Major Eberbach raised his hand to lift the polished brass knocker on the front door of the Earl of Gloria's mansion (which might be called his castle, depending on one's sense of scale) in the North Downs of England. Only after he had sounded his summons did the knocker's unusual shape come to the Major's attention. He quickly dropped it and resisted the urge to wipe his hand clean. It was only an obscene brass door knocker. He could expect worse from the Earl of Gloria, and probably very soon.
Seconds later the door opened to reveal Bonham, costumed as a very correct butler. "Major, sir! His lordship will be delighted to see you!"
"I doubt it," said the Major. "I have some questions for him."
Bonham ushered him in, a little too enthusiastically. "He'll be delighted to see you anyway. He says so daily."
The Major repressed an unseemly groan of exasperation. The latest report of Eroica — the Earl — had been of an appearance in a Welsh cave from which an ancient and priceless artifact was suspected to be missing. The archaeological value did not concern him and it was not his Department's business to prevent grand theft within Britain. Yet here he was on Eroica's doorstep, despite his protests and his very great disinclination to have anything more to do with the Earl. Someone was curious about something to do with that cave, someone who gave orders at a very high level in, or to, the NATO Intelligence Department.
Eberbach was conducted through a corridor of polished wood paneling and into an exquisitely-furnished room where electrical lamps were lit already in the dark winter afternoon. The house wore an air of frantic festivity: spruce and juniper branches festooned the walls, holly the windows, and mistletoe the doorways, all swagged with bright ribbon. The Major tried to restrain his disgust at the lavish display for this was, after all, the week before Christmas. He supposed that even the notably Godless and hopelessly eccentric Earl of Gloria would keep the holiday in some fashion, and his style was for flamboyance in all things. Unlit candles were arranged on the table and even in the chandelier; the fireplace wasn't lit yet either, but fresh kindling had been laid in the grate.
"Major!" said a familiar, detestable voice. "Do sit down and have a little brandy! It's very good of you to call." Eroica, better known as Dorian, Earl of Gloria, wore shirt and trousers of ivory silk, the shirt left open-throated to show a gold torc and a goodly expanse of flawless bare chest.
Klaus tore his eyes away and focused again on the holly strewn thickly on the fireplace mantle, its berries gleaming like drops of blood. "Where were you," he asked without preamble, "day before yesterday? In the afternoon and evening?"
The Earl's eyes widened, artfully artless. "Why, here." He gestured at the room and tossed his shoulder-length yellow curls at the window to indicate the sloping meadow, trees beyond, and the perpetually overcast English sky. "On this estate. Whyever do you ask?"
"I'll explain later. No doubt your servants, or any visitors you had, will confirm your statement."
"Of course," said the Earl smoothly. Eberbach had expected no less. "I believe one or more people were with me all the time. We spent the afternoon gathering greenery." His gesture this time took in the masses of leaves and green needles on every wall and lintel. "Do let me show you the rest of the house."
The offer had, to the Major's ears, a suggestive tone that set his teeth on edge. "No, thank you. Could you call your household together, now, and ask them to answer a few questions for me?"
"Anything you like, of course," said the Earl, wide blue eyes feigning guileless acquiescence. The expression had fooled Klaus von dem Eberbach once, but it did not do so now.
"Call for a servant — not Mr. Bonham. Don't speak to him; I shall."
"So suspicious," sighed the Earl, but he tugged at a bayberry-decked bellpull.
"Is that how you call for someone?" demanded the Major, curious despite himself. He'd had internal telephones installed at Eberbach some years ago and couldn't imagine living without them.
"Sometimes the older ways are enjoyable."
The Major gave him a look of undisguised incredulity. The Earl's eccentric, not to say depraved, way of life could only be tolerated amid the chaos of modern society. A more ordered and orderly civilization would have cast him out long since. Things would have been, the Major thought, much the better for it. "Have you a larger room where everyone in the house can be gathered at once?" he asked. He was here for a purpose, and the sooner it was satisfied, the sooner he could leave the Earl of Gloria's mansion.
"Naturally. The large hall is set up for dining, with tables and chairs." Dorian Red Gloria favored the Major with a sidelong smile. "I forget that you haven't seen the house. You're so much a part of my life."
The Major was saved from having to reply to that by the arrival of a footman. "Your lordship."
The Major cut in before the Earl could speak. "Please ask everyone now in the house to come to the large hall."
The young man, whose fresh good looks and athletic build were typical of the Earl's servants, looked at the Earl and received a nod. "Yes, sir."
"Are there any guests in residence today, or two days ago?"
"Good," said Eberbach. "Have everyone, and I mean every person in this house, or who lives on the grounds, without exception, in the large hall in ten minutes. The Earl is allowing me to arrange this as I wish." He shot an admonitory look at Eroica and saw the Earl, undisturbed, give the footman another nod of confirmation.
