Read House of Dark Delights Online

Authors: Louisa Burton

House of Dark Delights

For Rich

I owe a tremendous debt to my agent, Nancy Yost, who lit a spark that set fire to my imagination. The result is Château de la Grotte Cachée and its extraordinary residents, whom I would never have met but for Nancy.

Many thanks also to Pamela Burford, Susan Uttal, and Rigel Klingman, who read pieces of this book as it was taking shape, and kept assuring me that I was on the right track. Their encouragement and support was invaluable.

Sexual Demons

There were personages connected with the worship of Priapus who appear to have been common to the Romans under and before the empire, and to the foreign races who settled upon its ruins…

Woe to the modesty of maiden or woman who ventured incautiously into their haunts. As Incubi, they visited the house by night, and violated the persons of the females, and some of the most celebrated heroes of early mediæval romances, such as Merlin, were thus the children of Incubi. They were known at an early period in Gaul by the name of Dusii, from which, as the church taught that all these mythic personages were devils, we derive our modern word
Deuce,
used in such phrases as “the Deuce take you!”

From
The Worship of the Generative Powers
by Thomas Wright, 1865

When house or harth doth sluttish lye,

I pinch the maidens black and blue;

The bed-clothes from the bedd pull I,
and lay them naked all to view.

'Twixt sleep and wake,

I do them take,

And on the key-cold floor them throw.

If out they cry

Then forth I fly,

And loudly laugh out, ho, ho, ho!

From the seventeenth-century ballad,
“The Mad, Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow”

Almost midnight, July 30 of this year

S
HE WAS
out there somewhere, watching him.

Halfway up the north postern tower of the castle, Elic paused, one hand gripping a chink in the soot-black stone, both bare feet poised on a narrow corbel. He looked over his shoulder, peering off into the darksome woods, nostrils flaring as he tasted the night: juniper and wild roses, honeysuckle, musty earth, ancient oaks…and Ilutu-Lili. The jasmine oil with which she anointed her throat and breasts, her salty-sweet skin, her heat, her desire drifted around him on a waft of sultry air.

“Why him?” she'd asked earlier this evening, in the extinct Akkadian tongue she'd taught him so that their conversations, some of them, could be theirs and theirs alone. “Why Larsson?”

“He's a
gabru,
Lili.”
A strong, mighty young man.
It was what they called certain guests of the chateau, those in whom Elic took a particular interest. Inigo, in that merrily smirky way of his, had dubbed them “Elic's Alphas.”

“That's not the only reason,” she said.

Elic had turned without answering her.

“Urkhish,”
she'd said as he stalked away.
Go, then.

He could have invited her to join him tonight, could have shared this
gabru
with her, as he sometimes did, but not this time. Not this one.

The oriel window of the bedchamber assigned to Viktor Larsson loomed just overhead, its stained glass casements thrown wide open on this unusually warm night. In a whispered growl, Elic cursed those, like Larsson, who insisted upon locking their chamber doors here, as if Château de la Grotte Cachée were some
hôtel public
instead of what it was: the most private of private homes.

The moon was full tonight, illuminating the topography of the tower wall as if it were midafternoon—though Elic could have scaled it on the blackest night, having done so countless times over the six centuries in which it had stood. Straining upward, he got a good grip on a notch meant to secure battle scaffolding, though it had never been used for that purpose. This castle was built not to repel outsiders, but to conceal and safeguard its permanent residents. Elic hauled himself up one-armed, quivering with the effort, until he could just reach the stone bracket supporting the window. Sweat trickled from beneath his black woolen cap, stinging his eyes, as he clambered over the projecting bay and stole into the room through one of the narrow openings.

He found his footing on the velvet-upholstered window seat, curled into a crouch, and rubbed his eyes with the hem of his black T-shirt. The moonlit Chambre de Mille Fleurs was large and opulent, its walls draped with fifteenth-century tapestries for which the Louvre or the Met would offer a fortune, if their existence were known. He breathed in a blend of musk, spices, and orange peel—Larsson's cologne—along with whispers of linseed oil, old wool, fabric softener, and lemon verbena.

The bedcurtains were tied back to reveal a tall, strapping young blond man lying faceup on a mound of pillows, naked under the sheet rucked around his hips. On one nightstand sat a ripped-open box of twelve protein bars, a strip of condoms, and the June issue of
Sports Illustrated
with a photograph on the cover of Larsson holding the Wimbledon cup aloft. On the floor next to the bed was the electric fan he'd demanded when he discovered, to his outrage, that the chateau was without air-conditioning except for a few window units in Inigo's suite. It was an old fan, though, and made quite a racket, which was probably why it wasn't running.

