The Garden of Proserpine
DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fantasy set in the universe described in the manga 'Eroica yori ai o komete.' However much that universe resembles our own in its external physical features, the two are definitely not the same. Eroica's world is one without AIDS or INTERPOL, where American scientists offer top-secret formulas to the Pope (who accepts them), and agents from both sides of the Curtain who get tired of being spies retire to a remote Swiss valley where no one bothers them. Anyone expecting to find something that conforms to the reality we ourselves live in is not likely to discover it here.
The American couple with the complicated name were already eating breakfast when he arrived at the table they shared at the pension. He said a brief hello and sat down with his paper while the waiter, who doubled as the night clerk, brought him his croissants and café au lait.
"Where's your friend this morning?" Mr. Fawkes-Whatsits asked politely.
"He'll be down after his shower," Dorian said in the same fashion. "He jogs every morning."
Fawkes gave a neutral grunt, and went back to reading the brochure of the conference. Thank God neither he nor his tiny wife was the chatty type. Mornings were bad enough with Klaus, who always bounded out of bed in a fever of energy and eloquence that took no account of his bedmate's condition. Klaus' habits had altered not a whit in their seven years together, and Dorian still found his behaviour on waking as hard to take as his blanket-hogging while asleep. He couldn't have borne conversation with anyone else before he'd had at least one cup of coffee.
He dipped his croissant into the foamy milk and chewed slowly, thinking of nothing at all. This morning blank time was a relief, in its way: an interlude of Zen not-being when the most that was required of him was that he not stop breathing.
"This man Aouille," Mrs. Fawkes said after a bit, "Is he related to the cybernetics expert?" She turned the name into Owill, and Dorian winced.
"Dunno. A lot of Circassians seem to be called that. They must not go in for birth control much, if it's all one family." The man wasn't really good-looking, but there was a nice homeliness to his big features, and experience told Dorian that his slow easy-goingness probably vanished in bed. A small thread of interest stirred inside him.
"It's not a family, actually, it's a tribe," he remarked, smiling to ease his intrusion into their conversation. The smile took energy. He signalled to the waiter for another coffee. "There are two big ones in the Circassian highlands. When the country was modernized after the first war the lowland government made everyone adopt a surname, and the highlanders simply took the name of the tribe they belonged to. That's why half the people are called either Aouille-" he took pains with the pronunciation: A-oh-ee- "or Acaille. Like the Sikhs." He gave a highbeam glance into the man's deep brown eyes.
"Oh," the other said a little blankly: in response to Dorian or to the Sikhs, it was hard to tell.
It was the woman who said with interest, "So these two scientists- Acaille and Aouille-" She'd picked up the correction, but it still came out Owee. Oh well; Circassian was an intractable language- "they might as well be called Smith and Jones? No wonder no-one can find them."
"How do you know about the names?" Fawkes asked. It sounded like a neutral question, but there was definitely a response at some level. Dorian leaned a little closer to him.
"I had a Circassian friend once, many years ago. He told me all the legends of the country."
"Legends?" That was his wife. No jealousy there, only interest in what Dorian might have to say. Was she so certain of her husband, or merely indifferent?
"Oh yes." Dorian smiled, not breaking eye contact with the man. "In the beginning there were two stones that fell from heaven, one red and one blue. The people appointed two warrior priests to care for them. They carried the stones when the armies went into battle, and the Circassians swept their enemies before them. So for many years the red tribe and the blue prospered and ruled the land. But then there was division. The warriors of the blue tribe wanted to continue their conquests, the red wanted to stay and be content with what they had. The blue tribe left, taking their stone with them, while the red tribe retreated into the fastnesses of the mountains. Some day the two stones will be united again, and Circassian warriors will once more shake the world." He ended the story with a flourish.
"Not so far off, was it?" Fawkes smiled back at him.
"General Majek, you mean?" Dorian raised an eyebrow. "That story about him being involved in bringing down the Soviet regime? Surely that was just a popular legend after he left the government so suddenly."
"He doesn't seem the kind who'd stay quiet for long. And the timing was suggestive. He disappears off the scene and a year later there's seething unrest throughout the area."
"He disappears and two weeks later Chernobyl explodes," his wife said tartly. "You think there's a connection there too?"
"It's probably just rumour and speculation," Dorian said judiciously. "No-one could really believe he'd drop everything in order to go look after a child." That had been Klaus' conclusion. NATO had been more than a little concerned about what might be behind the General's sudden 'retirement' in favour of his older son, given rumours of conflict between Majek and the young man. However an intensive investigation had found no evidence of a power struggle at home nor of any clandestine political activity abroad. Sources in Circassia confirmed that the younger boy was indeed in a deep coma following some kind of explosion, and that Majek had returned with him to his fortress town in the mountains. However unlikely on the face of it, it seemed he really had retired voluntarily in order to devote himself to the child's recovery.
"All we ever hear from Circassia is rumour and speculation," Mrs. Fawkes said in dissatisfaction. "Like this paper of Jean Acaille's." She made it sound like Gene. This time Dorian didn't correct her.
"The Fountain of Youth?" He tried to keep his voice light, but a little thrill ran down his back as he said the words.
"That's what I mean. All the precis says is that he and - Aouille- are on the track of the chromosome that causes aging. 'A preliminary analysis-' That's all. But the stories that are going round- that he's isolated it, reversed it, that there are millennia-old people living in Circassia... It's getting to the point of hysteria."
"They seem to be fuelling the rumours themselves. Hiding away, not talking to reporters, not appearing in public- it suggests there's more of a mystery than there is." That had been Klaus' conclusion too, expressed far more forcibly than Dorian was about to. Klaus was furious at being sent off on so ludicrous a mission. The fact that agents from every other agency, and a host of countries both friendly and not, had also come in pursuit of the elusive scientists just made him angrier.
"Ridiculous!" he'd stormed. "A fairy tale! There's nothing to it, and those two are just trying to make people think there is. They're going to look pretty stupid when they actually have to give some proof, and so will everyone else. And NATO will damned well be right up there, wiping egg off our face along with the CIA and the Iranians and MOSSAD and the rest of the losers."
"They're scientists," Dorian had argued. "They wouldn't make claims they couldn't back. Stories like this don't come from nothing. There must be something revolutionary in their research to be getting a response like this."
"Oh of course," Klaus had sneered. "You believe it. You would. You want to be twenty-five forever. Well you can't. You're pushing forty-"
"Thirty-six," he'd protested.
"-and you look every day of it. Why don't you grow up? I hate being seen with someone who acts like a middle-aged teenager."
"Seen? When have you ever been seen with me anywhere?" he'd demanded, shaking with rage, and left before the perennial quarrel could start again. He knew Klaus was only talking this way because he was angry about his orders, but Dorian was damned if he'd serve as whipping boy yet another time. And what Klaus said had hurt, more than he wanted to admit. They hadn't seen each other again until their pre-arranged meeting here in T--, and things hadn't improved much even then
He pulled his mind from the constant sore point of Klaus, to hear Fawkes saying, as if in echo of his own thoughts, "There must be something to it. Academics don't get carried away like this for nothing. Someone knows something--"
"But it isn't us," Klaus said, sitting himself down peremptorily and smiling wolfishly at the American. "Whatever our respective governments may think. So you might as well stop pumping my friend."
Fawkes looked at him mildly. "Whoever does know isn't talking. That's the only thing we do know." He put his napkin down and rose to go, his wife following suit. "Have a nice day." He nodded briefly at Dorian, and left.
"Why did you have to be so rude to that poor man?" Dorian demanded.
"He's an agent, stupid." Klaus was shovelling a croissant into his mouth. "And you were telling him everything."
"You think everyone's an agent, including a perfectly ordinary American professor and his wife."
"You believed him when he said he was a professor? God."
"He didn't say. I can tell from his suits. Badly cut and badly cared for. His wife doesn't look after him- too busy with her career, I'll bet."
"Oh, she's a career woman, is she?" Klaus said with heavy sarcasm. "Could you tell that from her suits?"
"Of course. She's much better dressed than he is. Why don't you use your eyes, Klaus?"
"Why don't you use yours? If you're so damned observant, Sherlock, how come you can't tell CIA agents when you see them?"
"They're not CIA," Dorian said in exasperation. "Don't be ridiculous."
"Some other outfit, then. They're spies. I can smell them."
"You're paranoid. They're-"
"You're a fool- always have been and always will be," Klaus said in dismissive contempt. Something inside Dorian turned to iron.
"You're right. I'm a fool. I'd have to be, to stay with you and put up with this kind of behaviour."
"Don't make a scene."
"Don't make a scene. Don't draw attention to myself. Pretend I don't exist. Just sit still and let you insult me."
"It's your fault for getting me upset and making me say things I don't mean. If you'd just learn to think before you open that mouth of yours- where are you going?!"
He'd heard all this before, many many times, and he didn't want to hear it again. He got to his feet and walked out of the dining room, knowing Klaus wouldn't think of calling attention to himself by following.
'I can't go on like this,' he thought to himself. 'I can't. This is hell.'
Without purpose he wandered out of the pension and into the cobblestoned streets of the old quarter. Instinctively he made for the canal, where willows bent above the water's surface. Their pale green was like a mist, and the sight of them was obscurely painful. All things bloom again in the spring, but not us. Not us.
Thirty-six. Next year thirty-seven. The year after that... He still kept his lean figure, he trained regularly to maintain the solidity to his muscles, he was careful of his diet... There was nothing to show. He looked like a man ten years his junior. But he felt different now than ten years ago.
He felt under siege.
He'd never thought it would matter to him- the small lines beginning around his eyes, the gold beginning to dim in his hair. He thought he'd age with aplomb: go from being a beautiful young man to being a beautiful old one. There had been friends of his father's whom he'd loved as a boy: gracious Lord Marley with his exquisite manners and stunning pure-white hair; Brigadier Hopkins with the threads of molten silver at his temples and the face of an eagle, fierce and wise; someone called only Rudy, genial, round-faced and laughing, like a cotton-haired cherub. The young men who frequented the house loved them too. Dorian had early become aware of the rivalry for their favours. He'd always thought that if he aged, he'd do it like that.
'If I aged. I thought I had a choice. I never thought it would be like this.'
This dreary middle-aged nothingness. This lack of delight in the wonders of the world. No-one had told him that when the body begins to fail, the spirit fails too. Or was it the other way round?
