It was the part of Wakefield Manor where I felt most at home, all green leather, polished oak and the odour of antiquity. The room was cavernous and gloomy even at noon. The walls were covered from floor to ceiling with shelves that groaned under the wisdom of the ages, books far older than the manor itself. The light filtering in through the small windows, set at regular intervals high on one wall, did little to dispel the darkness. It merely softened the ebony into gray and cast a ghostly pallor on the leather bound volumes on the shelves. I didn't mind the darkness. I found it comforting. I always have.
I guess a good library is one of the perks of immortality. I have had a lot of time to grow a collection. I know I should travel light, but I have never been able to resist a good read. Eternity is a long time and I actually marvel at the fact that I haven't picked up more than I have.
That day, as I paused for a moment at the door, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness, I noticed that I was not alone. My eyes were drawn to the soft pool of light in the middle of the room and Benjamin, sitting at one of the tables, his back to me. He was hunched over some volume that was spread open on the table before him and was regarding it so intently that he did not notice my entry.
I don't usually take kindly to strangers rifling through my books without permission, but I was feeling well disposed towards my new acquisition. The poor boy was an orphan and I reminded myself to treat him kindly. Benjamin had never known his mother. She had died giving birth to him. His father, who had been the parish priest of Lumley, a pleasant little hamlet down the road, had recently met with a rather unfortunate accident. A fire broke out in the parsonage and the poor man was roasted alive.
I didn't see the dead body though I happened to be passing by when the fire was finally put out. The constable thought the vision would be too much for my "delicate sensibilities" and that I would be quite overcome. How thoughtful of him. But the ones that did see the corpse before it was wrapped up swore that even though his face was like burnt toast, they could tell that his features were twisted with horror. It was as though the priest before he died had come face to face with his worst nightmare.
They couldn't imagine what that could be, but didn't hesitate to speculate with the morbid eagerness of those glad to be alive. There were some clues at the scene of the accident. In the smoked out ruins of the parsonage were found burnt fragments of ancient parchment. The altar boy remembered that the priest had not been himself lately. His nose had been buried for days in some yellowed manuscripts that he would scarcely abandon even to eat or drink. When the boy's curiosity had gotten the better of him and he had asked the priest what he was reading, the man had looked up with vacant, red rimmed eyes and mumbled something about exorcizing a demon. Fancy that!
Well, he was certainly an eccentric sort of chap. He would fish out a tiny silver crucifix every time I passed him on the street. And the one time that I had gone for confession and he had found me sitting, demurely, in the box, he had run screaming down the aisle and out of the church. It had been beyond embarrassing.
We did give him a fine funeral nevertheless. The villagers were very generous in their praise and when Benjamin got up to speak, he looked such a picture of angelic innocence with those soft brown eyes and clear brow, that there wasn't a dry eye in the house. While the women sniffled into their lace handkerchiefs, I put my arm around the boy and consoled him.
"You will need a roof now your father is gone. Will you come home with me?"
I could feel the warmth of his skin and the slow steady beat of the blood pumping through his veins. I was suddenly impatient for an answer and anxious as to what it might be. He nodded shyly. Everyone looked pleased, no doubt secretly relieved that they would not have to grapple with the question of what to do with the young man. It was all rather touching.
I peered over Benjamin's shoulder to see what had absorbed him so completely. It was an old volume, with pages that were yellow and brittle. But the picture on the page where the book lay open had lost none of its brightness. The colors, almost phosphorescent in their intensity, were undimmed. In my heart, I spoke her name ... Meridiana ...
Meridiana ... sister of my soul. There she was again, resplendent in her nakedness, ... the deceptive innocence of that face set off by the lushness of her body ... the curves of her hips, the firmness of her strawberry tipped breasts, her hair like fire framing her face and the thick dewy lips of her sex. In the picture, her lips were parted, both sets of them, welcoming. Her sex was open like the heart of an exotic flower, pink and wet, a thin sheen of moisture shielding her hungry mouth. Her open wings, a deep scarlet, the color of blood, richly veined and translucent, cast into stark relief the unblemished ivory of her skin. She was planted firmly on the ground, her feet slightly apart, the tip of her tail coiled around one ankle.
