They left at daybreak.
And with the help of two stable grooms, the travelers had a trio of swift horses at their disposal. They would ride to the crossroads and meet the private carriage Charles had rented to take them Portsmouth on the coast, and then board the channel ship to sail to Cherbourg, France. From there, a week’s journey would bring them to the Italian countryside where they would continue in ease and safety to the countess’ villa at Lago di Foschia near Florence.
In English, Lago di Foschia translated to Mist Lake. The large body of water earned its name because of the early morning mist that radiated from the calm blue waters and drifted to land, caressing the small hillocks and copse of woods in its wake while stimulating the sweet fragrances of the lavender and honeysuckle blooms.
Elena’s villa lay close enough to the lake that one could walk from the back terrace to the boat pier in just twenty-odd steps. A row of full-length doors along the rear wall of her bed chamber opened to the terrace, taking optimum advantage of cool breezes from the lake and hills in the summer, the sun’s warm southern rays in the winter.
The countess employed three servants, Tomasina the housekeeper and cook, Allegra the maid, and Umberto, the groundskeeper and overseer of the villa. Marianne received a lovely room with a balcony overlooking the well-tended grounds, and Elena instructed Allegra to serve as Marianne’s personal maid.
Charles shared the mistress’ bedchamber on the ground floor with a terrace that stretched to the banks of the lake. A small rowboat remained docked there, always at their disposal should they wish to take a ride on the lake anytime of the day or night. The villa itself—built of locally quarried stone— offered generous rooms furnished with elegant, carved furniture reminiscent of the Renaissance period, the walls decorated with rich, intricate tapestries. The bedchambers contained large canopied beds fitted with laced and embroidered linens made especially for the countess by the nuns of the nearby abbey. At the front of the house, large double doors opened to an airy vestibule where a tiled pool sparkled with lake water, fed from a boar’s head spout on the wall.
The countess had commissioned several artists to paint frescoes on the ceilings, beautiful depictions of tales from Grecian and Roman mythology, the murals framed by gilt borders.
Meals were often sumptuous affairs thanks to Tomasina’s cooking talents, the long dining table laden with plenty of pasta dishes, desserts, fruit and wine. In fact, wine remained plentiful since Humberto tended the estate’s field of grape vines and assisted the neighboring vintner in making their own delicious wine.
Overall, the villa offered a pleasant and comfortable atmosphere, but Marianne soon pointed out a few anomalies to Charles. “If you look carefully at the tapestries,” she told her brother, “You will find naked couples cavorting in the woods and also couples embracing in rather suggestive poses. And the ceiling paintings...they are rather lurid with ladies bearing...well, their bosoms.” Marianne blushed as she said the last word.
With a smile, Charles told her about artistic license and how it had been used freely and indiscriminatingly by the Renaissance tapestry weavers to suggest frivolity and romance, while the ceiling murals depicted surreal stories of gods, mortals and mythical creatures, including satyrs seducing young scantily-clad maidens. Yet Marianne was not all together satisfied that everything in the villa appeared innocent and innocuous.
The countess had a new wardrobe made for her pretty young guest, but the shy, demure girl found the décolletage of the dress bodices too low and revealing, the nightgowns too filmy and bare, and the jewelry—the garnets, sapphires and pearls—too much too soon.
“And the colors,” Marianne went on. “No decent woman wears those shades of red and purple unless she wishes to call attention to herself in a most vulgar manner. And she does not wear black unless she is in mourning.”
“The Italians,” Charles informed his sister on a pragmatic note, “abide by a looser sense of values, as they did in Roman times. They eschew restrictions and thus enjoy life much more fully than we do back in England. Relax, dear sister, and enjoy the visit. We don’t want to offend our generous hostess, do we?”
Marianne slowly shook her head. “No, of course not, so I’ll do as you say. I’ll try to enjoy our time here. I certainly appreciate the gifts the countess has bestowed upon me, and so I will wear the prevailing fashions without feeling as if I have abandoned modesty and good taste.”
