I am a miser; it's true. I admit it proudly. Money is the one thing that I love above all else in the world--the clink of coins in my pocket, the crisp rustle of bills, the scent and feel of it send me into raptures. Spending it causes me pain. And so I hoard it, living as frugally as possible to avoid unnecessary expenditure. If this means wearing ragged, patched clothing, so be it, though I confess, I have not always been so abstemious as of late. This business of digging for food in rubbish bins is a recent development, as are my frequent emotional tirades, which are a source of no small frustration to me. One day soon I hope to regain a semblance of control.
You think me very odd, I am sure. So do most who are acquainted with me. But you must understand this: if I am strange, if I am mad, it did not come on me naturally. Oh, no. He drove me to it.
"Who is he?" you ask.
He is sunlight and shadow. He is outwardly soft and frivolous, but possessed of a sharp wit and iron will--unnervingly beautiful and rather poisonous. He is Dorian Red, Earl of Gloria. He is Eroica, the thief. He is both the center of my universe and its unmaking.
No one would ever believe me if I told them, but he had nothing at all when I found him. Not a penny. But he kept up appearances and let wealthy men with aspirations pick up the tab as much as possible without giving up too much in the bargain. Dorian lived like a king, but desperation and a dwindling inheritance lurked beneath the decadent surface. Had he sold one or two of Eroica's acquisitions from time to time, he could have been quite comfortable, but his pride and his passion forbade it.
I was doing the books for one of the Earl's friends when we met. I was quite well off, but enjoyed the world of finance and often shared my expertise with others. During one of my client's parties, which I attended against my better judgment, I was quite surprised when a young, rather leonine man caught and held my eyes from across a room. Though I lived simply even then, with scuffed shoes and jackets wearing out at the elbows, I could tell that he smelled money on me, and it drew him in, an irresistible force. To his credit, however, he seemed to be genuinely interested in me. Perhaps this was an act. I am uncertain to this day as to whether Dorian was ever attracted to me at all, or simply to my money. Sometimes I think there isn't any difference.
Once he had spotted me, at any rate, it was all over. I cared nothing for his motives; I only knew that he was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen and I wanted him. I loved him. When I discovered that he was as intelligent and cultured as he was attractive, I was truly lost. Suddenly, my savings were important only as a means of supporting Dorian in the lifestyle to which he was accustomed--and I didn't even mind! Anything, to keep that brilliant smile on his face.
We made love that first night, falling into each other's arms almost without a thought. At least, I didn't think about it, not then and not for quite some time afterward. He was so attentive, so enthusiastic, that it did not occur to me to analyze our relationship. We lived in his castle, surrounded by pretty boys, our own private kingdom, and he had eyes only for me. Thanks to my careful management of investments, we could have kept this up almost indefinitely.
We could have, that is, if I had managed to hold Dorian's interest. I am not sure precisely when the cracks began to show outwardly, but I know when I first noticed them myself. His gaze would linger too long on another man, or he'd touch one of the boys just so, pulling away when he noticed my eyes on him. Gradually, he began to spend less time in my bed. The constant stream of endearments he'd maintained for so long became sporadic. I found myself pleading with him, nearly grovelling for his attention, and I was disgusted at my own behavior.
Then he met the Major. In a heartbeat, everything changed.
I was still Dorian's "Jamesie", but he no longer wanted to touch me. Though he was more than happy to continue living off my money, he seemed to prefer not to acknowledge me at all. The hell of it was, I found, that I could live with it. Even when it had been so long that I could not remember the last time he'd made love to me, just being in his company was enough. I lived for the occasional brush of his hand, for the word or two of praise when he noticed (as he rarely did) that I'd worked some impressive bit of financial magic. And still, I never told anyone how I was funding his extravagant lifestyle. Dorian remained the only one that I loved more than my money, and so it seemed logical to continue lavishing it on him, even when I wasn't good enough for him anymore.
It was logical, yes, but difficult. His expenses had drastically increased since he'd become infatuated with the Major. Suddenly I was expected to fund a series of elaborate "coincidences" to keep him as much as possible within the sphere of his desire. Never mind that Uncle NATO, as we called him, was not only uninterested in Dorian, but violently repulsed by him! My lord would not be dissuaded.
As his lust increased, I found myself hard pressed to meet expenses, and so I began cutting corners wherever I could. With time, I grew more desperate; I took to rationing everyone's food and beginning to sell what I could. Anything to keep him happy. It hurt to see Dorian so taken with someone else, but I could bear it.