"Yes, sir," said the man again, and backed hurriedly out of the room.
"I suppose you will take every precaution to make sure I cannot communicate with them before you get their accounts of day before yesterday?" Eroica sounded amused. "So thorough. So efficiently done. I admire you, Major."
"You understand the purpose of the exercise, and that is sufficient," said Eberbach. "I am acquainted with your ingenuity, Eroica, far more than I like. Do not interfere this time."
"Oh, how expressively put!"
Eberbach frowned a warning.
The Earl went on, heedless, "I so enjoy your company, whatever the excuse. Tell me, since we have ten minutes together now, just what you hope to find out."
The Major felt his patience growing brittle. "I'm sure you know better than to expect me to tell you any such thing!"
His tone finally seemed to make an impression on the Earl, who subsided, ran a hand through the overlong fair curls, and sat back in the armchair he'd been perching on. "There have been times," he ventured from the depths of the chair, "when I thought I had a good deal of your confidence. Perhaps even in more than professional matters."
The wistful statement pulled Klaus out of his carefully-balanced reserve. "You shouldn't have tried to get me into bed," he snapped.
"It was a joke."
"I didn't think it was funny."
"I see not," said the Earl, settling deeper into his chair. "Well, if your delicate Catholic morals can withstand me when I'm working for NATO with you, I imagine you'll be able to endure my presence when you officially suspect me of ... whatever it is you suspect."
"Easily," said the Major. But it wasn't easy. No moralization could erase the stab of nervous curiosity which had prompted him, for a horrible instant, to accept the Earl's offer. He remembered it often.
"I'm sorry to hear it; I wish your answer had been different."
Klaus growled, "Surely you didn't expect me to agree!"
"Yes, I did," said Eroica thoughtfully. "It was an odd hope, I know, considering what you're like, but I did have hopes."
The Major stared at him, honestly surprised. "Don't be ridiculous."
"I'm not." Eroica, whose first vocation was the spectacular display of his social life, including his openly gay affairs, smiled knowingly. "I do have some experience in judging such things," he pointed out.
"My superiors convinced me not to hold that against you, until you made it impossible to ignore," said Klaus stiffly.
"Dear me, I don't want you to ignore it."
The Major took out his cigarette case and lit one, ignoring Eroica's wince as the pocket lighter sparked. "I can do my job here and finish this investigation quickly, which will make everyone happy. Or I can stop now and request my Chief to assign someone else to it, which will delay and annoy everyone here."
"You'd hate to do that."
"It would be unprofessional. But the Chief and the Department are aware that you are difficult to handle."
"Only when I feel like it, darling," drawled the Earl's very English voice.
Dorian Red Gloria would know a last warning when he heard one. Then, and only then, he would cease to play this ridiculous game. It seemed to Eberbach that they'd been at it for much longer than ten minutes.
# # #
Three hours later, with a detailed time-table of everyone's activities of two days ago in hand, it had become evident to the Major that Eroica's alibi was watertight. However manufactured, it could not be shaken.
Lord Gloria had lunched informally with James and two others of the senior staff, had dressed for the outdoors with his valet's aid, and had spent the afternoon in the woods with a rota of helpers and the full-time assistance of two gardeners. The entire party had returned to the mansion and decorated it, room by room, under the Earl's direction. It didn't seem that he'd spent a single minute out of someone's company, and he'd retired to his room only after cider and a late supper with the busy workers.
The Major refrained from asking if the Earl had taken anyone to bed with him. It was outside the time limits for which he needed information; it was a question not even the Earl of Gloria could be expected to answer truthfully; and above all, Klaus really didn't want to know.
The Earl, ivory silk still immaculate, faced him quizzically across a large table where the voluminous centerpiece of holly and unlit candles had been pushed aside to accommodate the Major's papers. "Was that all you wanted? How disappointing."
"Sorry," said the Major without regret.
"I'm consumed with curiosity. Can you tell me now what I'm supposed to have done?"
"No." The Major blew smoke into the air between them and tapped ash off his cigarette into a large, nearly-full ashtray. "Your servants' stories are quite consistent. Remarkably so."
The Earl raised an eyebrow. "I didn't have time to arrange any artistic lapses of memory when I organized them." The Major allowed the sarcasm to pass over his head without acknowledgement. "I don't employ dullards, Major. They can remember events for well over forty-eight hours."
"So it seems," said Eberbach. "I apologize if I have disrupted your household today." He pushed his chair back and stubbed out the cigarette. His notes and the pile of statements were already in a neat stack.
Eroica, the perfect host, stood just as he did. "Don't go yet."
"You've taken over my house and upset some preparations that should have been done this afternoon. If you stay for the evening, it'll make up for the disturbance."
