Gideon bore an ashet in both hands and set it down in the midst of the table, lifting the lid to reveal a large, fuming joint of wild game, glistening in a treacle-brown glaze and accompanied by mounds of chestnuts, trembling apricot chanterelles, ruby onions wearing garlands of rosemary like conqueror's heads, and roasted potatoes, en echelon, anointed with thick curls of melting butter. Susan stared, mouth half-open, as he began to carve.
"Thank god you’re a carnivore.” she exclaimed. "I could just plonk my face in this and suck it off the plate." His smile altered slightly at the artlessness of her remark.
"Moi aussi. Strange to have company, I know... I don't allow the jeunes in here, and when Sachiin was with me I dine alone so many times I give up my cook an put my tables in the attic.” he sighed, serving them both and taking his seat. He had shaved carefully, the razor leaving his proud face soft, combed his hair into grudging obedience and wore a fresh white shirt beneath his jacket, his thickly-timbered shoulders comfortably accommodated by the bespoke garment.
“It's so depressing eating pot noodles like a bloody leper while they sit up in the bedroom and moan about the smell.” she agreed. "Lilian lived on drugs and cornflakes, so she wasn’t much better." Another silence threatened the infant momentum of their exchange, and she once more regretted the low cut of her black dress. Her eyes followed the embroidered meander that ran beneath her plate toward his hand; it rose from the stem of his glass to pour a silky black syrah. The quantity of heavy talismanic gold in his ears and on his fingers absorbed the molten colours of the fire buried in the small grate at their feet.
“La Lune.” he said, by way of a toast, sinking a draught. “Lilian... Kala'amātya's woman?” She nodded again, mouth full of the many delights heaping her plate. “A brave soul. He leave her in America?”
“I think she left herself there. This is deer, isn’t it?” she inquired of the roast mounded on her fork.
“Oui... some people don’t like to eat them, but they are prettier than cow. So... you don’t want to talk about Kala'amātya an this girl... c'est bon. Some things are best left to themselves.” Gideon patted the pocket of his jacket, its sleek, silk-wefted cloth closing into soft folds in the crook of his elbow. It was easy to accept his putative antiquity; his skin gave him away, stained a stubborn, golden, Assam brown by numberless campaigns beneath the staring eye of summer. The same rough passage had beaten the small, susceptible elements from his features, like the weathered masks that guarded the eaves; no glowing vacancies brightened his eyes, the crowded, occult colours crammed and overlaid, permitting no intrusion. He set something small on the linen halfway across the table, letting its gold chain slip through his fingers. “Stupid of me to forget.” he conceded. Her Mughal pendant lay like the final flourish of a magic trick. “Wear it... life is short. All I ask, is that from time to time, you put your hand to it, like this, an stare out of the window. He won’t ask, but it will make him crazy.” She grasped it tightly, transfixed by disbelief and gratitude, which he waved back at her, looking once more to the hearth. “Certain people offer me doux fois what I pay for this, to give you over to them.” The chain stalled as she turned it round her neck. “An I thought about it for a time, you know... old people, we are not so romantic. But, difficult enough these days, to look into the mirror. So don’t offer me your firstborn.”
His admission was confessional without undue apology; Susan looked down at the jade plaque in the palm of her hand.
“William trusts you. I wasn't sure.”
“You must, because I give my word, an my word is good no matter what you hear. Sachiin listen to some stories... I listen to story... des conneries... by now, we should all know better. Diviser pour mieux régner." he muttered while she puzzled over the shallow inscription carved into the pendant's reverse.
"Do you know what this means?"
"Agar ferdows dar jahan ast hamin ast o hamin ast o hamin ast... if there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here... Farsi, from a palace, dans le nord de l'Inde." her host replied, recalling the haunting declaration and observing its effect on her. "Even the things we do not say, they have a life in silence."
Susan returned it to her breast, stilled for a moment by his remarks, then revisited her meal with exclusive intent, her teeth cracking through potatoes crisped in duck fat into their warm, powdery hearts, sopping up the juniper-scented gravy with thick, peppered hanks of venison. The wine slid easily from her glass, elder-purple, sharply sweet like tamarind and blackberries, leaving its burning ghost behind. Gideon ate restlessly, as though humouring both haste and hunger, then set down his knife and fork and leant out from his chair to lay another piece of willow on the fire.
"You have seen this?” He nodded past her, referring to a portrait beside the door in a plain oak frame. It was a brief thing, a hasty, almost harried committal, eschewing surrounding detail in favour of the central figure standing in a tunic of sullen madder red, worn golden handwork banding its long sleeves. He regarded the artist from a belligerent remove, the white hand upon the Levantine saddle beside him equidistant from the dagger at his belt, dark head bare but for the length of his braid.
