This morning is the first time in several days Pierre has talked to her. OK. It was to ask her to pick up the tablecloths at the dry-cleaner’s, but she really needs to get on Pierre’s good side again if she wants to keep a roof over her head…
Leonardo’s muscle car idles to a stop next to Shasta. ‘Signorina Liath-Grau! What a pleasant surprise. Can I drive you somewhere?’
Surprised, Shasta jumps. Leonardo? She thought she’d never see him again! And his car is just – wow!
She tries to apply a suitably bored expression. ‘How fortunate! I’m going to the dry-clea-’ Quick! Find somewhere interesting! ‘-to the… the art museum. So, if it’s not too much trouble?’
Really? The Art Museum? On a Monday? Leonardo hides his smile and leans over to open the door. ‘Of course not. It’s my pleasure… As a matter of fact I was going there myself.’
Shasta gives him the benefit of a dazzling smile, and slides into the front seat.
A half hour later they arrive before the imposing old castle, now a museum.
The museum is closed on Mondays but Leonardo calls from the car on their way to the museum. He’s used to pulling strings to get what he needs, and he has soon got the authorization to visit the new exposition that will open tomorrow. They walk over to the big fountain in the middle of the lawn to wait for the director to come unlock the doors.
Shasta leans carefully against the stone railing, knowing she’s probably ruining her Erdem silk dress, but only a truly wealthy person acts as if their clothes were from Walmart, and she wants Leonardo to think she’s well off. It’s not exactly a lie. It’s not her fault her mother has spent all their money on God knows what. Probably books. She looks down at her ruined nude sandals. She would rather have walked barefoot than trudged over a lawn with these. She rearranges her dress over her slender legs and pushes back a strand of hair knowing Leonardo is intently studying her behind his sunglasses.
He breaks the silence. ‘So… You were going to walk all the way here? On a Monday? That’s-’
Shasta didn’t expect anything except a compliment and tries to avoid answering the embarrassing question. ‘I think that’s your friend.’ She nods towards the sleek black car parking on the gravel next to Leonardo’s red Ferrari.
The director is an old friend of Leonardo’s, and he discreetly retires to his office after greeting them and handing Leonardo a bunch of keys, leaving his old friend with access to the precious exposition.
Shasta is not very fond of art, she always loathed the annual visits to the museums in Seattle and the vicinity, but she can’t help feeling awed, both by the masterpieces and Leonardo’s importance. He seems excited about the visit though, he explains to her that the paintings come from many different museums – the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Museo del Prado in Madrid and many others. Shasta regrets not having payed attention in class and decides to play it safely, letting Leonardo do all the talking.
‘Who is that?’ she admires one of the paintings next to the immense 16th century portrait of Emperor Charles V on his roaring horse. It stretches over two floors, but doesn’t overshadow the striking portrait of the young dark-haired beauty. ‘She’s so beautiful…’
Leonardo stands just behind her, ‘I agree… So beautiful.’ But he doesn’t even give the picture a glance, he only has eyes for Shasta…
His fingertips brushes hers, as he casually leans forward and reads the description, only in French, ‘She was a Russian beauty who came to Paris with her lover. She made a scandal by going to the court ball in 1863 dressed in muslins so transparent that the empress, offended, had her thrown out-’
‘Oh, that’s intriguing.’
‘They called her “la Vénus Tartare”,’ he finishes.
‘It’s a Winterhalter,’ she affirms, having read the title of the text. ‘I love his female portraits.’
‘It’s such a pity great artists like him are hard to find nowadays. He would have loved to paint you.’
Shasta smiles self-consciously and continues to the next painting.
‘Look at this landscape, Shasta. It seems to light up from within.’ Leonardo is in awe in front of a painting of the Forest of Fontainebleau by Grenet de Joigny. ‘He died when he was only twenty-four…’
‘Uh-huh… Yes, it is splendid…’ Shasta can’t believe her eyes. She recognizes the signature on one of the paintings. Magnus Darkling. Leonardo keeps talking but Shasta doesn’t listen anymore. 1498… Such a strange coincidence. It must be an ancestor of Magnus’s… Shasta is stunned. But a disciple of the great Leonardo da Vinci? Magnus dabbed around with painting, but mostly modern things no one could understand. She wonders if he knows about his artist ancestor. Probably… Unfortunately she can’t talk to him about it, as she doesn’t have a clue about his whereabouts nowadays. As if she cared… She smiles a t Leonardo, joining him in front of the dark landscape. Lit up from within? It’s dark as hell in there.
