Only aristocrats order a whole brothel for luncheon. Aristocrats, and the clergy. The rest of us, reputable scoundrels, idlers, and assorted villains wait for a good time at least until the sun begins to sink down behind the horizon. (It’s all the matter of the money, time, and shame you have to spare, you see.)
What shameless lavishness! A toast for frivolous pleasures. Inexhaustive amounts of booze and girls, and faint, susurrating melodies.
As an agent of Death, Lucheni is here on business, and if one has an obligation to be here, then one might as well grab the delicious opportunity that offers itself on a silver plate. It has been going on for a while, Lucheni’s craving for a kiss or two. Ever since he found himself with a leather belt clasped around his throat. But nothing would put him to sleep, and he must continue with his performance, for as long as history requires him to do so. (Kissless, and wistful.)
And when an all-you-can-eat buffet is on the Dowager Empress Sophie…
(The leading actress of the matinee is on Death.)
‘Madeleine’, sweet ’Madeleine’ outshines the rest with an otherworldly beauty, something no amount of sequins and glitter could imitate. There is the void in her eyes, deceit on her skin, and Death on her lips. Confined in an empty bathtub, she is the most far removed from what one might call fun, waiting for her inevitable debut.
He stares at the fast-paced movement of the salon for a while, present and hidden. Rot is often masked with glitter and gold, silenced with money. Death, too, masks itself with glitter and warmth, where warmth should never dwell. Some are deceived by it, some want to be deceived by it, and some are merely fascinated.
Lucheni sits on the side of her tub, a hand running down on the fin of her costume. It is elaborate, for a trick, but His Excellency has always been thorough with his lies and deceit.
Two fingers on the strap of her bodice. She pats him in the place between the shoulder and the neck, in response. “How’s this?”
By this, she perhaps means her whole craft, the sequins, the glitter, the rhinestone tiara, the opaque pearls on her bodice, the decadent atmosphere. Her gaze lands on the merrymakers, a few pale, familiar faces among the sea of girls.
“Cold as ice,” Lucheni answers.
“That’s a problem.”
For someone who takes on the role of a mermaid, cold-bloodedness is not the greatest tragedy, Lucheni thinks. Perhaps it is only him who is drawn to the sickly pale, the cold, the nonchalant, cruel and unearthly. They share a glass.
“It is good,” he thinks. “Makes me feel more alive.”
And he has not been exactly alive for far longer than memory would serve. (Then, he has not been exactly Dead all this time, either. An in-between existence, belonging to none. If they were asked to do so, probably neither side would be happy to claim him.)
“By the looks of it, His Majesty can also use some feeling alive,” Lucheni adds, as he helps her out of both her fin and the tub.
They exchange a look, deep and dark, before ‘Madeleine’ would take her narrow stage, and make it only hers. It is really a shame, he thinks, camera under his arm, ready for the perfect moment. It really is a shame that His Excellency does not come to watch the tragicomedy he orchestrated himself. Not when the best of his angels are dressed up in powder-coloured frills for him, kicking their legs up high on the command of mere humans. It’s a nice sight. A crime to miss. (Perhaps he should take some pictures for later.)
‘Madeleine’s shift starts just as his one finishes. One flash of light and he is done. Outside, the sun is still up, but the curtains are drawn, thick, dark, and black, a looming delight. With a vague hand-motion, Lucheni bids farewell to her. Best of luck. Try not to be bored to Death.
Champagne is free, and even though he is not alive anymore, he is also not entirely Dead: alcohol still affects him the same way it would in his distant memories.
He clinks glasses with Madame Wolf, who is also seeing off who she thinks is one of her girls. “Well done for today.” A loud, raspy voice. Congratulatory, as if he was spending the day with hard labour, instead of cuddling a mermaid for a good portrait.
“The pleasure is mine,” Lucheni assures her.
“So, what now?”
