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Taken from Corcitura, Chapter 4, Hello, Good-bye…Hello

(For future reference, this excerpt will be permanently housed under its corresponding tab.)

       “The Winged Victory of Samothrace, or Nike, as she is known, came to the Louvre in 1884.”
       We were standing at the Daru staircase underneath the giant headless, armless stone statue of the winged maiden of the Aegean. I had latched onto an English-speaking tour and seen all the great spectacles of the Louvre in the interim, but now the time was ripe for me to escape in search of Stefan. It was a quarter past noon already, and still he had not shown himself.
       I hung back as the tour moved on. Once they were out of sight, I hastened away and made for the Melpomene Gallery, taking a cursory glance at the giant statue of the hall’s namesake on my right as I passed by. I had thought Nike was gigantic, but this muse made her seem almost Lilliputian in size. Apparently, all Louvre statues were enormous. It must have been a prerequisite.
       I walked down this gallery and came out into the Salle des Caryatides. As I moved into the hall, I caught sight of my erstwhile companion, thankfully Boroi-less, staring at a large canvas that had been propped up in the center of the salle. I thought it odd that a painting would be on display in a hall filled with statues, but I didn’t let the incongruity of the situation trouble me for more than a second.
       “There you are! I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Where have you been?”
       I was expecting to receive a response and would have been happy with one of his sarcastic remarks, but he acted as though I did not exist. Very well, then. I decided to give it another go. “Been walking the same halls as the Kings of France and that great poisoner herself, Catherine de Medici, have you?” I was beginning to sound like Luc.
       Still nothing. He just stood there, head tilted to one side, his hand on his chin, absorbed by the painting before him. It had taken me forever to finally locate Stefan, and this was all the response I received? Not even so much as a flicker of an eyelid. Now we would have to rush out to the entrance to meet Vladec Salei, whom I hoped by some miracle was still waiting for us. My plans were crumbling before my eyes. And did he care? Absolutely not. He was as still and lifeless as the statues surrounding him. “Honestly, Stefan,” I said hotly, “what’s so bloody fascin…”
       I stopped dead when my eyes finally flashed toward the painting. I hadn’t bothered to look at it until then, but now as I took in the nightmarish spectacle painted on that canvas, a shudder passed through my body and chilled me to the marrow.
        A woman, shrouded in white, was draped over a divan in a dead swoon, her arms hanging limply over her head. In the background, a horse, nostrils flaring, eyes aglow, stuck its head through the crimson drapery. The horse looked crazed. Its lips were drawn back in a grimace that made it look as though it were sneering. But the most horrifying aspect of the painting was not the half-mad horse, nor the seemingly dead woman.
       It was the demon.
       A grotesque, dwarfish creature crouched atop the woman’s chest. They weren’t very visible in the foreground, but I could just make out the shadows of the thing’s horns reflected off the curtain. The creature’s entire visage was hellish, yet there was something taunting about its colorless eyes, pug nose, and grim, frowning mouth. I felt as if the thing were challenging me to push it off its perch. I doubted I would have possessed the courage to do so had this tableau been real.
       I laughed nervously and immediately felt ridiculous for chuckling aloud. The incident this morning with Sorina had turned me morbid. Try as I might, I could not shake the feeling of unease the painting had instilled in me. Nor could I make myself turn away. It was demonic, yet fascinating, and it had captured Stefan’s imagination, too, for his eyes were still fixated on the painting.
       “Amazing,”he whispered. “What do you think it is?” he said, addressing me without taking his eyes off the canvas. “A demon?”
       “A vampire.”
       The voice must have come from the painting, it had to have—there was no one else around. I looked about warily, trying to avoid the now self-proclaimed vampire’s eyes, but could not discover any other source from whence the voice could have come. But there was someone there, as it turned out. A slight cough signaled his arrival. I still couldn’t figure out where he’d materialized from, but here he now was, standing at Stefan’s side.
       Strangely, my first reaction was not relief at the sight of Vladec Salei but rather confusion as to why he was fully cloaked indoors. I thought it odd that he had not bothered to remove his overcoat and gloves. Maybe he had stumbled upon us through mere chance as he was making for the exit.
       I sent a silent thank you heavenward, but I doubt it ever reached the Pearly Gates. My heart sank as the confusion of the moment dispersed, and I saw that Salei was alone.
       “An incubus, to be exact,” he continued.
       “It looks as though it crushed the life out of her.” Stefan was still staring at the painting. I wondered momentarily if he had even realized the person he was conversing with was not me. Nothing seemed to be getting through to his brain this afternoon.
