Luminous Benedict Red pulled himself onto the deck of El Alcon and drew his sword. For a fleeting moment, he reflected on how impossible this would have been to him only a few short years ago. He had been a good citizen, a sheltered boy set for a productive life as an honest merchant, until Tyrian had ruined it all. Tyrian had framed Luminous's father for his own base crimes, and his father had been hanged for them. And the Reds had lost everything they had.
"I am what you have made me, Tyrian," Luminous hissed through his teeth, prowling the deck in search of his quarry.
And what was he now, he who had been destined for a wholesome life? A privateer - no, he would be honest and call himself what he was, a pirate for hire. A man with no scruples in the pursuit of what he wanted. Thank God his mother was dead and couldn't see him now. The only virtue left to him, the only possible meaning to his life, was revenge.
He turned the corner, and there his nemesis was. Tyrian Persimmon, wearing lavish purple as usual, his long dark hair whipped into his face by the wind. He turned and saw Luminous, and he was afraid. Only a little, but he was.
The two men faced each other, swords at the ready, before engaging in battle.
Luminous had trained for years for this very moment. He didn't care about dueling any other man on earth, but Tyrian he must defeat at all costs. He lifted his chin and set his steel to ringing against Tyrian's.
It was bound to happen. Tyrian's blade slipped past his guard and into Luminous's shoulder. He cried out, almost falling, but stayed on his feet. It seemed impossible that there had been a time when a far lesser injury would have put him on his back at once, but so it had been. Now, strengthened by the thought of Tyrian's crimes against him, by the thirst for revenge, he fought through the burning pain and thrust the point of his own blade into Tyrian's chest.
He sank to his knees, faint from loss of blood.
Captain Black was beside him then, urging him onto his feet. "The flames are going to reach the powder!" he was shouting, dragging Luminous roughly up. "It's going to explode!"
Numbly, Luminous allowed himself to be dragged to the edge, then over the side. The salt water stung his shoulder, but Black was pulling him on.
A roar of thunder tore the skies. Luminous turned in time to see the blaze of El Alcon incinerating. With Tyrian still aboard.
It was, after too many bitter years, finished.
He was in a daze after that. Black forced him to keep swimming until they reached their ship, and they were lifted aboard and dried off and given rum and congratulated. Everyone was drinking and singing as dawn broke, but Luminous, who had finally achieved the revenge that had been his life for years, felt strangely empty. Even sad.
As the others celebrated, he gazed at the horizon and murmured, so softly no one could hear him.
"Tyrian's fierce death is imprinted in my memory. I hated him at heart, but... Tyrian. You also risked your life in the ocean and fell in the sea. Good-bye, Tyrian. You will never be forgotten."
Klaus lowered the window of his Benz an inch before lighting another cigarette. Already he had gone through nearly two packs today, but he needed the nicotine to face what was at the end of this drive.
The last week had been a difficult one even by Eroica standards. The fop hadn't even been useful at his usual trade half the time, because he'd gone and acquired a phobia of statues, of all things.
Klaus had thought it was an opportunity. For years, he'd been trying to get rid of the Earl by being obnoxious to him. Every time he saw the thief, he spewed profanity and insults. Once he'd given him the first drink from a bottle they'd found in an abandoned shack and then pretended he'd been testing to see if it was poisoned. He never missed a chance to foil Eroica's heists if he could, even though he actually didn't give a shit if Eroica stole every painting in the world that wasn't part of the Eberbach collection. And when the occasion justified it, he dished out moderate violence.
He would have expected the Earl to get fed up and stop pestering him years ago, but nothing even slowed the idiot down. He'd actually felt slightly guilty over locking him in a dark room full of statues while he was in the grip of that idiot phobia, but he'd told himself it was for the thief's own good: surely that would make the Earl come to his senses, and he'd stop bothering the Major and instead run around with men of his own sort and never cross the path of the KGB. Eroica would be much better off without his stupid fixation on Klaus.
Only it hadn't worked. Just a couple of days later, Eroica had gone and let Morozov beat the hell out of him, just so he could pick his pocket for the microfilm Klaus needed. It was just like Eroica, showing that kind of devotion at the time when Klaus deserved it the least.
