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Authors: Lucius Shepard

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BOOK: The Golden
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Lady Dolores
laughed with—Beheim thought—genuine good humor. “With
what logical facility you seek to persuade me against the use of
facile logic!”

Beheim inclined
his head, acknowledging a touch, and was about to press his argument
when Agenor glanced at the stairway at the west end of the ballroom,
at the massive doors of blackened oak to which it led, and said in a
tremulous voice, “She’s here,” a split second
before the doors swung open to reveal the figure of a blond girl in a
diaphanous nightdress. As she descended the stair, lifting the hem of
her garment away from the stones, she brought with her the familiar
scent of mortal blood . . . familiar, yet with a
richer, subtler bouquet than any Beheim had ever known. He turned
toward her—they all turned—his hunger roused by the
delicate fractions of that scent. It was so palpable, he imagined it
a kind of terrain in which he might wander, a rose garden with a
scarlet stream running through it, and the air a numinous golden
haze, set swirling by the rhythm of a languorous heartbeat.

The girl made
her way among the gathering, all of whom stood stock still as if
under a spell. For a mortal she was very beautiful. Slender and pale,
her cornsilk hair done up into a coiffure as convulsed as the bloom
of an orchid. The creamy swells of her breasts figured by faint
traceries of bluish veins. Her eyes—Beheim saw as she drew
near, easing past a lanky, hawkish man and his servant—had a
mineral intricacy, the irises almost turquoise in color, flecked with
topaz and gold, and her upper lip was fuller than the lower, lending
her mouth a sensual petulance. The face of a willful child not wholly
confident of her sexuality, apprehending yet not quite understanding
the power of her body. Beheim was entranced by the swell of her
belly, the vulnerability of her breasts in their chiffon nests, and
most pertinently by the allure of her blood. His mouth watered; his
fingers hooked. He was trembling, he realized, barely able to
restrain himself, and overborne by her proximity, he lowered his
eyes. If the bouquet of the Golden’s blood could induce such
rapturous hunger, he thought, how would it be to taste it?

Once she had
passed, he watched her stroll away, walking with an indolent grace
such as she might have displayed while taking the air in a park on a
summer’s day. The lords and ladies of the Family moved aside,
creating a channel that would lead her back to the stairs and thence
to the chamber where, under the Patriarch’s protection, she
would spend the night and the morrow. But as she was about to pass
from sight she interrupted her casual processional and turned to look
at Beheim. With a faltering step, she came a few paces back toward
him. Her clasped hands twisted at her waist, and she displayed
symptoms of arousal: Her lips parted, cheeks flushed. Her stare
spurred his hunger to new heights. Against reason, his restraint
crumbling, he started forward. Yet before he could reach the girl, a
hand caught his shoulder and yanked him back. Furious at being
thwarted, he spun about, prepared to strike, but the sight of
Agenor’s stony face and the force of those luminous black eyes
quelled his anger, and he understood what a gross breach of propriety
he had committed. As if to second this view, from those standing
nearby there arose a surge of whispers and muted laughter. They had
been watching him, he realized. All of them. And on spotting the Lady
Dolores among the watchers, on registering her triumphant expression,
he suspected that she had somehow orchestrated the girl’s
arousal—perhaps even his own overwrought reaction—in
order to humiliate him. Ablaze with shame, he lunged toward her, but
once again Agenor hauled him back, clamping a forearm under his chin
and holding him with irresistible strength. The laughter, which had
grown briefly uproarious, subsided. The silence that replaced it was
freighted with tension.

“Let me
go,” Beheim said. “I’m all right. Let me go.”

Reluctantly, it
seemed, Agenor released him.

Beheim adjusted
the hang of his evening clothes, rumpled during the struggle, and
glared with unalloyed hatred at Lady Dolores. For a second she
appeared unequal to his stare, uncertainty clouding her face, but she
quickly regained her composure.

“Surely
you don’t wish to challenge me?” she said in a mocking
voice.

“What I
wish and what I must do in order to conform to tradition are two
different matters,” said Beheim. “But I swear to you,
lady, you’ll regret this night.”

Several members
of the Cascarin branch moved closer to her, ready to take her part,
and behind Beheim, others of the Agenor branch assumed a like
posture.

“Consider
carefully, cousin,” Agenor said to Lady Dolores, “whether
it would be wise to seek a feud with the Agenors.”

After a moment,
with an almost imperceptible gesture, the Lady Dolores signaled her
supporters to retreat. She favored Agenor with a curt nod, and her
skirt belling with the abruptness of her turn, she stalked off into
another quarter of the ballroom.

