13

The count did not appear to dinner that evening, and as Cosmina was quite tired from our excursion to the village, the meal was a simple and short affair. We each of us retired early to our own pursuits. I meant to write for the rest of the evening, but I could not settle to it, and the scribbles I made were messy and slashed with my pen where I crossed out passages that displeased me. I had meant to write a passionate scene between two lovers, a scene of declaration and devotion, and the words failed me-failed me because I did not know what words folk used at such a time, I thought in disgust. I had no experience of such things, and even an imagination as broad as mine could falter. I longed to know what they would say and feel, what sweet sighs would pass between them, what caresses they would exchange. Of course I could not write the whole of such things, but if I could not imagine the entirety of the act, how could I comprehend its effects? And from there my thoughts drifted from my characters to the events of the day.

The count was the source of my distraction, for as Cosmina and I had passed through the village upon our return, I had looked more closely, reckoning the changes I found. A party of men was draining the river meadow for good pasturage, and a father and son were perched upon ladders, giving the school a fresh coat of paint and prying off the boards that had held the shutters fast. There remained an air of sleepiness about the place, but between the pedlar and the new improvements, something indefinable had changed. I noted there were yet branches of basil hung at the windows and here and there charms against evil had been newly painted. The people themselves seemed happy, but warily so, as Florian had said. They still feared the strigoi then, but they were pleased that the new count had finally bestirred himself to take an interest in their well-being. The question was why? Why had Count Andrei at last begun to improve the lot of his people?

The question plagued me. Alternately I hoped I might have been the cause of it and ridiculed myself for my foolish fancies. The count had spoken plainly enough of his feelings towards women. They were playthings, pretty toys to while away his hours of boredom and to be discarded once he tired of them. When he married it would be to some dull creature whose blood ran blue and who could give him sturdy sons with an excellent pedigree. If I interested him-and I conceded it seemed so-it was simply because he had few other diversions at the castle. Had we encountered one another in Paris, he would not have spared me a second glance, I told myself firmly.

But we are not in Paris, I thought by way of reply. I believed in free will, but I could be persuaded to fatalism. Perhaps we were here together at this time because it was supposed to be thus. I could never be more to him than a fleeting indulgence, but I realised with a sudden cold shock that I was not certain I wanted more from him.

Before I could think too long upon it, I rose and mounted the narrow stair to his room. I groaned to see the door ajar, for if it had been closed, I think I would have lacked the courage to knock upon it. But it stood open just far enough for Tycho to catch my scent and come to the door.

I peered past him to find the room empty, but the door that led to the workroom stair was also ajar, beckoning. I patted Tycho absently and passed through the room, gathering my skirts to mount the twisting stair to his workroom. He was standing at the longest of the tables, his sleeves rolled to bare his forearms, his neckcloth and collar discarded. He was bent to a task, and as I moved closer I could see he held a feather in one hand and a tiny piece of clockwork machinery in another. A lock of jet hair fell over his brow, but he did not seem to notice, so intent was he upon his work. I stood for a long moment before he spoke, and when he did I started, for he had not turned his head and I had not realised he was aware of me.

“It is an orrery,” he said, nodding towards the intricate pieces scattered the length of the table. There were long, slender rods and several spheres and half spheres in various sizes, some painted in beautiful colours, others more muted, and the tiniest daubed with silver paint. At the end of the table rested a slab of inlaid wood and a collection of legs, and scattered over the table were an assortment of clockwork gears and complicated mechanisms. “A model of the solar system. When it is put back together, a simple crank will set the whole of it into motion, the entirety of the universe captured in a tabletop.”

I moved forward and watched as he dipped the end of the feather into a bowl of oil and, with a precise and delicate touch, applied it to the gear.

“Another piece of your grandfather’s?” I asked him.