Clearly it was high time he rethought his strategy.
The game they'd been playing for years was affecting them both badly. The stress had given Dorian a crippling phobia and Klaus insomnia. To make matters worse, it was interfering with both their careers. If the two of them hadn't been so intent on baiting each other, this mission could have been a walk in the park. The same could be said of many of their past encounters. Instead, they were so busy getting under each other's skin they'd nearly caused an international incident.
The Major felt weary to his bones, because he had no earthly idea if a new approach would prove any more effective. But it could hardly be less effective than what he'd been doing for the past ten years.
He'd been brooding over this for days, and had reached only a couple of definite conclusions.
First, Eroica was part of his life. Whether he liked it or not, the curly-haired bugger was here to stay. Trying to get rid of him was futile. Not only that, but he was in Klaus's head as well as his life. He was just going to have to find some way of coping with it.
Second, for no good reason, no matter how he tried to talk himself out of it, he felt responsible for Eroica. That was why he had tried, with admittedly harsh methods, to cure the idiot's phobia. That was why he didn't just arrange for Interpol or even the KGB to rid him of the nuisance permanently. “No one hits this guy but me,” he'd told that CIA thug. No matter what he did to Eroica, he wasn't about to let anyone else do anything to him.
Further, the way he'd felt when the fop had pressed the microfilm into his hand, like he'd been struck by lightning, had made him realize something else. He felt, God knew why, that it was his task to inspire the thief to be better. Dorian didn't have to be a criminal; more than once he'd shown that there was better than that in him. Every time that something better had shone through, Klaus had felt a powerful connection to it. He had longed to bring that out in the thief.
Why the hell should he want to reform a thief? He didn't know. He didn't even think he had a right to try, given his own numerous defects. He knew he was bad-tempered and sometimes a mean son-of-a-bitch and always excessively work-centered and generally a trial to everyone around him. He didn't seem able to help it and had stopped trying a long time ago. He lived with himself because he knew that he was useful, even his faults were useful in his line of work. He was good at what he did. That would have to be enough for him and for everyone else.
Yet he'd taken it into his head to reform the thief. To bring out that aspect of Dorian that had nearly knocked the Major flat at the Czech border, or in the shed in Alaska, or in that ridiculous Swiss castle, and any number of times over the years. It made no sense, but he couldn't shake the feeling.
Finally, there was no getting around it: he desired Eroica. Had since the first time he'd laid eyes on the beautiful overdressed fop. He had instantly decided that it was out of the question, since of course he was going to drive the thief out of his life in short order.
Now that he knew that was not the case, that indeed he needed to accept Dorian's presence, there was no ignoring his desire any longer. And if - if - they could only come to some sort of détente, he would stop trying to.
The détente was the trouble now. They had agreed on almost nothing since the day they had met. It seemed unlikely they could reach some sort of accord now, and yet, it was necessary.
This was what occupied his thoughts during his entire drive to the rented Cologne manor where he knew the Earl was currently lurking, with the codes he'd snatched from beneath Klaus's very nose. It was a small place by the Earl's standards, he saw as he pulled up in front of it, only two stories. And only one car visible, obviously an Eroica car, a flashy Italian sports car. It seemed he had the Earl alone. Well, that was all to the good.
Dorian hadn't even bothered to lock the door, Klaus found when he tried it. Klaus was expected.
He found Dorian sitting curled up by the fire, his back to Klaus, meditatively swirling a brandy snifter in the flickering light. As soon as Klaus was in the doorway, before Klaus could say a word, Dorian said flatly, “On the table.”
Klaus looked, and on a carved antique table, there was the tattered brown folder that had held the codes. He opened it, and they were all there.
He turned and looked at the thief. Dorian wasn't looking at him, was still contemplating his brandy as if it held the answers to the mystery of life. His pretty face was weary, even sad.
“Before you go, Major, will you answer one question for me?” Dorian's voice was wistful, hesitant.