“Looks like a terrorist.” she murmured, smiling at the whispering lure in William’s green stare in the midst of his figural resistance. Gideon nodded at her conclusion.
“So much worse than mujahadeen, because they don’t believe in anything.”
“Edward doesn’t believe in anything. William believes in forgetting his wallet when you go out to dinner and lying on his face until two in the afternoon. And jam... he believes in eating all your jam.” Her assurance prompted him to snort in the midst of a chuckle.
“Also in eating all your tulipe noire and drinking your Margaux. But then he look at you like Venus smiling from the shell, an your underwear, it go foof.” he smirked. “When he come to this place, he was already idle an arrogant, like all wild things... too long in the mountains an then too long in the desert. He bring his horses, his dogs, his Persian whores, with the plague marks on their arms, an their black teeth... they shit in the fountain when I tell them don't burn my lavender... he lay his tents out there on the grass, because he did not like a roof that weigh more than he did, an would not sit for my painter. He swore that he would cut the hands from any that tried to make his likeness. Both the Arab an his own tribe, they frown at such frivolity, calling it an insult to their faith. But ha ha... tout n'est que vanité. I flatter him, bring him slowly... slowly... into the house, an soon, he is complaining about my wine an linen, an sitting for this picture like any fille de joie.” The memory of his artful conquest still amused him, even if its subject’s expression did not perfectly support his account, and he turned his smile back toward Susan. “He did not love me... lying is the only thing they don't do well. But in my old age I ask, what is love? When it is amicable an commonplace, it is only huile de cul, something to smooth the little things, an when it is dément, et formidable, you are its bitch an not much more... a slave. I think, when you cannot look without touching, it is a fine thing, an so it was... I throw down my colours an made his breakfast an pour his brandy an was pleased to do it.”
She shook her head, philosophical.
“I just can’t. I probably should be nicer to him, but he’s such a lazy, annoying shit.”
“When you an I first met, I look at you an wonder, what does she have?” The envious sentiment was affianced by a long, darkened glance across the table in her direction. “Then Petrouchka tell me that you say no to him an curse all of his bad habit. Of course... for this he loves you, more than all of us who would indulge him. Kala'amātya himself say to me of him, one time... nai naga nya ala'il si'at'nae... there are no snakes in his simplicity... an I agree, there is no art in him, no sophistique... he is simple. I could not see this, an you do." She could not help but affirm the generous sentiment. "That is not to say I have not thrown a chair at his head from time to time... trés bien, eh? But these days I am a lecher, not a romantic. If I am to sin, it must come to me with a bottle of something, an make its own breakfast.”
His teeth were thick and well made inside his smile, their double canines laid neatly against each other. She smirked back at him, the expression developing a blush when he extended the reference toward her.
“I know he like to dream that aprés Sachiin, I only raise the flag for the exotique, but ah... I can still give you a good night’s sleep, mon chou, if you don’t mind dark meat after so much... white bread.” That he intended every word of the invitation was underscored by his implacable machismo, its presence leaning on the table between them in support of it; Susan looked to him again, steeling herself against it and the increasingly pictorial speculation it inspired. Shadow lay in the hollows of his broad and staunchly-formed hands, the same deep colours shaded in the vales of his face, the darkness beneath his eyes conferring an expression of habitual skepticism that continued in his brow. “Say no to me, Sussan. I won’t kick down your door...” Amusement widened his smile as he returned to his meal. “Pas ce soir.”
"Do I have to decide right now?" she asked, working her fork under a potato. He shrugged.
"I am patient."
"It's not that I'm not tempted..."
"But of course." he chuckled. Susan speared an elusive mushroom and studied it closely.
"I've never actually thought of myself as a slapper, but lately... it's almost as if there's a bad influence coming from somewhere..."
"L'accident était inévitable." he assured her. "An the woods, you know, they work on you this way. Everything baiser something else."
"Did you ever... meet Rana?" she asked.
Gideon coughed into his hand and set down his cutlery, pushing his plate away and reaching for her own when she declared it superfluous.
“Ah, oui... an I hear of her retour. Looks like she’s no stranger to you.” He nodded down at the scars that crept over her wrist from her arm.
“She tried to pull me through a third floor window.”
“When he was here, she would come into the garden at night, sneaking in to cut the womens' throats an kill the dogs, an then to beat him... which he would endure like a Roma bear, believing there was a chain, you know, in his nose. I grew tired of this, an kick her back to the Seine. I think now that he came to me because I would do this for him, when his brother would not.” They glanced in unison at each other. “ Kala'amātya, eh? What do you think?”