Charles squeezed his sister’s hand in mutual understanding. “Good girl! Now if you have anymore concerns and doubts don’t hesitate to come to me. Why don’t you write a letter to mother just to allay her worries and fears?”
Marianne glanced down at her new mauve slippers, averting her eyes from her brother’s gaze. Tears had formed along her lower lashes, threatening now to spill down her pink cheeks. “I already have, Charles. I told her how much I miss her and that I feel very lonely here. I also enquired after Daphne Asquith’s case, if her killer has been caught. But most importantly, I revealed my regret at having run off on such a foolish whim. I just hope mother will forgive me and allow me to come home.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, my dear!” Placing two fingers under her dainty chin, Charles lifted her head and used the lace cuff of his shirt to dab away the tears. “I’ll try to rectify the situation so you will feel more comfortable and not so much alone. It is my fault entirely, and if you wish, I shall pay for your return trip home.”
As he spoke, guilt gnawed at his gut. He had been spending most of his time with Elena, indulging in wine and romance, thus leaving his sister to fend for herself, even though she had Allegra as her lady’s maid and guide to Italian fashion, hairstyles and etiquette. Still, it was not the same as a woman of Marianne’s station who could show his sister the sights and serve as mentor and companion. Perhaps he had been too hasty in bringing Marianne along, even when Elena insisted.
“Perhaps I have not given myself enough time to adjust,” his sister theorized. “As you point out, we shouldn’t expect people from other countries to think and act like ourselves.”
Charles bent his head to offer his sister a look and smile of encouragement. “Exactly, my dear. I think I shall find you a suitable companion, one who will take you to museums and other attractions as well as teach you Italian. And attend parties as well. What do you think of my idea?”
Marianne tried a trembling smile in return. “I believe it to be an excellent one, Charles.”
“Very good, my darling!”
When a letter arrived from Lady Constance Lambert to her daughter, Charles intercepted the missive and read his mother’s words. She forgave Marianne her transgression and urged her to come home despite the fact Daphne Asquith’s murderer remained at large. His mother also asked Marianne to persuade Charles to return to England with her. “It must be,” Lady Constance wrote of her children’s current situation, “a terribly immoral environment. The Countess Solieri is no God-fearing woman. In fact she possesses no scruples or common decency, and no doubt indulges in the most scandalous of activities. You must come home, my dear Sofia, before you become corrupted by such vile goings on.”
Instead of passing the letter on to his sister, Charles tore it into little pieces and tossed it in the fireplace.
Most evenings the countess entertained other guests, people Charles assumed to be locals. These guests consisted of a few women, but mainly of men, young, attractive Italian men who possessed bronzed bodies and swarthy good looks, their raven hair long and free. They went by such names as Diego, Amadeo, Giancarlo, and Stefano, all good friends who traded stories and jokes, sang ballads, laughed heartily, and indulged freely in the wine and brandy that Elena provided.
Some were of noble birth but the majority of men worked in the trades, artisans who cut and sculpted stone into architectural edifices for buildings, others who painted interior frescoes, and still others who cast tiles and blew glass into works of art. Most claimed Italian heritage, but a few came from Serbia to the northeast when work became scarce in their land.
Sometimes these impromptu parties went on into the wee hours of the morning, the more alcohol consumed, the merrier the group. And even as the evenings turned cool, the Italian bravados stripped off their clothes and dived into the lake. Unlike Marianne who made her excuses early and retired to her bedchamber, Charles quickly adapted to the group’s fun and antics, learning Italian—or the rustic vernacular of such—as he freely availed himself of the libations. But he stopped short of jumping into the cold water. Tipsy he wanted to be not sober and freezing.
One evening, after consuming a large amount of brandy, Charles caught the eye of two female guests who had been cavorting naked. He allowed the women to have their way with him as he lolled, quite comfortably, in a velvet-covered arm chair. The duo commenced to unbutton his clothing, opening his shirt and pulling his breeches down around his ankles. Both women possessed full lips and long, skilled tongues; enormous breasts and voluptuous curves; and long swatches of dark hair over their tawny bodies. They kissed, stroked and sucked him into glorious arousal, all his senses alive and stimulated, despite his inebriated state.
