Although Jude had not slept well after Clem's visit (dreams of light bulbs, talking in a code of flickers she couldn't crack), she woke early and had laid her plans for the day by eight. She'd drive up to Highgate, she decided, and try and find some way into the prison beneath the tower, where the only woman left in the Fifth who might help empower her languished. She knew more about Celestine now than she had when she'd first visited the tower on New Year's Eve. Dowd had procured her for the Unbeheld, or so he claimed, plucking her from the streets of London and taking her to the borders of the First. That she'd survived such traumas at all was extraordinary. That she might be sane at the end of them, after divine violation and centuries of imprisonment, was almost certainly too much to hope for. But mad or not, Celestine was a much needed source of insight, and Jude was determined to dare whatever she had to in order to hear the woman speak.
The tower was so perfectly anonymous she drove past it before realizing that she'd done so.. Doubling back, she parked in a side street and approached on foot. There were no vehicles in the forecourt and no sign of life at any of the windows, but she marched to the front door and rang the bell, hoping there might be a caretaker she could persuade to let her in. She'd use Oscar's name as a reference, she decided. Though she knew this was playing with fire, there was no time for niceties. Whether Gentle's ambitions as a Reconciler were realized or not, the days ahead would be charged with possibilities. Things sealed were cracking; things silent were drawing breath to speak.
The door remained closed, though she rang and rapped several times. Frustrated, she headed around the back of the building, the route more choked by barbs and stings than ever. The tower's shadow chilled the ground where Clara had dropped and died, and the earth, which was badly drained, smelled of stagnancy. Until she walked here the thought of finding any fragments of the blue eye had not occurred to her, but perhaps it had been part of her unconscious agenda from the start. Finding no hope of access on this side of the building, she turned her attention to seeking the pieces. Though her recollections of what had happened here were strong, she couldn't pinpoint with any accuracy the place where Dowd's mites had devoured the stone, and she wandered around for fully an hour, searching through the long grass for some sign. Her patience was finally rewarded, however. Much farther from the tower than she'd ever have guessed, she found what the devourers had left. It was little more than a pebble, which anybody but herself would have passed over. But to her eyes its blue was unmistakable, and when she knelt to pick it up she was almost reverential. It looked like an egg, she thought, lying there in a nest of grass, waiting for the warmth of a body to kindle the life in it.
As she stood up she heard the sound of car doors slamming on the other side of the building. Keeping the stone in her hand she slipped back down the side of the tower. There were voices in the forecourt: men and women exchanging words of welcome. At the corner, she had a glimpse of them. Here they were, the Tabula Rasa. In her imagination she'd elevated them to the dubious status of Grand Inquisitors, austere and merciless judges whose cruelty would be gouged into their faces. There was perhaps one among this quartet—the eldest of the three men—who would not have looked absurd in robes, but the others had an insipidity about their features and a sloth in their bearing that would have made them bathetic in any garb but the most bland. None looked particularly happy with his lot. To judge by their leaden eyes, sleep had failed to befriend them lately. Nor could their expensive clothes (everything charcoal and black) conceal the lethargy in their limbs.
She waited at the corner until they'd disappeared through the front door, hoping the last had left it ajar. But it was once again locked, and this time she declined to knock. While she might have brazened or flattered her way past a caretaker, none of the quartet she'd seen would have spared her an inch. As she stepped away from the door another car turned off the road and glided into the forecourt. Its driver was a male, and the youngest of the arrivees. It was too late to dodge for cover, so she raised her hand in a cheery way and picked up her pace to a smart trot.
As she came abreast of the vehicle it halted. She kept on walking. Once past it, she heard the car door open and a fruity, overeducated voice said, "You there! What are you doing?"
She kept up her trot, resisting the temptation to run even though she heard his feet on the gravel, then another haughty holler as he came in pursuit. She ignored him until she was at the property line and he was within grasping distance of her. Then she turned, with a pretty smile, and said, "Did you call?"
"This is a private ground," he replied.
"I'm sorry, I must have the wrong address. You're not a gynecologist, are you?" Where this invention sprang from she didn't know, but it colored his cheeks in two pulses. "I need to see a doctor as soon as possible."