Klaus had had no intention of leaving just yet, but he merely shucked his overcoat and went to sit across from Dorian, who still did not look at him. “What is it?”
The pause was so long that Klaus started to think Dorian wasn't going to ask his question after all. But at last, Dorian drew in a breath and tossed the words out in a rush.
“If I quit stealing, would I... would I have a chance?” Dorian swallowed visibly. “With you?”
Klaus was so surprised, at hearing Dorian offer precisely what he had been planning to ask for, that for a moment he was too taken aback to reply.
“Do you know why I hate you?” Dorian asked abruptly, meeting Klaus's eyes for the first time.
Feeling an unexpected little twist in his gut, Klaus answered quietly, “No. Tell me.”
“When I didn’t believe in virtue, I could do whatever I wanted. Seduce innocent young men. Steal things. Waste my life on my own pleasure. But you’re living proof of all of it. Virtue exists, and it wants a piece of me. You’ve changed me, and it’s going to make me miserable, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Dorian set down the snifter and looked into the fire with a bitter twist to his mouth.
Klaus waited before saying gently, “You have changed me, as well.”
Dorian looked at him hopelessly.
“I came here to tell you,” Klaus drew a breath, “that if... if you were willing to quit stealing, I... we....”
Dorian's lovely sky-colored eyes were widening. He sat up straight. “I don't believe you.”
Suddenly feeling as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from him, Klaus rose, took Dorian's hands, and pulled him to his feet. He realized that he was smiling, and from the Earl's face he was even more surprised about it than Klaus was.
With deliberation, Klaus stepped even closer to Dorian, and slid his fingers into Dorian's fragrant yellow hair. Dorian looked heartbreakingly anxious, as if he still didn't believe that this was really happening. Klaus tilted his head closer and claimed Dorian's mouth in a kiss.
The kiss lasted a very long time. Both of them had wanted to do this for too many years; now they drew the moment out, unwilling to let go now that the time had finally come.
When at last the kiss ended, they stood in an embrace for a long moment, catching their breath. Without speaking, they moved together to the stairs, each with an arm around the other's waist.
They stayed awake until well after midnight. After such a long wait, it was impossible not to feel that they had to make up for all of it in a single night. They made love again and again, claiming each other in every way they could devise, both surprised that exhaustion did not stop them.
Klaus had always assumed that this would be difficult. It wasn't. It felt as if they had been lovers for years. He found he wasn't even worried about his lack of skill and experience; instincts he hadn't known he had were now guiding him easily.
When at last they did begin to drift to sleep, they shared one last kiss, gentle and serene. Wrapped in each other's arms, they fell into the most peaceful sleep either of them had ever known.
Mischa the Cub had never taken such an extreme step without specific orders before. He was a good servant of the state. Besides which, he had spent time in Siberia and did not relish the prospect of returning.
But now he knew, in his inmost heart, that there was no longer any point in serving the USSR. His decades of work, his systematic denial of his own conscience in the service of the greater good of communism, were all for naught now. The corrupt journalists of the West did not yet realize it, and likely most of their equally corrupt statesmen didn't either, but Mischa was close enough to the heart of things to know the truth: the Soviet Union's days were numbered. The noble experiment would last two or three more years at most, before it lapsed back into the materialist exploitation of the rest of the world.
So there was no reason for him to stay his hand and forgo his revenge now that he had the opportunity.
He watched his young subordinate working on the alarm system to that decadent aristocrat's shamefully luxurious manor. Iron Klaus was not the only one who could hire thieves. This upright young agent had been trained to disable alarm systems and pick locks.
When the young man was done, Mischa sent him away. If he had to answer for this in Moscow, he was not going to sacrifice his subordinates. He would take the consequences alone.
He moved very silently. After so many years of conflict, it was surprisingly easy to breach his arch-enemy's defenses. His information was clear that Iron Klaus had taken refuge in his aristocratic crony's home this night. It seemed neither member of the landed gentry had troubled to keep their hangers-on about them, or to put their usual security in place, which would be the last mistake of their lives. Were Mischa not above foolish Western mysticism, he would have thought it was Fate.