       I, for one, had had quite enough of Mr. Fuseli’s Nightmare, as I now knew the painting to be named. A small placard bearing a short history of the artist and painting had been set up beneath the canvas. I failed to see what the Swiss artist’s work had to do with the Roman statues surrounding it, but some genius must have made a connection that was lost on me, so I let the matter drop.
       “Nightmare,” I said, musing over the title. “How appropriate.” I turned my attention to Salei, who was staring rather amusedly at Stefan. “Oh, pay no attention to him,” I said lightly, unsure of what to make of the look in Salei’s eyes. “That’s his morbid Transylvanian soul talking.” I knew Guildy’s phrase of the night before would suit nicely someday. “He has an inherent fascination with death.”
       Apparently, it was my day to be ignored. “You are quite right, my young friend,” he said to Stefan. “Although it is the Vrykolakas that crushes its victim to death.”
       “Vrykolakas?” Stefan asked.
       “Yes. A vicious Greek vampire, though some believe it to also be a werewolf.”
       “That’s tidy,” I shot in. “How nice of the Vryko-what’s-its-name to be so accommodating. A vampire and a werewolf,” I concluded, chuckling. Did he take us for complete imbeciles? I’d never heard such nonsense in all my life.
       Salei skewered me with a look of contempt that made me shrink back despite my resolve to not let him rattle me.
       He angled himself closer to Stefan. “The incubus there, well, it has more carnal motives, if you take my meaning.”
       For the first time, Stefan tore his gaze away from the painting and looked at Salei with an expression so wide-eyed it was almost comical. “Oh…” he said, then, “Oh! Yes, well, of course, I mean, rather,” and laughed awkwardly.
       I am by no means a prude, but Salei’s last bit of information made me feel decidedly uncomfortable. And it didn’t help that he seemed to be warming to the subject.
        “You see, it subsists on the life force of its chosen incubator, in this case the woman, which explains why she looks nearly drained of life. So in essence, it is in fact a vampire, or could at the very least be considered one. I, for one, am more inclined to believe that than the demon myth.”
       I half expected him to finish this little lecture with a flourish by saying voilà. “You seem to know a great deal about it,” I said icily. I did not see the point of this morbid conversation, for I was certain I would never need to make use of this knowledge. And, furthermore, Salei’s interest in the subject disturbed me. I was beginning to think the Borois had learned everything they knew about the macabre from their patron. Maybe this visit wasn’t such a good idea after all. He could have been a second Gilles de Rais or Marquis de Sade for all we knew. And since my prospects with Leonora had now vanished, I didn’t see a reason for us to keep company with Vladec Salei a moment longer.
       I wanted to bolt from the room with Stefan in tow, but then I noticed that Stefan was rapt. Utterly, completely in thrall to Vladec Salei. From whence this fascination stemmed, I had no idea, but it was there, plastered all over his face.
        “It is a hobby of mine,” Salei explained. “Obscure folklore fascinates me. Your friend and I met at the Opéra Garnier last evening. So you must be Stefan. Allow me to finally introduce myself. My name is Vladec Salei.”
       It must have been that Slavic bond. Apparently, becoming matey at once with a complete stranger was what Stefan had meant by “Ha!” I should have been gloating over my success. After all, it was I who had been certain they would have so much to talk over. But all I could feel was a childish discontent that bordered on jealously—anger that my best friend no longer needed me. Not that Stefan ever had, but still. We hadn’t even been gone a week, and although we certainly had not come to hate each other, I felt as though something between us had changed the moment we entered France.
       For the next hour and a half, I idled, mentally cursing Fuseli for not keeping his fantasies to himself, the museum’s curators for their complete loss of sanity in displaying a copy of the blasted painting in a hall of statues, and Vladec Salei for being a walking encyclopedia of esoteric knowledge. Once or twice, they had asked me to comment on some triviality, but for the most part, I was ignored. Obviously, there was no place in their conversation for my non-morbid English soul.
       I knew when I was not wanted, but I also knew the day was waning and we had a train to catch.
       “Well, it’s been wonderful, truly, Mr. Salei,” I said, leading Stefan away, “but we really must be off.”
        “And where are you two headed?”
       If I had struck him a blow, it wouldn’t have produced anywhere near the jarring effect the name of the city did. His face contorted so severely, I doubted he would be able to return it to its normal expression of hauteur when this little outburst of his subsided. “Rome!” he nearly shrieked with a vehemence I could not fathom. But all the venom of his tone was consigned to that single word, for after he had shouted it, he seemed to regain his composure. “Detestable city,” he said calmly and with his former high-class disdain restored. “Filthy, not a single thing worth viewing there. Filled with nothing but shrines to false prophets and run by men so old and obsolete they should have been bricked up in those supposedly sacred vaults ages ago. Men as archaic as the basilicas themselves.”