How long had it been since anything had pleased him? Years, it seemed. After his second- third- year with Klaus-- 'with' Klaus. He grimaced. His third year as Klaus' clandestine lover, when the secret stolen meetings had begun to pall and Klaus had reverted to his worst bad temper... It was so much nicer before that: not perhaps at the very start when Klaus was always pushing him away, often at gun point, but after that, as he had slowly- so slowly- allowed Dorian to come nearer and nearer. It had taken every day of four years from Klaus' first grudging admission- in Paris, that had been- that he actually preferred Dorian alive to Dorian dead-- though Klaus himself wasn't queer and never would be and Dorian had better resign himself to that fact right now-- to his final capitulation. Four years of close loving pursuit, of small victories one after another, of advances that had gone unrebuffed and intimacies, both physical and psycho-logical, that Klaus had permitted with unvarying bad grace. His wire love had never unbent verbally, whatever his body did. Dorian didn't mind. From that morning in Paris he'd known he was going to win, and for four years the sun had shone unremittingly. His career as a thief had reached new heights of glory- he'd breached the security of collections private and public, he'd plundered the Prado and despoiled the Gettys. T'ang figurines from China, van Gogh's Sunflowers from Tokyo, Raphael's madonna from the Uffizi and Tintoretto's Venus from Venice had all come to grace his country home. It had been wonderful.
It had been wonderful. And now...
He didn't want to think about now.
Without intention, his feet had taken him to the hotel where the Biogenetics Conference was being held. He had nothing to do here- nothing to do in this city, for that matter. He'd come only because Klaus would be alone and they could meet without observation from the rest of NATO. T-- was too much a city of business and bureaucracy to provide any outlet for Dorian's tastes. But the hotel and the conference had become the centre of everyone's attention for this week. At least it was thronged with people and might provide a diversion... until Klaus found him and ordered him away from the area of his operations. Klaus expected Dorian to exist only at night, and regarded his daytime presence as an affront.
He took a table in the indoor café opening off the lobby. Around him seats were slowly being vacated as the conference attendees finished breakfast and took themselves off to the first seminars of the day. A programme lay abandoned on the table beside him. He reached a long arm over and scanned it while waiting for his cappuccino, but it might as well have been written in Greek. Well no- he could read Greek, but this was incomprehensible. 'Biochemical genetics of elasmo-branchs with emphasis on the alopiidae.' 'Gene expression in recombinant microorganisms.' 'Specific selection of deoxycytidine kinase mutants with tritiated deoxyadenoisine.' He flipped through the pages, and came to the seminars at week's end. 'Preliminary analysis of the possible effect of deviant chromosomal structure on the human aging process' by Acaille, Jean and Aouille, Sascha.
That woman was right. It sounded like nothing at all. 'Preliminary', 'possible'... There seemed no reason why agents from NATO and the old KGB and half a dozen other agencies as well would show up in droves to track down the authors of the paper, but they were here... There must be something to this, some substance to the persistent rumours that Acaille and Aouille had found the key- or a key- to perpetual youth.
Perpetual youth- it wasn't such an unnatural idea. It simply meant being the same way one had always been, from fifteen to thirty, before everything had begun to go so terribly wrong. It showed a desire for stability. What could be more normal than that? Aging was what was unnatural- the constant change, the unremitting attack of time, the relentless degeneration. It was wrong. It was unfair. It should be stopped...
There was a small stir around him, a rustling more psychic than physical, and Dorian found his head turning to locate the source. A man was walking through the café, making for the lobby door. Not a young man, nor particularly tall- no more than medium height, if that. There was no one thing about him that particularly struck the eye but he drew the room's attention like a magnet. Dorian frankly stared. Shaggy no-colour hair, the silver-smoke that blonde goes with age, growing carelessly over the collar; shaggy colourless eyebrows above deep-set eyes; pale skin with deep lines on each side of the bleached long mouth; a firm jutting chin and high blunt cheekbones that started a small ache in Dorian's heart. Unlike the academics all around in their conference suits and ties, the man was casually dressed as if for the country in a grey wool jumper and tweed trousers. Rather than looking out of place, he made the scholars in their unimaginative serge seem stolid and middle-class. The man was talking to someone beside him, quiet and intent, as if they were alone in the room. A hundred little details bespoke the aristocrat and leader: his straight spine and the tilt to his head, the informality of his dress, his genuine obliviousness to all those watching eyes. But what stunned Dorian most was the sense of concentrated force about him. It was practically visible, like the heat that turns the world wavy above a fire- an authority as massive and unselfconscious as a mountain's.
'Who is that?' Dorian wondered, awestruck. 'Why have I never seen him before?' His fascinated eyes tracked the man's progress through the restaurant and his finger crept up unthinkingly to play with one of his curls. 'Oh God,' he thought, and his finger throbbed as he twisted the hair tighter, 'Oh God-': half plea and half prayer: and as if in response the man turned his head and looked straight at him. His eyes were an amazing blue, like two pieces of the summer sky fixed in a human face. Dorian straightened up, glowing as though warmed by the Mediterranean sun as he felt the golden connection that ran between himself and the ravishing stranger. Always it was the same, that supreme moment when he met another avatar of the Beautiful and became caught in the mutual exchange of the divinity each embodied. He reflected delight back on his beholder like a mirror reflecting sunlight, feeling his own eyes growing wider and his mouth taking on a soft curve. The golden warmth turned from him briefly and Dorian felt as if a cloud had covered the sky. The man's companion was saying something to him, urging him forward. 'Oh no- don't leave-,' Dorian thought in desolation. The two moved on, but as they did those amazing eyes flashed once again in his direction.
He leaned back in his seat, dazzled. It was as if his soul had been rapt away to another plane of existence, one where heavenly music played among sun-split clouds. Slowly he felt himself descending to earth again. He smelled freshly poured coffee and the pungent perfume of a Gaulois and beneath that the solid restaurant odour of linen, lemon, and thick carpeting. Around him sang a muted conversational chorus of masculine baritones and tenors and the occasional high soprano, speaking in French and German and English and, off to one side, Turkish. The low hubbub was punctuated by the chink of china cups replaced in saucers and the clink of forks against porcelain plates. Absently he smiled at the flowers on his table: they were sunshiny yellow, frilled at the edges, with small freckly spots like a jaguar's. The celestial music sang faintly on, background to the steady clearness now burning in his soul, and in his head there was one single word.
He felt his being relax and expand to touch all the life in the room around him. What a lovely day it was after all, and what a delightful city T-- had turned out to be, and how amusing these solemn academics were with their impossible language and their hard ideas. The world was such a simple place, really. There was beauty and it all belonged to him. He didn't even have to go looking for it-- beauty came walking into his path like a god in a garden. Most delightfully of all, beauty didn't always know who its most devoted lover was. There was first the game and ceremony of pursuit to give pleasure to his days, and then the final possession to crown his endeavours and his nights. Dorian sighed happily. For the first time in what seemed ages he felt completely himself. He felt like Eroica. It had been so long, so long, since he'd seen something by chance and recognized it instinctively as his own.
He lingered again on the memory of those blue eyes and the deep lines that bracketed the experienced mouth. How much he must know- how much he would have to teach Dorian- and how much Dorian could teach him. He would smell of tobacco, rich and mellow; he would be a slow and gracious lover, patient as a father- but masterful too, no doubt about it. That was a mouth accustomed to giving orders and a face used to being obeyed. And-- if one didn't obey? Under the aristocratic courtesy there had beat- or was he imagining it? - a pulse of danger. No, not imagination. Those eyes had held more than a hint of the jungle. Like a panther- a silver panther- noble and deadly; or a blue-eyed wolf, unfriend to man; or a king of Faery, pale and inhuman, judging mortal kind by his own strange and merciless standards...
Even as his pulse beat more strongly, Dorian smiled at his fantasies. His new love was all those things; he was also an ordinary man with a name and an occupation and, if God loved him, a room number in this hotel. Now to find out what all those were.
"The man who just left?" The waiter looked a little blank. "I'm sorry, monsieur, a number of people have left in the last five minutes. It's nearly time for the first session of the morning..."
"This wasn't a scientist," Dorian assured him. "You couldn't miss him. He had pale grey-blond hair, almost silver, and he wasn't wearing a suit- a grey jumper..."
The waiter was shaking his head. "I'm sorry, sir, I don't remember a gentleman matching that description."
"You must have seen him," Dorian insisted. "Everyone was turning to look at him."
The waiter kept shaking his head. "I'm sorry, sir, I was at the back of the restaurant-"
"That's where he came from-"
"I didn't see him-"
Dorian gazed in exasperation at the bovine face. "Let me speak to the maitre d'."
"Right away, sir." The man departed with relieved alacrity.
Dorian bit his lip in impatience until the maitre d' appeared. He was older and balding, with a shrewd watchful expression that somehow annoyed the Earl. He repeated his question.
"- a grey jumper and tweed trousers. I think he had some people with him. Obviously he's someone quite important; I was just trying to place him."
"I'm afraid I don't know the gentleman's name, sir. He came with a party- I don't think they're connected with the conference, from the way they dressed. And I doubt they're staying at this hotel. They settled the bill before they left, in cash."
Dorian's eyes narrowed momentarily, then he smiled. "Ah well, I was just wondering who he was. I thought I'd seen him before someplace."
"They might still be in the lobby, or in the vicinity of the hotel," the maitre d' suggested.
Dorian laughed. "Oh, it's hardly that important. I'll have another cappuccino- and do you have brioche?"
"Yes indeed, sir," and he vanished in his turn. Dorian lit a cigarette, and turned his attention on the café, letting his glance rest finally on a good-looking young lad a few tables away. He put a dreamy heavy-lidded expression on his face, the look of one indulging in thoughts best not inquired into too deeply.
Very informative, the maitre d'. Too informative. Paid in cash, had they? And certainly not guests of the hotel. Oh no indeed. The man was clearly a V.I.P., but that was scarcely news. No, he was a V.I.P. with a liking for privacy and able to command it. Dorian smiled slowly. How wonderful. A little difficulty to be overcome, just for the practice. His coffee and brioche appeared before him and he sipped absently. A frontal assault on the desk clerk wouldn't work, obviously; but he didn't have the equipment or the talent to hack into the hotel's computer. That was what Bonham was for- what a pity he hadn't brought Bonham, but then, how could he have known? Of course, he could get the information long-distance. He considered the notion and discarded it. No, not this time. This was Dorian's personal quest. In matters of art he took what assistance his men could give him, but in affairs of the heart it was every man for himself. He smiled wider, and was aware of a small commotion. The young man three tables away was rising hastily and making for the door, blushing a deep red. He cast one terrified glance over his shoulder in Dorian's direction as he disappeared.
Dorian laughed out loud. Definitely, they'd think him an undesirable type. Time he went back to the fray. He signalled for his bill.
