The Periapt Shard
Winston quietly passed the cloth along the dusty shelf and glanced towards the window. Lara was out footing around the green hills of Surrey. It was an appropriate time for the butler to quench his curiosity.
He touched the thick History books until he found a tiny portfolio. He pulled it out and settled into a nearby chair behind while he began delightfully observing the sketches.
That old Irish man had taken care of Lara since she was a child, but only when he was widowed he’d gone to live with her, to look after her property when she was absent on long trips. Those who believed that Winston Smith was just a butler for Lara Croft were wrong.
Although in their daily treatment nothing other than a formal relationship could be noticed between the butler and the housemistress, only intimate people knew that the old man had been like a father to Lara when Lord Henshingly had disowned her. And Lara had the greatest affection for Winston, her housekeeper, yes, but also father who never scolded and friend who never failed her.
So Winston was browsing those sketches with genuine affection. Some depicted horrifying creatures, which fascinated him despite their looks. He knew about each of them, for between Lara and Winston there were barely any secrets...at least in that kind of matter. However, the butler had a special predilection for those drawings in which Lara appeared in different poses: smiling, scowling, defiant, and surprised. He touched those silent offerings of love which conveyed more than words.
But the man who’d drawn those sketches was gone and his memory weighed like lead in those silent rooms. His name wasn’t pronounced, nor was he alluded to, not because it was expressly forbidden, but because his mere memory clouded Lara’s eyes with a veil of sadness and anger. Therefore, Winston took advantage of the explorer’s absences to look at the drawings.
He patted the corner of a sketch where Lara was lying on a bed and dressed in a sort of black robe, and he couldn’t help but smile to see how the artist had managed to capture Lara’s face as only him had seen her for years: asleep.
“Winston! What are you doing?”
The old man jumped up and the drawings scattered to the floor. At the door was Lara, dressed in a tracksuit and soaked in sweat, staring at him with a surprised expression.
How long had he been looking at the sketches? He didn’t know. Blushing to his ears and muttering unintelligible excuses, Winston rushed to collect the sheets.
“No, don’t bend over. I’ll do it.” She said, and immediately picked up the drawings, giving them a brief look as she got them. And again there was that shadow of sadness in her irritated eyes.
“I’m sorry, miss.” Winston muttered, but she didn’t answer. She handed him the sketchbook and turned stiffly, leaving the room.
The butler, cursing himself for having upset her, followed her by fits and starts and said: “By the way, miss, tonight is the gala dinner of the archaeologists who work in the exhibition.”
Lara stopped at her room threshold, and said with obvious annoyance: “Wow. I forgot about that. Selma must be called and…”
“Miss Al-Jazeera has been duly informed by me, miss.”
“Thanks, Winston. By the way, what dress do you advise for me? The long red one or the black one with cuts on the hips?”
“You already used the red one for the British’s presentation. People would say you’ve no more dresses.”
She laughed. “Seriously, I don’t know what I’d do without you. Lately, I’m quite lost.”
Lara went into the bathroom to have a shower, but Winston didn’t withdraw from the room, although he sat away from the door to respect her privacy. “There’s something I wanted to say, miss.”
“Tell me.” She said as she stripped from her tracksuit.
“I’ve been thinking a lot, miss, and I’ve concluded I’m too old and very tired.”
“Don’t tell me more.” Lara said, poking her head. “I was afraid of that. You want to go back to Ireland, huh? If it’s about being back at your homeland...”
“No, miss.” He smiled. “Sometimes I miss my country but I really don’t want to leave this place. I’ll only return when I’m to be buried alongside my dear wife, who has long been waiting for me.”
“So?” Lara had got under the shower.
“Miss, I’m already very old and I won’t live forever. I feel my end is very near.”
“Winston! Aren’t you in a fatalistic mood!” She said with affectionate irony, though she knew he was being honest.
“I’m eighty-three years old, miss. And I keep thinking that when I’ll be dead, you’ll be left completely alone.”
The shower faucet closed and Lara came out with a bathrobe and head wrapped in a towel. She was smiling. “My dear octogenarian, I don’t know what you’re getting at.”
“What I mean, miss,” he hesitated, “is that maybe you should get married.”
Lara looked at him, stunned and speechless. Then she said: “Oh, no, Winston! Not you too!”
“You know I don’t mean that in the sense your father the lord said this. Nor as the gossip columns mean to say.”