At least, I could until I became an object of his scorn. Incredibly, he had no appreciation for the economic gymnastics I went through daily for his sake. He had actually forgotten that it was my money that made his wishes come true, and he could not be made to see that the accounts did not replenish themselves. Thus, he could not understand why I went into minor hysterics over his shopping sprees and impromptu vacations. Soon he began to ridicule me and to allow the others to do the same. He used my love of money to manipulate me, supplementing this occasionally with vague, sexually charged promises that he never intended to keep. All I wanted was for our life together to return to the way it used to be when I'd thought Dorian loved me. Failing that, I would have settled for civility between us. But it seemed that I could have neither.
I needed solitude both to hide my pain and to keep Dorian from inflicting more. Eventually, I took to spending much of my time in the basement of the castle. No one else seemed inclined to venture down there, so I could explore at my leisure. I soon discovered that the basement encompassed an area significantly smaller than the castle itself. There were no catacombs or oubliettes, no subterranean lake haunted by a ghost in a gondola--no romantic features at all, in fact, which was likely why Dorian paid it no mind. Instead, there was simply a large central chamber, empty but for a number of stone pillars connected by arches. Short corridors led out of the chamber to several smaller rooms, some of which were also connected to each other. These proved to be very convenient places for establishing secret caches of money. I told myself, as I carefully replaced each stone I'd prised from the floor, that these were for emergency use, but knew that I had no intention of spending any of it. It was time to start attempting to replace what I had lost to Dorian's seemingly limitless appetites.
Often, in the course of my underground ramblings, I would come upon large numbers of rats that apparently occupied the basement. I suppose the others would have said they "infested" it, but that seemed much too harsh a word, especially for such intelligent creatures. I fed them scraps on occasion, and some of the bolder ones began following me on my trips above stairs, and even around the town! I rather enjoyed this, as they were more pleasant company than the rest of the household. Certainly they were more appreciative of what I did for them. The boys took to calling me "The Rat King", which never failed to make Dorian laugh. I didn't mind that very much. It was better than most of the other names they had for me. Besides, I owed my rats a debt of gratitude: they had shown me a way out of the intolerable situation in which I had found myself.
One quiet autumn evening, when most of the boys had gone out on the town, Dorian remained behind. He seemed to be in one of his rare periods of melancholy, for I found him sitting alone in front of the library fire, a nearly empty brandy snifter cupped in his hand. I tried to approach him quietly, but he heard the rats squeaking at my feet and said, "Don't, Jamesie. I'm in no mood to be lectured tonight."
I stopped halfway between the doorway and his chair. Somewhat cowed, I replied, "I...I wasn't going to, my lord." He hadn't allowed me to call him by his name in quite some time. "It's just that I've found something. In the basement."
"This really isn't the time, James. I'm sure that it's fascinating, whatever it is--some old clothes, perhaps, or another rats' nest. Oh, I'll come and look," he added, cutting off my protest, "but not tonight. You're always so filthy when you come out of that basement, and besides, I'm in no mood to play games. Leave me alone."
He sounded so impatient that I wondered for a moment whether I had simply interrupted his mooning over Iron Klaus, or if there were something else afoot. "But my lord, this is something you'll want to see right away! I know you're not feeling quite yourself tonight, but I promise you, this will change everything. There's something down there more beautiful than anything you've ever stolen, something no one ever would have expected to find! I never would have uncovered it myself, if it hadn't been for the rats."
At that, he finally turned to look at me, though our eyes only met for a second before his gaze became distant and unfocused. "I wonder..." he began dreamily, setting the snifter on a table beside him. "My father used to tell me that our ancestors long ago had tucked away some of our most precious family treasures in hopes of protecting them from raiding parties. I used to go digging for them in the grounds when I was a child, but I never turned up more than a few old buttons and some broken crockery."
He rose to his feet, apparently having made a decision. "You may have stumbled upon something important, Jamesie. Well done." With a soft, well-manicured hand, he reached up and stroked my hair, a gesture he'd not made in weeks. It took a conscious effort on my part not to lean into his touch. "Take me there," he commanded, and I nodded mutely in response.
My legs were shaky and nearly numb as I led Dorian out of the library and down the long corridor toward the basement door. Passing by the kitchen was a bit of an ordeal, as we ran the risk of being spotted by Bonham, who was frequently to be found therein assembling a midnight snack. Happily, no one was there to see or to question us as I slipped through the door to the dimly lit stone staircase, Dorian following close behind.