He sat in the lobby, smoking slowly, sizing up the men behind the front desk. They were all giving him covert looks, of envy or perplexity or disapproval, but Dorian had his sensors out for that little hormonal admixture that was necessary to his mission. Yes; there. The young one with the blond hair and the remains of acne. That was the one. Good-looking enough, though the red splotches were a pity; but if push came to shove, better than the portly middle-aged man on his right.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Dorian jumped at the fierce hiss in his ear. He turned to regard the stranger beside him- oh, not a stranger, of course. Klaus. Of course. He opened blue eyes wide.
"Cruising the desk clerks. What does it look like?"
"Leave at once. You're too conspicuous."
"Go to hell," he said mildly.
"What?!" Klaus looked dumbfounded.
"I said, go to hell. Or go away- whichever you prefer. And if you don't-" he cut in over Klaus outraged expression, "I'll yell that you're propositioning me. That'll get you refused entry to this hotel for good."
"What the fuck are you playing at!!" Give Klaus credit, his whisper still suggested volume enough to shake the walls, but Dorian wasn't in the mood to give Klaus credit.
He ground out his cigarette, rose to his feet, and strode over to the front desk.
"Where is the manager?" he demanded in ringing tones. "I wish to speak with him at once. This man is pestering me." He flung a hand out at Klaus who had stopped halfway in his pursuit. A bit too much Edith Evans in the voice, he thought critically, but the effect on the hotel minions was satisfactory. A flurry of activity erupted behind the desk, and a man in pinstriped trousers emerged from the interior office.
"What appears to be the matter, sir?" he inquired, eyes dubiously taking in Dorian's rose velvet draped pantaloons and full-sleeved shirt.
"Nothing is the matter," Klaus interjected, low-voiced and in control. "This pervert wishes to embarrass me in public."
"I am Dorian earl of Red Gloria, a peer of the English realm and a citizen of the European Community." He showed his passport to the manager. "This man came up and whispered in my ear, right here in the lobby. I'm not accustomed to behaviour of this sort in a hotel of your reputation."
"And you, sir?" The manager turned to Klaus inquiringly.
"Major von dem Eberbach of NATO." Unwillingly, Klaus flashed his ID. "This man is of interest to NATO and I wish to speak with him."
"In what capacity?" The manager was looking less than friendly at Klaus.
"I'm not at liberty to say."
"Is this a matter for the police?"
"It concerns security. It's not safe to have him in your hotel. Leave him to me."
"I don't think so, Major," the hotel manager said heavily. "We've made it clear that your kind are not welcome here. Please leave at once."
"My kind!" Klaus was black with rage and his tone threatened. "Just what are you implying?"
"Spies- agents- undercover operators- whatever you wish to call yourselves. We will not permit men like you to disoblige our guests and disrupt the conference. We have police security," he plowed on through Klaus' objections, "and I'll ask them to intervene if you don't leave immediately."
"Ridiculous!" Klaus snapped. "You can't turf out a NATO officer in pursuit of his orders!"
"I can if you refuse to tell me what those orders are, sir. I have an obligation to our guests. Will you leave, or shall I call for our security staff?"
Klaus glared at the man, who merely looked back at him with civil detestation.
Klaus turned to Dorian. "I'll see you outside," he said darkly, and turned to go.
"You'll get the same answer outside as in, dear," Dorian called after him, and had the satisfaction of seeing Klaus' ears go red. "Some men can't take no for an answer," he remarked to the manager. "But it looks like I'll have to stay here now. Do you have a room available?"
"Sir." The manager spread deprecatory hands. "Our rooms were all booked months ago."
Dorian smiled, megawatt charm pouring on the man like a nova.
"Of course. But naturally, there's always something available for visiting celebrities. If the King of Sweden turned up this afternoon, you wouldn't send him over to the Hilton?"
"Well, he isn't here, and I am. What have you got?"
"The Royal Suite is taken--"
"I don't need a suite fit for a king; a room for a prince will do nicely. That's what I am, after all."
"You are?" The man's eyes were going unfocussed.
"In my own fashion. Unrecognized, of course. We can't have a scandal."
"I've heard about the English royals. You don't mean-"
Dorian nodded, smiling. "A marriage of state- well, what can you expect? Like son, like father."
"Ohh..." He regarded Dorian dazedly. "You don't look like-"
"Thank God," Dorian said fervently. "Meaning no disrespect, of course."
"Oh well, in that case- Jean-Pierre," he signalled the middle-aged men. "Take- uhh-
"-His lordship-" Dorian supplied. "I'm quite legitimately an earl." Luckily the manager was in no state to figure out how.
"-to the twelfth floor suite."
"Oh, I won't bother your senior staff," Dorian interposed graciously. "This young man can take me to my room." A wave of his hand, and the substitution was made as if by magic. In seconds they were riding up in the lift.
"What's your name?"
"Paul." He caressed the syllable.
Paul didn't look at him, but blushed furiously. Nonetheless, Dorian realized almost at once, he was more experienced than that blush would suggest.
"Security's very tight here, I see."
"Your manager just tossed a NATO Major off the premises."
"Our guests are accustomed to the best. We can't have them bothered with cops and robbers," Paul replied, clearly quoting a superior. His eyes slid round to look at Dorian, but meeting the Earl's, immediately went front again. "There are some very important people here for the conference, after all."
"Yes. There was one of them down in the restaurant. A man with hair like smoke-" Paul's face went closed, like a door slamming shut. "Somebody so important that no-one sees him if he doesn't want them to. I'm envious," Dorian murmured in the young man's ear. "I wish I could command invisibility like that."
Paul shifted a little, but didn't answer.
"Really?" Dorian smiled. "Is your job on the line if you admit to knowing him?"
"Could be more than my job," Paul muttered, as the lift doors opened.
"Do hotel staff often get death threats from their guests? Maybe you should put in for danger pay."
"It's no joke," he whispered desperately. "This place is crawling with secret agents. They've told us to expect anything- kidnappings, assassinations, God knows what all. It's because of those Circassians and their secret formula. Everyone's gone crazy about it. They've told us not to trust anybody."
"I'm not interested in the fountain of youth," Dorian half-lied, as Paul unlocked the door of his suite. "I only want to know who my invisible man is."
"Why?" Paul didn't bother to gloss the bluntness of the question.
"Why do you think?" Dorian looked straight in his eye. "You should understand." He ran a swift finger down the red-patched cheek. Paul blushed again but there was calculation in his expression.
"You'll make it worth my while?"
"One as pretty as you shouldn't be mercenary," Dorian said neutrally, watching the eyes respond to his nearness.
"I don't want money," Paul blurted, and pressed closer.
"Well then," Dorian smiled. "Show me where the bedroom is and maybe we can work something out."
An energetic half hour later, Paul disentangled himself from the tumbled sheets.
"I gotta go," he said, and began pulling on his pants. Dorian concealed his disapproval of the vulgar haste. Where there was no finesse in the important areas, one could scarcely expect grace in the finer details. He stretched out at his ease and watched Paul's eyes return unwillingly to his body.
"Well?" he said inquiringly.
"Well what?" Paul asked sullenly. No grace at all- not even a mercantile quid pro quo. The petty bourgeois were the most tiresome of classes, no doubt about it, with their perennial resentment of absolutely everything.
"My invisible man," Dorian prompted. "His name, and his room number."
"His name's Aouille," Paul said in smug triumph.
"Not the biologist, of course."
"Not the biologist, not the engineer, not the man who buys antiques, not the one with the funny harp, not the artist who does the wood carvings--" Paul chanted.
"Good heavens, are they all here together?"
Paul looked annoyed. "No, but they have been. There are a lot of them."
"And this is another Aouille?"
"Yes it is. And his room isn't registered to him."
"You're not going to tell me which it is, of course."
"It's against hotel policy," Paul said, unbudgeably self-righteous.
"Dog in the manger?"
Paul looked confused, then angry. "Of course not. You aristocrats think we're all for sale. All you have to do is fuck me and I'll tell you anything you want-"
"As I recall, you fucked me. Was it so bad?"
"You only went to bed with me because you wanted something from me," Paul muttered.
"Yes. You knew that before we started. Something for something. Where's your business sense, young man?"
"Don't call me 'young man'. I'm as old as you are."
"Oh." Paul looked stunned. "You can't be."
An odd satisfaction, not untinged with bitterness, filled Dorian's soul.
"All year long. And feeling every day of it right now. You'd do better with someone your own age."
"Oh." Paul was chewing his lip. "I've got to go." He looked at the bedroom door, but seemed unable to move.
"Good-bye then." Dorian waited.
"Well-- good-bye." He took a step to the door, paused, took two more steps, turned to look over his shoulder, then turned completely around.
"Look," he said desperately. "I know how you feel. But my job-"
"You promise you won't tell him where you learned-?"
Dorian nodded, crossing his heart.
"Oh God- It's the roof penthouse suite. But you can't get in. There's a special elevator, and the doors are coded access, and it's the guest who codes them- we don't even know what it is- the housekeeper has to call to get in, even-"
"I see. Thank you."
"Oh God. I've got to go. This didn't happen, right?"
"No," Dorian said reassuringly, "It didn't happen."
His clothes and his tools were at the pension. Dorian took the narrow winding by-streets rather than the main thoroughfares, merely to give himself the pleasure of the walk. He approved of T---'s city planning, if one wanted to put that name to an arrangement that had grown randomly within the walls of the old castle town. Over on the wide boulevards were the eighteenth century and Empire apartment buildings, but here near the canals there were tall grey buildings from the Middle Ages with slit windows and spiral stone staircases. Dorian saw a young man come running sideways down the narrow enclosed steps on the outside of one tower-like structure. Just so, he thought, the medieval students would have dashed out into the street in their doublets and hose, bound for a lecture at the faculty of medicine which had been the pride of both city and university since the thirteenth century.
But his mind for once wasn't wholly on his fantasies of the storied past. The present was still too strong, not to mention the promised future. The slightly grubby interlude just finished cast a small shadow on his soul as he left the hotel, but it lifted in the rays of the sun that warmed the cobblestones. That poor young man, with his turbulent skin and adolescent rancours: God send him a nice rich lover and a change of diet. Dorian erased the matter from his mind and returned to the memory of that lion-like silver head turning in his direction. He played it over in his mind, the slow revolution and the two blue eyes so transparent that the light had seemed to shine through them- or out of them-
"Ouf-" He'd run full tilt into a man by the canal side. He blinked, seeing dark hair with silver at the temples-
"Your pardon, sir," the man was saying in automatic apology. Dorian smiled brilliantly if illogically at the silver temples. A good omen- how nice to live in a world that had older men in it-
"Not at all. It was my fault." He made a small open-handed bow.