A pink leather makeup case sat on the other nightstand, along with a cell phone, a copy of American
Vogue,
and a book called
Medical Instrumentation: Application and Design.
These belonged to a statuesque American blonde whom Larsson had introduced during dinner yesterday, with obvious pride and affection, as “my beloved Heather.” Heather's left ring finger sported a square-cut diamond the size of her thumbnail. When Inigo had suggested she might want to put it somewhere safe before taking the waters, for fear of losing it, Larsson said he'd forbidden her to remove it, even to have it cleaned. “If she loses it, I'll buy her another. I want every man who sees her to know she's mine.” This devotion was quite a departure for the Swedish tennis star, whose appetite for models and actresses was legendary.

At this moment, Heather was partaking of a solitary, late-night soak in the bathhouse built onto a rocky mountainside about a hundred yards east of the chateau. It was an expediency engineered by Elic, who'd slid the idea into her mind, along with a certain something else, while “accidentally” brushing up against her earlier today.

“Excuse me,” he'd said in English as he stepped down into the square, mosaic-floored marble pool in which Heather, Larsson, and several others, including Lili, were bathing in the therapeutic waters trickling from the adjoining cave—the
grotte cachée,
or hidden grotto, for which this valley had been named. English, in which the group were chatting, had become, over the past couple of hundred years, the lingua franca of Grotte Cachée due to the preponderance of visitors who spoke that language and none other.

Elic sighed as he settled chest deep in the water, which ran agreeably tepid on hot days like this. In the winter, it emerged warm and steaming, a peculiarity of the stream that fed it, which had its origins deep in the extinct, lushly vegetated volcano that loomed over their secret little
vallée
; it was not, however, the only anomaly of nature at Grotte Cachée, not by a long shot.

Reaching behind him, Elic scooped up a handful of blueberries from the afternoon repast laid out on a low iron table next to the pool: summer fruits, farm-cured ham, smoked duck, wheels of Saint-Nectaire and Bleu d'Auvergne, and a big round of crusty, wood-fired bread surrounded by pots of honey, butter, and traditional Auvergnat fruit pastes.

The pool, housed in a white marble edifice dating back to Grotte Cachée's Roman occupation, had submerged steps all around, the top one serving as a bench on which the bathers reclined. All, that is, except for Inigo, who sat on the edge of the pool in a pair of baggy plaid shorts with just his calves and feet in the water, a joint in one hand, cigarette in the other, half-empty bottle of tequila tucked between his legs.

The roof of the bathhouse, the center of which was an open “moon roof,” as Inigo called it, was buttressed by pillars at the four corners of the pool, each supporting a life-size statue of a nymph being ravished in a novel position by a satyr. It was the same satyr in each tableau, a handsome young fellow with a tail like that of an ox, slightly pointed ears, and a pair of bony protuberances poking through his cap of close-cropped, corkscrew curls. His most extraordinary feature, though, would be a cock-stand of heroic proportions. A thick, sinewy shaft jutting a good twelve inches from its wiry nest, it put one more in mind of a rutting stallion than of a man.

There'd been a visitor to the chateau a while back, sometime in the 1880s, as Elic recalled, who'd taught mythological studies at Harvard. Professor Wheeler couldn't fathom why satyrs sculpted by Romans around the time of the birth of Christ—in fact, it was the autumn of A.D. 14, hard for Elic to forget because the news of Augustus's death came while the statues were being erected—should look so decidedly un-Roman. As the professor had explained it, the Romans had usually depicted satyrs as being hairy and goatlike from the waist down, with prominent, often ramlike, horns. The statues in the bathhouse looked far more like the satyrs' original incarnation from ancient Greece.

In fact, the bathhouse satyrs bore a striking resemblance to Inigo in every particular save for the cabochon ruby in Inigo's left earlobe, the faded tattoo over his heart—
In Vino Veritas
—and the hair, which he cultivated in a boisterous black mop in order to conceal the horns and ears. He'd had the tail surgically removed soon after the advent of chloroform in 1847 because, as he'd told Elic at the time, it spoiled the cut of his trousers. He'd have done it centuries earlier were he not a self-admitted “sniveling crybaby” when it came to pain. He'd drunk himself insensible before getting that tattoo.

Inigo's entertainment this afternoon was in the form of two voluptuous Australian girls lounging in the water to either side of him. A redhead and a dark-rooted blonde named Kat and Chloe, respectively, they lolled against his legs with lazy smiles as they sucked on his weed and gulped his tequila. Both wore thong bikini bottoms sans tops, navel rings, and too much makeup; they reeked of the same overly sweet, one-note lily of the valley scent. Chloe had a silver barbell in her tongue and a bosom comprised of two staunchly perfect spheres. Kat's breasts were colossal, and jiggled like Christmas pudding every time she let loose with one of her frequent belly laughs.

