The necklace had belonged to the last queen of Italy. She’d received it as a gift on the day of her marriage to a king she never bothered to love, and by that evening, its fifty emeralds and colorless diamonds were already glowing with the eternal light of her lie. She’d worn it in public only twice. Once on the day of her coronation, when as intended it overpowered her gray, serpent’s eyes, and then once again, a single month later, on the day she gave up the throne with a sigh. Later, her daughter, the princess Maribel, had draped it around her long mare’s neck for sordid parties in the grottoes of Capri, then paid small fortunes to have the cocaine and tobacco stains removed. It wasn’t the oldest piece in the auction, but thanks to its illustrious public history, it certainly was the most prized. Even so: despite so many attentive bidders, only one person in the ballroom cared that the necklace had once belonged to someone other than the family of the queen, only one person who knew, in fact, that many years before, it had been the last of the dowry jewels pawned by Arianne Belmont de Comtois’s great-grandmother. Of course, that person was Arianne herself, and as the emeralds glimmered on the dais, it took every ounce of her poise and elegance to hide the resentment which smoldered in her matching green eyes.
It wasn’t customary to see such mythical, exquisite pieces displayed in all their glory, and as the necklace glimmered with its own inner light, Arianne Belmont de Comtois noted all the bidders shifting in their seats. She smiled at a matronly Chinese woman whose black crocodile bag, proud demeanor, and unfortunate teeth indicated her status as an exiled coal boss’s wife. She radiated grace toward the seventh daughter of a Macanese casino owner. As the bids climbed skyward, Arianne waited, tapping a patient fingernail on her teeth. Two fifty. Three hundred.
Sofia Pepoli, the Heirloom Director from Buccellati, gave Arianne a suspicious glance. Four. Five. “If you lose, will you cry?” she whispered from the side of her mouth.
“I have never once cried in my life,” Arianne said. And then she raised her paddle.
“Six hundred thousand! To Madame Belmont de Comtois of Van Cleef and Arpels!”
The ballroom tottered on a hush of breath, for no other bidder had been called by name. Everyone assumed that Arianne’s maison would pay any price to reclaim its creation, and on the screen above, a cipher of dollars and yuan confirmed their belief. The auctioneer spread his hands in presentation. The entire room waited. The Chinese woman spat: Seven hundred!
Arianne felt a hardening of her heart, though her ballerina’s posture and radiant smile gave no such indication. Her delegated limit was eight hundred thousand, and never once in her entire career had Arianne Belmont de Comtois missed her mark. Yet, at the same time, she’d never had the chance to bid on a piece that, were it not for the vagaries of history, war, and fallen noble houses, should have been hers by right. In her mind, she did rapid calculations. Beneath a pale pink chandelier, the auctioneer lingered. Going once. He held Arianne with his eyes. Going twice.
“One million euro,” said Arianne Belmont de Comtois.
At her voice’s dissolution, the ballroom filled with a breath of champagne and a shuffle of paper that sounded like birds taking flight. The matronly coal queen’s face burned red despite her pipe-clay makeup, and she cursed in a loan shark’s dialect as she thumbed through her platinum phone.
Yes, Arianne had done her homework. She knew that the woman had already won an Egyptian tiara, an amethyst brooch, and a Yugoslavian princess’s choker encrusted with Romanov pearls.
The audience leaned on the edge of their chairs. The coal queen grumbled, her funds gone dry, and shoved her phone into her bag.
“And sold! Returned to the timeless and providential hands of its maker!”