After enjoying their preview of the art exposition, Leonardo takes Shasta out for lunch. They talk about the paintings they’ve just seen over bottle of rosé from his own wineyards. Leonardo has found an avid listener in Shasta, which boosts his already well-fed ego.
Reaching out and putting his hand over hers, he looks her deep into her eyes. ‘I’d love to make you discover everything I love about this country.’
‘And I’d love to discover it with you, Leonardo,’ she murmurs, demurely looking down but not retiring her hand from under his.
Leonardo is old school and as such he courts Shasta like a gentleman should. The following weeks seem to disappear in a whirlwind of restaurants, flowers, romantic walks in the countryside and long discussions over a book. He takes her horse-riding, they visit castles, go to a polo game and have tea at an old mill afterwards. He teaches Shasta how to play chess and they discover a common interest – the occult.
Shasta is pleasantly surprised that Leonardo hasn’t made a move on her. Not a single time has he done more than hold her hands and kissed them. She’s not a very passionate woman, she’s more into the romancing part of a relation, so she should be happy about the way things are moving along. Except that she has checked Leonardo up on the Internet, and Julie is very gossipy and has filled her in, showing her lots of magazines with the famous magician and his numerous conquests. So she’s starting to worry about what he really wants with her… Maybe tonight everything will change. Leonardo is taking her to a secret destination. He has asked her to pack a weekend bag, which means they are staying the night somewhere. She thinks that he’s probably taking her to Deauville for the races, so she’ll throw in a bikini and some sexy underwear. And the hat she wore to the polo match will have to do. She has a nice red cocktail dress all made in lace and that will look good if he takes her dancing. He told her to dress up, so she’ll wear it tonight. And for tomorrow she’ll wear the white and blue LK Bennet she acquired yesterday. Shopping has taken its toll on her “savings”. Maybe it’s time to give Stephanie another call… She zips up the red lace dress, checking through the window for the umpteenth time. He’s late…
‘Where are we going?’ ‘Una sorpresa, cara… A surprise.’
‘I hate surprises! Tell me!’ Shasta is terribly nervous. She has had numerous lovers, but never felt this excited.
‘I thought you said you loved surprises?’ Leonardo teases.
‘Yes! I mean – No! Aargh… You like to string me along, don’t you?’
‘Ah, si! Terribilmente.’
But he doesn’t say where they are headed.
The road winds through the countryside, flanked by lush vineyards, and it’s already dark when they arrive at their destination. An old house looms on the hillside, and even though lighted, it seems ominous… Leonardo parks the car in front of a long staircase and a valet appears out of nowhere to take their bags.
‘Wow… Where are we?’
‘At Chateau Champs. It has been abandoned for over fifty years, but I’m restoring it to its former glory… Let me show you around.’
Leonardo steps out of the car, holding the door for Shasta who elegantly swings her legs like she has learnt royalty does. She puts her hand in his and hand in hand they ascend the stairs…
The lavish dining room is decorated with art that seem to have come right out of the exposition they visited a few weeks ago. The large gilded marble table is set for two, and Shasta wonders how they shall be able to talk to each other over the distance that separates the table settings. She won’t even be able to see Leonardo correctly with the monstrous candelabra in the middle, its light reflecting in a multitude of crystals. Leonardo pulls out the chair and Shasta sits gracefully on the ancient brocade, wondering how many princesses and other royalty have sat there before her.
‘Thank you,’ she murmurs, letting her gaze stray over the opulently decorated dining room. Judging by the details he truly is wealthy.
‘So this is your little pied à terre in France.’
