"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.