“I try not to.”
He shrugged his brow, and then his shoulders.
"I have to say, myself, I prefer sal to sucré. But you don’t come to this way of thinking overnight.”
“I’ll probably be a very old woman before I stop thinking of him as caustic soda.”
“I won’t argue. His tribe, they kill his heart, an we have had bad times with him ourselves... he is violent, an you cannot predict him... when you have no love for yourself, how can you trust?" He gazed about himself, wrestling with the depth of his own sentiment. "There is a lesson in him, I think. The bad things, they are always with us, but beauty she is as strong as any evil. Some people give her up, and I myself have come too close to this." He directed his stare at her unexpectedly. "Don't be that way, ça va? You will be dead while you are living." Satisfied, Gideon sat back and drained his glass. "You like pie? You have the derriére of a good country girl so I think yes.”
A brief lacuna settled while he returned to the kitchen to fetch dessert, bringing back a sweetly-perfumed tart in one hand and a plate of slouching cheeses and suede-like, sun dried apricots in the other, a bottle of fruit liqueur beneath his arm.
“Flambé... gauche, I know, but I don’t care.” he confided, dousing the dish and striking a match over the pie to produce a high blue flame that wafted backward with him when he sat down. Its simple, effusive beauty spread her toes inside her rabbit slippers; she slumped in her chair and sighed, leaning an elbow on the table.
“You’ll have to give me a minute.” she warned, patting her stomach. “I’m bogged. Can I ask... you are french French, aren’t you? Are your family from here?”
"Not ah, Gévaudan... I buy this place, a long time ago. My family are Provençal. Basque, before that, my mother’s people. An you? Anglo-saxonne?"
"Boring, I know."
"Don't be modest, Sussan. I see some armada in you. Perhaps we are cousins."
She laughed, beating down the apricot that jammed in her throat.
"Well that takes care of one thing for me."
Gideon put a hand to his chest in dismay, then resignation, at her scruple.
"It was good enough for our grandfathers. Eh bien..." he conceded.
“William said you met overseas, that you... what was it? Joined up to something together?"
“I served the Catalan cartel at first. It was quiet when I was young, my god, like you would not believe. My family they were quiet, the towns, quiet... the countryside... you could hear a Corsican whore fart from an épicerie in Toulouse.”
“I tried to get him to explain how you go from that to killing random people in the Middle East, but I didn't have much luck.”
“It's hard for people now to know those times. The south, she was full of religion an nordistes... we were young an bored, an oui..." he shrugged. "Quite stupid. Sans méfiance. One time, a big goat, he come into my uncle’s house an ate the pages from his bible... we don't follow this book, it was only for appearance... for weeks, this was the only talk for a day's walk all around. The only talk." Susan pulled a grim face at the prospect and he nodded to it. "Then you know, Urban the pope he make his speech an the whole world lose its head an took the cross. Outrémer... she sound like discotheque. I go with the Catalans to Ascalon, a trebuchet show to me the taste of sand, and voilá... from that moment, I was a slave to le guerre.” He laughed again at his venality and cut her a wide wedge of pie, shuffling it from the silver slice. “What can you do? Alujha were born for it.”
“How can you be born for something like that?” Susan scoffed. "That's the sort of thing William says when he can't think of an excuse for whatever Edward's doing."
Gideon set down the slice and lifted the little glass-bellied salt and the silver pepper shaker, both standing on tiny lion’s paws, from their retirement at the edge of the table and poured a little of their contents into adjacent piles upon the cloth.
"To the east of here, by the Pont-d'Arc, there is a cave... na Avájir... the Grave, we say. In the oldest times, le invocateur, the shamans, witches... they share their dreams with the wolf in these places, an they trade the flesh with him.” He pushed the salt into the pepper with the end of his finger until they were inextricably combined. “We are brother an sister with all things. In na Avájir, this union was painted on the walls, an from this comes my tribe, born as they were made. The girl, with the stars in her head, an the boy, with the moon in his heart.” Gideon passed his hand over the mingled grains. "These caves, they are so beautiful, but they are silent now and I cannot look at them. All they hold has passed away. In them you can see that most important thing forsaken... that moment, when the first man turn from other beasts, to tell his children they did not have to share. From this moment come the fall... come croisade, the abattoir, the gas chamber... na Avájir is the grave of us all."
The unctuous mouthfulls of sugar-glazed plum lost their sweetness in her mouth and she swallowed slowly, prompting him to smile briefly to himself.
"Déprimante, eh? Never mind. Sachiin et Kala'amātya, they too are born as they were made. You and I, we have a difference, but we are Rome’s children, an we sit by the fire. They stand before the window an dream of the massif in winter.”