Another woman soon joined in, three willing and eager supplicants to serve him. Charles felt as if he reigned as a mighty, imperial caliph with his own harem. His body sizzled with the heat of desire as eager hands and lips tugged and nibbled his body all at once. Breasts and mouths rubbed his hard shaft while fingers caressed him between the thighs and made him howl in pleasure. They took turns straddling him, all the while purring to him in husky Italian.
His body tingled and his skin caught fire, and he couldn’t quite catch his breath or describe this manic assault on his senses. When he peaked and exploded, it rocked him to the core and cleared the fog from his mind. Mouths quickly descended on him to lap and suck him dry, making him quiver in feverish but sated bliss.
. Why, oh, why had he never done this before? It was wonderful, incredible, miraculous, a fantasy world where he could be fondled and fucked by multiple women for as long as he desired. Yet, a small part of him, a part that had not been touched by lust and drink, actually experienced a twinge of guilt for betraying Elena.
Elena! Roughly shoving aside the third woman, Charles sat up and looked around the room. He tried to find his lover in a sea of bodies, naked bodies in various sexual positions and attached together with mouths, hands and body parts until they became one large undulating mass that swelled and filled the room.
Where had all these people come from? Charles realized he was now in the midst of an orgy, something he had heard about but had never thought he would take part in, a wanton, unbridled experience with relative strangers.
Rising, he buttoned his shirt and then pulled up and refastened his breeches. When dressed, he began to make his way through the mire of bodies until he found Elena sitting in her favorite gilt and silk brocade chair. Tonight she wore a midriff top and a billowing skirt of filmy lavender tulle, the fabric studded with silver sequins. Now her skirt had been hiked around her stomach so she could spread wide her legs. One of the male guests knelt between them, his dark head bowed to her groin as he suckled her.
Charles watched as Elena’s eyelids fluttered and her face flushed in ecstasy. She opened her rosy mouth just enough for her tongue to run across her lower lip. His first inclination was to pull the man from between her legs and throttle him, but Elena would frown upon such a brutish show of jealousy. Instead, Charles positioned himself behind the chair and gently kneaded her full, warm breasts. From where he stood, he recognized the man who had been satisfying her as Anatole, one of the Serbian artisans who frequented these parties, a tall, handsome man with wavy black hair and dark magnetic eyes.
Arching back her head, Elena glanced up at Charles with a bright mercurial gaze and smiled. “Come,” she urged and wrapped her hands tightly around his lower arms.
Understanding her unspoken desire, Charles lifted her off the chair, her body as light as a cloud. Anatole rocked back on his heels and offered a wry grin. “Mi bella,” he murmured.
The countess replied in a soft, low, provocative tone, one that also held a note of authority and conviction. Anatole rose obediently and then sought out another man amidst the writhing bodies.
Now as Charles cradled Elena in his arms and started toward the bed chamber, he noticed two Serbians mounting the stairs, Anatole and his friend Sergei. He thought no more about the men as he whisked his lover into the room and gently laid her along the bed. Elena’s eyes sparkled with excitement and lust. Keeping her arms ringed around his neck, she tugged Charles down to her.
“Mi tresoro,” she murmured. “What if I could give you life everlasting? I could give you that and so much more...and you would never age or die.”
Charles laughed lightly as he lay beside her, his mood and head giddy with wine and sex. “Oh, if you only could, my precious! I would gladly embrace immortality as long as you would be my side for all eternity. Of course, it is but a dream, a wonderful dream, but a dream just the same.”
“Ah, my darling,” she countered and caressed his face with light fingertips, “it is not a dream with me but a reality. I have the power to grant you life everlasting, a gift given to me by the gods many years ago in the valley of the Nile. How old to you think I am?”