"You might learn something useful."
The Major dismissed that with no more than the grimace of scorn it deserved.
"About the Llanechwfllan cup," persisted Eroica.
"If you aren't the person who stole it, how do you know about it?"
The Earl, whose avocation of artistic thievery had never been proved to support his bank account in any tangible way, shrugged. "One has one's sources. I couldn't have stolen it, right?" He nodded at the stack of papers. "But I've heard it's gone missing, and only a day ago. It wasn't a difficult deduction."
"If you couldn't have stolen it you can hardly have any useful information for me as to its whereabouts or the manner of its theft. Good-bye, Eroica." The Major picked up his papers and recalled with irritation that he'd left his briefcase with his coat in the charge of Bonham. He wasn't out of the house yet.
"Major," persisted the Earl. "Klaus. Where do you have to rush off to? At this hour?" Twilight had advanced considerably, but not yet to complete dark. "Are you afraid to eat at my table? You must be hungry by now. It will be a long, cold drive back to London. Do you have a good reason not to delay it for an hour?"
The argument sounded reasonable, but Klaus could not allow it to persuade him. "Eroica, I cannot accept your hospitality."
"You're here now."
"I'm under orders."
"You could have asked for a different assignment."
"I did," said Klaus shortly. "Twice. however, I already know your identities." Eroica challenged carefully picked security systems, sometimes for NATO's benefit. The Earl of Gloria was a scandalous ornament to society. Neither role, alone, would have satisfied the volatile, beautiful man in front of him, but few people knew them both.
"Ah, but do you?"
The Major glanced at him, eyebrows rising, then frowned. "All I want to."
Eroica wore an odd smile. "I doubt it. But here's something for you: Come walk with me in the woods to see where we gathered all the greenery, to confirm my alibi. We can have dinner afterwards. What could be wrong with that?"
"No, thank you."
"You don't know what really happened day before yesterday."
"Would you tell me?" asked the Major, disbelieving. He was not in doubt as to the truth of Eroica's last statement.
Eyes at a level with his own looked into Klaus von dem Eberbach's. "Yes."
"The whole truth, Major. I swear it."
"If this is one of your tricks..."
"You'll have to see it for yourself, but it's not a trick."
# # #
The Major retrieved his trenchcoat from Bonham for the walk through twilight woodland. The Earl eschewed such practicalities, and walked out the door in nothing more than his silk lounging suit and a pair of thin boots. Despite his lack of interest in Eroica's welfare, Klaus hesitated at the gate to the meadow. Shouldn't the man wear something more?
"Don't stop there," called the Earl, who didn't appear to feel the chill December evening in the least, "or I'll come back and get you. You're standing under a big branch of mistletoe."
Major Eberbach removed himself from the leaf-and-berry-covered gateway with alacrity and joined his host in the dead grass of the eastward meadow. "That way?" he asked, of the trees at the horizon.
"Yes." They walked down the shallow slope and up an equally shallow rise of smooth ground, in twilight that grew paler each minute as the Major's eyes adjusted to the dim light. Eroica, in his white garments, nearly glowed.
They reached the outer part of the wood and began making their way around and between leafless trees. A darker mass of evergreens could be seen further in, and even here among the pale-gray birches, the Major could hear rustlings, faint twitterings, odd noises indicating that the land was not as lifeless as it appeared.
Eroica beside him stepped silently along a path which was not obvious to the Major's eye, but which opened up in front of them as they walked. Eberbach followed, determined to see his mission through. The fir trees that screened the inner wood were dark, but the pines beyond them reflected the last of the sky's light in silver-green. A few paces further on he could discern oaks: dark, sleeping skeletons among the cool life of the winter night.
Eroica had not spoken for many minutes, and the Major pushed forward to see why. Eroica was never silent unless he was concentrating very hard. Just as he reached it, the Earl's pale figure stopped and turned slowly from side to side as if listening, shining white and gold against the dark woods. The Major listened as well and heard wind sighing, more leaves rustling — dead dry leaves or fresh ones? — and the evening sounds of any forest, almost melodious in their subtle rhythms. Then Eroica strode forward again, and the Major wondered if he'd worn any of his noisier jewelry, for there seemed to be a faint clinking, or jingle, at every step.
The wood, instead of growing quieter at its heart, produced a very audible sussuration of wind and leaves as if unseen feet shuffled in time with Klaus's own. The forest smelled like a winter forest, of crisp air and dormant life. Determinedly unafraid, Klaus nevertheless felt a distinct pang of relief as an identifiable patter of hurried, human footsteps sounded behind them.
"Eroica, sir!" panted Bonham. Other figures followed behind him in the shadows of the oaks and pines. It occurred to the Major that another witness here would be just as well, but it had clearly occurred to Eroica first.
