After leaving Prince Alexander Liebersturm snoring in his tent, Shasta starts the long walk back towards civilization. She is lucky, a taxi drives by on the deserted country lane. It screeches to a halt and waits for her to come up alongside. The taxi driver leans out of his window and grins at her, drawing on his Gauloise.
‘Où allez-vous comme ça, ma p’tite dame?’ (Where are you going?) His eyes rakes her body, lingering on her legs. ‘Champs-les-Sims est loin à pied…’ (Champs-les-Sims is far on foot…)
Shasta hesitates. ‘What do you think? Shall I get into a taxi with a lecherous fool, or walk 22 miles (35 km) in Blahniks?’ she mutters, not caring if the driver understands English or not.
She gets into the backseat, continuing in French, ‘Hôtel de la Place, s’il vous plaît. A Champs-sur-Sauloise. Et n’oubliez pas ma valise!’ (And don’t forget my suitcase!)
The taxi driver grumbles as he gets out of the old Peugeot and throws her suitcase into the trunk.
A half hour later she’s standing by the side of the road, throwing a Blahnik after the departing taxi. Swearing she limps to her shoe and puts it back on. She can’t believe the guts of the dang taxi driver; after pulling over, he’d scrambled over the seat and tried to kiss her!
Of course I slapped his face. He was lucky my wand was in my suitcase or I would probably have transformed him into a toad! If my mother had done her duty and taught me, that is. Gaah!
Shasta’s in a really bad mood. With only one outfit and no cash, she’s not only upset, she’s stranded on the wrong side of town as well…
Luckily she has old friends in town from her boarding school days. One of them is Alain Dujardin who owns The Café Catane, a small hotel and restaurant in the center of Champs-les-Sims.
‘Bonjour, Alain. Je suis vraiment contente de te revoir. Et ceci est ton fils? Comme il a grandi!’ (Hello Alain. I’m really happy to see you. And this is your son? How tall he is!)
‘I saw you in the newspaper. With Prince Alexander Liebersturm!’
‘Oh… It was a huge mistake…’ She explains her mishap with the taxi driver and Alain graciously offers her a room for the night – or whatever time it takes for her to get back on her feet…
‘Maybe you could do me a favor while you’re staying here?’
‘A favor? Anything, Alain.’
He makes sure his son isn’t within earshot before leaning towards her and whispering in her ear…
And who is this elderly gentleman in his expensive vintage car? His name is Leonardo Di Grisogno, a well-off -eh, a wealthy– Italian count from Monte Vista in Italy. He owns property in Champs-les-Sims as well, and an old abandoned nectary, which he’s decided renovate. He also avidly collects art, wine and women. His childhood hobby has become his profession and his reputation precedes him everywhere he goes… He is the world renowned magician “The Dazzler”!
As usual, Leonardo stops for a light brunch at The Café Catane. When he opens the door he immediately sets eye on the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.
He stops and stares. I must have her…
Straightening his elegant handmade Ascot tie he starts towards her table, when Shasta’s cell suddenly rings. She pulls it out of her bag and walks past Leonardo out of the restaurant, concentrated on her phone call.
He closes his eyes for a second, breathing in her scent. Chanel N°5… Scratch brunch! I have to find out who she is…
Ignoring Mme Dujardin’s cordial greeting, he decides to follow the beautiful woman.
Where is she going?
He catches sight of her animatedly talking on her cell on the other side of the road, crossing the park. He quickly sets after her but loses time because of the traffic. He watches how she hesitates in front of one of the shops specialized in Egyptian art before entering.
Impatiently he waits for the morning traffic to thin out, but decides he can’t wait any longer and swearing he crosses, almost getting overrun by a zealous delivery van. Leonardo lets lose a flow of Italian expletives.
He brushes invisible dust from his arms and peeks through the window. Ah, there she is!
He can see her glancing briefly at the items in the shop, and right when he enters, she vanishes through a door at the back.