He nodded, intent upon his work. After a moment, he gave a little sigh of satisfaction and put the feather aside. He wiped his hands upon a bit of linen and turned to face me, his arms folded over his chest. The light fell upon his bared neck then, and I saw no scar there, not even the palest mark to blemish the smooth expanse of olive skin.

“I am sorry to have disturbed you,” I began.

“It is a welcome intrusion,” he replied with cool gallantry. He was watching me closely, assessing me, I thought, and I felt myself grow hot under his scrutiny. I wished he would return to the orrery, and to cover my confusion, I moved to the other side of the table.

“Is this Venus? It must be. What else could be so bright-”

“Do not touch it,” he cautioned. “The paint is not yet dry.”

I drew back sharply and put my hands behind my back.

“You are ill at ease tonight,” he observed. “Is something amiss? Some trouble with your room perhaps?”

He was playing the host now, and I felt my courage wilt miserably within me. I could not possibly say the things to him that I wanted to say. I murmured an excuse and made to leave. He returned to his work, but as I reached the door, he called after me.

“There is a length of fabric upon the sofa. I believe it belongs to you.”

I glanced towards the sofa and felt my heart give a peculiar lurch.

“That is the dress length that Frau Amsel purchased from the pedlar today,” I said in some confusion.

He had picked up his feather and another clockwork gear. “It is yours,” he repeated.

“I do not understand you. Has Frau Amsel changed her mind?”

“Frau Amsel has come to understand that her behaviour towards a guest in my house was intolerably rude,” he said mildly, never taking his eyes from his work.

I gathered up the length of fabric and went to him.

“It belongs to Frau Amsel,” I said quietly.

He put down his work and turned to me, his gaze inscrutable. “Do you find that you do not like it after all?”

“Of course not. It is lovely,” I began.

He turned away from me. “Then it is yours.”

I did not stir from my position. “She paid for it.”

“She has been recompensed,” he returned.

“You cannot mean you paid her for it?”

“Naturally. She will be bothered enough by her disappointment. There was no need to punish her purse as well.”

I struggled to understand him. “That you took the fabric from her astonishes me, but that you can speak of it so calmly is incomprehensible. She paid for the cloth. She has a right to it.”

He dropped the feather and turned to fix me with such a look as I had never yet seen upon his face. “I am master of this castle and lord of this land. No one has a right to anything that I wish for myself.”

There was no possible response to that, so I did not attempt to make one. Instead, I placed the fabric upon the table and dropped the lowest and gravest curtsey I could manage and turned to leave.

Once more he recalled me at the door. “You will not keep it then?” he asked evenly.

I turned back to him, hands fisted. “You wish me to help you upset a poor old woman? How could I possibly keep the cloth when I know what was done to retrieve it?”

“That poor old woman is vicious as a viper, and you would do well to remember that,” he said calmly. “She took the fabric from sheer malice, she told me as much when I taxed her with it. She does not like you and she knew you wanted it, so she took it. It was childish and unworthy, and she violated every rule of hospitality in treating you thus. In disrespecting you, she disrespected me, and that is unacceptable. I gave her the choice of permitting me to pay for the fabric or resigning her post and leaving the castle at once for her transgressions. She was grateful to take my money and be done with it.”

I felt the hot rush of anger ebb a little, even as I wished to hold fast to it.

“It still seems wrong to be so high-handed,” I said, my voice sounding feeble even to my own ears.

“And did you not identify this as a feudal place?” he asked.

“I did,” I admitted. He took up the fabric and put it into my hands.

“Take it.”

“I cannot possibly. I am still uneasy about the method by which you acquired it,” I told him with some asperity. “And even if that were not true, I could not accept a gift from you. It is not proper.”

“Proper? I think we have passed beyond the pale of propriety, Miss Lestrange.” He put his head to the side, and I saw that his eyes were clear and alight with some anticipated pleasure. “You will not do this to please me when I have done so much to please you?”