Lucheni shines a grin at her, half-hearted, then shrugs. “When the cat’s away…”
Most of the girls are already occupied with someone else, holding hands in one corner, drawing old men into a close embrace in the other. If he is not quick enough, the only thing he will be able to reward himself with today is the portrait he took earlier. Thankfully, Madame Wolf is the most gracious host, and while she is frugal with her own kisses, she will surely direct you to the place where you can get more.
Tatiana is not called dynamite for no good reason, and it really would be a waste to let her entertain any boring official that night. He catches her by the wrist, pulling her away from the waning crowd.
His Excellency must have a sort of pride that will not let him pay with money for a woman’s love – he also has a sort of pride that would leave him begging, borrowing, and stealing at the feet of a filthy aristocrat instead. Well, the tab is already paid for, and this is not the worst thing Lucheni will have done, no matter where he looks at it from. One can only be so bad as history allows him to be.
He’s been craving a kiss or two for the longest time, too. Rest. The branches of a willow, swaying in the wind.
And when there is no promise of eternal rest, he replaces it with the exact opposite, tireless energy, a large spoonful of insanity. Like any girl who knows that her livelihood depends on the whims of assorted, repulsive men, Tatiana is smiley, vigorous, and vixenly in a cheeky, charming way. Most men who pay for love like their girls at least a little chatty: when they are too solemn and quiet, it almost reminds them of their own foulness.
They snuggle up on a chair, in a convenient corner of the dining room, a hand on her waist, and another one below her ear, cupping her jaw. Slow kisses, then hungry; if he closes his eyes, he is transported somewhere else. Somewhere he belongs.
Normally whatever should do, no gentle swaying on the willow tree: Lucheni doesn’t remember knowing affection in his life (but does he know affection in Death?), although he has always been one to enjoy the physical forms of love.
Affection, is different. It has been incomprehensible until it came in the form of violent obsession, a hunger that makes his bones ache, pushing hot blood through his veins. It’s longing for something that dances on the edge of non-existence. Lust, is just nature.
When he opens his eyes, someone is there behind a curtain of hair, watching. A pair of dark eyes, almost curious gaze. He wonders if this is all not merely something done out of habit after all (the whole breathing, blinking, swallowing thing), since his heart skips a beat. Not Dead yet, and only almost alive. Recognition may bolt through him from head to toe, piercing and cold, but he does not stop, only opens Tatiana’s bodice wider, pulling her closer, peppering kisses down her neck, now with his eyes wide open, staring.
Death watches, arms and legs crossed. A bit too late to the party, Lucheni thinks, but not late for the show. He nudges Tatiana by the waist, then tiptoes her to the great banquet table, laying her down on the white lace.
It is only so often that Death sees him, and he is Dying to be seen, so when he comes up expressly for his sake and finds him in a compromising situation, he might as well make the most out of it. Or, so he thinks at first.
Kissless, he craves something that cannot be his, and so, he looks for it somewhere else – and so he shows him what he could have had. An open bodice, chest half exposed, hot, wet kisses on milky white skin. Lucheni is supposed to be telling the story. He arranges everything so they would have the perfect distance between them, he only needs to lift his head a tiny bit, and he’s there, black eyes meeting black eyes.
Death has no reaction. He is able to produce a reaction, one way or another, but he refuses even to blink. Perhaps he is not impressed, of being involved in the act like this, against his own wishes. Lucheni turns his attention back to the girl under him, hungry touches, not unbefitting a dining table.
Tatiana only speaks once he starts biting on her lower lip, pleasing her, but teasing someone else. “You know, you can invite the gentleman over, too.”
You can see him too? He wants to ask, checking once again: but her blood is definitely hot and red. Her hair is definitely auburn, not a single strand of white. The spark in her eyes is definitely full of life, even if it is fake. She is not one of His.
She means “you look too much,” but she is smarter than saying it as it is and afraid of the consequences. For one man to do anything shamelessly, without reserve, five girls think carefully about each sentence.
Death uncrosses his legs. Then his arms. “Not here,” he only says.
It is a blur, how he gets from the dining hall to someone’s private chambers, how he loses his red scarf on the hallways, along with the apron and the vest. The sun is not yet down, but the curtains are already drawn, His Excellency reclining on the chaise lounge. At least his hat is gone.