I winced at the thought of those lovely curves squeezed into a vial the size of my thumb. I was reminded again of the fragility of our lives and I mourned for us. We, the daughters of Lilith ... so magnificent, so achingly beautiful ... and yet we too were playthings of fate. At the height of her powers, Meridiana had juggled the world in her palms and had had a pope for a minion. Long before he was the King of Christendom, long before he was Sylvester II, Gerbert of Aurillac had been Meridiana's slave, his body captive to hers as she tore helpless little whimpers of pleasure from his throat. She had kept him alive, his soul bound in the web that she had woven. He had had his uses.
And yet, on that fateful day, at the horns of Hattin, when the hordes of Saladin met the armies of Jerusalem, her time had come. For us, the battle was a feast, the biggest in a long time. We wouldn't have missed it for anything in the world, Meridiana and I. Death draws us like vultures to carrion and that day, we knew there would be a lot of dying. Our choice of allegiance, as always, was an accident. A quick whispered consultation and we decided to back the moors. Those earnest young crusaders who were streaming out of Europe to defend Jerusalem looked more dishy.
She was undone by a moment's inattention. She was poised over a prone soldier whom she had mortally wounded. As his life slowly ebbed out of him, she cradled in her palm his thick throbbing cock and drew him into the warmth of her body. He shuddered as she slowly milked him. She was watching his face as the pain dissolved into pleasure and didn't notice a shadowy figure creep up behind her. One moment she was sucking the juice out of her captive and the next she was thrashing about in a small bottle that the wizard who had ambushed her gleefully held up to the light.
His laughter choked as I whipped off his head, but I was too late to rescue her. Her victim, now denied the comfort of her body, was still alive. His cock was twitching helplessly, glistening in her juices and his eyes were filled with a mute plea, to be engulfed in that warmth again. I took pity on him. My fingers curled around his member and I drew him deep into me until he nudged the mouth of my womb. He moaned as he drowned again in wetness. He was young, scarcely twenty and seemed of noble birth. His armor bore a coat of arms – a fleur de lis flanked by prancing horses – that I did not recognize. I held his eyes as I took him. I watched them soften with pleasure that he had believed scarcely possible and then he was gone. And as I claimed what ought to have been hers, I wept for her.
The vial is a powder blue and sometimes when I take it out into the warmth of an English summer day, the glass darkens as though there were a storm raging within. I talk to her then. I don't know if she can hear me, but I talk to her ... of the things that matter, of a freedom that will come and of how we shall feast again ... together, on the warmth of bodies that are still alive and beating, bodies that wait for the inexorability of our judgment.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" I asked quietly, as I placed a gentle hand on Benjamin's shoulder.
He started and then blushed at being caught admiring with such naked hunger the fetching demon spread across the page.
"Yes...," he mumbled.
Yes ... She was indeed. Suddenly, I was swept by an almost overwhelming wave of nostalgia, a hunger to look like that again, to slough off the confines of the shape that I had assumed which was attractive enough I suppose as humans go, but couldn't hold a candle to the glory of our true selves. But I resisted the temptation. The last time hadn't gone too well.
It had been Sunday morning. The sunlight was filtering in through the bay windows and under the eiderdown where I lay curled, my body sleep heavy, it was warm. The staff were in the kitchen and Lord Wakefield was off with the hunting party who were staying for the weekend. I could hear the baying of the dogs in the distance and the softer snorting of the horses. I was filled by a sense of well being so vast that I felt my body couldn't contain it. I swept aside the sheets, swung myself off the bed, tucked my feet into my fur slippers and shuffled over to the body length mirror on the wall. I turned this way and that, surveying what I saw with a critical eye. Maybe just once, I thought. It had been such a long time.