Shasta has found what she was looking for. She puts her hand in the middle vase and retrieves something. Smiling to herself, she slides the object in her pocket.
Intrigued Shasta stops. An elderly gentleman is blocking the exit.
Leonardo drowns in eyes as grey as his own, ‘I … eh… ze vase…’
What’s happening to him? This is NOT one of his pick-up lines!
‘Oh, I’m sorry, I… eh, my ring! It fell into the vase. But I didn’t break anything. Now if you’ll excuse me?’
Shasta brushes past Leonardo and hurries out from the shop.
Leonardo is dumbstruck. She thought I was the sales clerk? Me, Leonardo Di Grisogno? The Dazzler? A sales clerk!?! And hmm… Why would she lie about her ring?
He hurries after Shasta, just in time to see her disappear through yet another doorway. Now where is she?
Shasta has noticed Leonardo following her, and switches from annoyed to scared. Who knows what a psychopath that old geek could be…
She almost runs into the next shop, a library, and fumbles in her pocket for her cell, ‘Hello? Alain? Hello?’
Shasta looks at her phone. Dead! Oh, no. Here he comes!
Frantic, she hurries over to the young man at the register, ‘You have to lend me your phone! Someone’s stalking me!’
‘Shhh… not so loud.’ She lowers her voice, ‘That old man over there.’
To her irritation the sales clerk stares at her before bursting out laughing.
‘Monsieur Di Grisogno? A stalker? You must be mistaken, Madame!’
‘Mistaken? Me? Never happened! Watch me, I’ll tell him to leave me alone myself!’
But when Shasta turns around, Leonardo has preferred leaving.
‘Monsieur Di Grisogno is a respectable business man, Madame. Women stalk him!’
The young man is gossipy, and soon he has told Shasta everything that’s worth to know about the rich philanderer… Eh, philantrope!
Two days later, the Dujardin’s bring Shasta with them to visit the Di Grisogno Nectary where they join a boring guided tour.
‘Maman, je veux faire pipi! (I want to pee!)’
‘Mais, Maman! Il faut que j’y aille! (I have to go now!)’
Shasta seizes the opportunity to get outside. ‘Come on, Romain, I’ll take you to the lavatory… but be quiet, please.’
As soon as they leave the group, Romain takes off in a sprint. ‘WAIT! Come back!’
She hurries after the vanishing child, but is stopped in the courtyard by an assistant.
‘Excusez-moi, Madame. This part of the nectary is not open to the public.’
‘It’s an emergency!’ Shasta tries to catch sight of Romain over the assistant’s shoulder but instead sees Leonardo appearing,
He doesn’t look in her direction, but walks past without noticing her, enthusiastically chatting with an older woman.
‘Err… I need to talk to Monsieur Di Grisogno!’
‘He’s in an important meeting with Mademoiselle Blanc-Sec at the moment, and cannot be disturbed.’
Shasta doesn’t care, It’s now or never. Briskly she pushes past the crisp assistant…
She dashes through the door, desperately trying to catch sight of him before the dang assistant stops her.… Ah, there he is!
‘Monsieur Di Grisogno? Can I have a word with you?’
Leonardo lights up at the sight of his mystery woman and bows politely.
Shasta doesn’t believe her eyes. What will he do next? Kiss her hand? Hmmm… classy… Now, let’s lure him away from that old thing.
‘Signorina, in cosa posso servirla?’
Shasta bats her eyelashes. My Italian is rusty… ‘Parli inglesi?’
‘Si, si of course I do. How can I help you?’
‘I have some friends over for dinner tonight’, Shasta lies, ‘and I’d like to have an expert’s advice on what wine to be served with the Coquelet.’
She looks at Leonardo from under her eyelashes, puts her hand on his arm, and voila! They walk off towards the private cellar, animatedly discussing wine… Both Romain and Mademoiselle Blanc-Sec forgotten!