The Earl turned. "Go on ahead," he said, and his voice rang clearly above the forest noises. "I'll follow with the Major." The line of cloaked figures, perhaps the entire dozen or so that the major had interviewed at the house, flowed swiftly past the two walkers without further increasing or lessening the continual whisper of noises. Klaus paced forward again, to the bell-like jangle that accompanied Eroica and the rush of wind in the treetops. A bird, no doubt disturbed by the men's passage, trilled some notes ahead of them; another answered it.
Moments later they broke through a thick line of foliage. Eberbach thought not all of it was evergreens but had no time to examine it, for they were entering a large clearing where the cluster of people waiting for them was visible. It was the Earl's household, all of it, standing around a large flat slab of stone like a paving-block set in the grassy ground.
It was undeniably a suitable spot from which to gather huge amounts of winter greenery, the Major thought, but even half the number of servants would have sufficed for the task. In that same moment, three, then four, new figures who were hatless, cloakless and barefoot became visible at the four sides of the clearing. Eberbach's eyes narrowed. He should have spoken to everyone on the estate already.
The household men were talking in a babble of voices, and now he heard higher voices trilling and singing discordant fragments of music. The singing moved back and forth from inside the clearing to the edges, a progression that could have been questions and responses. Eberbach didn't recognize the language even when a single voice called out one sharp phrase. It was answered by another meaningless chorus from all sides, followed by a waiting silence.
The air was warmer here for some reason. Eberbach loosened his trenchcoat, but he was reluctant to discard its protection. "Eroi—" he began, and saw that the Earl was no longer beside him. "What's going on?" he demanded of the nearest person, a disheveled James whose hair was longer than he remembered.
A malicious laugh answered him. "You are mortal," said James, in a voice that rang sweet and high despite the ominous words.
It was enough to trigger the Major's temper. "I am angry," he said, with the grim satisfaction of having had his darkest expectations fulfilled. "Whatever Eroica has in mind, I will not stand still for it. I am leaving." He wheeled and started toward the hazy shadows at the edge of the clearing.
"Please don't go, Major," said a voice, equally sweet but familiar, behind him.
Eberbach took another step.
"Stay," insisted Dorian's voice. "No harm will come to you as long as you stay within the circle."
The veiled threat got his full attention, and the Major turned toward the voice without breaking stride. "What are you..."
He stopped dead. It was the Earl... it was Dorian, but even Dorian wouldn't... Dorian loomed tall and the shining pallor of his body was no longer silk, but flesh. Even through his shock, the Major recalled his last full view of the clearing; some of the figures had worn nothing identifiable as clothing. He had thought them merely barefoot.
Voices, high and low, rose together and dinned in his ears while Klaus looked at Dorian and tried to think.
"I asked you here," said the naked figure with Dorian's voice, "and you came with me. In the house, you would not be able to believe what I have to say."
"What, that you all had an orgy in the woods?" asked the Major, trying to believe that everything here was merely a lewd prank.
The thing that was not quite Eroica smiled lasciviously. "We can, if you like. Later. We have business first with the cup."
"The Welsh theft," said the Major, grasping at his duty like a lifeline.
"None of us left this circle while it found its way home. It is not in my house, nor will it be. But it is here, and it will not be removed again." Dorian glanced around at the ring of faces that surrounded the two of them. "Seeing is believing, is it not? Watch." He moved aside, and Klaus saw the center of the clearing.
On the flat slab of stone sat a cup: ancient bronze beaten with gold into a bowl with feet and handles. It was the missing Llanechwfllan cup, or similar enough to match every detail of that cup's description. Opposite it were a bronze sword and more unlit candles, but the center of the stone was empty. Then Dorian crouched beside it, lithe and beautiful, wearing only the gold torc and his shining golden hair and... Above the hair rose a pair of golden antlers, as if they grew naturally from his head.
Klaus closed his eyes, trying for disbelief. It was a game, a costume in a lewd and ridiculous game. Dorian could be depended on to outrage every standard of conduct. However, this place pinched at nerves that warned Klaus of danger, of the kind of danger more subtle than a weapon pointed at one's back.
Open again, Klaus's eyes showed him Dorian holding the sword, looking back at him. The golden head still wore its two-pronged crown. "No one will touch you within the circle unless..." for an instant he became an erotic presence so strong that Klaus's blood stirred in spite of all his misgivings, "you want him to." He laughed as Klaus swallowed, and the impact of his presence eased. The assembly, silent around them until now, rustled and sighed.
Then Klaus could tear his eyes away and try to deny the surge of lust that had seized him. It had been meaningless. It was gone now. Dorian was turning away, making some gesture with the sword.
