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Authors: Storm Constantine

Tags: #angels, #fantasy, #short stories, #storm constantine

Thorn Boy and Other Dreams of Dark Desire (32 page)

BOOK: Thorn Boy and Other Dreams of Dark Desire
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Like many
characters I’ve written about in short stories, I think that
Xanthe, the femme fatale of this tale, has a bigger story to tell.
I hope that one day she makes an appearance in another story or
novel. I do wonder what she’s getting up to at the moment, because
it’s bound to be something intriguing!

 

On the morning
of her arrival, Samuel wandered out into his garden. Already the
sun was blistering and the still, clammy air threatened later
storms. He walked along the shaded walkways where, as it dripped
through the dense canopy of leaves, the burning yellow light turned
to cool amber. His heart felt too large within its cage of bones.
Where was the joy with which he should be greeting his new bride?
Standing in the sunlight, he shivered.

Samuel was a
quiet man with few friends, and those who had somehow stuck to his
life since childhood now lived far away. He saw them only once a
year, in early summer, when for a month, he would travel overseas.
His life was marked only slightly by the presence of others; he had
a single servant, a bad tempered woman named Hesta, who lived on a
nearby farm. She visited him daily, but Samuel rarely saw her. He
left her coins as wages once a week and consumed her indifferent
cooking with neither relish nor disgust.

Few other
visitors ventured up the long, tree-shuttered driveway to the
house, yet Samuel never felt lonely. He had companions. His garden
was full of them: nearly a hundred different species of rare and
exotic plants. They were his passion. They spoke to him without
words, and listened to his most secret confidences without
interrupting. They indulged him with gifts; dark, sticky fruit and
flowers whose petals felt as soft as the skin of children. Their
names were beautiful: Dancing Bride, whose spray of small white
blooms concealed a bitter nectar that stopped the heart; Severia,
whose juices thinned the blood so effectively, a simple scratch
might result in slow death; Lady Anne’s Pearls, whose dull-bloomed
berries nestled in a grey-green nest of prickled leaves, whose
taste was sweet yet paralysed the lungs. There were many more
languishing in darkness beneath the evergreens, hugging their
secret lives to themselves, or wantonly sprawling over the lichened
walls of the sun garden. Often Samuel would lie among them and
inhale their narcotic scent until his head throbbed and pulsed.
During his annual travels, he had gathered his dark ladies from
every corner of the world. But this year, he had journeyed to the
hot land of Mewt, where he’d cut for himself a different kind of
flower, and soon she would be here.

Samuel’s steps
were slow, even dragging. He wondered how he would tell the green
ladies of his wife’s arrival. He should have spoken before, but had
sensed the displeasure his news would invoke. They would be
anxious, for they were used only to his company.

There was a
queen to Samuel’s kingdom and her name was Night’s Damozel. Her
velvet blooms, of imperial purple, reared on tall, slender necks
from a coronet of long, silver-furred leaves. Her pollen could be
deadly, yet to one familiar with her charms, it imparted a sweet
euphoria. Samuel had long acquaintance with the Damozel and spent
many a balmy evening with his head in her royal lap, inhaling the
sparkling dust that drifted down from her open hearts. Now, he came
again to her court in a grove of ancient yews. Little sun-light
reached her, yet her bower was always temperate. Her maids of
honour were a riot of cobalt ground poppies. Swollen bees hung
drunkenly above her blooms, droning low and deep.

Samuel knelt
before her, his head bowed. He felt the sun reach down with
attenuated fingers between the needles of the yews and touch his
neck. He told the Damozel his news.

He had first
seen Xanthe in twilight, standing above him on a balcony at the
villa of one of his acquaintances. Framed by tall, sputtering
candles, she had been holding a long-stemmed glass to the side of
her face, gazing out at the dark sea beyond the villa gardens. The
ocean breeze lifted tendrils of her hair and they coiled around her
face and shoulders like questing vipers. She was lovely: tall,
slender, her body swaying slightly as she meditated upon the
approaching night. Samuel’s heart was at once captivated for he saw
within this woman a similarity to the green ladies who populated
his garden. Like them, she seemed remote, silent, rooted to the
spot.