Beheim made to
thank his mentor, but before he could speak, Agenor, keeping his eyes
fixed on a point above Beheim’s head, said quietly, “Return
to your apartments.”

“Lord, I
only—”

“Are you
deaf as well as a fool?” Agenor drew a deep breath. “I
selected you for my protégé because I saw in you
qualities of temperateness and calculation that I felt would
withstand your passage into the Family. Tonight you’ve proved
me as great a fool as you yourself. Now go!”

Beheim remained
standing, flustered and ashamed.

“If you do
not leave,” Agenor said coldly, “I may not be able to
contain myself. Do you understand?”

Beheim fell back
a step, muttered a stumbling apology, then fled the ballroom,
refusing to meet the eyes that followed his erratic course.

Chapter
Two

I
f not for the consoling presence of his servant, Giselle, there is no
telling what Beheim might have done that night, for as he hurried
along the dimly lit corridor that led away from the ballroom, past
niches in which hung antique portraits shrouded in dust and shadow,
he grew increasingly angry, his mind fired by a vision of bloody
vengeance; by the time he reached his apartments—three vast,
high-ceilinged rooms in the west tower of the castle—he was
more of a temper to confront the Lady Dolores than to spend the night
haunted by the shade of his humiliation. But the sight of Giselle in
her nightdress—her light brown hair and slim figure, her
exquisite face with its high cheekbones and pouting lips, all so
reminiscent of the Golden—renewed his hunger, and though he had
fed only days before, without a word of greeting, he pushed her down
upon the black silk coverlet of the canopied bed, brushed back the
fall of hair from the vein in her neck, and drank deeply, drank in
fury and frustration, sublimating his need for revenge, imagining
that it was the Lady Dolores’s blood upon which he was supping.
Had he been a degree more enraged, he might have lost himself in the
act and drunk too deeply, but at last, his hunger sated, still dully
aroused, he rolled away from Giselle and lay gazing about the room,
absorbed by its funereal atmosphere of candles and black velvet
chairs and age-worn tapestries and tall windows with bolted iron
covers. Beside him, Giselle gave a plaintive sigh, and suddenly aware
of her as a living creature, as something more than a source of food,
he felt remorse at having treated her so roughly. Not only did he
pride himself on his tolerance for mortals, his liberal recognition
of them as more than beasts, he felt an especial fondness for
Giselle, a curious mixture of paternal feelings and sexual attraction
and romantic love, and he recognized that he had acted toward her
with the same contempt and carelessness he had so decried in his
conversation with Lady Dolores.

He turned on his
side and found her watching him soberly. Her pale gray eyes locked
onto his, but she remained silent. There was a smear of blood on the
swell of her right breast. She shivered when he wiped it away.

“I thought
you would judge me,” she said. “You drank so fiercely.”

“I’m
sorry I frightened you.”

“I wasn’t
frightened.” She trailed her fingers across the spot on her
breast from which he had wiped away the blood, then inspected the
tips. “Why do you withhold your judgment? You know how I long
for it.”

“I fear
losing you.”

“Perhaps
you won’t, perhaps you’ll have me forever.”

“The odds
aren’t good.”

She propped
herself up on an elbow. “You know already, don’t you? You
know I’ll fail judgment?”

“No one
can know that. It’s just that the odds are never good. I’ve
told you so a hundred times.”

She fell back,
lay staring up into the canopy. “I don’t care. I want my
chance. If I were with someone else—one of the de Czeges, for
instance—they wouldn’t deny me.”

“If you
were with the de Czeges, likely they would slaughter you, whether or
not you passed the judgment.”

She started to
object, but Beheim, growing annoyed, snapped at her, saying, “You
cannot possibly apprehend the dangers of the world you wish to enter.
But if you insist, if you truly wish it”—he sat up and
leaned over her, with one hand planted beside her pillowed head,
shadowing her with his body—“I will judge you this
minute.”

Her face
betrayed surprise, then was flooded with the dreamy slackness of
desire, and he thought at first that she would accept his offer; but
after a moment she averted her eyes and said in an almost inaudible
whisper, “I am not so free of fear as I thought.”

“Listen,”
he said, relieved. “There will come a time when judgment must
be given, when no other course is open to us. That is the way of it.
It will be a thing of the moment, a moment of surrender and
invitation and utter commitment when we will risk much together, when
you will take the risk of dying, and I the risk of being left without
you. It may be that death is visited upon those who fail to wait
until they are consumed by the urge to judge and be judged, that
certain enabling chemicals are produced by such an urgency. We have
so little knowledge about any of this. But be assured, the time
will
come, and then I will judge you . . . not because you
have persuaded me, but out of love.”