I felt the familiar tingling in my shoulder blades and at the base of my spine as I became myself, joyously. I flapped my wings experimentally, enjoying the rush of air that cooled my back. Everything seemed to be in order. I hadn't lost my touch. I was so busy preening that I didn't hear the door open. I probably wouldn't have noticed him anyway. The mirror was covered by the soft expanse of spread open wing. I came back to earth when I heard the soft thud of body hitting floor. When I turned around, Lord Wakefield was lying stretched out on the bedroom rug, quite dead. He had come back for his pipe and his heart seemed to have given away at the sight of his lovely wife. Well, I did tell him that his habit would kill him one day.
Pity! I had been fond of the old geezer. I hadn't wanted him to go like that. I had something far more colorful planned for him, something along the lines of being loved to death in a long night of passion from which he wouldn't awake. Too late for that now. We laid my late lamented husband in the middle of the dining table. I had an anxious moment when it creaked under his considerable weight. It was Louis XIV and I didn't want it damaged. Husbands come and go, but a well made piece of furniture was another matter.
It was a very dignified ceremony. I marveled at how death improves a man in the public memory. An interminable line of friends and acquaintances, some of whom I had never seen before, waxed eloquent about how my poor Bernard had been a man of the people and how he had planned vast charitable projects that he was fond of discussing over a pint of beer at the Rooster and how now that he had been cut down in his prime – never mind that he could barely move under his own power – his projects would never see the light of day – here they looked at me quite pointedly and I looked as pointedly away.
The mourners were a persistent bunch and a steady stream of them flowed through the manor in the days that followed. Some of them reminded me delicately of Bernard's long suppressed aspirations to philanthropy. When I refused to assume any responsibility for what he might have said when his brain was addled by the fumes of what they served at the Rooster, their attitudes underwent a change. The warmth that they professed for Bernard's young widow was replaced by something a little more chilly. It was only quite recently that I had redeemed myself a little by taking Benjamin under my wing ... pardon the pun ... and the great unwashed had begun to warm to me again.
After that little episode, I had been a bit more discreet. I didn't think the village would take too kindly to seeing a widow in her wings rather than in her weeds. Not that I was intimidated in any way by this rabble. I was put off, however, by the inconvenience of having to take a few heads off to keep a secret that I didn't want revealed. I was beginning to get used to the comforts of Wakefield Manor. When you are a few thousand years old, you get attached to a good fireplace to warm your bones. One whiff of a demon in residence and every bounty hunter in the universe would descend on the place and the neighborhood would be shot to pieces. I would rather keep things the way they are, dull and quiet, with the monotony broken only by an occasional juicy piece of meat.
I looked down at Benjamin. The boy was still blushing. I wondered how he would react if the picture in his book suddenly came alive before his eyes. The thought made me giggle. He looked at me enquiringly, his forehead creasing in that way that I found utterly adorable. No, I decided, he wouldn't be a good candidate for the full Technicolor, Universal Studios version of the real me. He wasn't Cleopatra. I doubted that anybody could be.
I still remember the first time I saw her ... in the palace of the Pharaohs. It stood in the sea on the island of Antirrhodos off that city of dreams, Alexandria, a city so magnificent that its people believed that its glory would last forever. It has now vanished. It sleeps beneath an ocean, drowned along with the hubris of the men who made it. But on that day, that city and that palace seemed like the center of the universe.
I was on a job. In those days, there was always work for us in Egypt. I had been hired to do away gently with some minor minion who the Pharaoh feared would be a threat to his rule. The mark was a little shrimp of a fellow and I doubt he had any designs on the throne. But then, the Pharaohs were always a paranoid lot. So while I waited for a suitable opportunity to do the fellow in, I entered the service of the Pharaoh as a slave.
And there I was one day in a quiet corridor of the palace, whiling away some time, when this baby girl who couldn't have been more than two crawled in. She seemed utterly unfazed by the fact that she was alone which itself was unusual. Privacy was not a strong suite among Egyptian royalty. And she couldn't have been a slave. She regarded me with those large solemn eyes, unblinking. I picked up my duster and desultorily flicked it over the gleaming, black limbs of an onyx statue of Amun – ra that stood guard in the corridor, but I quickly tired of it. As a matter of principle, I don't work and this was beginning to feel too much like it.