‘Yes. It’s to be refurbished and renovated, naturalemente. The ancient owner was a collector of art.’ He gestures towards the walls. ‘I’m a little of an art collector myself. I have some interesting paintings in my Monte Aquila residence, mostly new talent, but I’m the lucky owner of an Andy Warhol, a couple of Roy Lichtenstein’s and a Dalí – I’d love to show them to you. One day…’
‘I’d love to. I’ve never been to Italy, but I know I’ll love it. What about that painting. Such a handsome man.’
‘Oh, that’s the great Napoleon Bonaparte the 1st, Emperor of France. But he would have been Italian if only he had been born a few months earlier. You see, France conquered Corsica in May 1769, and Napoleon was born in August.’
‘Yes. But we have Caesar and the whole Roman Empire to boast about,’ he chuckles.
They are interrupted by the butler bringing the appetizers. Leonardo has really set out to woo Shasta. After skewers of melon, jamón, and mini mozzarella and a delicious rack of lamb with herbs from Provence and roasted tomatoes, the whole served with a Pinot Noir from his own winery, he asks her if she would like to have dessert on the terrace.
She follows him outside, where the whole valley is displayed at their feet in the moonlight.
‘You like?’ He plants a kiss on her nude shoulder. Shasta shivers, but doesn’t turn around. She drinks in the dreamlike scenery.
‘Like? No… I love it, Leonardo.’
The butler coughs discreetly, carting out chilled pink Champagne and fresh Strawberries. Shasta can’t help but think that it was exactly the last dessert she had had with Alexander Liebersturm…
The Butler settles in front of the Steinway, and Leonardo and Shasta dances under the stars to the tunes of melodies from the 40s. Shasta has never spent a more romantic evening in her whole life.
But when the times comes to retire for the night, Leonardo politely escorts her to a vast bedroom with an enormous four poster bed surrounded by heavy red curtains. He kisses her hand as usual, and attaches a glittering bracelet on her right wrist.
‘Swarovski… How sweet.’ Then she sees the “C” on the lock and gasps. Cartier doesn’t do crystal. ‘Ohmygod.’ But when Shasta looks up to thank him, he’s already gone.
She wriggles out of her dress, kicking it into a corner. Apart from the diamond bracelet he just offered her, she’s only wearing a red see through lace corselet. She kicks off her shoes, deciding they might seem a little too much. She wants to seduce the wealthy Count, not scare him off… Fluffing her hair and adding some lipstick she settles seductively on the bed, ready for Leonardo when he shows up.
Because he is going to show up. He can’t just leave her hanging with a chaste kiss on the hand.
The next morning they have breakfast together in the same dining room. The morning sun reflects in the crystal candelabra, sending rainbow reflections over the table and the walls. Shasta is not in a sunny mood. She finally fell asleep on the bed, and woke up unusually frustrated and with a slight headache. She glares at her host, who is absorbed in some boring article in La Republica, and is not very talkative.
Shasta observes him, buttering her scone until there’s only crumbs left. Irritated she pushes the plate back. I don’t know what to make of it all – his courtship, the romantic dinner and then… Nothing. Am I too ugly for him? No. I know I’m beautiful. Did I say something wrong during dinner? I don’t think I did. But then again, I had quite much to drink…
‘The food doesn’t please you? Maybe you would prefer something more… Americano? Eggs maybe, or bacon? Just ask the butler, he-‘
‘Everything is fine, thank you. I usually only have black coffee for breakfast, anyway.’
‘I have some business to attend to this morning. Feel free to enjoy the library, or the park. We have a quite remarkable rose garden…’
Shasta has no desire to amble through a garden in the heat. ‘I don’t feel up to discovering the garden on my own. Or maybe I’ll ask the butler to accompany me on a romantic stroll. No. I think I’ll just retire to my room. Watch a movie on Netflix, perhaps. Oh, no. I completely forgot – there’s no Internet here yet. I should just read then.’ She glares at Leonardo, who puts down his paper, folding it neatly next to his coffee cup. He doesn’t say anything but she can feel his disapproval. She squirms on her chair. Maybe she went too far…
Leonardo pushes back his chair. ‘I think the time has come to show you something, Shasta. Mi segua, prego.’ (Follow me, please.)