“Please me?” I paused and suddenly my bodice felt uncomfortably tight, constricting me. Had he made the improvements in the village at my urging? “The digging of the new well?”

“And the pasture, and the school, and the church,” he added, numbering them on his fingers.

“You did not do those things to please me,” I said faintly. I could scarcely hear my own voice over the drumbeat of my pulse in my ears.

He leaned forward, his lips brushing my ear. “Didn’t I?”

I closed my eyes at the sensations that assaulted me. “You have owned that you do nothing you do not wish to do. It pleased you to make those improvements.”

A warm exhalation passed over the flesh of my neck, summoning and warming the blood beneath. “It pleases me to please you,” he murmured.

A single fingertip stroked downward from jaw to collarbone, tracing the pulse that surged and fluttered there. His other hand came around my waist firmly, possessing, even as his lips coaxed. I ought go, I thought stupidly. It is not too late to turn back. Now, I will push him aside and take my leave. Instead I lifted my chin, exposing my throat to him as he lowered his head. Fear rose within me, choking and hot, but still I stood in the circle of his arms, yielding, trusting. I felt the graze of his teeth against the soft flesh of my throat, and I waited, bracing myself for the pain of the piercing that would follow.

But it did not come. Instead he covered my mouth with his own and thrust his hands into my hair, wrenching aside the pins and plaits as he pressed me against the worktable.

His kisses were a revelation, for I had never imagined such things. Rather than frightening me, his abandon challenged my hesitation, and my passion rose with every proof of his.

He broke off suddenly, his lips so near to mine I could still feel the warmth of them. He put a fingertip to the first of my buttons, twisting it.

“Your gown buttons in the front, like a maid’s,” he said, his voice low and soft.

I swallowed hard as his fingertip brushed the bare skin above. “I have no maid. I must dress myself,” I replied.

“Shall I be your maid?” he asked, sliding his fingers behind the d?colletage. My knees failed me then, and he held me firmly against him with one arm as his other hand continued its work at my buttons, sliding intimately under my chemise.

“What if it were true?” he murmured against my lips. “Everything you hope and everything you fear. Is that what you have come for?”

“Yes,” I said, opening to him.

He slipped each button from its hole, and with each another of my doubts slipped away. There was no space for them, crowded as my head was with the feel of him, the scent of him, the taste of him still hanging upon my lips. I had merely sipped of him yet, and I craved the whole.

“‘What will you say tonight, poor solitary soul, to the kindest, dearest, the fairest of women?’” he murmured. It was Baudelaire, a lingering line from the poems he had given me. “‘There is nothing sweeter than to do her bidding; Her spiritual flesh has the fragrance of Angels, and when she looks upon us we are clothed with light,’” he added.

He punctuated the poem with kisses, tracing his lips over my skin with every syllable. “‘Be it in the darkness of night, in solitude, or in the city street among the multitude, her image in the air dances like a torch flame.’”

He drew back, the smile of Mephistopheles touching his lips. “Do you remember the rest?”

“‘I am your guardian Angel, your Muse and Madonna,’” I said obediently, my breath coming in short gasps.

“Yes, I think you are my Muse,” he said, clasping me to him and gathering me up as if I were a small child. I had not realised the strength in him. I had looked at his elegant clothes and taken him for a plaything of fashion, but the man who carried me to the little sofa and bore me down into the cushions was no idle creature. He was hard and fit, and when I drew his clothes away with impatient fingers, I could have wept at the beauty of him.

The pleasures we took upon that little sofa I could never have anticipated. He was neither tender nor rough, for although he coaxed responses from me, he had his own joys of me as well, and I was glad of it. The thought of playing the student to his tutor would have been unbearable. But we were equals, demanding of and rendering to each other the fullest of physical pleasures, and I realised how fortunate my choice had been. Had I surrendered myself in the marriage bed, my own satisfaction would have been illicit, a thing to be stolen from my husband. With a lover, it was a holy thing, a sacrament to the act itself, celebrated by the ordained. This liberty to do and choose whatever I liked made me bold, and my boldness pleased him and there, upon his grandfather’s velvet sofa, he engulfed and consumed me and burnt me to ash to be reborn.