"Have we met before, monsieur? Surely I recall-"
"I'm afraid you're mistaken," Dorian said kindly, hiding his amusement at the threadbare line, and took himself off. Even if he'd been in the mood, the man wasn't at all his type. But the encounter added the final note to his contentment. He could look forward to being much run after again. There was nothing to make a man irresistible like being in love. Back when he'd been pursuing Klaus, he'd had to beat his suitors off with a stick. Well, he could live with that. He was actually rather looking forward to it.
He arranged to have his clothes sent to the hotel, stuffed the bare necessities into a small bag, and made a few enquiries of the pension's proprietor.
"A hardware store?" she said dubiously. "Maybe in the suburbs, monsieur. Or you might try the department stores near the main square."
"What a good idea," Dorian said graciously. He pressed a small remembrance into her hand, and received her profuse thanks with a little thread of guilt. The poor woman would get the rough side of Klaus' tongue when the Major discovered that he'd gone for good. Of course, she could throw Klaus out as well, as the hotel manager had. That was the best way to deal with bullies, in the end.
He took a cab to the city centre and succeeded with some difficulty in making the necessary purchases. It was mid-afternoon by the time he returned to his palatial suite at the hotel. Yes, this was much more like it. Opulence and magnificence were his natural background. Enough of the small two-star lodgings Klaus' parsimony and paranoia had required him to stay in for the last seven years: places that suited whatever Klaus' cover was at whatever time, places where other NATO agents didn't come, places where Klaus could afford to pay his precise half of the bill... He would never allow Dorian to pick up the tab. "I know where your money comes from and I won't touch it," he'd said. What a pity the constipated German soul was housed in such an attractive casing. A waste of a beautiful body. Dorian sighed a last regret, and dismissed Klaus from his mind. He had work to do.
Shortly thereafter he was swinging fourteen stories above the street on a sling lowered from the roof and running along a track laid beneath the coping. His hair was tucked under a white cap, plain overalls covered the velvet and silk, and he was diligently washing the windows of the top floor on the hotel's west side.
Unfortunately all the windows proved to be of double glazed industrial thickness and wire reinforced, with opaque curtains obscuring the view of the rooms within. Very secure indeed. His real goal, however, was the large balcony off to his left and its walk-out double doors. Painstakingly he worked his way, window by window, to the stone balustrade. He stepped down onto it and approached the glass doors. They slid open at once, and Dorian found the barrel of an automatic rifle staring him in the face. He held up his squeegee mop as if in protection and looked in affected puzzlement at the rifle's owner. He was huge and uncouth, with a mane of rough black hair and a fearsome scar bisecting one eye.
"I have to wash the windows," Dorian said slowly in French.
The man snarled something in Circassian, clearly a negative. Dorian essayed German, with the same result. That exhausted the languages he could legitimately speak as a native of T---. He tried again in Russian, carefully stiff.
"The windows- I wash." He waved his squeegee at the doors. The man repeated what he'd said for the third time, and indicated, with the butt of his gun, that Dorian should leave.
"I wash windows. No wash, no pay. I starve."
The man bellowed, waving the gun. Dorian was debating whether the correct response was to bellow back or to burst into tears when a second armed man came to the doors. The giant let loose a cascade of tortured consonants at him, and the newcomer looked Dorian over carefully. He was a little more kempt than his fellow and his manner was a touch more civilized, but there was still an air of backwoods wildness to him. His dark eyes, partly hidden by a shock of black hair, were like an intelligent ferret's, and his aim was perfectly steady as he held his gun at Dorian's stomach.
"You speak French?" His accent was surprisingly good. Apparently he'd had some education.
"Yes of course." Dorian put an aggrieved note in his voice. "Will you let me get on with my work? All the fourteenth and twelfth floor windows have to be done this afternoon--"
"Go ahead," the man said, coming out onto the balcony. He spoke quickly to the giant, who stepped back inside and slid the door to. "Koczi will stand inside with his gun aimed at your chest, and I will stand out here aiming at your back. I'm sure you'll want to finish quickly, under the circumstances."
"Believe it," Dorian muttered, the disgruntled worker. "What's this all in aid of? An honest man can't do his job these days without having foreigners shoving guns in his face. This damned conference..."
"Quickly, monsieur." The gun barrel indicated the doors.
Dorian picked up his bucket and squeegee, slathered soapy water over the glass and began wiping it off neatly. As he worked he cast quick nervous glances inside, ostensibly at the hulking Koczi, and learned that this was the sitting room, with a door in the opposite wall that led apparently to the corridor.
"C'est fini," he said, sourly. "Now I have to do the remaining windows on this side. I trust you permit?"
"But of course," the shorter man said. He smiled without humour. "I'll watch until you're finished. I trust you permit?"
Dorian gave a Gallic snort of disgust, remounted his sling, and proceeded to clean the remaining four windows without undue haste. He rounded the corner and began working on the northern side. The first three windows had the same wire mesh and opaque curtains behind them as before, but the fourth was ordinary glass and gave onto an empty corridor. Craning, Dorian could see a large door of some heavy kind of wood, with a panel beside it. That would be the entrance, with the coded entry system. He smiled in satisfaction. How high tech. How formidable. How lucky the management trusted in the latest security systems and ignored basic precautions.
Dorian tested the window. It was bolted. At least they'd thought that far. It took thirty seconds to have a pane out and the bolt undone. He regarded the locked and coded door with approval. The hinges were on the outside. People always covered the obvious points and slipped up on the secondary ones. Speaking of which-- Perhaps he should wait until he'd concocted a plausible cover story before entering his beloved's- his well-guarded beloved's- domain? His memory was inconveniently recalling one or two things he'd learned about Circassian customs from Sergei, which suggested prudence might be the best course. He twitched his shoulders irritably. When had he ever been prudent? He was in love. Caution was for the helplessly middle-aged and the hopelessly bourgeois, and he was neither.
He applied himself to the hinges and was pulling the door away five minutes later. He cleared up the small matter of the electric lock, tidily put the door back on, and effected his metamorphosis from canvas-clad worker into elegant aristocrat. At last he stood with beating heart looking at the real front door of the suite. 'Through me lies the way-' he thought, and caught himself. No, damn it, through this door lies Heaven. 'Eternal Love it was that placed me here'- and love it is that waits for me beyond. He took a deep, anticipatory breath.
The original bell was still in place and evidently, from the door's locked condition, still in use. He rang, trusting inspiration would arrive when he needed it. The door opened almost immediately, taking him off-guard.
"Hello, Zha-" The short blond man checked. "You're not Jean." The open cheerful face looked puzzled. Easy enough to talk his way past that.
"No, I'm afraid not," Dorian began persuasively, until his belated senses caught up with him. He stopped and stared at the man, who was looking back at him with creased eyebrows.
"Don't I-" Dorian began just as the other said "I know you. I know I know you."
A voice called in Circassian from inside the apartment, down the hallway and to the right. It was a deep voice, peremptory, with a hint of velvet in it, and Dorian's knees went weak. His voice. Oh God. It called again, more impatiently, a single name that illuminated his darkness.
"Gunmar!" he gasped. "It's me- Dorian Red Gloria."
"Lord Gloria!" Gunmar's eyes widened in delight. Yes, definitely. Older, and by all evidence a little more sensible, but basically the same cheerful innocent as a dozen years before.
"You've cut your hair," Dorian said, smiling into his eyes.
"You haven't cut yours. Come in, come in." He took Dorian's arm and pulled him into the corridor. "Papa, it's an old friend," he called.
'Papa?' Dorian thought in bewilderment. Gunmar's father was dead- but Gunmar was guiding him into the living room and Dorian had eyes for nothing but the man sitting in a chair placed by itself, like- like a throne, he thought. Aouille's ash blond eyebrows were raised in speculation as Gunmar chattered through the introductions.
"Papa, this is an old friend from England," he said in French. "Dorian Earl of Red Gloria. We met in Paris when I was studying there with Takamatsu. He knows Uncle Savijc."
"That I can believe," someone muttered- a large blond man sitting off to Aouille's left.
"Kinta, don't be horrible," Gunmar said reprovingly but with affection. "Lord Gloria, this is my father and this is my cousin Kinta."
"I'm very pleased to meet you, sir," Dorian murmured, gazing entranced into the blue eyes. Oh lucky lucky Gunmar- to have been adopted by him. And lucky lucky Dorian, to know Gunmar.
"The pleasure's mine," Aouille said, a small smile beginning. Not just courtesy. He remembered from this morning. More than that: he liked something he saw in Dorian. The man had taste as well.
"How did he get in?" the large man- Kinta- demanded belligerently.
"An interesting question," Aouille remarked and his eyes danced a little at Dorian. "I look forward to hearing the answer, though not just now. I don't want to seem inhospitable but we're meeting to settle a few family matters. I won't-"
The bell rang again. "That's Jean," Gunmar said in satisfaction. "Jean's Uncle Savijc's friend," he added informatively as he went off to answer the door.
"His little friend," Kinta said heavily, and Dorian registered both the hostility in the words and the meaning behind them. 'Petit ami' meant 'lover' in French. His eyes narrowed but Gunmar's voice was already coming down the corridor. "You'll never guess who-" He turned around as Sergei walked into the room, arm in arm with a dark-haired man, and stopped dead.
"Good God- Dorian," he said, his head going back in surprise. He barely looked a day older- his hair still the colour of corn silk and his one eye still a changeable shade of blue-grey. He smiled suddenly and brilliantly. "It's been years."
"Yes, hasn't it?" Dorian said, bemused. Even after all his time with Klaus- even with Aouille sitting not three feet away and filling all his senses- there was still that little tug of attraction. From his side; not from Sergei's. He felt a small obscure pang at the muted happiness that radiated from his one-time lover. Because of this Jean person-- He looked over and just managed to keep the surprise from his face. 'Jean' was a young man-- a very young man-- young enough to be Sergei's son. Twenty-one, if that, and not a day older. Ah well- so Sergei was into cradle robbing...
"Dorian Lord Gloria, Jean," Sergei was saying in introduction.
Jean nodded, giving Dorian a friendly but appraising look. Dorian wondered suddenly if he'd misjudged. Those eyes were more than mature. Jean loosed Sergei's arm and held out his hand.
"Jean Acaille," he said.
"The scientist?" Dorian asked in disbelief, shaking hands automatically.
"Jean." Aouille's voice was heavy with displeasure. "You have an alias here. Use it. You know how dangerous this is."
Acaille looked unconcerned. "Lord Gloria is an old friend of the family. And frankly, I'm tired of pretending I don't exist."
"If you don't care for the pretence, you may find yourself facing the reality." Aouille's tone was grim.