He precedes her downstairs, to the cellar. The walls are lined with shelves filled with dusty bottles and cobweb. Shasta sighs. She hopes he won’t lecture her on wine again. But Leonardo doesn’t stop in the large cave. He walks briskly through the musky scented storage rooms until he comes to an empty part of the last vault.
He stops in front of a massive brick wall. There are no shelves here, and the electric light doesn’t reach this far. He takes out a pack of matches and lights an old hurricane lantern hanging on the wall.
Shasta watches him pass his hands over the bricks, inspecting the different stones. She nervously wonders if he’s going to kill her and stash her body down here. Maybe he’ll just confine her, keeping her prisoner to satisfy some dark instinct of his. She is usually right about people, and experience has shown her that her first impression often is true. But there is no satisfaction in being right about him being a stalker, a psychopath stalker, if she doesn’t live to gloat. Nobody will ever know what happened to her. Even her mother has no clue where she is, and with whom. She should run. Now!
But of course she doesn’t, she’s too curious to see what’s behind that secret door… And she has taken him down once. She will do it again, if necessary.
Pushing at five different stones, Leonardo actions the mechanism and with a rumble the wall gives way, revealing a long dark corridor. He takes the storm lamp and holding it high, gestures for her to follow him.
Still without talking, he precedes her until they reach a door sealed with a heavy chain lock. Leonardo hangs the light next to an old metal sign saying something about no trespassers. He unhooks it and puts it on the floor, revealing a hole in the wall. Shasta gasps when he puts his hand inside, thinking of the spiders and other horrible bugs probably milling about in there.
‘Here, cara. I will let you do the honors.’ He hands her the key to the massive chain lock that he has just retrieved from its hiding place in the wall, but she crosses her arms demonstratively in front of her chest, shaking her head.
‘No. Go ahead. You do it.’
What sick game is he playing anyway? He wants her to unlock the door to her future cell? Like digging her own grave?
She watches Leonardo fiddle with the lock, the heavy chain rattling to the floor. He pushes the door open with a loud creak, letting through a gust of cold wind smelling of earth.
He lights a couple of torches next to the door, but the flickering light doesn’t reach far into the opaque darkness. Shasta gasps in awe. The room is so vast she can barely see the ceiling or the opposite walls. She takes a step forward and opens her eyes wide, forcing them to get accustomed to the lack of light faster but Leonardo stops her with a firm grip around her arm before she falls down the few steps leading down to an intricate box tree labyrinth.
‘Attenti al buio, Signorina Grey,’ he warns her. ‘I passi sono irregolari – the steps are very, how do you say – Irregular?’
She clings to him an instant before recovering her senses. She straightens out her dress and rearranges her hair to buy some time. Is it his intention to let her err in the maze until she dies of hunger and thirst? But then again, he stopped her from falling, didn’t he? It would have been easier to let her go down, turn on his heels and forever close the heavy iron door.
‘Andiamo? Shall we?’ Leonardo invites her to take his hand to help her down the treacherous stairs.
The hedge is not as high as it seemed from above, it reaches just up to their waist. It is nevertheless too high to step over, forcing them to follow the narrow path. Shasta walks behind Leonardo, trying to remember the twists and turns but is soon lost. She guesses they are headed towards the object protruding in the center of the maze. Something that looks like a small obelisk. After weaving their way through the labyrinth, they finally arrive at a small clearing.
Leonardo holds up the storm lamp, revealing a pristine white stele in the flickering light.
‘Whose tomb is it? Why did you bring me here?’ Shasta whispers.
‘I wanted you have a look at the inscription…’ Leonardo mutters, putting down the storm lamp on the ground and taking a step back.
‘What inscription?’ Shasta approaches the immaculate gravestone. Leonardo leans nonchalantly on the stele, watching her attentively. He hopes that he hasn’t made a mistake bringing her here.
Shasta is focused on trying to see anything engraved on the stone. She draws closer, letting her hand run down the smooth surface, and suddenly something happens. There’s a slight blur on the even surface and runes flicker to life. A magic inscription, only to be seen by a witch. Shasta tries not to let her emotion show, not daring to look at Leonardo. Her knowledge of ancient runes is far from perfect, but these… They seem like pure gibberish.