Shasta stifles a yawn. Leonardo might be attractive and very, very rich. But gosh, is he boring.
‘… and then the fermentation is carefully controlled by this machine…’ Leonardo goes on and on about the art of winemaking.
Mmm… This nectar is delicious… I can taste the flavor of cherry in there.
‘Signorina Grey?’ Leonardo is looking expectantly at her.
‘Oh, I never would have thought winemaking was such a science, Monsieur Di Grisogno. I thought you needed happy barefoot grape stompers to press the fruit, not a machine!’
‘But we do. See that big vat? Let’s fill it with fruits of your choice, and then you might want to try!’
Ugh, no way! ‘Ahem, I’m not exactly dressed for wine stomping!’
‘That’s not a problem.’ He turns around and calls for his assistant, ‘MADEMOISELLE LARDIER! Ah. There you are. Can you take Mademoiselle Grey upstairs and show her where to change, s’il vous plaît?
Ugh… ‘Like this, Monsieur Di Grisogno?’ she grabs his arm to steady herself.
‘Yes. Call me Leonardo, cara. How does it feel?’
Shasta does her best not letting her feelings show. Yuk… faugh… the fruit is slimy and slippery…
She plasters on a brave smile, ‘Ahem… Fine, Leonardo! I’m getting the hang on this! Haha…’
Leonardo smiles to himself. He’s not duped but this is his way to get back at her. She will think twice about running around making a fool of him. Stalker! No less…
Will I ever drink a glass of wine again? Shasta scrubs her Bordeaux colored feet frantically.
I’ll suggest he takes me for a Caudalie Vinotherapy Spa Pedicure to reconcile me with grapes… she muses, staying in the bath until she finally falls asleep in the hot water.
Romain Dujardin was brought back to his parents by one of the security guards at the Nectary. Alain has pardoned her; he knows what a brat his son can be and he still needs her help. His wife, on the other hand, is showing her by all means that she’s not welcome any more.
This morning is the first time in several days Mme Dujardin 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 Alain’s wife’s good side again if she wants to have a roof over her head…
Leonardo’s vintage car idles to a stop next to Shasta.
‘Signorina Grey! What a pleasant surprise. Can I drive you somewhere?’
Leonardo? I thought I’d never see him again! ‘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.
As the museum is closed on Mondays, Leonardo pulls some strings and they sit down to wait for the director to come unlock the doors. ‘So… You were going to walk all the way here? On a Monday? That’s…’
Shasta rises to avoid answering the embarrassing question. ‘Don’t you think that picture should hang in the hall?’ she admires one of the paintings in the entrance. ‘It’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…
The director is an old friend of Leonardo’s, and he discreetly retires to his office, leaving his friend with access to the whole museum.
‘Look at these sunflowers, Shasta. They seem to light up from within.’
‘Uhmm, yes they are splendid…’ Shasta can’t believe her eyes. I recognize that signature… Magnus Darkling. But what’s this? 1798… But that cannot be!?! Shasta is stunned. Leonardo keeps talking but Shasta doesn’t listen anymore. 1798… 1798… Such a strange coincidence…
After touring the museum, Leonardo takes Shasta out for lunch.
‘I’d love to make you discover France!’
‘And I’d love to discover it with you, Leonardo.’
Leonardo is an old school gentleman and as such he courts Shasta like a gentleman should. The following weeks seems to disappear in a whirlwind of restaurants, flowers, romantic walks in the countryside and long discussions over a chess game or over a book.
Shasta discovers they have a common interest – the Viking culture, especially ancient runes.
Leonardo and Shasta are going away for the night, and Shasta is terribly nervous. She has had numerous lovers, but never felt this excited.
‘Where are we going?’
‘A surprise, cara… A surprise.’
‘I hate surprises! Tell me!’
‘I thought you said you loved surprises?’
‘Yes! I mean – No! Aargh… You like to string me along, don’t you?’