"We're more use to everyone alive," Kinta said dismissively. "I've told you, you're being paranoid about this."
"I listen to what's being said out in the real world, where you can't be bothered to show your face." Dorian couldn't blame him for being annoyed. Kinta would try the patience of a saint. "Half the major powers want your discovery for themselves, the other half think it will destroy the status quo, and all of them want you out of the way."
"Speaking of out of the way, why don't Lord Gloria and I take ourselves there?" Sergei suggested. "This particular fight doesn't need noncombatant observers."
"Mmh," Aouille grunted, recovering. "I'll see you after, Savijc. Lord Gloria-" Dorian glowed at the sound of his name on those lips, "a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I hope to see you soon."
"No more than I do," Dorian said sincerely, and turned to find Sergei staring at him in something like shock, while the unspeakable boy beside him stood grinning from ear to ear. When he smiled he looked too young to vote.
"See you, Sergei," Jean said. "Sois sage."
"Et toi, aussi." Sergei shot him a meaning glance, took Dorian's arm, and turned to go.
"By the way," Gunmar said in a puzzled voice, "how did you get in? You don't know the code."
Trust Gunmar to remain the enfant terrible in spite of his age. Still, Aouille ought to know about the flaws in his security. Dorian looked over at him.
"The outside door, where the panel is- the hinges are on the same side as the corridor. You can get the bolts out with a screwdriver."
"Western technology." Aouille's tone showed what he thought of that. "Savijc-"
"I'll see to it," Sergei said.
"But why did you take-"
"Later, Gunmar." That was Aouille and Kinta and Sergei, all speaking together. Gunmar looked surprised, and Dorian and Sergei took advantage of the momentary pause to make their escape.
"Sergei, tell me. Tell me quickly. Who is he?
"He told you. Jean Acaille, the scientist."
"No," Dorian howled, amused and infuriated. "Believe it or not, there are other men in the world besides Jean Acaille and I'm in love with one of them. Who-"
"A moment, m'ami." He stopped by the living room. "Araszyam." The shorter of the guards came out and Sergei spoke to him swiftly in Circassian, gesturing back towards the front door. Dorian tried to efface himself but Ara-what's-his-name had already taken note of his face. He could tell the moment when the man began informing Sergei of his exploits on the balcony. Sergei smiled and said something that made him nod in comprehension. He saluted and went back into the room.
"For the record, you're an old friend of mine, an eccentric European aristocrat. To men of that class the last three words are practically interchangeable, so they won't be surprised at anything you do from now on." Sergei walked swiftly down the hallway and into a smaller sitting room, and Dorian hastened after.
"Sergei, I'm dying. Tell me. This man Aouille who's adopted Gunmar. Who is he?"
"Adop-? Oh. Oh of course. You don't know."
"Know what? Sergei, are you trying to kill me with frustration?"
"No- no, m'ami. But- Lord Gloria, may I give you a piece of advice? Good advice. To make up for how I behaved the last time we met."
"I forget how you behaved the last time we met, but if you want to do something for me, tell me who he is."
"This is what you have to do. Leave the hotel, get into a cab, and go to the airport. When you get there, buy a ticket for the first plane leaving-" Dorian was shaking his head- "no matter where it's going, and don't come back. Will you do that?"
"No. Who is he?"
"Gunmar's father. His real father. Not adopted."
"I thought you said his father was dead. Or am I thinking of someone else?"
"No. That's what I told you." He seemed for once at a loss. "It's embarrassing, the things you do when you're young. I suppose I was- not quite sane- at the time, and neither was Takamatsu."
"What's he got to do with this?"
"It was two months after my brother Ruza- after he went to war and was killed- and the fighting men were all away on campaign- when the children were born- Ruza's and Majek's." He'd never heard Sergei sound so awkward. "Szincza first and then Gunmar, very close together. Then Ruza's wife died of complications-- and Majek's wife nearly died, and the children had to be put out to nurse. And- well- we changed them over. Takamatsu and I. Put Gunmar in Szincza's cradle and vice versa, before the women arrived. It was our revenge- so that Ruza's son would be brought up as Majek's- become the heir, have all the advantages--" He gave a deep sigh, as if the worst was over. "And Majek's son- Gunmar- was brought up as Ruza's. Until we told them the truth."
"That- he's the General."
"Ex-general. Szincza heads the country now."
"You just said he's Ruza's son--"
"Majek raised him, Majek thinks of him as his own. And Gunmar hates politics and the army and everything but science. Takamatsu saw to that."
"Yes. The elevator is back there. I'll walk you-"
"Dorian, you haven't a chance. He's a Circassian. You know what that means."
"He's not a Circassian. He's himself."
"He's mellowed. He must have. He accepts you and Jean."
Sergei shifted. "That's different. I'm his brother and- well, it's different. But it doesn't mean-"
"You only know him as your brother. You don't see him as a man. I think he might surprise you." He smiled at the memory of the wordless connection between himself and Aou-- and Majek.
"I think he'd blow your head off if you suggested anything of the sort to him."
"Do you know, it's been years since any man I was interested in put a gun to my head. I think I rather miss it."
"Oh Dorian-" Sergei was torn between worry and amusement. "What happened with that Major, anyway? Did you ever get him?"
"Oh yes. He's here now, in fact."
Sergei sighed. "God protects fools and children. Judging by the men you go after, you must belong in one or other of those categories. Dorian, can't you see what a bad idea this is? Majek's a killer-"
"So is Klaus."
"He's a man-eater. He takes people and he uses them. I don't blame him-- it's the way he is-- but I'd hate to see you sacrificed to him. Please will you forget you ever saw him?"
"All this carry-on, Sergei. You wouldn't be doing it if you really thought I had no chance. What's the problem?"
Sergei ran a distracted hand through his hair.
"Men like Majek-- they have their own ideas about the world, about the kind of men they are. You upset those ideas at your own peril. And that's what you're going to do."
"I don't think there's much I can teach Majek about himself. You underestimate him."
"You're in love, m'ami. That never improves anyone's judgment. There are points he simply can't accept without a struggle. I know. I was there the last time he was made to learn something he didn't want to. It nearly destroyed us. I mean that literally: it started a civil war. I learned a few things myself, and I suppose it was for the best, but it was hideous while it lasted. We all got hurt-- even Halim, and he's good at keeping a whole skin. Trust me, Dorian, it's dangerous, meddling with my brother." He looked at Dorian's face, and sighed. "That was the wrong thing to say, wasn't it? I should have told you he snores."
"I'd still have wanted to find out for myself."
"Ah well. So be it. And what's the Major doing here?"
Dorian blinked at the sudden change of topic. "He's- oh-"
"Looking for Jean."
"Yes." Their eyes met. "You know I won't tell him. You know I won't. You're a killer too, and I want to stay alive."
"Oddly enough, as it happens, I'm not. But yes, if you told Klaus and anything happened to Jean, I would kill you."
"You've-- got over-- what happened when you were eighteen?"
"Yes-- yes, I'd say so. I forgave myself, and a few other people as well."
"I see you kept that taste for dark young men."
"Oh yes." Sergei smiled brilliantly at nothing at all. "I kept that."
"You're happy?" The question sounded wistful to his own ears. Surely he didn't grudge Sergei a little happiness, after the life he'd had--
"Happy? Oh Dorian. Yes, I suppose I'm happy. Words are so useless, aren't they? Happy is what I was when I was a child, when I had a new book or my brothers praised me. This is-- this is another way of being. I don't know how to describe it. To have enough-- to have more than enough-- all the time, and to know it can never be taken away from me."
"Really? Sergei, he's so young."
"He's a lot older than he looks."
"You Circassians all look so yo--" He checked in sudden realization. "Is that what his discovery is about? The reason you all seem younger than you are?"
"It's connected, apparently. He's tried to explain it to me, but I'm not a scientist. There's some peculiarity in one of the highland chromosomes that doesn't exist among the plainsmen. It may explain some oddities-- the way we look, and the number of centenarians in the mountains. Apparently we age more slowly than others."
"More slowly." He looked at Sergei, who must be over fifty but who seemed twenty years younger. "The fountain of youth."
"Hardly that. The practical applications are very limited. There's nothing you can do with it. But I suppose it could be used for genetic engineering. Not a pleasant thought."
"Isn't there something he could do now-- to duplicate it in other people?" Dorian asked in disappointment.
"Dorian, are you pumping me?
"No, of course not," he said in genuine surprise. "I mean-- well, is it supposed to be a secret? If there's nothing you can do with it, why all the mystery?"
"There was no mystery to start with. Jean and Kinta were only following proper procedures for a new discovery--"
"Wait-- what's Kinta got to do with this? It's someone called Sascha who's listed with Jean on the programme-"
"Oh- sorry. Kinta's his nickname in the family. Don't call him that unless he asks you to. We use it because he has the same name as his cousin, the new General-- Szintarow. Szincza for short, and Sascha in Russian."
"How do you keep track of who's who, with all those names?" Dorian asked with real interest.
"We're used to it. It's not so different from what you do, after all. Some people call you Dorian and some Lord Gloria, and other people call you Eroica- and I suppose some people say 'My lord,' and others 'Sir'- Do you have difficulty remembering which one you are?" Sergei smiled at him.
"Well-- no," Dorian smiled back. "So who is Sascha-Kinta, anyway?"
"He's Ruza's son. We didn't know he existed until eight years ago. Majek didn't want to recognize him at first but he finally came round to it. Now Kinta's bent on his rights, and bent on balking Majek when he can. Like now."
"Over the paper. No one ever expected there'd be this kind of-- hysteria-- about Jean's discovery. When the fuss began, they decided not to discuss it at all in public until they'd decided what to do. Now the family's split on the question. Kinta and Gunmar think it'll end when the paper's made public and people learn the facts. Majek thinks it will continue and turn against us. He's here to persuade-- well, his idea of persuasion-- Jean and Kinta to withdraw it."
"Jean doesn't really care. It wouldn't bother him. But Kinta-- It was his brainwave that sent Jean off in the right direction. Then he got interested too, and changed his field from biotechnology to genetic research. It's taken most of his energy for the last five years. You can see why he doesn't want to abandon it."
"Devotion to science? My money would be more on sheer bloody-mindedness."
"Dorian, you were standing there beaming at Majek like a-- like a lighthouse. You couldn't have picked a better way to get into Kinta's bad books. It doesn't help that you're a friend of mine."
"I'd say Kinta has appalling taste. Nearly as bad as his manners."
"He hasn't had an easy life, and he doesn't have an easy disposition. Very single-minded, very sincere, absolutely no sense of humour. A little terrifying, actually."