Someone plucked at his coat sleeve, and Klaus suppressed a start. It was Bonham, mercifully clothed, though his formal suit had become a disreputable sweatshirt and well-worn trousers. "Over 'ere," he hissed in his own, human voice, while weird singings took place elsewhere. Klaus, dazed, could find no reason not to stand between two other men in the circle they formed. He did not want to look beyond the misty perimeter of the clearing where tall, strange, shadowy figures stood guard. In any case, Dorian was at the circle's center.
A smaller figure was there too: James, naked, quite unkempt and chanting at a high pitch. Klaus understood none of it. Dorian held the cup which had something to do with all this. He drank from it, upended it and righted it, and gave it to James, smiling faintly as though he knew Klaus was watching.
Why was all this necessary? It was far too elaborate to be a prank, obscene or otherwise. No one but Dorian even seemed to notice Klaus. There was danger here, potential danger, but it was not focused on the Major. He looked carefully around the circle of Dorian's men, trying to find it.
Bonham hissed at him again, "'Ere, sir," and held out the Llanechwfllan cup, upside down. What?
Klaus accepted it, feeling unexpected weight as he turned it bowl-up, and then stared. It full to the brim of liquid.
"Go on, drink it," said Bonham, grinning.
"Did you?" asked Klaus, not knowing what to believe.
"O' course. It's a fine drink, and there's always enough."
Klaus smelled it cautiously: the liquor gave off a heavy, sweet smell that filled one's nose and mouth almost as surely as the drink would. It erased his hesitation, and before he thought again, Klaus took a mouthful of it and swallowed. He tasted honey and barley and essences impossible to define. He swallowed more of it. It would not hurt him; he had Dorian's word.
He must have passed the cup to the next person, for he no longer had it. Everyone else had joined hands and all were pacing to an unheard rhythm, forming a line of bodies that spiraled clockwise around the central stone. They were singing, chanting together in different languages. He caught phrases about the sun and moon, queen of earth and queen of heaven...
His dutiful Catholic soul recoiled. They were calling on the Virgin Mary with this ... pagan ceremony. That was what this was, a mockery of the Church and of decent religion. Why was he here? How could he stay?
The chanting went on, heedless, and the spiral chain of people wound tighter, doubling back on itself. Higher voices singing like birds answered in no language but melody. Klaus watched, his horror fading slowly into curiosity again, for the time and place were so divorced from Churchly context that he could not take the blasphemy as serious.
Knotted hand-to-hand around the center stone everyone paused, the singing now no more than a many-voiced cry. Dorian's figure at the center seemed to flicker... no, it was light that flickered on him. A final cry of strange music rose to the high edge of hearing and beyond. Lower, human voices took its place, babbling. The chain-dance fell apart and shuffled respectfully back from yellow-white flames that leapt in the center of the clearing.
On bare stone. Surely not, Klaus thought, as one horned figure and two others knelt at the fire with long, unlit candles that caught fire and blossomed with light. Each was held aloft in turn with a triumphant cry. "Evohe!"
Everyone, except Klaus, answered. "Evohe! The winter king lives!" and Dorian, grinning with a joyful exuberance that Eberbach knew was like the aftermath of the thief's most incredible escapades, seized the nearest person, James, and kissed him.
James didn't seem to mind at all, and that was hardly surprising, thought Klaus. The odd thing was that James didn't seem to mind when Dorian went on to kiss everyone else, taking his time with each. The babbling had risen to a cheerful roar in release from tension, and other pairs could be seen embracing, but Klaus had attention for no one but Dorian.
Finishing with a young man in shirt and jeans, whom Klaus remembered was employed ostensibly as a gardener, Dorian came at last to the edge of the group where Klaus waited. He'd set down the candle but he still glowed, skin and hair and the antlers that made him look so tall, a silver and gold figure out of a dream. Klaus couldn't look away, couldn't move.
Dorian held out his hands, empty and weaponless. Klaus didn't pull back.
The long, bare arms slid around him. Dorian's eyes looked directly into his from no higher than usual, and his mouth touched Klaus's.
The touch woke him to some kind of reality. He was letting Dorian Red Gloria kiss him. In front of witnesses. Without protest. Klaus froze, unable to make himself retreat, unable to deny the rush of heat to his groin, unable even to hide it from Dorian, who was pressed closely against him.
After a long while Dorian pulled away and said very softly, "Goddess bless. I thought so. Evohe."
"I'll show you what, soon. Won't I?"
Klaus, terrified by his erection, by Dorian's words, by the unexplained events of the past hour, merely stared at him in silence.
"Won't I, Klaus?"
Dorian's voice stayed low, for only the two of them to hear. "I'll make love to you. Soon. Now, if you can't wait."
"Here?" this wasn't happening. It didn't matter what he said.
"It's the best place on earth for it," said Dorian, seeming serious. "No one of us will mind, I promise. But you might like a bed."
None of it was happening. "Yes."