‘What do you make of it?’ Leonardo watches Shasta carefully.
‘Huh? Nothing. There’s nothing here. I can’t see any runes,’ she lies. How come Leonardo knows there’s something engraved on the stele? Witches’ runes are only to be seen by, well, a witch. Her mother would, of course, know what to make of this, but Shasta has no intention of contacting her so soon. Especially not to beg for advice – or God forbid – help. She tries to memorize what is written, just in case, without letting it show that she is actually reading. It is difficult as there is no space between the words, just a long harangue of letters which don’t seem to make any sense… gibuaujaaluota. Suddenly her head clears and she can distinguish words she knows. Gibu auja means I give protection, but alu ota… What is this?
Leonardo is disappointed. He knows that she is lying, as he never mentioned runes. He has known about her little secret for a while now, but needed to be sure, before getting too involved. Why doesn’t she want to tell him that she can see them?
‘Who is buried here?’ Shasta asks again, matter of factly.
‘Just one of my ancestors, no one of importance.’
‘Hmm… That’s a hell of a burial set up for someone not being important,’ she says, trying to light up the serious atmosphere.
‘We’d better head back,’ Leonardo says coldly. ‘We’ve been here long enough. I’ll take you back to Champs-sur-Sauloise now.’ He picks up the storm lamp and strides away.
Shasta hurries after him, afraid to be left in the dark maze. She wonders what the heck this has been about. She has a hunch about whose grave it could be, though. She has heard enough stories about Lady Ravendancer to recognize the white stele with the magic inscription. But does Leonardo know? Probably. This must have been some kind of test, and she failed it.
They stroll back towards the car in silence. Leonardo is deep in thought, avoiding looking at her. She must find out how to breach the silence somehow. Here she is, finally with the perfect man – rich, refined, polite and not jumping her at the first occasion. He seemed to appreciate her, too. So why this sudden change of attitude towards her? What did she do wrong down there? Is he disappointed because she said she couldn’t see the runes? Or because… Oh, no, he never mentioned runes. He must know what she really is. There’s only one thing to do, and even if she hates it, she must admit that she lied.
Suddenly Shasta breaks the silence. ‘Leonardo? I … I wasn’t entirely truthful to you. I saw the runes, but…’
Leonardo looks expectantly at her.
‘I was afraid to let you know…’
‘That you are a witch? Of the famous Grey lineage?’
She stares at him.
‘Signorina Liath-Grau. Or should I translate; Grey-Grey? A serious lack of imagination, cara. I know all about your family, and that you have been hiding from the Council. Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me. Now tell me what you saw.’
The Council! How can Leonardo know about the all mighty Council? Somehow Shasta understands that there is more to him than what she has come to know during the short lapse of time they have been “dating”. He will have some explaining to do later. She clears her throat. ‘It didn’t make much sense. Ótti means fear and Aluwanza means affected by sorcery. I think it is a warning.’
Does that mean he has not seen the inscription himself? Or is it a trick question? ‘No.’
Leonardo rubs his chin. ‘If you are to share my life, cara. You need to always be truthful. No secrets. Capisce?’
Shasta nods and bites her lip, feeling like a little child.
‘I’ve been wondering… Why did you lie about l’anello – the ring – in the vase?’
‘The ring in the vase?’ Shasta racks her brain. She can’t really tell him that she’s been blackmailing someone, can she? But she can keep as close to the truth as possible. ‘Oh. The ring in the vase! It was just a… a memory card. A friend of mine had been unfaithful and someone blackmailed him. He was at the same moment delivering the money, and I was to retrieve the memory card containing some compromising photos.’
She’s surprised how easily she found what to say. Leonardo surprises her by forcefully pulling her into his arms, showing her physically with a passionate kiss that he believes her.
Shasta is first stunned by the pent-up violence of his embrace, but then she returns his kiss, fiercely.
Part I – End of Chapter 09
This chapter would have been boring for all fashionistas out there, if Shasta hadn’t had access to RustyNail’s complete collection….
Thank you, all pose creator’s who make my chapters come alive – Bee, NJB are just the top of the iceberg…