On the terrace
near the cliffs, where a host of people mingled, and food and wine
grew damp and warm respectively in the heavy air, he sought out his
hostess, a duchess named Sythia. She stood at the centre of a group
of guests amusing them with gossip. Samuel sipped his wine and made
what he hoped were discreet enquiries about the woman on the
balcony. Sythia smiled conspiratorially and led Samuel to one side.
‘You speak of Xanthe. You like her? Of course you do. She is
charming. A temptation to many men.’

Samuel, unused
to such direct words, felt himself grow hot. ‘She is interesting,’
he replied, which was exactly what he felt.

Sythia’s
smiled widened. ‘You would like to meet her, of course.’

Samuel was
irritated by Sythia’s demeanour. He knew the people who thought
themselves his friends had despaired of him ever finding a mate.
Well-meaning older ladies had often told him he was a well-favoured
man and had many admirers, but once he saw the women whose eyes
he’d caught, he had to flee. They seemed so pink and fleshy, so
clumsy. Now, his fumbling enquiries about Xanthe would soon be
known to all the company. The morsel of information would be
relished as much as the rare, salty shell-fish that lay dismembered
on the duchess’ table.


In
truth, I know very little about the lady,’ Sythia confessed as she
cut through the throng of guests that cluttered her garden. ‘I met
her at a soiree some weeks back, and like you, felt my curiosity
stir. Nobody knows her. She is an enigma, and a lovely complement
to any gathering. I have invited her here three times
already.’

Sythia paused
beneath the balcony where Xanthe still contemplated the scenery.
The duchess called her name and, languidly, Xanthe directed her
attention towards the sound. Her face remained expressionless. ‘My
dear,’ said Sythia, in a voice of constrained excitement, ‘would
you come down here for a moment. There is someone who wishes to
meet you.’

With neither
words nor smile, Xanthe put down her glass on the rail of the
balcony and descended the steps that flanked the house, her
movements precise yet elegant. Then she stood before them, towering
over Sythia, looking Samuel directly in the eye. She was dressed in
a long, finely-pleated garment, the colour of ripened corn, that
clung to her body like scales. Her dark, straight hair hung
lustrously over her shoulders. Her skin appeared dusty, and Samuel
instinctively knew it would feel smooth and dry to his touch. He
wanted to shrink from Xanthe’s overt scrutiny, yet simultaneously
wanted to drown in her unwavering gaze.

He could no
longer remember how Sythia had affected introductions. His memory
had discarded any words that had been exchanged beyond that initial
overture, but he could still recall in detail the smashing of the
sea below, and the scent of the night-blooming vines, and Xanthe’s
private smile as she observed, through her dark, slanting eyes, his
developing infatuation.

In a dry,
barely interested kind of way she apparently decided to collude in
his desires. Later that same night, after most of the guests had
retired to bed, or else had fallen where they stood among the empty
glasses, she led Samuel to a bare promontory and here, beneath the
swelling moon, discarded the sheath of her dress, to reveal a long,
sinuous body whose flesh was cool yet supple. She had no
inhibitions whatsoever, although Samuel, being devoid of experience
in these matters, wondered whether all women were so open in this
regard.

There followed
a week of intoxicated passion, of fever and of joy. In the
mornings, Xanthe would leave Samuel’s bed and go to sun herself
upon the balcony, kneading into her skin fragrant oils that were
absorbed almost immediately to leave a matte sheen. In the
afternoons, while the other guests dozed after lunch, she and
Samuel would walk into the nearby town, and drink cold, tart wines
beneath the shade of awnings outside sleepy inns. She did talk of
herself, of her dreams and expectations. Her voice was low, husky,
with a slight lisp. Her family were rich, she told Samuel, and she
was an artist. She was amused by Sythia’s patronage, but was happy
to enjoy the benefits of the friendship. ‘I love her house,’ Xanthe
said. ‘The rocks around it retain such heat.’

At the end of
that week, Samuel had made up his mind: he wanted Xanthe as a wife.
One afternoon, as they paused in their daily walk at a shore-side
inn, he became emboldened by wine, and took hold of her hands
across the table. ‘Xanthe, be my bride.’

She looked at
him inscrutably for a few moments, then said, ‘If you like.’

Just a few
days later, they married in a small, mountain temple, and
afterwards Sythia threw a banquet in their honour. Then, Xanthe had
returned to her family estate to organise the packing of items she
wished to transport to her new home, while Samuel had travelled
back across the sea to his homeland of Tarbonnay, where he would
prepare his demesne for her arrival.