"Soon," whispered Dorian, and kissed him again while high singing twittered from the edges of the clearing. It was strange to feel the warm mouth on his, strange and nothing like he'd expected.
Klaus didn't know what he'd ever expected. Nothing, he supposed. That was always safest.
The other people in the clearing had re-formed into a ring and were lighting candles and wood torches. One of them was pushed into his hand during the last back-and-forth of chanting voices. This time he understood some of the words, but still none of them made sense, and they were still dangerous.
The sense of obscure danger faded as everyone began a straggling walk through the wood back toward the house, carrying light and fire through what was now full night. Klaus did not think Dorian had been out of his sight at any time, but he and James and the others who'd been undressed all wore their clothes by the time they left the clearing. Klaus's last glimpse of it showed the center slab still occupied by fuelless fire, untended and unwatched by anything except the cup and the sword.
"Is that safe?" he asked.
Dorian followed his line of sight. "Yes. It will go back at dawn."
"To where it came from." Dorian no longer had the antlers. Klaus wanted to run a hand through the golden hair and make sure; it was difficult to restrain himself from touching the other man. "Ah," said Dorian then, and took his free hand for the rest of the walk. Klaus, stunned by events and formless expectations, permitted it.
The house was dark and open, waiting for them with its fireplaces ready to be kindled into crackling life. Klaus followed Dorian and the others as they proceeded through every green-draped, sap-scented room: from the central big hall, upstairs to bedrooms, downstairs to a cellar game room where even the billiards table was festooned with spruce and holly. They passed through the little northeast sitting room where Klaus had spoken to Dorian a long time ago this afternoon, and left behind them a blaze of fire and candlelight.
A narrow passage redolent of pine and rosemary disgorged their procession into the mansion's cavernous kitchen, where Dorian's torch set two medieval fireplaces alight and everyone else exclaimed over the punchbowls and the whole ale-keg that waited there.
"Just one more," said James, pushing forward. "This one's mine." He lifted the lid from a smoking bronze dish full of burning wood coals. Ignoring the streamlined gas range near the sinks, James tipped the fire into an old-fashioned pot stove in one corner, which gave a metallic gulp and began heating almost visibly. James sat down beside it, crooning as he added wood from a waiting stack. His wild hair fell aside for a moment and Klaus thought the revealed ear showed a high point; surely it was an illusion of the tricky firelight.
Someone else took charge of the kitchen then, issuing orders with the aplomb of an experienced sergeant-major: "With y'leave, y'lordship." The man's glance at Dorian was entirely perfunctory and then his voice sharpened. "Nobody touch that keg yet; ye'll have it all soon enough. Andy, the tableware. Doug and Will, those pies need to be finished as quick as..."
"They'll have everything ready just as quick as," said Dorian, unruffled. "Let's get out of their way." He led Klaus back into the dining hall where the oakwood fire's warmth now reached the tables and chairs in which Klaus had questioned Dorian's servants. In some previous life.
Food and drink appeared with astonishing speed. "Eat," said Dorian, letting go of Klaus's hand. In the firelight that drove back the dark, it hadn't seemed to matter. "I did promise you dinner."
Klaus had no idea what they ate, or drank; anything Dorian heaped on either of their plates seemed to disappear. Their glasses required refilling when empty. Finally Dorian stood up and glanced around at the dozen people in the hall who were eating, drinking, talking boisterously and, in relays, bringing fresh platters and pitchers to the table.
"They can take care of themselves," murmured Dorian. "Come with me." Klaus followed him away from the revelers and up the candlelit main staircase.
The fireplace alone lit Dorian's bedroom. Yellow light flickered on satin chairs and pillows and on the huge curtained bed. Klaus stared at it, unable to move until Dorian's arms went around him as inexorably as they had in the clearing. This wasn't happening, couldn't be happening. Dorian couldn't really want to... Klaus had spent years of his life avoiding Dorian, insulting him and thwarting him so that Dorian wouldn't want to... So that he, Klaus, wouldn't want to...
Lips touched his and parted softly. Klaus shivered and matched the motion, as sensation pulsed through his body. Hands like warm flames traveled over him, unfastening clothes and pushing them aside. Dorian, golden in the firelight, had somehow become naked again and looked very much like the pagan celebrant who had drawn Klaus to an erotic response with no more than an unguarded look.
There was nothing here but Dorian and Dorian's bedroom. It did not feel strange or unpleasant when Dorian embraced him once more, skin molding against skin and muscle. One hand touched him familiarly at the groin, and he was eased to sit on a satin-smooth bed. Even the obscene luxury of it was only in keeping with Dorian's habits.
The bedframe, like the whole house, was garlanded with winter foliage: mistletoe boughs gleamed gold in the firelight and pointed ivy leaves rioted everywhere Klaus could see before he was closed into Dorian's arms again. A leg twined around his knees and his erection pushed up against a scratchy tickle of hair, burning him with sensation he couldn't ignore.