He shook his head, covered in confusion. "This isn't the hospital," he spluttered. "It's halfway down the hill."
Lord bless the English male, she thought, who could be reduced to near idiocy at the very mention of matters vaginal.
"Are you sure you're not a doctor?" she said, enjoying his discomfiture. "Even a student? I don't mind."
He actually took a step back from her at this, as though she was going to pounce on him and demand an examination on the spot.
"No, I'm—I'm sorry."
"So am I," she said, extending her hand. He was too baffled to refuse, and shook it. "I'm Sister Concupiscentia," she said.
"Bloxham," he replied.
"You should be a gynecologist," she said appreciatively. "You've got lovely warm hands." And with that she left him to his blushes.
There was a message from Chester Klein on the answering machine when she got back, inviting her to a cocktail party at his house that evening, in celebration of what he called the Bastard Boy's return to the land of the living. She was at first startled that Gentle had decided to make contact with his friends after all his talk of invisibility, then flattered that he'd taken her advice. Perhaps she'd been over-hasty in her rejection of him. Even in the short time she'd spent in Yzordderrex, the city had made her think and behave in ways she'd never have countenanced in the Fifth. How much more so for Gentle, whose catalogue of adventures in the Dominions would have filled a dozen diaries. Now he was back in the Fifth, perhaps he was resisting some of those bizarrer influences, like a man returned to civilization from some lost tribe, sluicing off the war paint and learning to wear shoes again. She called Klein back and accepted the invitation.
"My dear child, you are a sight for sore eyes," he said when she appeared on his doorstep that evening. "So stylishly unnourished! Malnutrition a la mode. Perfection."
She hadn't seen him in a long time, but she didn't remember his ever being so fulsome in his flattery before. He kissed her on both cheeks and led her through the house into the back garden. There was still warmth in the descending sun, and his other guests—two of whom she knew, two of whom were strangers—were sipping cocktails on the lawn. Though small and high-walled, the garden was almost tropically lush. Inevitably, given Klein's nature, it was entirely given over to flowering species, no bush or plant welcomed if it didn't bloom with immoderate abandon. He introduced her to the company one by one, starting with Vanessa, whose face—though much changed since they'd last met—was one of the two she knew. She had put on a good deal of weight and even more makeup, as though to cover one excess with another. Her eyes, Jude saw when she said hello, were those of a woman who was only holding back a scream for decorum's sake.
"Is Gentle with you?" was Vanessa's first question. "No, he's not," Klein said. "Now have another drink and go and dally in the rosebushes."
The woman took no offense at his condescension but made straight for the champagne bottle, while Klein introduced Jude to the two strangers in the party. One, a balding young man in sunglasses, he introduced as Duncan Skeet.
"A painter," he said. "Or, more precisely, an impressionist. Isn't that right, Duncan? You do impressions, don't you? Modigliani, Corot, Gauguin...."
The joke was lost on its butt, though not on Jude. "Isn't that illegal?" she said.
"Only if you don't talk about it," Klein replied, which remark brought a guffaw from the fellow in conversation with the faker, a heavily mustached and accented individual called Luis.
"Who's not a painter of any persuasion. You're not anything at all, are you, Luis?"
"How about a Lotos-eater?" Luis said. The scent Jude had taken to be that of the blossoms in the borders was in fact Luis' aftershave.
"I'll drink to that," Klein said, moving Jude on to the last of the company. Though Jude knew the woman's face she couldn't place it, until Klein named her-Simone-and she remembered the conversation she'd had at Clem and Taylor's, which had ended with this woman heading off in search of seduction. Klein left them to talk while he went inside to break open another bottle of champagne.
"We met at Christmas," Simone said. "I don't know if you remember?"
"Instantly," Jude said.
"I've had my hair chopped since then, and 1 swear half my friends don't recognize me."
"It suits you."
"Klein says I should have kept it and had it made into jewelry. Apparently hair brooches were the height of fashion at the turn of the century."
"Only as memento mori," Jude said. Simone looked blank. "The hair was usually from someone who'd died."
The woman's fizz-addled features still took a little time to register what she was being told, but when she grasped the point she let out a groan of disgust.