Charles frowned. Elena had told him, hadn’t she? “Twenty and three?”
“I am a thousand years old,” she revealed without emotion.
Now he laughed heartily. “Please, Elena, do not play this game with me as you do with the others! I am amused, yes, but I am also a realist.”
“I never play such games!” Releasing her arms from his neck, Elena gave him a look so cold and disdainful that it made him shiver involuntarily. Her gaze narrowed for a moment, to a hard, flinty look not unlike an animal ready to pounce and tear apart its prey.
She pushed him away and sat up. “Now I offer you the chance of many lifetimes. I wish you to be my companion forever and always. If you accept, then I shall grant you life eternal.”
She rose from the bed with a soft and fragrant rustle of her gown. “You will never regret your decision or want to be anything but immortal. I give you this gift from the heart, a gift so rare and special that I grant it only to those I love.” Elena now donned a thin smile, warmer and more humane. “And I do love you, my Charles. I wish to give you everything you ever wanted, adoration, power, invincibility, immortality. So do you accept my offer?”
Abandoning his frivolous and incredulous mood, Charles grew serious as his contemplated what she had to offer him. Deep down he always knew Elena possessed a power, a mysterious and ethereal power, and a wisdom and knowledge gained over many lifetimes. When she spoke of Egypt, told him of events from Grecian and Roman times, it was if she had lived them. Now he knew she had.
He nodded. “Yes, my darling, I accept your gift gladly and gratefully. As you love me, I love you with all my heart and soul!” He rose from the bed, ready to do whatever she wished of him, ready to bow down to her, kiss the hem of her gown, kiss her feet, her face, her mouth, her womanhood, worship her as his queen, his goddess...
“Sit for a moment,” she commanded. When Charles did so at the foot of the bed, she went over to her large mahogany credenza and opened a middle cupboard to extract a small oblong box. Carefully placing her hands on its top and bottom, she brought the gilt container over to the nightstand and set it down. He noticed the markings on the sides, what appeared to be Egyptian symbols, garnished with small oblique-shaped gems like garnets and topaz, and inlaid with such semi-precious stones as turquoise and malachite.
“You will drink the elixir of immortality,” she told him, “but first you will join with me in a union of blood and life eternal, blood of my blood, life of my life.”
From the depths of her skirts, she extracted a small knife, the silver-blue gleam of its blade attesting to its sharpness. Elena went on to tell him about the others she had made like herself, the very few she had chosen to unite with her in love and companion. Yes, the others had eventually perished, but she had perfected the process now and knew without any misgivings that Charles would be the first to join her in everlasting life.
Charles’ gaze gleamed like the knife blade. His eagerness to join with her in love and life everlasting overshadowed any fear and hesitation he may have entertained before. Now he felt strong, with no inhibitions. “I am ready, my love.”
With the knife, Elena sliced away the front of her bodice and then slit her flesh between her breasts. Blood began to ooze from the wound, not deep but potent nonetheless. She came over to Charles and used the knife to flick away the buttons of his white linen shirt. With her left hand, she pulled back the shirt fabric while her right held the knife quite steadily over his breastbone.
“Flesh of my flesh,” she whispered as she made a similar slit down his chest. “Life of my life, and love of my love...forever.”
Charles felt a tingle but no real pain. Setting aside the knife, Elena straddled him and allowed her blood to drip on his chest and mingle with his.
She smeared the blood with her fingers, painting swirls on his chest and belly. Then scooping some of the blood that had pooled, she began to paint her breasts and abdomen in the same way. Both the blood and her strokes felt soft and warm, as if she had been massaging him with oil instead of life-giving blood. Charles closed his eyes for a moment. He felt no different, but then again it probably took time for the change to take place.
Suddenly, he felt Elena’s mouth on his chest. When he opened his eyes he witnessed her drinking the combined blood with quick laps of her tongue. When she finished, she glanced up at him with a strange, fiery look in her eyes, her lips and chin painted a rich vermilion.