He set his suitcase down on the kitchen floor and opened it. As he carefully set up the apparatus inside it, he mused on the perverse hypocrisy of the West, inconsistent even with its own bourgeois values. The West always found excuses to look the other way as the Soviet Union liberated its neighbors, or troublesome little nations in the "third world", just so long as they kept up a charade of diplomacy with Western Europe and America. The West even ignored the USSR's intention to eventually annex the entire globe, no matter how many times they stated it bluntly. And no matter how many Soviet citizens had to be sacrificed to their noble aims, the West scarcely murmured a protest. That had been the real mistake of their onetime ally, Hitler; he had foolishly forgotten the rule that you must only kill your own masses, not your neighbor's.
And now Mischa was about to break one of the West's absurd taboos. Capitalists didn't seem to mind overmuch if he shot their agents, or tortured them with electric currents, or drugged them with sodium pentathol, but for some reason they went to pieces over the use of poison gas. Generally he pandered to Western scruples, but for his most cherished enemy, he would make an exception.
The alphabets expected their superior to rejoin them early in the morning, as he generally did. When nine o'clock came and he still was not present, they assumed important business had detained him. At ten, they nervously called the Earl's abode and received no answer. At noon, when their superior was still nowhere to be found, they went to the Earl's house.
Repeated knocks received no response. Finally Z kicked the door in and the four of them entered cautiously, guns at the ready.
"What's that smell?" Z wondered.
A sniffed, then said sharply, "Everyone out!"
When they were back outside, he whispered, "Poison gas."
The others looked at the house in horror. "I'll get the masks," Z said, running to the car.
"This could cause a diplomatic incident," G remarked shakily as he donned his gas mask.
"Not for us to decide," A reminded them, and led the way inside.
As they had dreaded and expected, they found their superior officer dead from the gas. As they had dreaded and not expected, they found him in the same bed as the Earl. The pair had died together, naked in each other's arms.
The four agents stood around the bed in silence for a long moment, mourning, marveling.
"How long do you suppose…." G began.
"I don't know," A said.
"But we have to keep it to ourselves," B said.
A nodded. He hesitated for a long moment before gathering the Major's clothes from the floor. "Help me put these on him," he ordered.
G tentatively pulled the sheets back. All the agents averted their eyes, regretting this intrusion on their commander's privacy. Rigor mortis had passed, and pulling the Major from his lover's embrace was not difficult, but felt to all of them like a violation. "Let no man put asunder," G murmured sadly.
Agent B hesitated for a second before beginning to clothe his superior. "Excuse me, sir," he said before he was able to begin. Saying it was senseless, but none of the others remarked on this; they felt like intruders as well, and were glad he had said the words for them, in ritual respect.
"We'll put him in one of the other bedrooms," A said when the Major's body was clothed again. "And we won't mention this ever, to anyone. We won't even discuss it among ourselves. It's nobody's business but theirs."
The others nodded dolefully. The Major would never know of his subordinates' last act of loyalty to him.
While the other three carried the Major out, G picked up the Earl's scattered clothes from the floor and put them in the laundry hamper. Then he gently pulled the sheet over the cold, still thief, feeling guilty for having stolen his lover from him.
"But if I know you, you'll get him back eventually," he murmured whimsically.
Cyril Red, the thirty-fifth Earl of Gloria, was one of the Terran Empire's most publicly adored explorers. The more inhospitable the planet, the more eager he was to set foot upon it and capture whatever beauty it offered in both pixels and oils. The galaxy had thrilled to his discoveries of the ice mountains of planet Amaterasu, the many-hued “butterflies” that inhabited the second moon of Langit, the violet sands of the beaches of Gorlois, the incomparable aurora borealis of Pegasus-4.
His detractors complained that the scientific value of his wanderings was undermined by the fanciful nature of his paintings. Not content with painting resplendent landscapes never before seen by human eyes, he had to let his own fantasies intrude. He depicted them all, irregardless of lethal temperatures and toxic atmospheres and ravenous predators, inhabited by humans. Idealized, beautiful humans, to be sure. Humans surviving their alien environments only with crystalline bubbled cities and protective suits far beyond anything within current technology - the gear he and his companions used was far too unaesthetic to portray in a work of art. But humans nonetheless, living and thriving in the most uninhabitable regions of the universe, basking in the beauty of its most remote worlds.
