"You want him," Elic murmured into Lili's ear.
Lili, lounging next to him on a damask and gilt chaise in le Salon Ambre, lifted her after-dinner brandy to her lips with a silky smile that was answer enough. "Shh. He'll hear."
Elic glanced across the candlelit room at the object of their attention, a grave young Englishman with large, watchful eyes. At the moment, he was rhapsodizing in his native tongue about the "rich volcanic soil" of Vallee de la Grotte Cachee while Archer listened raptly and Inigo, ever the peacock in a green and gold brocade waistcoat, his mop of black curls riotously unbound, stifled a yawn.
"I say, Beckett," Elic interjected when their visitor paused to take a breath. "Do you have any French?"
Beckett blinked at Elic, took a puff of his cigar, and said, "I confess, I never read it in school."
"How very curious," Lili said in that velvety, exotically accented voice that still, after all these years, sent a hot shiver of desire humming through Elic. "I thought all gently bred Englishmen knew French—not that I've any objection to conversing in English. It is quite as beautiful a language, in its own way."
"You're fucking him with your eyes," Elic told Lili in the French that had long ago replaced the languages of their birth.
"Can you blame me?" Darius leapt onto her lap, curled up in the crackling nest of her skirts, and yawned, displaying a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth. She glided her fingers through his dusky fur as she smiled at David Beckett.
"Can't quite see the appeal," Elic muttered. It wasn't true, of course. Beckett was a darkly handsome man with a stalwart physique set off to damnable advantage by a well-cut black tailcoat. And there was a certain stillness about him, a sense of strong feelings kept under wraps, that imparted a hint of the mysterious.
"Such lies are beneath you," Lili told Elic as she stroked Darius beneath his chin. "And your jealousy is absurd, my love, considering how many bedmates we've shared over the years. Absurd and surprising. Quite unlike you, really."
Turning away from Elic quite deliberately, she apologized to Beckett, in English, for having conducted that exchange in a language he couldn't understand.
The young man met Lili's eyes for a lightning-quick moment, then lowered his gaze to his brandy, which he swirled in a way that was meant to look thoughtful—though to Elic, it bespoke a deep discomfiture. He actually appeared to be blushing, though it was difficult to tell in the wavering candlelight.
From the moment David Beckett had been introduced to Lili upon his arrival that afternoon at Chateau de la Grotte Cachee, he had seemed gripped by an uneasy entrancement. It was hardly an unusual reaction among male visitors to the chateau. Ilutu-Lili, with her lustrous black hair, slumberous eyes, and easy sensuality, had a bewitching effect on men.
She had certainly bewitched Elic; for eighty years he had been caught in her spell. Tonight, with her hair secured by a diamond-crusted comb in a knot of loops and tumbling curls, her shoulders bared by the wide, sloping neckline of her gown—a confection of garnet silk with billowy gigot sleeves and a hand-span waist—she looked the very image of the goddess she truly was.
"What language did you study?" Elic asked Beckett.
"I've taken classes in Latin, Greek, Italian, and Hebrew, though of those tongues, the only ones of which I have a true command are Latin and Italian."
"Quite the well-schooled gardener," Elic said.
The taunt earned him a look of surprised amusement from Inigo and scowls from Archer and Lili. Beckett's gaze lit on Lili before returning to Elic, whom he studied for a long, hushed moment.
Shifting his lantern jaw uneasily, Archer said, "I would, er, hardly call our guest a gardener, given the scope of his expertise and the rather ambitious nature of his work."
Bartholomew Archer had just the year before succeeded his father as administrateur to Theophile Morel, Seigneur des Ombres, the elderly lord of Grotte Cachee and gardien to Elic and his three fellow Follets. Tall and thin as lath, the timorous Brit had yet to grow comfortable in his role as steward of Grotte Cachee; Elic wondered if he ever would.
Archer said, "I should think Mr. Beckett would be more correctly termed, er, a horticulturist."
Beckett said, "On the contrary, Mr. Archer, I infer no shame in the title of gardener. Humphrey Repton, who gave me my initial instruction in this field, styled himself a 'landscape gardener.' I am content to be called the same."