She turned back
to him. “You understand why I’m so impatient, don’t
you? I want you for all the nights. Forever. Living like this, not
knowing what will happen yourself.”

“I’ll
try.” She put an arm about his waist and brought her mouth
close to his, warming his face with her breath. “Tell me . . .”
She left the command unfinished.

“What is
it?”

She shook her
head. “It’s nothing.”

“Surely
not.”

“I was
going to ask you about death.”

“I don’t
follow.”

“When you
were judged, you passed through death, did you not?”

“Passed
through,” he said absently, remembering. “Yes, I suppose
that’s what happened.”

“Tell me
about it!”

He looked up at
the canopy, like a swollen black abdomen hanging overhead. “There’s
no consolation for you in my knowledge of death.”

“How can
you say that? You don’t—”

“You’re
hoping I can tell you that death is not an end, that something exists
beyond this life, that some ultimate majesty prevails, that souls
swim up from the darkness to circle and sing in the light. Well, I
can tell you that something does indeed exist beyond life, but you
should derive no comfort from it. There are terrors more profound
than that of mere extinction.”

“What are
they?”

“That I am
sworn not to reveal.”

“Please!
I—”

“I cannot!
Someday you may learn the Mysteries for yourself, but until then, you
must accept on faith all I’ve told you.”

She lowered her
head so that the mass of her hair shrouded his face, her brow resting
against his chest, and murmured an endearment. Beheim felt remorse at
having used her so, at having removed her from a natural life and
seeded in her a desire for things she might never attain.

“I wish
you had begged to enter my service,” he said. “I wish you
had willingly accepted all the attendant risks and hardships.”

“I accept
them now.”

“Yes, but
you did not know what would happen in the beginning. If you had,
perhaps I could reconcile my affections with the peril in which I
have placed you.”

“Lord—”
she began.

“I am not
a lord! Far from it.”

“You are
my
lord,” she said. “I cannot recall who it was fled from
you that night in the streets of Montparnasse, but it was not I. That
woman hated you, feared you. But she is dead, and I, the living, can
only adore you.”

These words
stung Beheim more painfully than had her entreaties, and he held her
tightly, caressing her hair, her waist and flanks. Before long,
though this had not been his intent, she responded to his attentions
with caresses of her own. She put her lips to his ear and whispered,
“I need you tonight, Michel!”

It was neither
her eagerness nor the ripeness of her body that inspired him to make
love to her, but rather his desire to do the human thing, to keep
alive that measure of humanity remaining to him. And once she was
naked, once his own clothes had been tossed to the floor, the old
compulsions came into play. Braced above her, looking down at her
lovely face, serene with expectancy, at perfect breasts with areola
the color of dried blood, he knew a man’s desperate urgency,
and on sinking into her, feeling her hips tilt and lift in sweet
compliance, he knew as well a lover’s portion of mastery and
fulfillment. Her lips shaped a breathless vowel as he went deep, her
hands fluttered about his shoulders. All this familiar, redolent of
human loves and dynasties of lust. But as they rocked and tangled in
the black silk bottom of desire, another sensibility claimed him. His
eyes, until that instant squeezed shut with pleasure, blinked open
with the abruptness of the reanimated. With her sweaty breasts, her
fevered tossing, she appeared now of a lower and indelicate order, a
convulsed thing into which he had poked a hot stick, a steamy
girl-shaped muscle clever in its movements, yet witless and dull in
all else. He stared at her, trying to penetrate her as palpably with
that stare as he had with his member. Her eyelids fluttered open, her
eyes widened, and her lips drew back from her teeth as if she were
going to scream, horrified by what she saw in his face. Galvanized by
fear, she thrashed and heaved, trying—it seemed—to unseat
him, but succeeded only in bringing his arousal to a peak. With his
left hand, he clutched her throat, stilling her, and with the right,
he clamped her buttocks, grinding her against him. Fear did not empty
from her face, but rather mingled with the dazed symptoms of a
gentler emotion, as if love and fear were old friends who often met
inside her. Her gasps came rapidly, and her movements, though yet
abandoned, grew less desperate, less involved with escape. Completion
and terror glazed her eyes. Her legs locked about his waist, her
fingernails raked his back, and Beheim, himself driven by a complex
of emotions, none of them gentle, cried out in fulminant rage and joy
at being overwhelmed once again by this most poignantly mortal of
delights, then went rigid with a molten wattage of pleasure and hung
motionless above her, his fangs inches from the pale blue vein in her
neck, longing to drain her at the very moment she was draining him,
trapped between the pull of two potent hungers.

BOOK: The Golden
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