‘Ah, si! Terribly.’
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.’
Hand in hand they ascend the stairs…
Shasta lets her gaze stray over the opulently decorated dining room. So this is Leonardo’s little pied à terre in France… Judging by the details he truly is wealthy…
Leonardo has really set out to woo Shasta. After skewers of melon, jamón, and mini Mozzarella and a delicious rack of lamb with herbes de provence and roasted tomatoes, the whole served with a Pinot Noir from his own nectary, 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 shoulders. Shasta shivers, but doesn’t turn around.
She drinks in the dreamlike scenery, ‘Like? No… I love it, Leonardo!’
The butler coughs discreetly, bringing pink Champagne and fresh Strawberries, that Shasta would rather have been served… in the bedroom…
But when the times comes to retire for the night, Leonardo politely escorts her to a vaste bedroom, with an enormous four poster bed, and simply kisses her goodnight on the forehead.
The next morning they have breakfast together in the same dining room. Leonardo reads Le Figaro, and isn’t very talkative. She observes him, reducing to pieces her croissant…
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.’
‘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, she retires to her room and watches a romantic comedy on Netflix on the flat screen TV mounted on the wall…
After lunch, they take their coffee in the library, discussing everything from religion to politics. Leonardo is keeping the discussion far from personal, but Shasta finds him nervous.
‘I think the time has come to show you something, Shasta.
‘I think the time has come to show you something, Shasta. Mi segua, prego.’ (Follow me, please.)
He precedes her downstairs, to the cellar. At the end of a corridor, Leonardo stops in front of a massive brick wall.
OMG, he’s going to kill me! He’s a stalker after all…A psychopath stalker! Run, Shasta! Now!
But of course she doesn’t, she’s too curious to see what’s behind that secret door…
Leonardo actions a secret mechanism and with a rumble the wall gives way, revealing a room so huge she can barely see the opposite walls. Shasta gasps in awe. A few steps lead down to an intricate labyrinth with a white gravestone in its center.
Leonardo invites her to take his hand to help her down the stairs. They stop in front of the pristine gravestone.
‘Whose tomb is it? Why did you bring me here?’
‘I wanted you have a look at the inscription…’
‘Inscription?’ Shasta approaches the pristine gravestone.
Leonardo watches her concentrate and bows his head as in prayer. Don’t say I’ve made a mistake choosing her…
Shasta’s focused on the runes behind the gravestone. As a witch, her knowledge of ancient runes is next to perfect, but these… They don’t seem to make sense: “gibuaujaaluota”…
‘What do you make of it?’ Leonardo watches Shasta carefully.
‘Nothing, they don’t make sense… “gibu auja” is “I give protection”, then “alu ota”… I don’t know…’
Leonardo is disappointed. Why is she lying? She knows… but she won’t tell me.
‘Who is buried here?’
‘Just one of my ancestors, no one of importance.’
Hmm, he’s got a hell of a burial set up for someone not being important!
‘We’d better head back.’ Leonardo says coldly, ‘We’ve been here long enough. I’ll take you back to Champs-les-Sims now.’
They stroll back towards the car in silence.
Why this sudden change of attitude towards me? Is he disappointed because I couldn’t translate the runes? Or because… Oh, no… He must know I hid the truth about the translation!
Suddenly Shasta breaks the silence, ‘Leonardo? I … I wasn’t entirely truthful to you. I think I know the meaning of the runes…’
Leonardo looks expectantly at her.
‘“Ótti” means fear and “Aluwanza” means affected by sorcery! I think it’s a warning!’
Leonardo just stares at her for a moment, ‘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.
‘So why did you lie about the ring in the vase?’
‘The ring in the vase?’ Shasta racks her brain. ‘Oh. The ring in the vase! It was just 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 by Leonardo forcefully pulling her into his arms and passionately kissing her.
Shasta is first stunned, but then she kisses him back.
Part I – End of Chapter 07