“He's told me some of it already, where they came from.” she admitted. "More than I thought he would."
His sigh betrayed the volume of his ruminations on the subject.
“One time, we wait in the Krak for some Syrians to pound us into dust, an some dancing girls from the north... Azeri, perhaps, I don’t remember, but they say to us... in exchange for everything we own, some jinn would come from beyond Samarkand and murder all our enemy." He rose, and brought the epergne from the sideboard, turning a chocolate-laden leaf toward her. "Their grandames told of an old cabal, witches from the East who fashioned these jinn to serve them, but these creatures, they were not so comme il faut... lustful, they said, an disobedient, an they run away. Now, who does this sound like?” The almost pornographic beauty of the cherries monopolized her gaze. “If you don’t eat one, I will have to call a priest.” Gideon warned her. He reached across and took one for himself, leaving the shadow of his chair and leaning into the glow effused by the pale table linen. It lit the two blank circles of silver white in the back of his eyes, canceling the perspicacity of his conscious gaze. “I take pride in these tales, now I am the only one who know, more or less. It is said also that in their mountains they wear their truest form, an go about like this... monstrueux. When they are moved by some desire, when they seek rendez-vous galant with other creatures, they descend, an on their way, pass through a river... this water paints a face on them, comme par magie... one pleasing to us, an when they return, the river washes it away. It is said too, as they grow older they look, day by day, more like the altérité, an less of you an I. Something to keep you awake at night, eh?"
Susan glanced up from her plate.
"It takes a bit more than that these days."
"I feel I should apologize, for this...” he confessed, touching his hand to his neck to indicate the shallow concave on her own where Siobhan's assault still glowed pearl white and unreconciled. “I don’t know why. Vampyres... they disgust me, even Belyaev, sometimes. Not one in a hundred escape as you have done." he assured her. "Someone look out for you."
“It was Edward. I’d probably be heaving up chicken blood somewhere if he’d decided not to bother.” He laughed and crossed himself. “The downside is... now I’ve got vampyre goggles and I can see the mingers everywhere.” He seemed perplexed by her terminology. “It’s like having a lot of really horribly ugly naked people standing round you on the beach.” she explained.
"Quelle chance. You know now, never to trust them, nor anyone who serve them. If they have not sold your blood to a friend while it is still in your vein, it is because this would be sharing you. Easy to become confused by the cape and fangs and all the movies, but that is theatre. They are not."
“What about Petrouchka?”
“I love her, but I don’t trust her. Alujha... trust them, love them, let them buy dinner, but don’t wear your best négligée an ah... don’t run, you know? Never run. Witches... ingénieux, amusing, as long as you don’t talk politic or religion. Vampyre... don't drink their wine. That’s everything you need to know. Now you have a nice big scar and it is, how you say... c'est hardcore, and people will take you seriously... no bad thing. I would still have you, after all.” Gideon's smile wandered to the glassed doors behind her, and he excused himself, walking around to pull the curtain closed, the thick sound of the drape upon the carpet overlaying that from the lawn outside that had prompted him to tactfully occlude the view of the garden. “You know something? Never mind what I have just told you... at the heart of everything, there are only two people... the one who love order, and the one who love freedom. For a happy life, you must know which you love best, and go always in this direction. C’est facile. Prends ton courage á deux mains. Take courage in both hands."
Susan shook her head at the fresh bottle he suggested.
“If I don’t sleep, I think my face will fall off.” she admitted.
“I will walk with you, make sure there is no Luc under your bed. He is a devil.”
In her suite, the fire had been replenished and the quilts turned down, her dresses ushered into a vast armoire and the candlestick she had snatched from Commoriom Drive set on the bedside cabinet, considerations prompting her to frown as he assured himself of their commission.
“You don’t have to make them hide. I like Étienne.” she insisted, perplexed by the reticence of his retainers. Gideon appeared unmoved.
“The discipline is good for them.”
“I was a bit worried about coming here.” she added.
"Don't worry. The future is for seers. We don't share their curse." He came forward and, with a hand on each of her bare arms, pressed a measured kiss to both her cheeks, his grasp drifting to her elbows. His scent, of hot-blooded skin, syrah and sage-green vetiver, stayed with her when he stepped away; Gideon made a small bow in the doorway. "I won’t be here tomorrow, so if you would like something in town, I can bring for you...”
She shook her head.
Against the drunkenness that flushed her face, she pushed open the window and leant out, into the cold blown in from the parterre. It shouldered its way past the brocade and wandered through the shallow little chandelier over her bed, leaving a cool, wet clatter in its troubled glass and pushing the door against its frame.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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