Peace Lovin' Men' placed various Papuwa characters in front of various paintings, and whose juxtaposition of Jan with De Chirico's L'enigme du retour made me laugh out loud on the Yurakucho subway;
The circle Izu Hantou Rengou, whose light-hearted but convincing vision of Servis as the ultimate sexual animal has permanently affected my view of Ojisama, and who also do neat covers;
Nakamura Rumi, as ever, whose light-hearted but convincing vision of Servis as the ultimate *erotic* animal was what started it, way back in January of '94;
Mimi, whose kind comments got me through the worst of a very protracted, dispiriting rewrite;
And Julie, who says such nice things.