"I suppose that's his idea of a joke," she said. "He has no sense of fucking decency, that man." Klein was appearing from the back door, bearing champagne. "Yes, you!" Simone said. "Don't you take death seriously?"
"Have I missed something?" Klein said.
"You are a tasteless old fart sometimes!" Simone went on, striding toward him and throwing the glass down at his feet.
"What did I do?" Klein said.
Luis went to his assistance, cooing at Simone to calm her. Jude had no desire to get further embroiled. She retreated down one of the paths, her hand slipping into the deep pocket of her skirt, where the egg of the blue eye was lying. She closed her palm around it and stooped to sniff at one of the perfect roses. It had no scent, not even of life. She thumbed its petals. They were dry. She stood up again, casting her eyes over the spectacle of blossoms. Fake, every last one.
Simone's caterwauling had ceased behind her, and now so did Luis' chatter. Jude looked around, and there at the back door, stepping out of the house into the warm evening light, was Gentle.
"Save me," she heard Klein imploring. "Before I'm flayed alive,"
Gentle smiled his sun-shamer and opened his arms to Klein.
"No more arguments," he said, hugging the man. "Tell Simone," Klein replied. "Simone. Are you bullying Chester?" "He was being a bastard."
"No, I'm the bastard. Give me a kiss, and tell me you forgive him."
"I forgive him."
"Peace on earth, goodwill to Chester."
There was laughter from all parties, and Gentle passed through the company with kisses, hugs, and handshakes, reserving the longest, and perhaps the crudest, embrace for Vanessa.
"You're missing somebody," Klein said, and steered Gentle's glance towards Jude.
He didn't lavish his smile upon her. She was wise to his devices, and he knew it. Instead he offered her an almost apologetic look and raised the glass Klein had already put in his hand in her direction. He'd always been a slick transformer (perhaps it was the Maestro in him, surfacing as a trivial skill), and in the twenty-four hours or so since she'd left him on his doorstep he'd made himself new. The ragged locks were trimmed, the grimy face washed and shaved. Dressed in white, he looked like a cricketer returned from the crease, glowing with vigor and victory. She stared at him, searching for some sign of the haunted man he'd been the evening before, but he'd put his anxieties entirely out of sight, for which she could only admire him. More than admire. Tonight he was the lover she'd imagined as she'd lain in Quaisoir's bed, and she couldn't help but be stirred by the sight of him. Once before a dream had led her into his arms, and the consequence, of course, had been pain and tears. It was a form of masochism to invite a repeat of that experience, and a distraction from weightier matters.
And yet; and yet. Was it perhaps inevitable that they found their way back into one another's arms sooner or later? And if it was, maybe this game of glances was a greater distraction still, and they would serve their ambitions better to dispense with the dalliance and accept that they were indivisible. This time, instead of being dogged by a past neither of them had comprehended, they knew their histories and could build on solid ground. That is, if he had the will to do so.
Klein was beckoning her, but she stayed in her bower of fake blossoms, seeing how eager he was to watch the drama he'd engineered unfold. He, Luis, and Duncan were merely spectators. The scene they'd come to watch was the Judgment of Paris, with Vanessa, Simone, and herself cast as the Goddesses, and Gentle as the hero obliged to choose between them. It was grotesque, and she was determined to keep herself from the tableau, instead wandering up to the far end of the garden while the banter continued on the lawn. Close to the wall she came upon a strange sight. A clearing had been made in the artificial jungle, and a small rosebush—real, but far less sumptuous than the fakery surrounding it—had been planted there. As she was puzzling over this, Luis appeared at her side with a glass of champagne.
"One of his cats," Luis said. "Gloriana. She was killed by a car in March. He was devastated. Couldn't sleep. Wouldn't even talk to anybody. I thought he was going to kill himself."
"He's a strange one," Jude said, casting a glance back at Klein, who had his arm around Gentle's shoulder and was laughing uproariously. "He pretends everything's a game—"
"That's because he feels everything too much," Luis replied.
"I doubt that," she said.
"I've been in business with him twenty-one, twenty-two years. We have fights. We make up. We have fights again. He's a good man, believe me. But so afraid of feeling, he must make it all a joke. You're not English, huh?"