“But the meaning is the same! Winston, please, telling me that at this point.” Her wet hair came loose and she began to brush it. “You know I’m not that kind of woman!”
“Well then, have a child.”
Lara froze again with the brush held up, and looked at the butler as if he was a monster. “Did you remember to take your medication?”
“Yes, miss.” He said humbly.
“Well then, this is serious! Who put such nonsense into your head? Please! Have you looked at me, Winston?”
Of course I’ve seen thee well, my child, thought the old man, I’ve spent years looking at you, since you were very small, and have kept your image my whole life. “Miss, you’re about forty years...”
“Thirty-six!” Lara shouted, shocked.
“Well, thirty-six.” Winston’s tone remained calm. “So you should start thinking about what to do with the rest of your life. I’ll die soon and you have friends, but nobody to be with you and make you happy. Think again. There must be a man you may love. And if you don’t want to tie yourself to a man, at least have a child. At this time, you may believe you’re eternal and independent, but it’s very sad to age and die without anyone by your side. I leave you, then, with your conscience.” Having said this, he rose and with a solemn nod he left the room and closed the door.
Lara shook her head, too shocked to say anything. She approached the mirror and kept brushing her hair, but soon she left the brush and examined her face in the mirror, looking for any signs of ageing, a wrinkle, a grey hair, whatever. But the woman who stared back at her was still young, with firm and smooth skin, bright hair, her eyes sparkling with life. There was no flaw or a sign of aging.
Instinctively she opened the towel and dropped it down to see her naked body. Everything was as usual, her strong and muscular legs, narrow waist, flat stomach, perky breasts and proud shoulders. For Lara Croft the years weren’t passing, as if her life had stopped in the prime of life to perpetuate her youth forever. “It’s in my mind where I see signs of aging.” She said to her reflection. “I’m tired and my head is full of warps.”
She sighed and put on the black dress. She knew that deep down, her old butler was right. And she was so tired...but her body was still young and energetic, ready to go on as usual.
The Exhibition of Archaeology was actually a series of lectures about recent discoveries given over that week, and were closed that night with a gala dinner. Lara did attend them not because she liked the pomp, but because it was a unique opportunity to reconnect with old friends, who used to be scattered around the world. So, Lara was greeting with multiple languages to different personalities from the world of archaeology, followed at a safe distance by Selma, who was also much needed and welcomed by her work in the Middle East.
“Well, Croft, I won’t know what to do if you keep showing yourself so prettily!” Who had spoken was no one other than Charles Kane, who came to her and kissed her fraternally.
“What are you doing here?” Lara said. “I thought you hated social events.”
“You hate them too and here you are.” He guffawed. “How are things going? I guess you’re as stubborn as ever. I’ve been told about that Indian girl. Seriously, what on earth were you thinking?”
“Stop it!” She laughed. “You’d have done the same.”
“You’re senile, Lara! I see now in you, unknown motherly feelings...maybe I’ll see you soon working on missions with the Sisters of Charity...”
“C’mon, shut up and get me a glass of champagne.”
Charles bowed mockingly and went in search of the waiter. Lara looked around distractedly. And then she saw the woman.
She was younger than her, more or less Selma’s age. She was standing across the crowded room and wearing a silvery dress which framed her graceful and sinuous shape. Beside those small breasts and arms and legs so smoothly formed, Lara seemed much more robust and muscular in comparison. Her skin was so white it seemed transparent, her veins visible, and her hair tied in a bun was so black it had a bluish tone. The nose was straight and her lips pink. However, she seemed not to have them painted – she didn’t leave a trace on the rim of the cup from which she sipped.
But what bothered Lara wasn’t that she found not even the slightest imperfection in that beauty. What bothered her was that she didn’t stop looking at her constantly with her green eyes, shining with a coolness strangely familiar to her.
“Here you are.” Charles said, putting a glass in her hand. “Hey, why so serious? One would think you saw a ghost.”
“That woman!” Lara whispered, and took the cup to her lips as she turned quietly to the window.
Although the hall was crowded with well-dressed women, Charles didn’t need any further indication to find her. And then she saw a strange change in the man’s face. “God!” He gasped, breathless. “I’ve never seen a woman like that!”
Lara coughed uncomfortably. “Yes, she’s very attractive.”