The act itself I cannot remember, not clearly, for the pieces have broken and fitted themselves together again like tumbling shards of kaleidoscope glass. I remember the feel of his back, the long silken muscles sleek beneath my fingers. I remember the little cries and the sweetly whispered words, those that urged and those that begged, and above it all, the astonishing duality of the act itself. The physical was so much more primitive than I had expected, and yet the emotions were exalted. I had expected release and relief and pleasure, but not tenderness. I had not expected to care for him.

And when it was over and his head rested upon my breast came the rush of sweetness. I knotted my fingers in his hair, thinking of Samson, and how a man is never so vulnerable as when he sleeps in a woman’s arms. And I kissed him then, as I had not kissed him before. I had always waited for him to press his lips to mine, but as he drowsed, sated and entwined, I put my lips to his brow, as if to mark him for my own.

After a little while, he roused and stretched and poured out brandy for us both. “A restorative,” he said, with only a trace of mischief.

I had wrapped myself in the length of dress fabric, preserving the vestiges of my modesty.

“You oughtn’t cover yourself,” he told me. “It is a crime against nature.” He tugged at the cloth and I pushed his hand away.

“Stop,” I said, but the word carried no force.

He regarded me thoughtfully. “You do not see yourself as I do, Theodora. There is much to admire. You are a woman of quiet charms, but charms nonetheless.”

I sipped at the brandy, steeling myself against the fiery sting of it. I said nothing, but he did not seem to require a reply.

“Ah, you are looking sceptical again,” he said lightly. “You think me a poor connoisseur, but I assure you, I speak with a master’s eye.” He put a hand to my hair, stroking it and twining a lock about his palm. “Your hair is lovely, almost as black as the wing of a raven. And your eyes are most arresting, so wide and so bright. Those eyes see everything, do they not? Sometimes when we are at table and your gaze is fixed on your plate, I imagine you still see everything that passes. Tell me, can you look into the heart of a man with those eyes?” he asked suddenly, his tone lightly mocking.

“I am no more perceptive than any other woman, and I daresay less than most,” I replied.

“What do you perceive in me?” He dropped his eyes to the glass he turned in his hands, studying the ebb and flow of the brandy.

I hesitated, casting about for the right words. “A wounded thing. I think you have been hurt much in your life, and you do not want people to know it.”

He lifted his brows in surprise, but did not speak and I went on.

“I think you are kinder than you would own to yourself, and I think your spirit is gentler than you pretend. You have taken up a carapace of coldness and sophistry to protect what you do not wish to expose.”

“And what is that?” he asked, his tone a shade less jovial than before.

“Your most secret hope,” I said, dropping my voice to a whisper. “Restoration.”

“What a pretty picture you paint of me,” he said softly, tracing the length of my neck with his thumb. “Everyone else sees me as a man to be envied, but you see the worst of me.”

“Not the worst of you,” I hastened to say. “Only the most vulnerable. A wolf in a trap will snap and snarl at whoever comes near to him out of fear he cannot protect himself.”

“And I am a wounded wolf,” he finished with a mocking smile.

“You may laugh at the metaphor, but I find it apt.”

“As do I,” he capitulated. “But I ought to warn you that what you have seen thus far is the merest sheep compared to the truth of me.”

“Do you think so little of yourself that you wish me to share your low opinion?”

He drew away from me a little then, and I felt the coolness of it. Neither our minds nor our bodies touched, and though I had felt the connection between us, it was lost.

“I put no value upon my stock,” he said, his tone dropping a little. “I see myself as I am, and you would do well to lose your illusions.”

“Will you take them from me?” I teased, thinking to draw him in with good humour.