Lucheni would be foolish to think even for a moment that he is here to join them. If he is here for any purpose, it must be to thoroughly distract him, to the point where he is neither here or there… Nothing entertains Death more than the failure of man. Tatiana holds his hands, in a moment of uncertainty, as he keeps eye contact with someone else, and leads him to the bed. Black eyes can be so mesmerizing.
“Would you prefer the sofa, instead?” she asks, teeth barely showing behind a smile.
“Just shut your mouth.”
He expects whores to like when they can finally shut up, one fewer task to perform, and as a response, she grabs him by the cheeks and pulls him into a kiss fierce enough to be called desperate. Her hands are not occupied with his shirt, and fiddle with the trousers instead, a breathy whisper.
“The gentleman prefers to watch … that does not mean you have to keep an eye on him, too.”
Just shut up, he tries to say again, anticipating how much one’s pride has to be hurt to risk physical pain by shamelessly using her insolent tongue.
Instead, he attempts shifting the blame this time. “Perhaps you are not good enough of a distraction.”
It is a cruel game, to put people up in a contest they cannot win against His Excellency, and he knows that. But even if he makes it so, Tatiana is not the one playing. That detached face drives him mad: when he can produce such wonderful emotions for Elisabeth, full of rage and jealousy.
Jealousy is the most passionate act. The way it makes the body tremble, the way it seizes one’s chest. All he wanted was a kiss to carry him through the day in His Excellency’s absence. Now, he graced them with his presence, but no emotions paint the chamber walls deep red. There is only indifference.
Time skips, his shirt is discarded somewhere on the floor, Tatiana is naked except for the garter on her left thigh, which was left there rather by accident than intention. At first, she is in his lap, then she finally finds a way to at least have His Excellency out of his sight, Lucheni on top of her. A heel pressed into the small of his back, nails scratching his shoulder, he seemingly focuses on things he should be focusing on. (Not the branches of the willow tree, swaying in the gentle wind.)
A familiar whisper, too close to his ears to be real, tickling the back of his head like dripping sweat. “You are not present.”
He jerks his head up, but there is nobody standing beside him.
“You are not present yet.”
A low, unaffected voice giving him orders, a susurration in his ear, telling him where to kiss, when to touch, as if he himself would not know. When one is so focused on this single entity in the world, it is so difficult to do anything else but to be the pipe for His Excellency’s finger, to sound what stop he pleases. But one can be devoted only for so long without being wistful for a prize.
If there was nothing at the back of his mind, weeping willows beckoning him to run away from the present, into the shelter of the surreal and pale, he could have had his reward for this afternoon. (But is it really a reward, if it is not surreal, horrifying, and pale?) Isn’t his mind his greatest enemy, birthing any sort of things he can imagine, then letting them roam free, out of control?
It is perhaps anger, spite, or jealousy that suddenly paints the walls of the room red. He turns Tatiana around, fingers laced into her hair. Rebellious despair worms its way under his skin. Against his own imagination. Endless, torturous. Long fingers move around his skull, grabbing into his hair.
He doesn’t say anything, only drags his index finger down Lucheni’s temple, and across his jaw. It only takes a moment for Tatiana to stop existing. With his eyes closed, he rubs his face against the back of His Excellency’s hand, round, cattish movements.
“The gentleman would like to join, after all,” Tatiana comments from her non-existence. She turns back with the sheets rustling under her, just to witness Lucheni with drooping eyes, melting into someone else’s touch.
Not even waiting for confirmation, Lucheni grabs him by the coat, urging him. “Come between us.”
He kneels on the bed, becoming the middle. In a space between compelled and amused (but finally somewhere), giving an expectant look to Lucheni. “Someone’s mind is so focused on one thing that he creates entire worlds out of thin air.”
Tatiana’s hands curl around him from behind, fiddling with the front of his jacket, while Lucheni moves forward. He avoids the kiss three times before Lucheni’s mouth could land on the corner of his lips (“now, you do not want that, do you?” He does). His jaw. His throat. Below the ear.