Gesturing toward Chloe's chest with his cigarette, Inigo asked her, in the American accent he'd absorbed from watching too much satellite TV, “Are those real?”

“They're a damn sight realer than what I had before, mate.”

“What about yours?” he asked Kat.

The redhead grinned and arched her back, putting her endowments on proud display. “What do
you
think?”

As casually as if he were testing a melon at a fruit stand, Inigo reached down and took hold of her left breast, kneading it with the relish of a true connoisseur of female flesh. Heather blinked; Larsson grinned; Lili looked on with a yawn.

“Sweet,” he praised as he squeezed and stroked. “That's one nice, jolly set you've got there.”

“Jolly?” Chloe said. “I think you're confusing Kat's yabbos with her.”

“No, no,” he said. “Breasts are like people. They all have their own personalities, their own needs and wants.”

“Oh, yeah, and what do mine want?” Kat asked.

“What we all want—to get greased up and ridden like a pony.”

Kat threw back her head and guffawed.

“Have you been in the cave?” he asked the girls, nodding toward the mossy gap in the black volcanic rock face that formed the back wall of the bathhouse. “There's this ancient stone figure in there that's got some seriously fucked-up anatomy. Come on,” he said as he grabbed the tequila and rose unsteadily to his feet. “You gotta check this out.”

As the girls clambered out of the pool, dripping and giggling, a blue rock thrush swooped down from its perch on the edge of the skylight, forcing Inigo to dodge it as it shot past his head. The bird circled one of the columns before lighting on the right shoulder of the marble satyr who stood leaning against it with legs spread and hips outthrust, both hands fisted in the hair of the nymph who knelt before him, licking his monumental organ like a cat.

“Dude,” Inigo chuckled when the bird let loose with a series of harsh, scolding cheeps quite uncharacteristic of its species. “Chill, bro. We're not going in that far, just to the
Cella.
I want to show them Titty Man, that's all. Your space is your space.”

Darius, evidently mollified, fluttered up through the moon roof in a bluish blur.

“After you, ladies,” said Inigo, gesturing them into the cave as he surreptitiously pocketed the little butter pot off the table. He gave Elic a wink as he ducked into the mossy opening, for of course it was
his
fucked-up anatomy—or, as he liked to refer to it, his “heroic dimensions”—which Kat and Chloe were about to discover, no doubt with a fair measure of girlish enthusiasm once the initial shock wore off.

Jolie, one of the pretty young bath attendants, wheeled in a double-decker cart laden on top with drinks, and underneath with stacks of towels and robes. “Your papaya juice,
monsieur,
” she said as she offered a frosty glass to Larsson.

He accepted it mechanically while staring at the cave into which Inigo and the girls had just disappeared. “Was he…He wasn't talking to the
bird,
was he?” Larsson asked Lili in his melodic Swedish accent.

“Was that what it looked like to you?” Lili asked with a little hint of a smile. Her own accent was very subtle and very obscure. People meeting her for the first time were always curious as to her origins, about which she was always vague. “I'm from the Near East,” she might say, or, if she were feeling droll, she might tell them she was from “the Fertile Crescent,” or “the cradle of civilization,” and let her interrogators make from that what they would. What she never said was “I'm from Iraq,” which was what her homeland was called today. “The dreary questions,” she said, “the tedious conversations. No, thank you.”

“It
did
seem like he was talking to that bird,” Heather said. “He was looking right at it and—”


Nä,
you're right,” Larsson told Lili. “It's absurd. I've been a little…
snurrig i huvudet.
‘Light-headed,' I think is the word. Just for the past day or so, since I got here. The heat, maybe,
ja
?”

“That's probably it.” Lili caught Elic's eye and cast him an eloquent smile.

Even after having known Lili for two and a half centuries, Elic still got a little clutch in his chest when she gave him one of those intimate looks reserved just for him. Nonchalantly naked except for her ever-present gold anklet, her inky hair swaying on the surface of the water, her eyes dark and slumberous, she looked every bit the Babylonian goddess she'd once been…to some. To others, she'd been, and still was, a succubus who paralyzed sleeping men in order to rob them of their vital seed.

Lili, alone among her companions, was entirely unclothed; Larsson and Elic wore swim trunks, Heather one of those unlined racing suits, a red one, the kind that clung like skin when it was wet. She was leggy and lovely, with sun-gilded cheeks and the sleek musculature of an athlete. Her stomach was utterly flat, her breasts high and taut, with stiff little nipples that made Elic's teeth itch to bite them. She wore no perfume, but Elic did detect a hint of lemon verbena soap.

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