       Well, he had established that he wasn’t a churchgoer. And I did not intend to stay around and have him infect Stefan, who had seemingly become as impressionable as clay while in Salei’s presence, with his noxious ideas.
       “Why don’t you come with Leonora and me to Greece?” He said it so innocently, yet there was a persuasive undertone to his words, like a man trying to bribe a child with a sweetmeat. He knew my weakness, the cheeky devil. And, fool that I was, I actually entertained the notion of giving in.
       “What a splendid idea! Eric told me all about…ahh!”
       “What he means is,” I said, shooting Stefan a glance that warned him to keep mum or he would get another jab in the ribs, “we really would love to, but we can’t get to Greece for another few weeks. So sorry.”
       “I see. We’ll be in touch, then?”
       “Of course, good-bye!”
       And without waiting for him to say more, I bustled Stefan down the hallway and didn’t stop until we had exited the museum.
       I was halfway into the cab when Stefan grabbed my arm and pulled me back out. “Wait one moment. This whole blasted Louvre scheme was your idea. Why are you in such a hurry to escape?”
       “No, he suggested it. I merely agreed, which was a mistake, I now see.”
       “And just exactly how?” The stubborn gleam had come into his eyes. There was no reasoning with him when he was in one of these moods. Years of experience had taught me that he was capable of any sort of mischief in this state, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he rushed back to Salei and agreed to the Grecian scheme just to spite me.
       I motioned to the driver to wait, then cast a glance back toward the Louvre to make certain Salei hadn’t followed us. “Something’s not right with him. I don’t know what it is, but I wouldn’t trust him from here to that lamppost. So get it out of your head because we are definitely not meeting up with him when we get to Greece.”
       “You’re doing it again!” he said, exasperated. “What happened to all that twaddle about fostering relations with my Slavic brethren, eh? And I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t take his advice. Who wants to go to Rome anyway…stuffy, detestable city that it is.”
       Parroting someone else’s words was the first sign of intractability. In many ways, Stefan had never grown up. He was still that sulky little orphan David and Marishka Ratliff had stumbled upon in Romania.
       But on this matter, I wasn’t about to budge. “Look,” I said, pulling out my watch. “The train to Marseilles leaves in two hours. And unless you want to journey there on foot, we have to go now. So forget all about Vladec Salei and let’s try to get on with this blasted grand tour of yours, all right?”
       “Fine,” he said, and huffed into the carriage.
        I settled into the seat across from him and shouted to the driver to take us back to the hotel. Stefan, arms crossed, face clouded over, wouldn’t look at me. I knew he would hold his defeat against me. He had always had a vindictive streak I could never understand, but I had overlooked that and many other things over the years.
       I leaned my head back against the cushion and studied his averted face until I felt sleep tugging at my eyes. A short rest before reaching the hotel was just what I needed. My eyes had begun to close, but then I had the unmistakable feeling that I was being watched. I looked across the way to see Stefan staring at me. He was smiling, but something about the smile made me uneasy. It was secretive, threatening, and somehow knowing all at once.
       “Why are you smiling?” I asked, not truly wishing to know the answer.
       “Oh, nothing,” he said quietly. “I was just thinking of your friend Sorina Boroi.”
       The mention of that name startled me. I had purposely not said anything about the Borois to Stefan. My shock, coupled with my failure to press him for further details about this woman, made my guilt apparent, which I knew was just what he had intended to do.
       The smile was now self-satisfied. He looked down at the floor, snorted softly, then leaned his head back and closed his eyes. I no longer had any doubt that he knew what she had done to me that morning. And, horribly, I felt he was glad of it.
       What had she shown him during their outing? His face was like a mask, unreadable, Sphinx-like. Whatever secrets she had imparted to him, I knew he would keep hidden, for he seemed to have taken her side against me, though he had known her scarcely more than a few hours. If I spoke now, I would only make the situation worse. I needed time to think, to plan my strategy…to reevaluate my relationship with the friend I had called brother for the last thirteen years.
       I shoved myself into a corner of the cab and focused my attention on the passersby, trying to distract my mind from the gnawing anxiety in my chest.
       This grand tour had seemed like the adventure of a lifetime. But now, in light of my fears, I was beginning to regret ever agreeing to Stefan’s blasted scheme.

© 2010, 2013 Melika Dannese Lux and Books In My Belfry, LLC™. Unauthorized use or reproduction of this excerpt without the author’s permission is strictly prohibited.