"No, I'm English."
"Then you understand this," he said. "You also have the little graves, hidden away." He laughed.
"Thousands," she said, watching Gentle step back into the house. "Would you excuse me a moment?" she said, and headed back down the garden with Luis in pursuit.
Kletn made a move to intercept her, but she simply handed him her empty glass and went inside. Gentle was in the kitchen, rooting through the refrigerator, peeling the lids off bowls and peering into them.
"So much for invisibility," Jude said.
"Would you have preferred it if I hadn't come?"
"Meaning that if I'd asked you'd have stayed away?"
He grinned as he found something that suited his palate. "Meaning," he said, "that the rest of them don't have a prayer. I came because I knew you'd be here."
He plunged his first and middle fingers into the ramekin he'd brought out and laid a dollop of chocolate mousse on his tongue.
"Want some?" he said.
She hadn't, until she saw the abandon with which he was devouring the stuff. His appetite was contagious. She scooped a fingerful herself. It was sweet and creamy.
"Good?" he said.
"Sinful," she replied. "What made you change your mind?"
"About hiding yourself away."
"Life's too short," he said, taking his laden fingers to his mouth again. "Besides, I just said: I knew you'd be here."
"You're a mind reader now?"
"I'm flourishing," he said, his grin more chocolate than teeth. The sophisticate she'd seen step out into the garden minutes before was here a guzzling boy.
"You've got chocolate all around your mouth," she said.
"Do you want to kiss it off?" he replied.
"Yes," she said, seeing no purpose misrepresenting her feeling. Secrets had done them too much harm in the past.
"Then why are we still here?" he said.
"Klein'Il never forgive us if we leave. The party's in your honor."
"They can talk about us when we've gone," he said, setting down the ramekin and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "In fact, they'd probably prefer that. I say we go now, before we're spotted. We're wasting time making conversation—"
"—when we could be making love."
"I thought I was the mind reader," he said.
As they opened the front door they heard Klein calling them from the back, and Jude felt a pang of guilt, until she remembered the proprietorial look she'd caught on Klein's face when Gentle had first"appeared and he'd known that he had the cast gathered for a fine farce. Guilt turned to irritation, and she slammed the front door hard to make sure he heard.
As soon as they got back to the flat Jude threw open the windows to let the breeze, which was still balmy though the night had long since fallen, come and go. News from the streets outside came with it, of course, but nothing momentous: the inevitable sirens; chatter from the pavement; jazz from the club down the block. With the windows wide, she sat down on the bed beside Gentle. It was time for them to speak without any other agenda but the truth.
"I didn't think we'd end up this way," she said. "Here. Together."
"Are you glad we have?"
"Yes, I'm glad," she said, after a pause. "It feels right."
"Good," he replied. "It feels perfectly natural to me too."
He slid around the back of her and, threading his hands through her hair, began to work his fingers against her scalp. She sighed.
"You like that?" he asked.
"I like that.""Do you want to tell me how you feel?"
"About me. About us."
"I told you, it feels right."
She closed her eyes, the persuasive fingers almost easing the words out of her. "I'm glad you're here because I think we can learn from one another. Maybe even love each other again. How does that sound?"
"Fine by me," he said softly.
"And what about you? What's in your head?"
"That I'd forgotten how strange this Dominion is. That I need your help to make me strong. That I'm afraid I may act strangely sometimes, make mistakes, and I want you to love me enough to forgive me if I do. Will you?"
"You know I will," she said.
"I want you to share my visions, Judith. I want you to see what's shining in me and not be afraid of it."
"I'm not afraid."
"That's good to hear," he said. "That's so very good." He leaned towards her, putting his mouth close to her ear. "We make the rules from now on," he whispered. "And the world follows. Yes? There's no law but us. What we want. What we feel. We'll let that consume us, and the fire'H spread. You'll see."