I looked around carefully to make sure that we were alone and then gave her the works, horns, wings, tail and all. She regarded me silently for a moment and then ... giggled. She shuffled forward to touch the glossy membrane of my outstretched wing, which was glowing like a flaming ember in the evening sun. She ran her fingertip along the surface carefully, tracing the path of a vein and when she was done, she looked up at me and laughed again. I think that's when I fell in love.
I don't know where the hours went. She was an infinite source of wonder and I did everything in my power to amuse her. She was particularly pleased when I flapped my wings and would clap her hands gleefully as the sudden rush of air caressed her cheeks. She fell asleep that evening curled up in my arms. That is how they found us, her retainers, who had been searching for her frantically in every corner of that palace which was so vast that a man who strayed in could wander like a lost soul for a lifetime and not find his way out.
I became her little secret. She would sneak away from time to time to be with me. I think it tickled her to have a demon for a slave. And if truth be told, I was also secretly pleased to have a future queen of Egypt for a companion though she couldn't have beaten that confession out of me with a hot poker. As she grew older, I regaled her with stories of my adventures and she would listen, enraptured. Mine had been a busy life and I had a lot to tell, of courage, betrayal, wisdom, cruelty and yes ... of love.
I watched her grow into the woman that she became and I worried for her as the years passed. She seemed so fragile, so helpless ... a delicate flower that would wilt in the first desert wind. But at every turn, she surprised me with her courage and her resourcefulness, her talent for survival. She just would not curl up and die. And for her people, she became Egypt.
At first, I stayed aloof from the other slaves. I had nothing in common with them. And I thought it more prudent. But all that changed when she discovered one of my more unusual gifts. She had just turned eighteen and to amuse her, I shifted shape in front of her eyes ... into her father, into her brothers and then others, slipping and sliding from one to the next, melting into thin air and being re born into something even more audacious. She watched my dazzling display with growing delight and then whispered slyly, "I have something I want you to do."
When I found out what it was, I wasn't overly thrilled. I'm distrustful of anything that can blow my cover and in the long history of bad ideas, this one seemed to hold its own. But already, I was unable to say no to her.
It was a full moon night. I stood in the shadow of the Sphinx, who still had his nose then, in the middle of a circle of female retainers who reclined on soft silk cushions and were looking exceedingly comfortable. We were protected from view by a barrier of silk tents, whose flaps were billowing in the evening breeze. And beyond that still, to deter any curious traveler, was a circle of eunuchs, their naked swords gleaming in the moonlight.
I was feeling a bit foolish and already beginning to regret having agreed to play my part in that little charade. That night, I wasn't a slave. I wasn't even a woman. I was, to indulge Cleo's frantic imagination, a moor, taut and long limbed. I knew from the glances of approval and hunger that were being cast in my direction that I didn't look half bad, but I still felt too conspicuous for my taste.
A single metallic peal – of a gong being struck - broke the silence. It had a sense of finality about it, of inevitability. When its echoes had dissolved into the desert night, a small huddle of figures emerged from one of the tents. Four slaves bore a litter on which was laid the naked body of a fifth. She stirred softly on her pallet as she was borne forward.
There was a smooth cube of stone in the middle of the circle, in front of which I stood, waiting. Its broad surface, which had rings set into the corners, was covered by a thin silk cushion. They lifted her naked body off the litter and laid her gently in the middle of it, her legs dangling over the edge. The golden brown of her body, oiled to perfection, glistened in the light of the torches that had been inserted into metal hoops buried in the stone. Her bearers, with an economy of movement that spoke of long practice, gently seized a limb each. Her arms were drawn upwards, her wrists wrapped in silk and lashed to the rings set in the corners. Her legs were spread almost painfully apart and her ankles encased in their own prison of silk.
She tugged at her bonds and the muscles along the insides of her thighs rippled as she tested the limits of her captivity. Her bearers had done their job well. After a brief struggle, she subsided. She lay there, open and helpless, the soft mounds of her breasts rising and falling with her breath. I heard her audience exhale a collective sigh of desire.