He froze for a heartbeat; sharp intake of breath; eyes widening. Sir Hugo was tall with a pleasant face and a full head of gray hair. Like any good old boy of the Talamasca he quickly regained his composure and extended his hand.
‘I’m so glad you could come’. His heart thumped a merry tattoo as he registered the shock of my icy flesh. ‘Do sit down.’
I surveyed the room instead. ‘You’ve made changes. I approve.’
Sir Hugo was studying me intensely, recording my appearance, the way I moved and spoke and memorizing everything I said. This is standard Talamasca procedure. We’d briefly met before. He was filling in the gaps.
His Machiavellian predecessor, Walter, had thoroughly redecorated but now the room looked more or less as it had when I first saw it thirty years ago. Flashback of David seated behind the desk in the glow of a green-shaded lamp. Little leaded windows, a log-filled fire and a stack of paper files on the sturdy desk. So the Talamasca still used paper files. I wasn't surprised.
It was also littered with artifacts and paintings. I picked up a block of carved wood, turning it over in my hands. It felt warmer than it ought to.
'It's a curious thing,' Sir Hugo said, using the moment to sit behind his desk. 'What do you make of it?'
It was about six inches square and carved deeply on every side. I could make out twisting faces and intertwining letters, but I couldn't make sense of it.
'It's old.' I’d never seen anything like it. It might have been four hundred years old or a thousand. I flashed him a smile. 'Older than I am anyway. What is it?'
'We're really not certain. It came from a house several miles north of here.' Pale eyes glinted behind his spectacles. 'It was supposed to be the possession of an ancient sorcerer.'
I turned it over in my hands, tracing the smooth ridges with the pad of my thumb. I didn’t like it. The carving was crude. Something wasn't right. The weight of the cube didn't seem to match its dimensions.
'Have you opened it?' I looked up when he didn't immediately answer me. ‘What’s inside it?’
His face registered surprise. Ah! Perfect, he hadn't known.
I shook it beside my ear as if I expected to hear something shift inside and then replaced it on the desk.
‘Something is lodged tightly inside so it doesn’t move. It possesses exactly the same weight that the cube would have if it were solid. Well, almost the same weight.’
‘Interesting.’ His voice was as cultured and warm as David’s had been, if a little tense. David had been bolder. ‘We’ll certainly look into it.’
By now I was enjoying myself thoroughly.
He reached for a squat decanter containing a few inches of amber liquid. 'Do you mind if I...?'
I waved my hand in acquiescence and he poured himself a drink. Not David's sharp Scotch, but something warmer. Brandy.
He caught the unguarded thought. 'I knew David Talbot.'
I've never liked it when mortals breach my defenses.
'I haven't come to make the same offer to you,' I said curtly. ‘Forget David Talbot.’
'I’m sorry. Of course not.’ He took a large sip of his drink, then another. ‘To be honest, you’ve set the Order in uproar with your request. It’s posed me quite a quandary. It’s not as if I can just refuse you...’ He stared at his glass then set it down. ‘But we have concerns. All this is quite unprecedented.’
‘Admit it, you’re interested,’ I was beguiled by his sudden honesty. ‘The idea intrigues you.’
‘I can’t deny that you’d be useful. And you’re an extraordinary mystery yourself. Your visits here always create a great deal of excitement.’
He was right. By now the inhabitants of the ancient house knew I was there. I could feel an electric pulse of anticipation and occasionally a stab of psychic meddling. I clamped down hard on my thoughts.
‘You always present us with dangerous possibilities,' he added.
‘It’s high time we stopped these games, don’t you think?’
‘I thought you liked games, monsieur.’ Oh, sharp. Point for him. The tone of my voice changed.
‘You play your own dirty games.’ Sir Hugo was now as still as a wild creature which senses immediate danger.
Of course, what I’d said was an understatement. Walter Vanhoutte had kidnapped my mortal lover, Gitano, and held him captive for a year. He’d had nefarious designs on his infant daughter too. Gitano had taken so much of my blood that Walter had suspected I had permanently altered his physical makeup. He was obsessed with the idea that Mirella might have inherited strange and powerful qualities which originated with me.
‘The actions of my predecessor were regrettable...’
I cut him short. ‘They were an act of war.’
‘I can assure you that his personal ambitions did not represent the intentions of the Talamasca...’
‘Walter was the Superior General. Who else represents the intentions of the Order?’
‘I understand that we failed...’
‘Understand this: I’m not renowned for my restraint. Walter did not act alone. Lexia stole from me, Ian stole from Merrick and worse. I should have hunted you down to the last meddling scholar.’
There was silence as he chose his next words with diplomatic care. I didn’t need to read his mind to know what counter accusations flitted through his thoughts. I favored him with a smile. I can look terrifying when I smile. He glanced at his Brandy glass but didn’t reach for it as if movement on his part would precipitate disaster.
I suddenly drew up a chair and to his credit he didn’t flinch.
‘We both know that I have been more than reasonable. Lexia and Ian are now both under my protection. In fact, I chose to include you at my wedding. It’s better to receive an open invitation than to spy on me, don’t you think?’
‘I appreciated the gesture.’
‘Yes, you did. You will now include me in your ranks and I'll tell you why. It's time to end this cold war. Oh, I don't really want to join the Talamasca.' I shrugged to acknowledge my own theatrics and this time my smile was warm. ‘I have no intention of sitting in your library.’
‘I’d like us to be allies.’ As he said it he paused over the last word as if it were inadequate.
‘Let’s call it that.’
Sir Hugo took a sip of his Brandy as he considered my choice of words. ‘I would be honored to call you... an Associate of the Talamasca. ‘I will ensure that your visits here are accepted by the membership and are not subject to overt scrutiny if you can undertake not to cause undue disruption to our business here.’
I was going to start laughing if I wasn’t careful.
‘It goes without saying that no harm is to come to anyone here.’
‘I have never harmed anyone here.’ I dared him to contradict me. He was wise enough not to.
‘We will no longer keep you under observation.’
‘I don’t speak for anyone else,’ I said. ‘I’m not a gateway to the coven. This is merely between you and I. You will extend the same courtesy to anyone who is a part of my household.’ He nodded.
‘Would you like your possessions returned to you?’ David had asked me the same question. I still didn’t care a jot about mouldering furniture and lace-trimmed shirts but a thought did occur to me.
‘Perhaps,’ I said.
I found Louis on the balcony of our apartment, his hair whipping in the breeze that rose up from the black waters of the river Thames.
‘I don’t think I want to know.’ He didn’t turn around but I could hear the smile in his voice. I leaned against the railing beside him.
‘He’s not David, but I like him well enough. As a colleague,’ I added mischievously.
Louis shook his head at me. ‘Leave this one alone.’ He didn’t really mean it. I really don’t think he cares what I do so long as it doesn’t affect the overarching course of our lives, but I view his admonitions too affectionately for him to stop.
‘I’ve arranged a surprise for you.’
‘I still don’t want to know.’ Now he really was smiling at me. ‘I’m not going to the Motherhouse again, Lestat.’
‘Of course not.’