Tavin, who had reached that exquisite point of exhaustion and anticipation where he no longer obeyed or noticed any of the signs of his deteriorating state, ignored the waiter's solicitous questions and descriptions of the dishes. Oskar ordered something expensive and inedible, which Tavin had no appetite for, in any case. Another bottle of sherry was delivered; Tavin was aware of the waiter's discreet apprehension and Oskar's amusement, but he was, at last, beyond being moved by these things. He had found the secret door again, he had seen something, and he was no longer lost and at the mercy of that alien and bitter world. The well-fed or sickly faces at the tables around them, loading forkfuls of meat dripping heavy sauces into their mouths, had only the power to disgust him briefly. They were already irrelevant, overwhelmed by a sense of dreadful expectancy and an imminence of symbols. Tavin felt, at times, on the verge of collapse; he had hardly slept or eaten, had sustained himself instead on cigarettes and drink, since he had been at the Vermilion.
He had tried to find his way back to the Vermilion the next evening, but had only spent the night wandering the dark, fetid streets of Menkrik until dawn. The streets were labyrinthine, impassable, diverted through ruined buildings and over black canals, and none of them led him to that shabby, totemic street. Eventually, after losing most of the next day in an unlicensed bar at the eastern edge of Menkrik, Tavin had returned to Oskar's flat. He had already found the notes and playbills that proved Oskar's connection to Mitra, and he took them out again, held them in his hands, read them not to discern their sense but to discover their meaning, as a form of divination or prayer. He still had the lily, loathsomely exquisite, carnivorous, its long green stem in a plique-a-jour vase on Oskar's secretaire.
Though Oskar had agreed to tell Tavin where his cousin could be found, the next day he seemed in no hurry to do so, no matter how forcefully Tavin insisted.
"My dear, you need to get some rest, you look like one of those demented consumptives who've been making things so interesting lately," Oskar said. "Mitra is a civilized creature after all, he never gets up before noon and certainly won't receive visitors. I need to go to work. You'll see him later if you're supposed to."
Alone, Tavin spent the day in a restless, half-somnolent state. He had left his camera at the house in the suburbs, so he drew the lily, beginning to wilt but not deprived of its malevolent vitality, over and over again. When he began to drift into real sleep, there was no rest there, either; he saw only those five, terrible white flowers, the shadowed, sublimely preternatural face. Now, in the drably opulent restaurant, he looked for those same symbols. The lily, battered and dripping scent like narcotic honey, was pinned to his lapel, a medal.
"Kruss made us all stand in the street for half an hour, but it wasn't much of a fire. We saw them taking the arsonist away, diseased looking little fellow in a felt suit. The evening papers are saying he set the Brukress Center bomb. I'm really amazed at the energy they seem to have. They get more done in a week than I have in years. Am I boring you, Tavin?"
"Yes. Can we go?"
"No," Oskar said. "I don't go near the Geffsten on an empty stomach. And I begged Elsta to meet us here for dinner. Please be polite, dear, she's bringing her agent Arnor and his new man."
"I don't care."
"I can see. Her and those unfortunate people at Brukress."
"Don't pretend you care, Oskar. I can't believe you're even trying to talk about that." Tavin started to stand and nearly knocked his chair over. "Just tell me how to find him, and you can stay here and impress that woman with your imitation of a respectable citizen."
"Sit down." Oskar grabbed his arm and held him. His mouth twitched, and Tavin realized he was trying very hard not to laugh. "They're going to ban me for bringing disruptive company, and I'd be very annoyed if I couldn't upset the old patrons with my presence."
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing." His long, elegant mouth trembled, twisted up in a vulpine expression, something that only resembled a smile and could have signified anything. Tavin was struck by his resemblance to Mitra; not, perhaps, a resemblance in form, but in impression, slight but enough to set him apart. "It really isn't funny at all. Stay for a little while and then…."
"Are you trying to stop me?"
Oskar blinked, and that bewitching, animal look was gone; he seemed, for a moment, startled, even a little afraid. "No," he said. "No, not at all. I just don't want to stand Elsta up in front of her friends. That would be awfully rude, wouldn't it? You wouldn't hear the end of it."
"Do you swear that after--"
"Yes," Oskar snapped. "I'll do it, don't worry. Just humor me for a little while."
Tavin sat, reluctantly, and took a cigarette from the silver box on the table.
He was comfortably drunk by the time Elsta and her friends arrived. She made a great fuss over Tavin, enquiring delicately after his health and making a few nearly flirtatious sallies before she turned to Oskar. Her long earrings clicked and swung when she leaned over to kiss Oskar's cheek. She left an imprint of scarlet on his skin like a bite mark. Arnor regarded him with something akin to suspicion and turned his attention to Oskar. His man, Bern, an assistant set designer at the National Theater, claimed to have known Tavin at University. He was not quite handsome in an interesting way.
"We had Life Drawing together, and we built sets for the student production of Maximillian," he told their companions. Then, to Tavin: "Don't you remember?"
"You couldn't have met him in class," Oskar said languidly. He dropped his hand to Elsta's knee, the bare skin latticed by the fringed hem of her dress. "Tavin never went to class."
"There was a model…."
Elsta and Arnor laughed. "It's no wonder you're Oskar's friend. It's so good to see you back, Tavin, and out in society again," she said. She put her hand, briefly, over his, in a companionable gesture, and Tavin almost flinched. It was a conspiracy, he saw, to bring him out to decent places and introduce him to healthy friends with whom he could make trivial conversation and descend into a variation on the existence he had foreseen in the bleak days before the Vermilion.
"So what are your plans?" Arnor asked; he had a boarding school accent of polite, indifferent friendliness. "I think it was clever of you to go into seclusion as soon as you returned. No matter what you do now, it'll be a sensation."
"I don't think it was quite so calculated…."
"Elsta, please, I told you not to give Tavin the benefit of a doubt. I advised him that it would drive up the price of his work."
"What will your next portfolio be, Tavin? Has anything caught your eye, any theme or inspiration?"
"Yes," he said. "Yes, it has."
Oskar had that odd expression again, his face veiled by plumes of silvery smoke from his cigarette. He leaned toward Elsta, who tensed, her small white teeth biting at the carmine curve of her mouth. Her eyes were fixed on Tavin's lily and something fell over her face, a shadow, like the solid clouds that rolled down the black mountains in Morenvia.
"I went to the Vermilion," he said, and they stared at him, stunned and frankly aghast.
"The Vermilion?" Bern leaned forward. Through his shock, something like admiration was visible. "But how… no one's ever really been there. Well, no one who-"
"He's a witch, you know," Elsta said. Her voice was taut and cold.