"Well, if he's up against Majek-"
Jean stuck his head in the door. "They're reaching critical mass. Want to come push some rods?"
Sergei gave a small 'tchah' of exasperation and got up. "That's supposed to be why Gunmar's there. And you too, I thought."
"I tried," Jean said cheerfully. "They just shout over me. Besides, damping Majek down is your job, little brother."
"May I come too?" Dorian was already on his feet.
"By all means. Come and see us at our worst. If that doesn't act as an anaphrodisiac, nothing will."
Nothing deterred-- spurred on, perhaps, by Jean's silent laughter-- Dorian followed him back down the corridor. They could hear the loud Russian argument almost immediately. Both Majek and Kinta had booming voices and, seemingly, no restraint about letting them loose.
"Do you know-- do you even care-- how much we still depend on foreign aid? Have you even thought what effect this will have? At best they'll cut it off entirely-"
"Nonsense. Why would they?"
"Because they'll think of us as aliens- monsters-"
"Our humanity's not in doubt. We can prove it biologically. One mutant chromosome doesn't mean--"
"Yes it does. At worst they'll impose conditions. Aid in return for our genetic material-- like selling your countrymen into slavery-"
"Spare me the rhetoric, Uncle. What does it matter if they breed a race of half highlanders--"
"What does it matter?! God, you would sell us all, wouldn't you? Which do you prefer-- the Japanese or the Americans?"
"Papa, Kinta's not suggesting--"
"Kinta's quite prepared to provide cloned mercenaries for any country that will give him--"
"I never said anyth--"
"He never said anything of the sort," Sergei's voice was several decibels below both Majek and Kinta's, but the two heads jerked over to look at him. He held up a hand. "Time out, I think. When you two can be heard down the hallway, rational discussion has long since gone out the window."
Majek began saying something angrily in Circassian but Sergei, taking a seat across from the two of them, cut in with a short sentence. Whatever it was, it stopped Majek dead. He and Kinta exchanged angry, baffled glances and subsided with the air of men retiring to consider their next move. Gunmar looked curiously at Dorian, who had sat down behind Majek. Jean came and perched on the arm of Sergei's chair, smiling as if watching a play.
"What's happened?" Sergei asked him.
"Majek asked Kinta to withdraw his paper and Kinta refused."
"Of course I refused-- this is the work of--"
"Of course he refused- he cares only for his own--"
"Stop." Sergei held up both hands. "Brother, consider. If they simply withdraw the paper, the rumours will go on spreading. You have to give the jackals something to chew on-- something cautious and unexciting so that they lose interest. Kinta, would you consider altering your report-- making it, to put it bluntly, more boring?"
"Kincza, it won't hurt to tone it down-" That was Gunmar.
"We could take out some of the more radical speculation," Jean suggested.
"The implications are there in the data. You couldn't take them out without falsification," Kinta said mulishly.
"Some Circassians have a mutant chromosome. Some Circassians live longer than average. There may be a possible connection. Why not leave it at that?" Sergei asked.
"Because our research has gone beyond that-- far beyond that, as you know perfectly well." Kinta glared at Sergei. "You've had all the benefits of our discovery. What have I gotten from it?" Dorian felt vindicated. That was personal rancour speaking and nothing at all to do with scientific integrity.
"The same benefits," Sergei said. "But that's not what you want. I'll ask you a question. Think about it-- don't answer me now. What would we have to do-- what would we have to give you-- that if we did it, you'd modify your paper?"
"Nothing," Kinta said at once. "Nothing can make me change that paper. The world's going to learn--"
"Yes," Sergei said, as if Kinta hadn't spoken. "Think about it. Talk it over with Gunmar, and tell us tomorrow."
Dorian glanced at Majek, wondering at his silence. Majek was leaning back in his chair, chin on fist, watching Sergei. His mouth was tight and the fingers of his other hand tapped at the chair's arm, but his eye held speculation not unmixed with appreciation.
"I just said, nothing-" Kinta was beginning, when there was a quick step in the hallway, and a man came into the room.
"Samh' Majek, my apologies--" he began, but stopped, staring at Dorian. Dorian looked back, feeling he should be able to place him. Middle-aged, with badly cut black hair greying at the temples and ugly ill-assorted features...
"You're the one who ran into me by the canalside," the man said. "What are you doing here?"
"Interfering," Kinta answered heavily, before Dorian could reply. "I thought you two knew each other."
"They do," Gunmar insisted. "It's Dorian Red Gloria. You remember, back in '82 in Paris?"
"Only too well," the man said with distaste and went to sit next to Kinta. "You're right, samhet," he said to him. "Interfering is his specialty." Majek stirred a little in his chair.
"You have the advantage of me, monsieur," Dorian responded politely. 'You can never go wrong with courtesy' his father used to say. 'It smooths misunderstandings, and annoys the rude.' Meanwhile he was racking his memory of ten years and more ago, trying to place the stranger. There'd been Maaqa, but this man was too old to be him.
"Oh, Lord Gloria," Gunmar protested. "It's Takamatsu."
"Oh." The monosyllable was too brief but Dorian couldn't think of anything to add to it. A number of unpleasant memories were trying to crawl into the light and he was determined not to acknowledge any of them.
"'Oh' is right. What are you thinking of, Sergei, to let a NATO agent in here?"
There was an instant, intense silence. Three pairs of blue eyes were suddenly fixed on him.
"Lord Gloria isn't an agent," Sergei said, unperturbed. "NATO merely makes use of his expertise from time to time. And if you'd remembered what they were using it for, back in '82, you might not have raised the matter. But since you have--" He turned to Majek. "You should know, brother, that you bear an obligation to this man. He's the one who saved your life during the President's conspiracy."
Dorian, to his huge surprise, blushed bright red.
"Oh, I say-" he stammered. "Sergei-- really--" His face felt like the noonday sun, and he found it absurdly difficult to meet Majek's eyes. "He's exaggerating. Really. He did everything. I just-- I just happened to be involved." This was wretched: even at fourteen he'd never behaved like this.
"Nonetheless," Majek said, "I'm in your debt. I see now why Jean called you a friend of our family. But you permit me to ask- are you working for NATO now?"
"No," Dorian said firmly. "I've cut my ties with them completely."
"Couldn't he get it up any more?" Takamatsu enquired. Dorian was speechless with a shock that turned suddenly into cold devouring rage.
"Couldn't who get what up?" Majek asked.
"My contact in the organization. No, quite a different problem. He liked the sort of games you used to play in Paris, Doctor, and I don't care for them."
"What kind of games?" Gunmar asked. "Takamatsu never played in Paris, Lord Gloria-- did you, Takamatsu?"
"I used to try a hand of vingt-et-un occasionally, samhet, but my luck was never good." Takamatsu gave Dorian a hard stare, and Dorian stared back.
"You two can trade reminiscences later," Majek said. "Shall we get on with this?"
"Certainly. What's been decided?"
"There's nothing to be decided," Kinta said at once. "We're giving the paper on Friday as planned."
"We're going to think about Uncle Savijc's proposal," Gunmar corrected him.
"No--" Kinta looked angry and distressed.
"Yes," Gunmar said, and put a hand on his knee. "We don't have to accept it, but we should talk it over."
"A quid pro quo," Majek said. "We'll give Kinta what he wants if he'll agree to suppress the more radical parts of the paper."
"What does he want?"
"That's what he has to decide."
"All I want is to have the truth known."
"The truth is a two-edged sword, samhet. I still wish you'd agree to let Roche or Farben have it."
"I said no. Science isn't a commodity-"
"What's this, Takamatsu?" Majek asked.
"If samh' Kinta would sell the information to one of the big pharmaceutical firms, half our problems would be over. Countries who wouldn't hesitate to use violence against us might think twice about taking on a multi-national. And the money would fund research for the next decade-"
"I like the idea," Jean remarked to the air. "Especially the bit about the funding. After all, this is my discovery too."
Consternated glances passed amongst the Aouille family. Dorian, having recovered his temper, remembered what Sergei had told him about the highland tribes. Jean, as an Acaille, was very much a Montague to the Aouille Capulets. Clearly it still made a difference.
"But of course, I think there's merit in Sergei's suggestion as well," he was saying. "Think it over, Kinta. Are we finished? The afternoon session starts in ten minutes."
"Evidently," Majek said. "Until tomorrow." He looked them all over, nodded in dismissal, and stood up. "Lord Gloria--"
"Sir--" He scrambled to his feet.
Majek crossed his hands at the wrist and held them before his chest. "I have a debt to you. My house is your house. My goods are your goods. My life is your life, from this day forward." He bowed slightly.
Dorian crossed his own hands. "My life and my services are yours to command," he improvised, and bowed back.
"Ah, wonderful!" Majek beamed at him, took him by the shoulders, and kissed him full on the mouth. Between shock and delight Dorian barely had the wit to respond before it was over, leaving him with legs that trembled so badly he had to grasp Majek's arms to keep from falling. He gazed beseechingly into his face, enraptured and bereft by the too brief contact of firm lips and warm breath.
"Oh," Majek said, looking at him closely. "This is perhaps not one of your customs? I apologize."
"It's one of his customs," Takamatsu said sourly. "And more."
"You've just bowled him over with the force of your personality," Jean joked. "Coming, Gunmar?"
"Mmh. Good-bye, Papa. Lord Gloria, will I see you later?"
"Oh-- oh yes. I'll be here." Dorian gathered his wits. "It's lovely to see you again. We must have a long talk."
"Gunmar, if you're coming, come," Kinta said from the door. "and if you're staying, stay, but make up your goddamned mind."
"I'm coming," Gunmar said, looking at Kinta in surprise, and left with the other two.
"My nephew is an embarrassment," Majek said. "Ignore him. Will you have something to drink?"
"Thank you, sir--" Dorian began, but at that moment the shorter of the guards appeared beside them, saluted and spoke swiftly to Majek. Majek nodded, turned to Dorian and said something in Circassian.
"I'm sorry," Dorian replied. "I don't understand the language."
Majek looked at Sergei, who smiled at him unperturbed.
"My brother said you did. One of your little inventions, Savijc?"
"Just a way of short-circuiting a fruitless discussion. Whether you argue in Russian or Circassian, you'll never win going head-to-head with Kinta. Change your strategy, brother."
Majek regarded him a long moment, then said to Dorian, "I have a visitor and will be busy for the next few hours. My house is yours. Sergei will see to your needs. Tell him the pass-code as well, Savijc." He nodded, turned swiftly on his heel, and was gone.
Dorian felt as though the sun had vanished. But he'd kissed him- held him with those strong, warm hands-- it had been--
"I didn't know he could blush," Takamatsu said. "He must have taken lessons somewhere."