Just because humans had conquered the simple puzzle of faster-than-light space travel and had found that hundreds of planets were fit for human colonization with only moderate alteration was no reason to become overconfident, cooler heads cautioned. Human progress was essentially at an end, and fantasies about further advances were the stuff of science fiction, fit only for silly movies watched by teenagers.
Cyril paid no attention to these sensible warnings and sought out new worlds without cease. His companions in this search included numerous bosom friends and hired trailblazers who got them all into and out of every destination alive. Most trailblazers would likely have been soldiers, pirates, spies, or conquistadors in another age, but wars were few and far between nowadays and young people in search of buckles to swash had to look elsewhere for their excitement. Accompanying madmen with a yen to visit unlivable planets was the best adventure the universe now had to offer.
When his newly hired team of trailblazers joined him on the deck of the spaceport, they were not disappointed in what they saw. His well-known golden curls and irrepressibly joyful blue eyes - as blue as the sapphire cliffs of Oskarbi, which he had painted to much acclaim - were recognizable on hundreds of worlds, and his whimsical wardrobe was also just as he was always seen in the holos: when in port, he affected the khakis and pith helmets worn by the explorers of ancient times.
The lead trailblazer, who hadn't really believed that anyone would actually go about dressed like that, took in the ensemble with an amused quirk of his mouth. Markus Baumann was not so famous as Cyril, but his name and face had shown up in the holos on occasion as well. When he'd led his university soccer team to victory as top scorer, for instance. Or when the Svarogan ambassador's craft had foundered in a meteor belt and Markus had led the successful rescue. Retrieving those adrift in space was no more than his job, and that was hardly the most challenging exploit of his Search And Rescue career, but saving the skin of someone prominent did make some of that prominence rub off. Especially as Markus was Terran and relations between Svarog and Terra had been strained for some time; though Markus doubted it, many thought that his daring rescue had been the turning point that led to the two governments at last ironing out their differences.
But fresh challenges beckoned him on, and exploring worlds so far visited only by robotic probes was an irresistible prospect.
Cyril noticed the quirk of Markus's mouth and then the rest of him. Markus's amusement increased at Cyril's unabashedly appreciative survey. Markus lingered as his team and their gear started up the ramp to the Zeppelin. If the Earl wasn't boarding yet, there was no hurry for him to do so.
“Never mind the reefs of Mapiya,” Cyril murmured as the other trailblazers vanished into the craft. “There's plenty of beauty to capture in oils right here.”
Markus allowed himself to grin. “I haven’t heard that one before.”
Cyril affected indignation. “I really am an artist!” he protested, as if anyone in the galaxy might not be aware of that. Then he gave Markus a sidelong look. “But if that had been a line, would it have worked?”
“Maybe,” Markus said, though he had already made up his mind about the Earl. No need to let the man know he had won right away.
Cyril was still examining him raptly, it was hard to tell whether from artistic or sensual enjoyment. Perhaps it was both. “I'm going to have to paint you in purple. Or against the Bahram giant orchid forests - the foliage there is the exact same color as your eyes.” Pleasant warmth spread through Markus as the Earl's gaze moved up and down him again. “And in uniform. I do love a man in uniform, they make me imagine an abstinent beauty within, hiding the passion just under the surface.”
“Pervert. A normal man would have asked to paint me naked.”
Sensing imminent victory, Cyril affected a coy look. “I was afraid of getting slugged.”
“I don’t punch on the first date,” Markus told him, letting himself hold the other man's gaze for a moment before he turned and headed up the ramp.
At the top of the ramp, he stopped and turned to look at Cyril. The Earl was still in the same spot, gazing at him in almost a daze. Suddenly Markus felt very impatient. Prudence be damned, he saw no reason to play hard to get.
Markus smiled and held out his hand. Cyril returned the smile and started up the ramp to join him.