He kissed the ear into which he'd poured these seductions, then her cheek, and finally her mouth. She started to kiss him back, fervently, putting her hands around his head as he had hers, kneading the flesh from which his hair sprang and feeling its motion against his skull. He had his hands on the neck of her blouse, but he didn't bother to unbutton it. Instead he tore it open, not in a frenzy but rhythmically, rent after rent, like a ritual of uncovering. As soon as her breasts were bare his mouth was on them. Her skin was hot, but his tongue was hotter, painting her with spiral tracks of spittle, then closing his mouth around her nipples until they were harder than the tongue that teased them. His hands were reducing her skirt to tatters in the same efficient way he'd torn open her blouse. She let herself drop back onto the bed, with the rags of blouse and skirt beneath her. He looked down at her, laying his palm at her crotch, which was still protected from his touch by the thin fabric of her underwear.
"How many men have had this?" he asked her, the question murmured without inflection. His head was silhouetted against the pale billows at the window, and she could not read his expression. "How many?" he said, moving the ball of his hand in a circular motion. From any other source but this the question would have offended or even enraged her. But she liked his curiosity.
He ran his fingers down into the space between her legs and worked his middle fingers under the fabric to touch her other hole. "And this?" he said, pushing at the place.
She was less comfortable with this inquiry, verbal or digital, but he insisted. "Tell me," he said. "Who's been in here?"
"Just one," she said.
"Godolphin?" he replied.
He removed his finger and rose from the bed. "A family enthusiasm," he remarked.
"Where are you going?"
"Just closing the curtains," he said. "The dark's better for what we're going to do." He drew the drapes without closing the window. "Are you wearing any jewelry?" he asked her.
"Just my earrings."
"Take them off," he said.
"Can't we have a little light?"
"It's too bright as it is," he replied, though she could barely see him. He was watching her as he undressed, that much she knew. He saw her slide her earrings from the holes in her lobes and then take off her underwear. By the time she was completely naked so was he.
"I don't want a little part of you," he said, approaching the bottom of the bed. "I want all of you, every last piece, and I want you to want all of me."
"I do," she said.
"I hope you mean that."
"How can I prove it?"
His gray form seemed to darken as she spoke, receding into the shadows of the room. He'd said he'd be invisible, and now he was. Though she felt his hand graze her ankle, and looked down the bed to find him, he was beyond the grasp of her eye. But pleasure flowed from his touch nevertheless.
"I want this," he said as he caressed her foot. "And this." Now her shin and thigh. "And this"—her sex—"as much as the rest, but no more. And this, and these." Belly, breasts. His touch was on them all, so he had to be very close to her now, but still invisible, "And this sweet throat, and this wonderful head," Now the hands slid away again, down her arms. "And these" he said, "to the ends of your fingers."
The touch was back at her foot again, but everywhere his hands had been—which was to say her entire body—trembled with anticipation at the touch coming again. She raised her head from the pillow a second time in the hope of glimpsing her lover.
"Lie back," he told her.
"I want to see you."
"I'm here," he said, his eyes stealing a gleam from somewhere as he spoke: two bright dots in a space that, had she not known it was bounded, could have been limitless. After his words, there was only his breath. She couldn't help but let the rhythm of her own inhalations and exhalations fall hi with his, a lulling regularity which steadily slowed.
After a time, he raised her foot to his mouth and licked the sole from heel to toe in one motion. Then his breath again, cooling the fluid he'd bathed her with, and slowing still further as it came and went, until her system seemed to teeter on termination at the end of each breath, only to be coaxed back into life again as she inhaled. This was the substance of every moment, she realized: the body—never certain if the next lungful would be its last—hovering for a tiny time between cessation and continuance. And in that space out of time, between a breath expelled and another drawn, the miraculous was easy, because neither flesh nor reason had laid their edicts there. She felt his mouth open wide enough to encompass her toes and then, impossible as it was, slide her foot into his throat.
He's going to swallow me, she thought, and the notion conjured once again the book she'd found in Estabrook's study, with its sequence of lovers enclosed in a circle of consumption: a devouring so prodigious it had ended with mutual eclipse. She felt no unease at the prospect. This wasn't the business of the visible world, where fear got fat because there was so much to win and lose. This was a place for lovers, where there was only ever gain.