"When I have something to blush for, I do. Unlike yourself, Doctor. I hope you're pleased with what you've done."
"You should thank him," Sergei said. "He got you the run of the suite."
"But he's put me in a false position. I don't want your brother feeling obligated to me--"
"By our standards, he is obligated to you, and has a right to know it. We take these things seriously. If Takamatsu hadn't told him, I would have."
"You're so honourable, Sergei," Takamatsu murmured. "All that fine feeling, and no mention of what fun it is to set a cat among the pigeons."
"More like setting a pigeon among the cats, I'd say. But it may be useful to have a nonconductor around."
"He's scarcely that. He's got Samh' Kinta's back up already, as if the poor boy hadn't enough troubles."
"Majek's put Kinta's back up as far as it goes. It won't hurt to have his attention divided, since you're obviously not going to be any help whatsoever."
"I'm not putting myself between Majek and his nephew, thank you very much. I'll be there to help Samh' Kinta if he really needs me."
"And the rest of the time you'll take yourself carefully out of harm's way." Sergei sounded disgusted. "Let me get you that drink Majek promised you," he said to Dorian.
"You had seven years free of the family," Takamatsu said, rising as well. "You can't grudge me my two weeks," and he sauntered out the door.
Sergei gave a small rueful smile. "Touché," he shrugged. "Scotch, Dorian? Or vodka?"
"Have you anything for a hard-on? Your brother is-- well, you see how it is."
Sergei smiled, but shook his head. "Sorry, my dear. A married man, and as monogamous as possible."
"So you do have lapses?"
"If Jean doesn't mind. But I think he would in your case."
"I suppose that's a compliment," Dorian said disconsolately.
"I'm sorry. I don't want to lose him. I did once and I didn't care for it. Now I'm careful."
"Couldn't you just lend me a hand for old times' sake?"
Sergei laughed noiselessly. "You'll be the ruin of me yet, Lord Gloria. All right. For old times' sake."
He led Dorian down a small hallway, around two corners and into a small bedroom. Dorian kicked off his shoes, opened his trousers and lay back on the bed to await the other's ministrations. Sergei worked at him with skilled hands, and Dorian floated in a warm sea of arousal, dreaming of the firm fleshy mouth that had kissed him so briefly moments before and envisioning what might have followed after...
"You're not holding back on me?" Sergei asked after a while.
"No," Dorian said. "It just takes me longer now."
"Don't you find the same?" All he needed was for Sergei's body to be as young as his face.
"I did until I met you. You had a rejuvenating effect: and I was older then than you are now."
"I wish someone would rejuvenate me," Dorian said sadly.
"Ah well, let me see what I can do..." Dorian kept the triumph off his face as Sergei brought his mouth to bear on the subject. Still the same old Sergei. He hadn't thought he'd be able to resist for long. Oh yes-- as he discovered the next instant-- very much the same old Sergei. Dorian arched and gasped as Sergei's mouth moved about him and Sergei's tongue probed him intimately. His fingers clawed at the bedspread and his head thrashed back and forth. Now he was holding back, desperately trying to recall the dates of the kings of England and the counties of Britain in alphabetical order: anything to stave off his climax and make this pleasure last as long as possible. So long, so long since anyone had serviced him as lovingly and as passionately as this. He heard himself giving small high-pitched mewls and felt the heavy weight moving out of his groin and rippling up his spine, slowly slowly pulling him up off the bed. A formless cry came from his chest as orgasm arched his back to an impossible angle. Then he was falling through a fire-shot blackness and coming to rest in the hot embrace of the silken coverlet and his clearing vision showed him Jean leaning comfortably against the frame of the door, arms folded, watching the two of them with every appearance of interest.
"Oh shit," Dorian said feelingly.
Sergei turned his head and sat up, sighing. "You should try to avoid these cliched situations, ma vie."
"I make every effort." Jean came in, closing the door behind him. "But what can I do when I find a cliched situation happening in my own bedroom? A discreet withdrawal seems prudish. 'Ah, I beg your pardon. Pray continue' is vulgar. If you can think of something else, tell me. I'll use it next time."
"You could try 'Room for one more?'" Dorian suggested, with intent to shock. Jean smiled happily.
"That's a nice one. Is there room for one more?"
Dorian looked at Sergei, who gave a resigned shrug back.
"Of course," Dorian said. "Be my guest." His experience of cuckolded spouses was limited but a gracious accommodation seemed the best policy.
Not waiting for further invitation, Jean divested himself of his jacket, prised off his shoes and unbuckled his belt.
"Take it all off," Sergei said, starting to unfasten his long tunic. "We might as well keep as unrumpled as we can."
"Picky, picky," Jean laughed, but he began undoing his tie.
"Not at all. I've an appointment with Dubois this afternoon. You know what he's like."
Dorian's clothes, being made for comfort and easy removal, were off him in seconds, and he emerged from his silk shirt to find Jean pulling off his trousers and briefs. His eyes widened in appreciation. Oh my. Oh my yes, indeed. So that's what Sergei meant about always having enough. Big, yes, though not grotesquely so; thick, but in proportion to the length; with a lovely curving head emerging from the rosy pink foreskin and a clean freshness that made him long to touch. Really, Jean was-- well-- in a word, he was perfect.
"Of course, I only get fucked," Jean said, businesslike. "Who wants to start?"
Dorian stared at him in disbelieving anguish.
"Don't tease him," Sergei said, amused. "Start with his balls," he told Dorian, "he likes that."
"Hey, no fair telling secrets."
"Then behave, or you will only get fucked."
"Slave driver. You joining in?"
"Mmmh-." His glance consulted Dorian, who nodded happily. They arranged themselves, with Jean on his back-- 'No way I'm gonna stand through all this'-- and Dorian crouched above his thighs, hips raised for Sergei's use when he was ready. He himself could barely hold back, with Jean's quivering organ rising right next to his face.
"You can start without me," Sergei said. "I'll just be a moment."
"Why do I feel we should be saying grace?" Jean mused. "'For what we are about to receive-'"
"Shut him up, for God's sake, Dorian."
He was only too happy to oblige. Following instructions, he began with a methodical survey of Jean's testicles under their sparse black thatching. Like eating one's vegetables first, he thought: but in fact the experience proved to be most pleasurable. The crannies of Jean's groin had the wholesome taste of a clean animal and his hair was unusually soft, like a pelt. Dorian revelled in the mingled sensations and smells and rejoiced to see the sudden stiffness that arched Jean's cock up to his navel. Jean was groaning softly, deep in his belly. Both his hands came to bury themselves in Dorian's thick curls.
Dorian worked his way up, from balls to the underside of Jean's cock, and along its length to the tip. He rewarded his tongue by letting it wrap itself all round the smooth fleshy acorn of the head. Jean gasped; his hands let go of Dorian's hair and landed upwards on the bed, the stiff fingers waving spasmodically like beetles turned on their backs.
"More-" he panted, "Oh God, Dorian-"
"I'm coming in," Sergei's voice said behind Dorian. "Careful of your teeth." A slick finger probed him from the rear, twisted briefly and withdrew. Dorian took Jean's long thickness into his mouth and consciously relaxed, waiting for Sergei. He didn't have to wait long: Sergei entered in three swift pushes, and Dorian's muscles closed about him as his mouth closed tight about Jean. Followed then a few moments of pleasant dithering, the result of having his attention so delightfully divided, but inevitably what was under his nose laid claim to the largest share. Dorian made himself soft and open both front and back, which Sergei took as the signal to start rocking slowly in and out of him. A small part of his mind was set to note that lovely filling and emptying happening behind while the rest of his awareness was focussed on what his mouth was about. He began weaving his head in loose circles so that Jean's cock was able to caress the inside of his mouth. Blindly, bluntly, it nuzzled at tongue and palate and throat without ever moving itself. Jean's groans grew higher and shorter. Dorian opened his throat and swallowed him deeper, trying to get all that beautiful length into him even though he knew it was impossible at this angle. His lips moved desperately upon the shaft. This couldn't last long. The flesh in his mouth quivered suddenly, then thrashed independently of Dorian's rhythm and released its hot charge in the back of his throat. Jean gave two or three small moans, like a baby falling asleep, and his heavy, quiescent cock came to rest trustingly upon Dorian's tongue. Dorian let him slip out but kept his face buried in the black-thatched groin, simply to enjoy the musky after-scent.
His attention was shortly recalled to Sergei, who was moving delicately in and out of him. He clenched his buttocks, beginning to fight Sergei's withdrawal, and Sergei responded at once by becoming more insistent in his strokes. Dorian increased the tension, denying him retreat and then denying him access, and found himself smiling as Sergei forced his way inside again. He loved this kind of contest, where both could ultimately win. He hadn't done it in far too long. Klaus never cared for any challenges to his dominance, however playful. Annoyance flashed. Forget Klaus-- he had other fish to fry. Like Majek. Oh. A pulse in his groin jumped, suddenly and amazingly. Would Majek do it like this-- oh yes he would-- He clenched himself tighter and tighter, fighting against the wonderful moment when he would be mastered-- refusing to be made to open completely to the imperious invader, no matter how much he wanted it-- But his resistance was useless. He was laid open and breached again and again by his barbarian assailant, who laid sweet, cruel fire to the gate through which he made his forays. At length strong fingers sank into his hips and an iron hardness buried itself deep in his flesh for a last long moment. Then Sergei's face was pressed against his back, wet and gasping, and Sergei's long hair slid about his ribs, and it was Sergei after all, not Majek: but in his heart there was a deep content, as if he'd received a happy omen for the future.
Sergei loosed him and collapsed onto the mattress. Dorian rolled onto his side in the warm space between the two men. He yawned hugely and happily, stretching a little.
Sergei's fingers played gently with his curls.
"Well, for old time's sake, that wasn't bad. I'm glad to have met you again, m'ami, whatever happens from now on. But you do know we won't do this again?"
"Mmm-hmm," Dorian agreed. He looked over and found that Jean was fast asleep. "I'm glad I met you too. And I'm glad you're happy. Really. I won't get in the way. You can tell him that."
"I suggest you tell him that, when he wakes up. I'm going for a shower- a fast shower, alone- and then out. He'll come to in a few minutes."
"One kiss, then? I never got to kiss you good-bye, in Paris."
"I'm sorry about that. One kiss." He turned Dorian's head and brought his beautiful mouth to Dorian's lips. It was a lovely kiss and Dorian savoured it to the full, but he made no protest when Sergei ended it and stood up to collect his clothes. He smiled and waved his fingers in farewell as Sergei slipped out the door.