"Humphrey Repton trained you?" Archer said. "I'm impressed."
"Never heard of him," said Inigo, who, having a remarkable facility with languages, spoke English with no trace at all of an accent. Of Greek extraction, he had traveled all over the known world before being recruited in A.D. 14 to pose for the bathhouse statues at Grotte Cachee. He'd made his home there ever since.
Archer said, "Repton was famous for designing, or redesigning, the grounds of some of the finest estates in Britain. How came you to apprentice with him, Beckett?"
"I would hardly call it an apprenticeship," Beckett replied. "I was twelve years old at the time. My father had engaged him to devise a plan for improving the park and gardens at the country house he'd just purchased, which had been neglected for decades. This was in the late summer of 1816, two years before Mr. Repton went to his maker. He'd been injured in a carriage accident, so he needed a wheelchair to get around, and I used to push it for him while he sketched panoramic vistas. His aim was to create a natural but picturesque landscape, and he had impeccable instincts. He turned twelve-hundred dreary, overgrown acres into a veritable paradise. Whole areas were excavated and transformed, hundreds of trees were cut and planted, terraces were built, flower gardens installed."
Archer said, "I've seen Repton's work at Blaise Castle—extraordinary."
"How did he manage such rigorous work, being in a wheelchair?" Inigo asked.
"Oh, he didn't actually execute his designs," Beckett replied. "He was more of an advisor, coming up with the plans and leaving it to his clients to arrange for the actual work."
"Mr. Beckett works in much the same manner," Archer told the assembled company. "During his stay with us, he will inspect the grounds surrounding the castle and devise a scheme for improving them. Upon his return to England, he will prepare a book of notes, plans, and pictures in order that we may implement his ideas."
"It is a method I've borrowed from Mr. Repton," Beckett said. "For each client, he created what he called a 'Red Book,' because it was bound in red leather. The book would contain descriptions of what should be done, including detailed illustrations in watercolor depicting the grounds as they then existed, with vellum overlays showing how that particular area would look should his suggestions be implemented. When Mr. Repton discovered my aptitude for drawing and painting, he allowed me to help him with that end of things, and I found it fascinating. For years after that, I read everything I could get my hands on that had to do with botany, floriculture, architecture. And I painted landscapes, as Mr. Repton had advised, to help develop my sense of natural aesthetics."
"You made a study of these things at university, I suppose?" Lili asked him as she scratched the purring Darius behind his ears.
"I confess I did not. I say, what an agreeable cat. My mother had one, but it hissed at me whenever I would try to pick it up."
"I am afraid my friend here will do the same," Lili warned. "He might even bite you should you get too close. He hates being touched by strangers."
"What did you study?" Elic asked Beckett.
The young man pinned Elic with a brief, trenchant look, as if sizing him up. "It had always been assumed that I would read theology."
Elic hated the way Lili gazed at Beckett, her eyes sparking, her color high. He didn't blame her for her appetites; she could no more ignore them than he could ignore his own. But when the object of that hunger held her in such utter thrall, when there was little doubt just how desperately she ached to possess him, it incited in Elic a primal, almost human covetousness. There was no restraining her when her lust for an exceptionally desirable male—a gabru in her extinct Akkadian tongue—ran this hot, no way to keep her from stealing into his bedchamber during the night and ravishing him as he lay immobilized, or partially so, by one of her ancient Babylonian spells.
Were Elic capable of making love to Lil—really making love—he might have some chance of keeping her all to himself. As an alfr, he should have been able to bed humans and Follets alike, but a chance dusian mutation had skewed his elfin physiology in the womb. No dusios could ease his constant, seething lust save between the legs of a human female. It was a factor in the blood itself, which would literally recoil, draining from his organ the moment he attempted to penetrate a nonhuman. No blood, no erection. No erection, no intercourse.
Regardless of how aroused Lili made him, how achingly hard, the moment he tried to enter her, he would wilt. He could pleasure her only with his hands and his mouth, although from time to time he would join her when she took her human quarry, caressing her, kissing her, and whispering his love into her ear a...