The way he looked around him as we stepped into the basement's central chamber told me that Dorian likely had not been down there in many years. The wine cellar was located elsewhere, so he had no reason to come this way. So much the better. "Where is it, Jamesie?" he was asking.
"Come with me," I said, and took his hand on impulse. He twitched slightly, as if he were inclined to pull away, but he did not resist.
I led him into another room, then down a corridor and into the next chamber. Another passageway followed. It was so dark that one could barely see anything at all. I never would have noticed the tunnel entrance along one wall, all those weeks ago, had I not been crawling along with my rats. I pulled Dorian toward the tunnel now, quietly warning him to duck his head. The ceiling there was at quite a comfortable height for me, but about six inches too low for him. I could hear his breath quicken with excitement.
We walked down the long, straight, narrow passage for what seemed to be quite some time, but I had learned that this was just an effect of the darkness. I had placed several candles ahead of us, and it was not long before Dorian pushed ahead of me, moving impatiently toward the light. I nearly had to run to keep pace with him.
When the stone floor gave way to dirt and the tunnel expanded into a small room, Dorian stopped. The tension was almost palpable as his anticipation gave way to bewilderment and then anger. Though he stood with his back to me, I could picture his expression of cold fury. "What is this, James? There's nothing at all here! If you just wanted to be alone with me, you should have said so. Now you've wasted my time, and I was waiting--"
I never did find out what he was waiting for. A sharp blow with a shovel to the back of his head neatly arrested his speech. He crumpled to the floor without a sound.
Not knowing how much time I would have before Dorian awoke, I could not allow myself even a brief moment of triumph. Even as he fell, I was dropping the shovel and stepping forward to pick him up again. With some difficulty, I dragged him to the far wall, where two metal rings had been driven into the stone centuries ago. To each was attached a new length of chain with a heavy manacle on the end: dungeon equipment is surprisingly easy to acquire these days, though the assumed purpose is different than it used to be. I maneuvered Dorian into a seated position against the wall, lifting his arms over his head to snap the manacles onto his wrists.
With this accomplished, I turned back toward the end of the tunnel. A pile of stones and a large quantity of mortar sat off to one side, where I'd decided he would be less likely to notice them. Humming softly to myself, I took up a rusty trowel and began to work.
As I laid the first few tiers, an unfamiliar feeling gradually came over me. I realized that I was happy, a state that I had not experienced in quite some time. It was only natural, of course. My beloved rats had provided me not only with unconditional friendship, but also with a perfect solution to the various problems that had plagued me since things had changed between me and Dorian. Now I would have him all to myself again; there would be no other men to claim his attention, no Major to stir his lust. I would be the last to gaze upon his loveliness--and had I not told him that this chamber held something far more beautiful than any of his acquisitions?
By the time I placed the final stone some time later, I felt nothing but the utmost serenity. I looked through the gap I'd left in the wall, just big enough for me to see the man inside if I held up a candle. Dorian had not yet awakened. Knowing that there couldn't be much time left, I hurried back through the tunnel and up the stairs. I wanted to be neat and clean and perfectly composed when next he saw me.
Unexpected noises from the other side of the basement door stopped me partway up the stairs. Hurried footsteps, a voice calling out--"Eroica! Where are you?" The Major was here! "You asked me to come here, you damned thief--here I am!" he shouted. "What kind of game are you playing?" I listened to him for several minutes, my heart pounding, convinced that he would discover me at any moment. But Uncle NATO did not check the basement. He tromped from room to room throughout the main floor of the castle, but found nothing and no one. I heard him climb the stairs and supposed that he must be checking the bedrooms, though I couldn't imagine why he might expect Dorian to wait for him there. An eternity later, he left, storming out the door and swearing copiously.
I ran to a window in time to see the taillights of his Benz moving down the long drive. He had come alone. Interesting. I could only guess at what Dorian's plans for the evening had been, but that didn't matter anymore.
Returning to my own room, I shed my patchwork suit, now caked with mortar, and ran a much-needed hot bath. I lingered in the steaming water, scrubbing myself meticulously, wanting to be perfect for him. When at last I'd begun to feel ready, I dressed myself in a slightly nicer suit. On the way back to my treasure, I stopped by the kitchen for a glass of water, which I carried down to the basement with me.