"Goddess," said Dorian softly, licking his ear, kissing his throat. Smoother skin brushed his sensitive penis. Klaus managed a questioning moan. "Bless us," continued Dorian, whispering breath over his heated skin. A hand found Klaus's erection, fingertips teasing too lightly.
Klaus opened his eyes to see the tall figure who should be level with him slithering downward. The gold-lit curls flung themselves sideways and back, and settled toward his groin. It couldn't be right. "No," Klaus said, very minimally in possession of his voice. "Not that."
Dorian looked up and pulled himself back to lie face to face with Klaus, letting their bodies match heights again on the bed without speaking. Klaus was grateful, for he could not have explained how wrong it would be for Dorian, the glowing creature of the forest, to serve desire one-sided. "With me. I, with you." He laid both hands on Dorian's body, daring to claim desire.
Dorian's touch went questing over his skin, trailing fire that made him feel lit from within, and now Klaus could not keep himself from actively returning the embrace. Even the hard thrust of pressure that showed Dorian to be as humanly aroused as he was only increased the urgency. Klaus, also, mouthed caresses and explored with hands that discovered warmth wherever they went.
He pushed himself up and curled both hands into Dorian's hair to feel for the antlers that weren't there any more. There was only warm, living hair.
Dorian writhed against him, kissing his neck, pulling him close to renew the harsh friction against his groin that tantalized him unbearably. Perhaps it was unbearable for Dorian also; the body beside him wriggled frantically and something closed over the tingling itch and squeezed it into hot pleasure.
Klaus moaned, not wanting it to stop, not knowing how to make it continue. "Dorian..." he gasped. Only Dorian made any of this possible. Only Dorian was real. He tried to find the other man's body; without it, he couldn't find his own. Gasping, he fumbled with the luminous-edged shadow of Dorian in the bed, feeling himself heat to incandescence while he searched for reality. As his overheated senses refused to function, he clung blindly to Dorian's warmth and let it hold him while he lost everything that tied him to identity.
"Evohe," said a breathless voice in his ear. Klaus could hear again; he slitted his eyes open and Dorian, shining in the firelight and shadows, helped him sit up.
"You're here," said Klaus stupidly. He had not expected Dorian or Dorian's bedroom to exist after the dream of sexual heat was exhausted.
"Yes, I'm here," said Dorian. He caught Klaus's groping hand and pressed it around his erection, gasping in his turn when Klaus squeezed it.
So this was what it had been. Did Dorian feel the same burning-out of self? Klaus held him, feeling the slim body go tense as he stroked and squeezed the shaft in his hand. Dorian made a faint sound and his firelit head fell backwards onto Klaus's shoulder as wetness splashed their hands.
The self came back as Klaus watched: Dorian still reclined against him but his eyes, after one unblinking moment of clarity, rolled sideways, lashes fluttering with all the coy artifice that Klaus knew far too well and disliked intensely. "Quit that," he snapped.
"This instant, darling, but just what is it you mind?" drawled Eroica's most irritating voice. "The sex? The seduction? The satin sheets?"
"I don't like you being... I don't like..." Klaus searched for reality, the only thing that might touch the Dorian who'd brought him here. "I don't like it when you talk like nothing is real. You're making fun of me."
Dorian's expression changed in the shifting light. "I wasn't," he said, subdued. "The camping is only a habit. It's a kind of mockery, but not of you. Did you mean anything else?"
"I don't know."
"Think about it." Dorian stretched his legs and maneuvered himself off the bed, never less than graceful. "I'll be back."
He returned with a wet towel and a dry one, which Klaus used in silence. Nor did Klaus protest when Dorian pulled up a quilted satin coverlet and tucked it over both of them. "Stay and sleep. The fire will be warm enough until morning."
"What was that, in the wood?"
Dorian, lying now in shadow, sounded cautious. "A folk ceremony for the Christmas season. Traditional."
"It's not Christmas yet. It's Saint Thomas's day."
"Fancy knowing that," marveled Dorian, but the mockery was easy.
"You called for the Queen of Heaven. The Virgin. Not Saint Thomas." Klaus took a deep breath. "You called her a goddess."
"So we did," said Dorian, sounding even more wary now.
"Is this the time for an ecumenical argument?"
"Not an argument," said Klaus, still puzzling at his memory of the evening now that some part of it other than Dorian's presence could be significant to him. "I want to know what it was."
"I was afraid of that," sighed Dorian, not sounding afraid. He was close enough for Klaus to feel his body warmth, and now he wrapped a hand around Klaus's near arm. "It's called a circle. The forms are pre-Christian. And it truly is a very old folk custom for winter. We like it."
