Of course Ven was seated next to him, but it was Antia who sat directly across the table, with her cleavage and escort, and said, "I would love to see it," smiling.
"What?" Ven and Van both said.
"Oh, of course." They exchanged cards over wineglasses and candles, a mutual brushing of skin.
Vanity leaned closer to Antia, said something to make her laugh and blush and, under the table, under his boot, he crushed a plastic vial of aphids. These cost a lot of money and came from the same secret government storehouses as anthrax and smallpox.
the war of
This was not the worst thing he'd ever done—and not a rare thing for him, either. Everywhere Vanity Florentin went, people always seemed to lose their flowers and were left with only the vague sense that he'd had something to do with it. He had some like-minded friends. "I'm going out for a few hours," he said to Ven, in their home. "Where's my cedar box?" He couldn't find it anywhere.
"I put it on top of the wardrobe," she answered, turning the page of her magazine. Florentin found it, opened it. Took out, loaded, and primed the dueling pistols it contained, put them in his belt underneath his cloak. "Good-bye, dear!" he called, sailing out the door. Into a night warmed by a full moon under which he met Cohorts. They carried burlap sacks and each wore one over their faces. They hid among stone statues in one of the public parks, laid down beside topiaries that were surrounded by electrified razor-wire.
They waited for gentlemen and ladies to wander along and jumped out in surprise. Florentin said to one couple, "Five minutes of your time, please," which made them pale. Five minutes was a fortune, a week's wages to a workingman. The man fumbled with the carnation at his chest, then dropped his hand defiantly. Florentin aimed his pistol at the center of the red flower, cocked it; too much for the lady—she screamed and ran, but one of Florentin's Cohorts tripped her. They found a cluster of baby's breath in her purse and the carnation went into Florentin's bag.
So it went, up gutters and down spouts they clattered through rock gardens and tracked across sand gardens, chasing desperate flowers clasped to chests, or stuffed in mouths, or tucked behind ears. Some of the Cohorts were rich and addicted, others were simply poor and hungry, but all caught the scent of blossoms on the wind and could not be consoled until daylight sent them scattering. Sometimes Florentin would break away from them to bound across silhouette roofs like a spring-heel, eliciting purrs from tired pigeons—the sack of flowers in his hand would let escape a faint pleasure that drifted into open windows, would make the sleepers smile and, beneath his canvas, Florentin's rictus would smile back at them, and then he'd be gone. If a light sleeper heard his clack clack through a garden and rose to shine a light out a window, it would fall upon a forest of still figures, statues. He wouldn't notice Florentin the Scareman among them, wouldn't notice that its pale cloth face looked up at him, smelling for the boutonniere on the coat thrown over a chair back.
When Florentin and his Cohorts returned to their homes, they carried sacks of riches and youth, and it pillowed their dreams.
Ven wasn't awake when Florentin came in the door, so he opened his loot in the kitchen downstairs, a cascade of rubies and emeralds that fell in a shush. He cupped the red carnation in his hands, inhaled it, chewed its outer edges. This was the part he watched the mirrors for—in the setting moonlight his already youthful features tautened, his hair darkened and shone, the skin smoothed. Ever so slightly. He had just unaged five minutes.
Florentin gorged himself in the kitchen until Ven, awakened by the smell, came downstairs and flicked on the light. She saw the Scareman face hanging from the coat-tree but said nothing. Florentin said, "Somebody's growing old tonight."