Once again, my walk down the tunnel was conducted in silence. As I drew closer to its end, however, a series of low moans became audible. Good, he was just beginning to come around. I stopped in front of the peephole I'd left myself and waited.
"Jamesie?" Dorian muttered weakly. "Is that you? What's happened?"
"Drink this," was my only reply. I was just barely able to get the glass through the hole, tilting it for his convenience. He obeyed, gulping the water and spilling a little on himself. When I was satisfied that a sufficient amount had actually made it into his mouth, I withdrew my hand and brought a candle close to my face so that we could see each other.
He was so frantic, so beautiful in his fear and confusion. I would have painted him myself if I'd had the talent or the inclination. "Where am I, James? What have you done?"
I decided to explain everything. There was no need to hide any longer. Smiling beatifically, I said, "You're in the basement beneath the castle, my lord. You're with me now. Only me."
"This is a joke," he said, though he didn't sound very sure of that. "Let me go now and I'll laugh with you later, upstairs. We don't have to tell any of the others that this ever happened; it can be our secret." He was pleading now, and tears threatened to spill over the rims of his brilliant sapphire eyes. "Release me, James! Tell me that it's only a joke!"
I laughed softly. "I could never lie to you, my lord. Dorian. I am more serious tonight than I've ever been before. Things haven't been right between us for a long time. We used to be so happy, but now... Well, it's not all your fault. You can't help being what you are, being so irresistible to everyone around you, and so prone to distraction by lovely young men." I was so pleased that I felt as if I might burst.
"I've taken you away from all that," I continued. "No more pretty boys competing for your attention. No more throwing away money--my money, if you recall--on frivolities. No more unworthy men lusting after you, no Major to confuse things. He was at the castle tonight; I know you must have called him here." I paused, regaining control of my voice. "I forgive you, Dorian. And he won't bother us any longer. You belong to me. You always have. You just forgot that for a while."
When I stepped away from the gap in the stones, Dorian began to scream. I waited patiently until he took a breath. "Yell all you want," I told him, "no one can hear you." And he did, shouting until he was hoarse and I worried that he might actually injure himself. Happily, he stopped soon after, seemingly having reached the limits of his reserve.
"James!" he called, his voice still rough. "Don't leave me. Please. I'll do anything; just let me go!"
I paused in the act of turning back toward the tunnel. "I love you, Dorian," I said. "My beautiful, buried treasure."
That was more than two weeks ago, and still, no one is the wiser. No plunderers have chanced upon my hoard; Dorian is safe.
The others, naturally, have panicked. Many of the boys have left, but Bonham and Jones have been assisting the police in investigating the disappearance of the Earl of Gloria. It seems that several witnesses observed a Mercedes-Benz speeding away from the castle on the last night he was seen alive. Given the number of people who have heard the Major threaten Eroica's life, it did not take long for the police to make the connection. Uncle NATO is now under investigation. Even his own men have turned against him, all save the steadfast Mr. Z.
I have blocked off most of the entrance to our tunnel, leaving barely enough room for me to crawl inside. Only my rats and I can find it now; the police have passed it by at least twice. Nor have they uncovered my little hoards scattered throughout the basement. They are growing rapidly now that I no longer have such a drain on my finances. When Bonham and Jones eventually go their separate ways, I should be able to support the two of us here quite easily. Knowing how eccentric I am, no one is likely to think much of the loyal Stingy Bug staying behind in the castle, waiting for his master to return.
I visited Dorian daily at first, bringing him food and water, reminding him that I love him. Now I cannot always manage it so frequently, but I go as often as I can. Never do I feel so much at peace as when I watch him through that gap in the wall. Dorian grows more pale by the day, and his hair, once blindingly bright, has become dull and stringy. Though I offer him food, he does not always eat, and so he has grown thinner, all excess flesh melting away, stripping him down to his essential elements. He no longer screams or even speaks. He is more lovely, more perfect than ever.
And he is all mine. Only my eyes now gaze upon him. Only my heart is seized with joy at the sight of him; only my body feels the slow, warm uncoiling of lust as I watch him move there in the darkness.
One day I may not be able to visit my love any longer. One day I may forget him, as he once forgot about me. When that time comes, he will surely die, for he can no more survive without me now than I could have lived without him in those long-ago days of our romance. But even in death, he will still be mine. Only mine. My love. My tormentor. My treasure. Forever.