"It was a pagan rite," said Klaus primly. He did not know what to think. Blasphemy was the least of what a priest would say, but Klaus did not feel like talking to a priest any time soon.
"Is this an argument?"
"No." Klaus had almost decided to regard the ceremony as one more of the Earl's eccentricities, best ignored for one's peace of mind; but one thing bothered him. "Why do you say, 'Goddess'?" When Dorian had used that word, he was not mocking anything.
"One refers to the deity as female," said Dorian, "when one uses the singular."
"Do you mean the Virgin, then?"
"Not usually. God is a mother." Dorian yawned and crowded closer to Klaus's side.
Completely unwilling to make sense of that, Klaus let the warmth lull him into sleep.
# # #
When he woke, the bedroom was still there, Dorian included. It couldn't have been a dream, though parts of it were not unlike things he had dreamed &emdash; and never admitted to awake &emdash; in the past weeks.
Parts of it might as well have been dreams. Klaus thought of the fire, of the filled cup, of Dorian, regally naked. Of James with pointed ears.
"Morning," said Dorian beside him. The morning light was pale white winter sunlight from the windows, although the room was still nearly warm.
"What time is it?"
"No idea." Dorian sat up in perfect, unselfconscious nudity and shook his curls back. His ears were, Klaus saw, as perfectly human as the rest of him. "I hope you don't have to go away yet."
The words woke ominous echoes in Klaus's mind. "I do have to report on yesterday's inquiry."
Dorian looked down at him. "What will you say?"
Klaus tried to assemble his thoughts, but they made a lurching, uncomfortable progression that skipped rational ordering more often than they connected. "I've seen something that could be the stolen cup from Llanechwfllan," he said carefully. "Why did you show it to me?"
"You believed I had it anyway. Can you prove I have it now any more than you could yesterday with all those statements and timetables?"
"It will be on your property, even if it's not in the house." Klaus sat up as well and pulled the coverlet around his shoulders.
"You won't find it on mortal earth," shrugged Dorian. He was not joking, nor was he dismissing the Major's abilities.
"I shall have to look, nevertheless."
"You're welcome, Major," said Dorian, and this time his voice was the annoying exaggeration of itself. "Any time you want to examine my surroundings... or me... please do pay me a visit."
"I remember what I saw," said Klaus, refusing to be baited. "It has to be somewhere."
"Do you remember how the cup was full, and stayed full?"
Klaus looked at the disarranged yellow hair. There were no antlers, now, but the memory was clear. "I only need to know that I saw the cup," he said stubbornly.
"You can look for it all you like. I invite you to make a complete search of the house and grounds. You won't find the cup here any more than you could empty it last night."
Klaus frowned. "I remember everything." His thoughts lurched and skipped again. He was aware, in the morning light, that his method of investigation yesterday evening would look extremely odd to an observer, and that his actions outside the investigation merited nothing but censure. He wondered if he cared at all. Last night his morals had crumbled to ash in Dorian's fire.
"I hoped you would."
"But I don't have any other evidence." Klaus, uneasy at his own deductions, shook his head. "If you're right..." Klaus did not believe it; he had only followed a chain of fantastic reasoning. "Then I won't find any other evidence, however hard I search. Did you take me there last night to taunt me with something I can't have?"
"I took you there to convince you that the cup won't be found anywhere you can search. Not here, not anywhere."
"I shall have to do it all anyway." Klaus's eyes caught Dorian's. "Surely you know it. I can't call off an investigation by reason of personal knowledge, any more than I could start one."
Dorian's grin could only be called lecherous. "Good. I hope it lasts a nice, long time." His foot twisted around Klaus's ankle.
"You knew I'd have to stay with this job, if you got me involved in your impossible..." Klaus glanced at the mistletoe hanging from the nearest bedpost, its berries gleaming obscenely white.
"Yes, that's why I did it," purred Dorian, twitching aside the bedclothes that covered Klaus. "The opportunity was irresistible. It still is." He pounced, more graceful than a cat, and caged Klaus in with arms and legs.
Klaus looked up at the beautiful fair face. The ceremony in the woods and the rest of the past night could be denied as no more than another dream. He'd succumbed to Dorian while he was dazed by shock and impossibilities, but now that he'd fallen prey to Dorian's lure once, he did not know if he could resist again. At this moment he did not want to resist. Already shivering with desire, he raised his head and let Dorian kiss him.
"You're almost... Klaus?"
Klaus pulled him down, hard, on top of his body and saw Dorian's eyes widen before he fitted himself to Klaus. "I do admire the direct approach," Dorian murmured, as he moved gently, excruciatingly slowly, over Klaus's body.
Klaus thrust upwards against him.
"Very direct," came Dorian's soft murmur, before his actions sent Klaus beyond all rational thought.
# # #