And
today she comes,’ Samuel told the Damozel. ‘I pray you will love
her as I do.’

The afternoon
had dulled and seemed to fall silent; the bees had tumbled away,
and not even a leaf stirred in the bower. Then, as Samuel raised
his head, the sun reappeared from behind a cloud and the Damozel’s
stately blooms turned slowly away from him. She seemed to gaze
haughtily at the sky.


Fear
not, my lady,’ he murmured. ‘My consort will attend you as I have.
She is eager to meet you and tend you. She will be a mother to you.
It is a wife’s duty to love all that her husband loves.’

The sun rolled
behind the first black cloud of the approaching storm, and stayed
there. First the Damozel, then her hand-maidens, slowly bowed their
heads once more and stared at Samuel with the blind eyes of their
velvet hearts. He had never lied to them before.

Samuel did not
bother to make any special effort over his appearance to greet his
new wife. He spent a few hours tending his plants, then, pausing
only to wipe his hands on a dirty rag, bound back his long hair
with a piece of twine, and positioned himself in his gloomy study
to await Xanthe’s arrival. His eyes skittered with discomfort over
the disarray in the room, as if becoming aware of it for the first
time. Perhaps he should have hired a team of cleaners to prepare
the house for her arrival, but it was not his habit to fuss about
his environment. After the last of his parents’ retainers had left,
complaining the house was too large for so small a staff to cope
with, he had never engaged anyone but Hesta, who in fact did very
little for her money. Still, domestic matters would be Xanthe’s
province. He smiled to himself. Previously, he had not considered
that particular benefit of taking a wife.

After Xanthe
did not arrive at the expected hour, Samuel started to feel
impatient. Rain began to fall heavily upon the garden, which did
not improve his mood. Hesta presented herself at the doorway of his
study. She was a large woman with resentful eyes. ‘Is she here
yet?’ she enquired rather disrespectfully.


No,’
Samuel answered shortly. ‘Prepare a cold supper and leave it in the
kitchen.’

Hesta grunted
and departed, perhaps relieved she would not be required to stretch
her culinary talents for the benefit of a new wife.

Samuel waited
for the storm to pass, then went outside, where the air was cool
and damp. He resolved to walk down the long, winding driveway and
if Xanthe had not made an appearance by the time he reached the
road, he would lock the gates. It was as if the events of his
recent holiday had been a dream, a pleasant dream, but one ill
destined to continue. Now, it seemed inconceivable that Xanthe,
with her foreign air, would settle successfully in his home. He
must have been bewitched in Mewt; lulled by the hot, perfumed air
and the long, lazy nights.

At the gates,
Samuel put his hands upon the wet, rusty rods and peered down the
road that led to the nearest town. He saw her then, walking ahead
of a wagon like a common farm girl. She wore a sun-coloured, loose
dress that brushed her ankles, and her face was shadowed by a
wide-brimmed hat. She walked languorously, clearly in no particular
hurry to reach her destination. Sometimes, she paused to sniff a
road-side flower or turned to say something to the wagon driver.
Not until she’d nearly reached Samuel’s gates, did she look ahead,
notice him and raise a languid hand to wave.


You are
late,’ Samuel said churlishly.


Yes,’
she agreed and came forward to lay a cool hand on his arm. ‘Open
the gates then, Samuel, so the wagon can carry my effects to the
house.’

The wagon
heaved past them; it was not heavily laden. Xanthe hooked her hand
through Samuel’s arm and they strolled up the driveway behind the
wagon. Their feet crunched upon gravel that was softened by clumps
of dark moss. ‘This is a rich and fertile land,’ she remarked, ‘but
I trust it is not too cold in winter. I thrive only in heat.’

Samuel ignored
these words and snapped. ‘You are now the lady of this house,
Xanthe. You should have hired a proper carriage in the town, rather
than arrive here on foot like a slattern.’

Xanthe laughed
and squinted at him sidelong. ‘Why, Samuel, you look like a
farm-hand yourself. There are seeds in your hair and dirt beneath
your nails. Cheer up. Don’t be irritable just because I chose to
enjoy a walk and acquaint myself with the land. I am here now.’ She
leaned over and kissed his cheek.

BOOK: Thorn Boy and Other Dreams of Dark Desire
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