“Attractive is not the word. Oh, sorry, I’m behaving like a cad. Let’s say you yourself are so beautiful you hardly see the beauty elsewhere.”
“Don’t try to fix it now. I didn’t mean she’s pretty. I meant she won’t stop looking at me.”
“Well, now that you mention it...yeah. Don’t know why. Maybe she’s jealous. Poor girl’s not very gifted in bra size.”
Lara looked at him speechless. That was not usual in him. “Charles, stop talking nonsense. I don’t like how she looks at me. What does she want?”
She felt upset by her friend’s attitude, who was speaking to her but he simply could not take his eyes away from the other girl, sweating profusely. He seemed completely mesmerized. “You have the chance to find out, Lara. She’s coming here.”
She turned and, in fact, that beauty was approaching with a gentle sway of the hips. The chill was gone and she now displayed a sweet smile, exposing a series of small pearly white teeth. “Miss Croft?” She said with a beautiful alto voice.
“One and the same.” Lara replied, suddenly wrapped in a mysterious lavender scent. She glanced at Charles, but he looked at the woman completely absorbed and enthralled, with a strange expression on his face...
Seriously, what the hell happened with him?
“Such an honor to meet you!” Exclaimed the other with hardly raising her voice, and shook her hand warmly. The touch was warm and soft, like everything in that woman.
She was perfect. Far too perfect. And it was in a matter of seconds Lara figured out that virtually all the men in the room looked at her with the same stupid face as Charles did.
“Who do I have the honour to meet?” Lara said, barely letting go her hand.
“Excuse my rudeness. My name’s Bathsheba.”
Of course, someone so perfect could only have a name out of the ordinary, and so Lara said as much.
“Oh, it was my mother’s whim.” She smiled. “Bathsheba is an ancient Hebrew name and means “the desired one”. According to the biblical Book of Kings, she was the wife of Uriah, a lieutenant of King David. The king fell in love with her because of her beauty after seeing her bathing, and therefore he ordered she must be immediately delivered to him...”
“I know exactly who the Hebrew Bathsheba was, thanks.” Lara cut off, irritated. Who did she think she was, being so presumptuous?
Bathsheba dropped her thick eyelashes. “You’re right. It’s not my business to tell Lara Croft what any historian or archaeologist should know, of course?”
She seemed to have read her mind, and that made Lara feel even more uncomfortable. The British explorer put her glass to her lips and threw a furtive glance at her interlocutor. Up close she was even more beautiful, like a Renaissance Madonna. Any kind of jewellery or make-up would have marred her, and therefore she displayed a completely bare face. And whence came that fresh aroma of lavender that began to dizzy her?
“I hadn’t heard of you.” Lara said then. “And yet you must have some relevance to have been invited to this dinner, unless you’re an escort.”
She had just returned the offense. The so-called “escorts” were luxury prostitutes hired to serve as partners in social events. They were invited to parties to serve as ornamentation, noted for their beauty and no less by their obvious ignorance, as many women who were there.
However, if Bathsheba took the hint, of course she showed no offense, as she exhibited a diaphanous smile while saying: “Oh, no! I come from a family business dedicated to deal with artwork. Now I continue my father’s work. I must say I’m a big fan of your work and I’ve auctioned some of your findings...”
Lara looked back at Charles while the beautiful unleashed her flattery. The man breathed as if he was gasping for air and looking at her with a face full of complete idiocy. Lara put her hand on her temple, stunned by the sweet scent given off by the other.
“... And it’s precisely for this reason I come to make you a proposal.”
Lara set new attention on her interlocutor. “And what could an art dealer want from me?”
“I’m interested in purchasing one of your artefacts.”
That wasn’t a strange offer. Lots of people proposed that to her more often than not, although she usually didn’t sell anything. She used to hold the dangerous or controversial artefacts in her house, such as the Iris or a T-Rex head, which in the wrong hands could bring problems, and therefore she protected them under a rudimentary but ingenious security system, not easily accessible even for her. Instead, concerning harmless artefacts as Durga’s statue itself, she didn’t hesitate in donating them or putting them for sale.
“And in what artefact are you interested?”
Bathsheba became pensive. “Let’s see...its exact name is unknown to me but I’ve no doubt you’re the owner...it’s a dagger, a sort of very steely blade…”
“I’m sorry.” Lara was quick to interrupt. “But the Dagger of Xian is not for sale and never will be, as I stated publicly when I brought it from China some years ago.”