Lovely. Lovely. Dorian sank into a deep contentment. The world was full of beautiful men again and all of them his for the asking. He need only reach out a hand to pluck them like flowers in a garden. Like Majek; like Sergei; like this man sleeping naked beside him now. He propped himself up on an elbow and subjected Sergei's lover to a closer scrutiny. Bacon's dictum came unbidden to mind: "There is no excellent beauty but hath some strangeness in the proportion." Well, Bacon was wrong, for once. Dorian's eye considered the lines of Jean's body, from shoulder to shoulder, from shoulder to groin, from hip to knee and knee to ankle. All was classically symmetrical, even academically so, like an exercise in anatomy. The pectorals swelled naturally above a concave belly; the flanks were narrow and nicely indented; the arms were muscled but not thick, and they tapered down to elegant but quite functional wrists. Dorian had grown used to the long leanness of Klaus' body, all stripped-down concentrated force, and compared to that Jean's legs were a trifle too short and their girth a touch too heavy. But he had to admit that it was only a fault of comparison. Taken in and of itself, Jean's body was as perfect as humanity could come.
So why did it fail to arouse the same desire in him as Klaus' thinness and hollow chest, or the mutilated beauty of Sergei's face, or the compact solidity of Majek who was half a head shorter than himself? He considered the aesthetic problem. Perfection was static, hence dull. Was that it? There was nothing to mark this body as belonging to a certain Jean Acaille. It was a type. The one fascination it possessed was intellectual: it deceived all expectation. One gazed and gazed, looking for a flaw or an individual point, certain there must be a departure from the standard because there always was. But this time- this time there wasn't. If the template of mankind was lost, it could be recovered again from Jean. He looked like Adam asleep in Eden, without even an Eve to companion him.
One eye opened and regarded him. Jean yawned hugely and stretched arms and legs rackingly and energetically.
"That was nice," he said, falling back on the pillow. "Where's Sergei?"
"Oh right- Dubois." He turned his head to meet Dorian's blue gaze with his own curious and friendly black one.
"So I'm an old friend of the family?" Dorian asked. He'd wondered about that.
"Hardly. I knew Sergei for a fortnight eleven years ago, and I don't think I met Gunmar more than twice, if that. What on earth did he tell you about me?"
"A lot. He said you were a thief."
"Yes, I see you are. I didn't understand before."
"I couldn't see why Sergei would think so highly of someone who lived by taking other people's things. Someone dishonest, someone he couldn't trust." Jean interrupted himself with a yawn, and scratched his head. "But that's not how it is, is it? You don't take things out of malice or greed. You don't really take things at all, I'd guess. When you see something you want there's a kind of energy generated-- an attractive force-- and the thing comes to you of its own accord."
"Yes, that's it exactly," Dorian said in surprise. "You're the first person who's ever understood that. How did you know?"
"I watched you today. And of course I know Majek."
Dorian glowed. "He's the same, isn't he?"
"In some ways the same-- and in others, very very different. It's the differences that are instructive. I'm dying to see what happens with the two of you. Positive poles are supposed to repel."
"I don't sense any repulsion."
"Nor I. I'm looking forward to this."
"Will you make notes of your observations and publish them in one of your journals?" Dorian asked, nettled by his tone.
Jean laughed. "There's an advantage to the scientific mentality. Observe, don't react. You shouldn't knock it-- it got us this." He patted the bed.
"Do you mind about that? You know you really don't have anything to worry about."
"I do know. He has episodes of other men just like he has episodes of depression. They're necessary, for some reason, but they pass, and he comes back to me."
Dorian considered the absurdly young face.
"Just how old are you anyway? You talk as if you were-"
"You're older than me." How satisfying. How vexing. He didn't look even remotely like it.
"How nice of you to believe me. The English are such an untrusting race, usually."
"Us? Not at all. We take things at face value."
"Maybe that's the problem. The one time I was in England, every pub I went into demanded proof of my age, and half of them still wouldn't believe it was true. I swore I'd never go to a conference in an Anglo-Saxon country again."
It hadn't occurred to him that a perennially youthful appearance might have its drawbacks. It was something to think about. But as Jean seemed in a confiding mood, he ventured to ask, "How long have you known Sergei?"
"Since forever. We met in Circassia way back when I was a student."
"He likes them young." Maybe that explained why Jean had lasted. "Were you together then?"
"Oh yes. He was my first. Pure puppy love-- all over him and in his face. I wonder how he put up with me."
"It didn't work?"
"No. I think now it was the timing. I loved him and he loved me but there were just too many things working against us."
Dorian remembered the Sergei he'd known in Paris and nodded.
"We didn't see each other for years until we met again by accident in '86. By then enough had changed that that time it was different, and we've been together ever since. It's lucky we got another chance."
"I know what you mean. When I knew him he was very unhappy, trying to get away from his past and his family and all. I did what I could to help, though it wasn't much." He smiled in recollection. "At least I got him kissing again."
"Back when you first met him, remember how he wouldn't kiss anybody? Did you ever ask him why?"
Jean shook his head. "No."
"It drove me to distraction- he has such a lovely mouth- and I really couldn't rest until I'd got the whole story out of him. You know about his friend back in high school?"
"I know about his friend. What's that got to do--"
"Oh, he's never told you? Then he has gotten over it. He kissed him before the last battle, and then when he died he swore he'd never kiss another man again. And he didn't-- until he met me."
"It was you who rescued him from widowhood? I'm obliged." Damn it, the man was laughing at him.
"I thought it time he started living in the present," Dorian said stiffly.
"Oh yes, I agree. It's always been his major failing, stewing over the past."
He relented. "Yes. And I couldn't make him stop. The old ties to his brothers-- to Takamatsu-- they were too strong for me. It's been one of my few regrets in life. What finally did it in the end? You?"
"But of course. What do you expect me to say? Actually it was mostly young Szintarow's doing, Majek's son. He started it, at any rate. He turned the family upside down-- quarrelled with his father and ran away from home and took sides with Majek's enemies. While Majek was off trying to deal with that, Halim-- that's Sergei's twin brother--"
"Yes, I know."
"--he started a rebellion at home using Majek's younger son Kostya as a rallying point. Then Kinta suddenly turned up out of nowhere demanding to be recognized as one of the family. And then Takamatsu decided to tell the world about Szintarow's real parentage-- you heard about that?" Dorian nodded. "--and what with one thing and another, Majek went so far round the bend he met himself coming back. I almost felt sorry for him, even though I was on the other side."
"Sergei and I met again just as all this was coming to a head. It couldn't possibly have been worse timing. I was with Szintarow against Majek and Sergei was trying to stay neutral and I didn't know if we'd even survive, let alone be able to get back together again. But Majek did some reconsidering and he and Szintarow were reconciled before too many people got killed. And when the dust settled, everything had changed so much that none of the old relationships could work any more. They all had to be started again from scratch."
"Including ours. It was bumpy, but we managed."
Jean looked at him swiftly. "He said you were one of the few moments of sunshine in all the years he was alone. I should thank you. You made him happy when I wasn't there to do it."
"Some men wouldn't care for that."
"I'm not some men. Take it I'm grateful."
"So we're quits over today?"
"Quits. We take our debts seriously. Only--" Jean looked suddenly serious.
"I won't. I promise."
"Do you even know you're doing it?"
"Yes, usually. He's pretty immune, I'd say. It wouldn't have worked today if I hadn't been pushing it." He said, not exactly in apology, "I never got a chance to say good-bye to him properly, the last time, and I suppose-- well, this was it."
"Unfinished business. And now you move on to other conquests."
"That's not the way it works. I'm the one who's been conquered. Bowled over, just like you said."
"That was to shut Takamatsu up. He does go on. But somehow- well, as I said, it'll be interesting. Majek's never met anyone like you. You know it could be dangerous?"
"That's what Sergei said, but he sees him as his brother. I don't think he really knows. How did Majek react to you?"
"Pragmatically. I was presented as a fait accompli. Sergei took me to see him and said 'Jean will be staying with me from now on,' and Majek said, 'You'll be needing larger quarters then.'"
"Well then. You can't get more accepting than that."
"That's what it looked like. But there were all sorts of unspoken things behind it. Halim had gone off somewhere as a mercenary, and Majek wanted Sergei to stay with him in Circassia but he wouldn't say so outright, and Sergei was ready to leave again and not come back if Majek didn't accept us, and Majek was making his acceptance conditional on our not being too scandalous in public. All that crammed into two sentences, apparently."
"You worked that out yourself?"
"No way. Takamatsu explained it to me afterwards."
"He's spent his life with them, he understands them. It's more than I do. If you ever get stuck, you could do worse than consult him."
"I'd rather die."
"That bad? He has an off-putting way with him, I admit."
"He detests me. It's mutual."
"He's probably just jealous, like poor Kinta."
"Jealous? What of, for heaven's sake?"
"You don't know? No, you really don't." Jean looked at him in interest. "Sergei was right. You are an innocent."
"I'm nothing of the sort," Dorian snapped in irritation. "That's one of Sergei's idées fixes, and completely wrong."
"Oh, I hope not. He described you as one of the most dangerous men he'd ever met and absolutely unaware of it." Dorian rolled his eyes. "But it's the one thing that might give you an edge over Majek."
"I don't need an edge. I don't want one. Really, I'm just a perfectly ordinary thief."
"But a most extraordinary man. Oh come on, Dorian-- beautiful, graceful, charming, elegant, rich, well-born, well-bred, gifted, unspoiled, sunny-- you have everything, and everything comes to you like an apple falling from a tree. Isn't that so?"
"Not at all. I have to work to get what I want. It's not all ask and have, you know."
"Have you ever wanted anything that you didn't eventually get?"
"But weren't you in love with someone else at the time- some soldier or other?"
"Yes," said Dorian patiently, "but that's no reason why I shouldn't have had Sergei as well."
"No wonder Kinta dislikes you. The poor orphan faced with the golden prince. If you want to do us a favour, shine a little of that charm in his direction. It would help a lot."
"I can imagine what he'd say if I did."
"It'd give him a chance to turn you down, at least. That may be all he wants." Dorian snorted. "Well, it's a suggestion. Speaking of Kinta, I'd better get back to the conference before he guesses what I've been up to. I said I was coming to get my cigarettes and here it is forty-five minutes later." Jean heaved himself to his feet.
"I should shower and change too, before Majek gets back. I'm just down on the other floor."
"Fast work. I wonder how long before he realizes he's under siege?"
"Soon, I hope."
Jean shook his head in despair. "Did Sergei tell you the code?"
"5-23-12-25. May 23rd and December 25th. His sons' birthdays."
"Which one is Gunmar's?"
"Neither. As far as he's concerned, his sons are still Szintarow and Kostya. And that should tell you something about him."