She felt him draw her other leg up to his head and immerse it in the same heat; then felt him take hold of her hips and use them as purchase to impale himself upon her, inch by inch. Perhaps he'd become vast: his maw monstrous, his throat a tunnel; or perhaps she was pliant as silk, and he was drawing her into him like a magician threading fake flowers into a wand. She reached up towards him in the darkness, to feel the miracle, but her fingers couldn't interpret what buzzed beneath them. Was this her flesh or his? Ankle or cheek? There was no way of knowing. Nor, in truth, any need to know. All she wanted now was to do as the lovers in the book had done and match his devouring with her own.
She reached for the edge of the bed and turned herself half over, bringing him down beside her. Now, though her eyes were besotted by darkness, she saw the outline of his body, folded into the shadows of her own. There was nothing changed about his anatomy. Though he was consuming her, his body was in no way distorted. He lay beside her like a sleeper. She reached out to touch him a second time, not expecting to make sense of his body now but finding she could. This was his thigh; this his shin; this his ankle and foot. As she ran her palm across his flesh a delicate wave of change came with it, and his substance seemed to soften beneath her touch. The scent of his sweat was appetizing. It, quickened the juices in her throat and belly. She drew her head towards his feet and touched her lips to the substance of him. Then she was feeding; spreading her hunger around him like a mouth and closing her mind on his glistening skin. He shuddered as she took him in, and she felt the thrill of his pleasure as her own. He had already consumed her to the hips, but she quickly matched his appetite, taking his legs down into her, swallowing both his prick and the belly it lay hard against. She loved the excess of this, and its absurdity, their bodies defying physics and physique, or else making fresh proofs of both as the configuration closed upon itself. Was anything ever so easy and yet so impossible, besides love? And what was this, if not that paradox laid on a sheet? He had slowed his swallows to allow her to catch up, and now, in tandem, they closed the loop of their consumption, until their bodies were figments, and they were mouth to mouth.
Something from outside—a shout in the street, a sour saxophone chord—threw her back into the plausible world again, and she saw the root from which their invention had flowered. It was a commonplace conjunction: her legs crossed around his hips, his erection high inside her. She couldn't see his face, but she knew he wasn't here in this fugitive place with her. He was still dreaming their devouring. She panicked, wanted to regain the vision but not knowing how. She tightened her grip on his body and, in so doing, inspired his hips to motion. He began to move in her, breathing oh so slowly against her face. She forgot her panic and let her rhythm once again slow until it matched his. The solid world dissolved as she did so, and she returned to the place from which she'd been called to find that the loop was tightening by the moment, his mind enveloping her head as she enveloped his, like layers of an impossible onion, each one smaller than the layer it concealed: an enigma that could only exist where substance collapsed into the very mind which begged its being.
This bliss could not be sustained indefinitely, however. Before long it began once more to lose its purity, tainted by further sounds from the outside world, and this time she sensed that he was also relinquishing his hold on the delirium. Perhaps, as they learned to be lovers again, they'd find a way to sustain the state for longer: spend nights and days, perhaps, lost in the precious space between a breath expelled and another drawn. But for now she would have to be content with the ecstasy they'd had. Reluctantly, she let the tropic night in which they'd devoured each other be subsumed into a simpler darkness, and,'without quite knowing where consciousness began and ended, she fell asleep.
When she awoke she was alone in the bed. That disappointment apart, she felt both lively and light. What they'd shared was a commodity more marketable than a cure for the common cold: a high without a hangover. She sat up, reaching for a sheet to drape around her, but before she could stand she heard his voice in the predawn gloom. He was standing by the window, with a fold of curtain clipped between middle and forefinger, his eye to the chink he'd opened.
"It's time for me to get working," he said softly.
"It's still early," she said.
"The sun's almost up," he replied. "I can't waste time."
He let the curtain drop and crossed to the bed. She sat up and put her arms around his torso. She wanted to spend time with him, luxuriating in the calm she felt, but his instinct was healthier. They both had work to do.
"I'd rather stay here than return to the studio," he said. "Would you mind?"
"Not at all," she replied. "In fact, I'd like you to stay."
"I'll be coming and going at odd hours."
"As long as you find your way back into bed once in a while," she said.
"I'll be with you," he said, running his hand down from her neck to rub her belly. "From now on, I'll be with you night and day."