But he did not smile, and the eyes that had looked upon me with warmth and approbation had turned cool and appraising. “I ought to. For your own good. I gave you the measure of my character early on in our acquaintance, but I have found it is a peculiar affliction of women that they will believe what they want of a man and ignore what he is, no matter how base, how vicious. A woman sees in a man only what she wishes to make of him,” he added bitterly.

“Perhaps it is rather that we see what you might make of yourselves. You had no inclination to better the lives of your vassals, and yet you have done so. Does that not make you improved upon what you were?”

Something stirred in his eyes then, some flicker of cruelty that ought to have warned me.

“You think me caring and disingenuous? Even after I told you what I am? Shall I tell you again? I am a seducer of women, child. I take what I want, where I want, and I will employ any stratagem to secure it.” He moved forward, gripping me by the shoulders. “Look at me, Theodora, and without wishing me to be other than I am. See me, and be warned.”

“You do not frighten me,” I told him, the trembling of my hands belying my words.

“Then why do you shiver? Am I not a horror story to frighten the stoutest heart?” he asked, dropping his head to my neck once more. He put his lips to the pulse at my throat and I felt the pressure of his teeth, poised above my heartbeat.

“Yes,” I whispered into his hair, “and for that I pity you.”

Instantly, he reared back, his hands still gripping my shoulders, his complexion dark with fury.

“You pity me?” he rasped.

“I do. There are stouter walls built round your heart than round this mountain. You take women for pleasure but not companionship, and any intimacy besides the physical causes you pain. Oh, I do see you for what you are. You are a man who wants to be understood, to be taken for all his flaws and all his failures and loved in spite of them. You despise my sex for our follies, and yet yours is the greater for at least we will take love where we can. You would throw it back and scorn the gift of it.”

“You do not love me,” he said, his colour fading to paleness. “You came here for the purpose of being seduced. Do not lie. I smelled willingness upon you the moment you entered the room. Do you think I have been blind to your sighs, your trembling, your longing glances? You are curious and passionate and you will use this night as fodder for your imagination, but do not mask it with the veil of love and think yourself better for it,” he said. “We are cut of the same cloth, Theodora.”

I felt a chill at his words, abashed that he had taken the measure of me so keenly. “At least I do not plate my heart with the cynic’s armour. I believe I will love, and I will be loved, but you dismiss it out of hand as so much foolishness with your taxonomy of women and your scientific seductions. You reduce us all to playthings and formulae, to be won with calculation and guile. That is the real foolishness, for if no woman ever sees you, how can she begin to love you?”

“I do not require love,” he said stonily.

“We all of us require love,” I replied. “You think me childish and silly for clinging to the promise of it, but it is human to want happiness, and if there is happiness without love I am not convinced of it.”

I paused then, watching the play of emotion across his face. I could not decipher it, but I knew he warred with himself, as if something I had said had thawed some part of him long-frozen and removed from the rest.

After a moment he put his hands to his temples. “I shall wake from this and find you are a pipe dream, sent to torment me for my past sins.”

I put my hands over his. “I am no dream.” I kissed him then, offering him my warmth. “I am here. I am real,” I said, kissing him again. He embraced me, returning my kisses feverishly for a moment, until he wrenched himself away. He brought my clothes and dressed me, tenderly as any mother will dress a newborn child. I knew it was dismissal, and I felt only tired and much older than I had when I entered the room in search of my own destruction.

At the door, he cupped my face in his hands. “Do not bombard my defences, little one. They are all I have, and I find myself in danger of growing too fond of you. Believe me when I tell you it would be fatal for us both.”

He kissed me one last time, and I felt the finality of it in his lips. “We will not speak of this again,” he said as he opened the door. “It would doubtless improve my reputation, but it would ruin yours, and I am still gentleman enough to care,” he finished. He closed the door, but gently, and I returned to my room, a more experienced and much more confused woman than I had been when I left it.

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