Only the jacket comes off. He doesn’t even need to say that this is just temporary, that he’s only humouring him, that this is nothing more but a pipe-dream. What is one’s feverish nightmare, is Lucheni’s gates to heaven.
He presses his body close, cuddling Death, until he can feel his arms around his waist, Tatiana’s hands in his hair. For the lack of a better option, he kisses her, leaning across His Excellency’s shoulder, as his hands explore under the silken shirt, ice-cold skin.
That doesn’t satisfy him. She’s too alive. So, he lets her go, once again, discarded, forgotten. Lucheni dots kisses all around His Excellency’s face, restlessly aiming for his mouth, even if it would kill him, and even if two strong hands grip at his wrists, stopping them from working their way under trousers.
“I don’t think so,” Death breathes into his hair.
But there is only despair now, bodies pressed against each other. He rubs his face into His Excellency’s neck, hungry for something he will not get, not here, not this time. It is a tragedy to have such a creative mind, forcing such a beautiful thing to existence, only to be denied by him over and over again.
A piece of him, distilled, gaudy, and divine. Death wants to be worshipped as much as he is repulsed by it, leaving him forever dissatisfied. Only in the moments of absence, he can truly be yours.
Thankfully, Lucheni does not care about “true” or “false.” The only authenticity is the language shared between fingertips – it is getting what he wants, even if he is the only one wanting it.
Sometimes getting what you want involves asking for it, then asking for it again, with a little more humility. Sometimes getting what you want asks for taking the initiative, turning him around in an unguarded moment, holding him down, brushing his hair away, a stolen kiss on the nape of his neck.
He turns, and he gives the evil eye, and Lucheni thinks how beautiful… If he should be ever enamoured with anything, it must be greater and more powerful than him, albeit non-existent. In a way, he would be disappointed if His Excellency did not sternly stop him. He kisses his hands.
“Remind me again,” His Excellency murmurs, somehow coming to face him again, effortlessly. “Were you invented to be at my disposal, or was I invented for your grande amore?”
Cold fingers trail down his chest in a caress, soft but icy, settling on granting him pleasure. Tatiana doesn’t exist. Tatiana never existed.
Halted sighs, lips bitten red, teary eyes. “I exist for you.”
A hand gripping into the front of his shirt, another at the back of his hair, Lucheni moves against the strokes – and it does not matter anymore that his face is indifferent, expressionless, blank. It doesn’t matter if he cannot see from closed eyes, his cheeks rubbing against His Excellency’s neck.
His voice is faint as a whimper, fingers dragging at the pale white curls. “Just like… the weeping willow…”
Swaying in the gentle wind. Hanging high.
There is no answer coming, and he edges his nose closer to his, until they touch, eyes shut close. Another moment or so, Lucheni lifts his head slightly, placing a kiss above his cupid’s bow. The ecstasy of feeling a pair of cold lips above his chin, returning the favour.
His Excellency waits until he is all spent, then lazily untangles his hair from the grip of his fingers.
“There you are,” he says, in a low voice. “Did anything change?”
No. Nothing on earth is different.
He stretches his fingers, then bends them again, as if he forgot how they were supposed to move. There is not a single sound around them, not even the rustling of the sheets.
A twinkle of rings on pale fingers, a last caress on his cheek, the scent of divine jasmine water, and a disembodied voice sounding behind his ear. “Goodnight.”
Even though, the sun still has not set.
When Lucheni wakes, the night time sun shines into a bedroom he occupies but does not recognize. Curtains drawn. There is no Tatiana. No Madeleine. Definitely not His Excellency.
On the other side of the room, his trusty camera stands abandoned in the darkness, like a shadow. Draped around it, a red scarf.
He smiles, because there is nothing else to do, and thinks of the weeping willow somewhere on the other side of the window, swaying gently in the wind.
It is all back to the original. Truth, pipe-dream, or delusion, anything will do.
Lucheni clears his throat.
“… and who should we send the pictures to?”