The beauty laughed quietly. “Oh, but I don’t mean the Dagger! I wouldn’t even dream to reclaim that jewel, especially since you made it clear you wouldn’t sell it after it being so difficult for you to recover yourself.”
“I’ve no other artefact which can even resemble a knife.”
“But, Miss Croft, I’m surprised! Did you get rid of it? I refer to a device certainly less valuable than the Dagger, but also exquisite. As I said, it is a steely knife carved completely in some kind of glass, curve shaped with a face carved into the handle...” She stopped talking when Lara’s sharp eyes pierced her. The British explorer reddened as if being slapped, abruptly handed the cup to the stunned Charles (who almost threw it) and gripping Bathsheba’s arm, dragged her almost to the balcony.
“But...Miss Croft!” She said, confused, drifting without resistance.
Lara confronted her and approached her face so near to hers that the other could feel her breath. “Let’s face it.” She muttered. “You can’t fool me with your Victorian manners. Do you really think I’m stupid?”
“Miss Croft!” She exclaimed, scandalized.
“The artefact you mentioned hasn’t been made public. In any case, selling it to people like you is the last thing I’ll do in this world. So I’ll see myself forced to suggest you forget about the subject.”
“But you can’t prove the existence of this blade. You better move on because I won’t sell it. You better not insist in that if you don’t want to regret it.”
Bathsheba looked at her with wide eyes, more surprised than frightened, and that was a lot of courage on her part, since most people became terrified when Lara spoke in that tone to one’s face. Turning round, the explorer left the balcony.
The beautiful lady remained motionless just for a moment. Then, she outlined an ambiguous smile and whispered as she turned to a ring on her finger: “I’m afraid, Miss Croft, I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request.”
“I want to know immediately the truth!” In a rage, Lara was spinning around the room at Croft Manor, while Selma and Charles, sitting in armchairs, looked at her dumbfounded.
The Turkish archaeologist pursed her lips and said: “That’s the truth. I said nothing about that.”
“Someone must have spilled the beans! Unless I’ve been robbed or my inventory checked, and I assure you that’s not been exposed to the public, it’s impossible she could have heard about it!”
“Well, certainly it wasn’t me.” Selma said again, offended. “I’m not the only one who knows the existence of the Shard. Jean also knows, and Vlad, Winston, now Charles…and Kurtis.”
Lara froze when she heard the last name, or so it seemed to Charles. “Jean never goes out of Egypt and he barely talks to anyone other than his workers. It must have been that babbler Ivanoff...”
“What’s up with this guy, Kurtis?” Charles asked, but he received no response. Selma was the one who said: “Nothing is known of him. Anyway, it’s a man whom would be easier to rip out his soul than to make him tell something he wants to keep secret.”
“God.” Murmured Charles. “You’ve intrigued me.”
A flash of irritation crossed Lara’s eyes, as always happened when she heard about Kurtis, but she kept the cold face and pretended to not have heard anything. “Winston!” She exclaimed.
The butler appeared at the moment - he had the bad habit of listening through doors, as she well knew, and was quick to guess: “Miss, I assure you I’ve nothing to do with...”
“My dear old silly! Have I ever distrusted you? What I wanted to ask you is to put me in contact with Ivanoff as soon as possible.”
The old man smiled and left the room.
Charles turned then to Lara and said: “Well, I still don’t get why you’re so angry.”
Selma was quick to intervene: “Two years ago, a man named Kurtis Trent,” she emphasized his name as she looked bitterly at Lara, “had three very valuable daggers known as the Periapt Shards. But he risks death in his way of life, so he chose three people he trusted and gave a Shard to each one, to avoid them fall into the wrong hands. To the three Shards keepers he made swear not to tell anyone about them. Lara and me were chosen, and concerning the third person...”
“His mother. He handed the third Shard to his mother.” Lara said, a bit calmer now.
Charles nodded. “And if that woman has offered to buy your Shard it’s because someone has spilled the beans.”
“Yes, but in fact there’s much more.” Continued Lara. “We might be in danger, because we neither know who this woman is nor whom she works for. Nobody is interested in a simple crystal carved knife. She wants something more.”
“Don’t tell me.” Charles said, mocking. “It’s magic, isn’t it?”
Lara smiled wryly. “Perhaps.”