“This will happen to you,” she murmured. “A deep, abiding hunger, a thirst never quite sated. It is the side effect of what you will become. But no matter. Your need for blood is insignificant to what you will reap and enjoy as an immortal.”
Charles shivered. The drinking of blood repelled him, but if that was what it took to belong to Elena, he would gladly drink it by the tubful.
Now she rose and went over to the gold box. He watched as she opened it by way of a concealed mechanism. The side nearest to them folded down to reveal a small bottle of faceted emerald glass nestled in a bed of red velvet. Elena extracted the bottle and returned to him. As she took off the crystal stopper, she bade him to sit up and drink the elixir. Charles did as told and allowed her to place the opening of the bottle to his lips. He drank slowly, the potion vile-tasting as if he drank swamp water, but soon the liquid warmed him and made him feel relaxed and serene, even happy.
“Now lie down and sleep,” Elena commanded when he finished drinking and she withdrew the bottle. “Sleep for a little while and you will wake refreshed and strong.”
“And immortal?” he queried with a hopeful look.
“Yes, my darling,” she murmured. “My love forever.”
“When will I feel the change? Will I crave blood then?”
“All in good time,” she soothed. “We will talk after your rest.”
With a sigh of contentment, Charles stretched along the bed and watched as Elena returned the empty bottle to the box. Next she left the room but returned minutes later with a damp cloth to wipe the blood from his chest. He noticed she had cleaned herself as well, her breasts now gleaming like fine porcelain in the candlelight.
“Sleep,” she cooed as she worked the warm cloth over his breastbone and down his chest. “In sleep, you will become strong and invincible, wise and knowledgeable of all things. The world will be ours, my sweet. We shall take what we want, experience nothing but joy and excitement, revel in our love, and live together forever.”
“Yes, yes, my darling,” he whispered as sleep began to envelope him. Then Charles dreamed. At first, he found himself in Egypt, in a fine palace with row of solemn men around him, wearing red silk and leopard skin togas, and gilt skullcaps on their heads. They called him Darshak, the scribe, once the lover of Ayelet, who had died in a coup for the power of Pharaoh’s throne. But Darshak knew Ayelet lived. She had been reborn from the black magic cast upon her by the second wife of Pharaoh who worshipped the dark and formidable Nor- Sekhmet. The magic of Eyelet’s transformation had been cultivated by a minion of the dark goddess, an old nurse. Darshak wanted desperately to find Ayelet, to declare his abiding love for her, but she had disappeared along with the desert wind. He would go in search of her...
Next Charles found himself in Greece, his body transformed into that of a lovely young woman named Penelope who came to live with the alluring and beautiful Evadne. In her role as lover, companion and mentor, Evadne counseled Penelope, taught her about love, art, music, drama and science. They lived quite comfortably in Athens, in a manor house run by women who traded sex for money. Penelope loved this time with Evadne, their walks along the colonnade and their nights together, bodies entwined lovingly as they slept in the big, warm bed. When they moved to the island of Seriphos they grew closer still, and on and on to new venues and ventures as time held no meaning for them. But the idyllic life they shared began to dim and cloud over with impending doom. Penelope found herself losing strength and her ability to love and be loved as she drifted into a dark, dark void, never to return.
Charles awoke abruptly with this nightmarish vision that dared to cast a black pall over his pleasant dream, but soon he drifted back to his journeys, to Persia and Roma in the days before Christ, to the Norse conquests and on to the Middle Ages, each time a different persona, man or woman, and each the lover of the beautiful and mysterious woman who went by various names, Evadne, Elodea, Erivan, Eleanor. And yet each time he found himself drifting to that dark, numbing void, a plane where he existed neither in death nor in life.
Elena...Elena! Charles called out to her, frightened now. He begged her to save him from the fate of the void. Only she could keep him alive and with her for always. In his dream, Elena reached out to him, a white-gold vision who promised she would protect and keep him always. She promised with all her heart and soul, she promised him…