As the audience released its collective breath, Arianne Belmont de Comtois reacted with no signs of triumph or relief. She remained in her seat as the auctioneer introduced a seven-carat blue diamond ring, hearing nothing, seeing nothing, poised as though she were balancing a chalice of Eucharistic wine on her head. In the quiet of her mind, she ignored the pressing concerns of logistics, notarized purchasing reports and armed guards, and instead let herself be transported back to the brutal garden behind the chateau where twenty generations of her family had lived and three had died in shame. In a communicant’s dress of faded white lace, she strolled barefoot past a crumbling dovecote, through sun-stained canopies and parterres of marguerite and cool April winds rising up from empty pastures of alpine sage. She listened to the whinnies of the gaunt bay silvers, whose muscled forebears had propelled the armies of Napoleon himself, but in her lifetime had only been bred for horsemeat. In the stillness of her memory, Arianne Belmont de Comtois savored a world as yet unconquered by the past, with its melancholy shadows and rosemary scents, where the only tears were written by Bach and played by her mother on a ghostly violin, and it wasn’t until she heard a small cough that Arianne opened her eyes and returned to Hong Kong.
“Oh, so now you will bid on something for yourself?” Sofia Pepoli sniggered.
Arianne’s luminous smile was empty.
“No,” she said, rising from her seat. “There is nothing left here but trash.”
Later that evening, Arianne Belmont de Comtois sat in the dimmest corner of a sensuous bar overlooking Victoria Harbor. Clouds rose-stained by the setting sun had been replaced by an ocean of ash, imparting a dullness to the neon jewels of the city’s neverending skyline. The waters below churned in fetid labor. A cruise ship dappled with yellow fairy lights slid quietly across the murk as if manned by ghosts. Reflected in massive floor-to-ceiling windows, the glassy luminaires of the hotel bar threatened Arianne with nervous visions, though her second glass of Châteauneauf-du-Pape went down like breathing. With the clarity of alcohol, she ignored the many conversations around her, each in the same smug bank worker’s accent and each at a volume more suited for the jockey club. She focused. She checked the time. Seated at the bar, a beautiful Asian man glanced across his shoulder. Arianne allowed him a wanton glimpse of her eyes. The time was 8:35.
At that very moment, an armored van attempted maneuvers on the anarchic highways of the city. It should have reached the airport twenty minutes prior, but in order to avoid the dangerously gridlocked cross-harbor tunnel, where motorbike riders flashing butcher’s cleavers were known to lurk on occasion, the van had detoured past the ports and swamps of the Old Territories. Arianne glanced at the single bright dot pulsing blue on the digital map on her tablet, and the moment it finally arrived at the terminal, she lifted a finger and slowly, deliberately, ordered another glass of wine. She would need it. How else could she smother the burden of her secret, that the necklace in the van was a fake?
Arianne bit the corner of her lip. She reviewed all the delicate minutiae of her plan, the sequence of lies she’d pondered and memorized for nine long months, how she’d set up anonymous vendor’s accounts, then purchased the worthless green bottle glass which had been reshaped into a perfect forgery by the hands of an allegedly sightless Chinese master. How perfect, that the costume jeweler had been blind! Truly, then, there could be no trail, no incriminating links, and for the first time in nearly a century, the necklace would belong to the female heir of the family who’d had it commissioned, once upon a time.
This had always been her dream. As a child, Arianne had attended local schools, but unlike her brothers, she never claimed that her father was just a simple farmer, nor felt uncomfortable admitting that she went home daily to an ancient chateau. When the village boys followed her along the dirt road, lifting their noses impossibly high in scathing mockery, Arianne felt only scorn. She possessed no tears with which to cry. Instead, she would stand in the dusty parlor, staring at her great-grandmother’s wedding portrait, and the wondrous emeralds coiled around her neck. When she’d asked her mother where the necklace was held, that frail, pretty woman, thinning of hair and pallid as the light of dusk, had smiled with an emptiness that was terrifying, then retreated to her violin. It was her father who told the story and explained the concept of debt, which she must always avoid. That night, her mother played Bach’s second Passion for four hours longer than usual. Six months later, she died.
Thus distracted by the past and the present, Arianne hardly noticed as the beautiful Asian man stood up from the bar, and with the grace of a danseur noble, moved to intercept the waiter carrying her wine.
“My apologies, madame,” he said. “But I’m afraid there has been a mistake.”
Arianne blinked, showing no sign of being impressed by his timid boy’s smile, his angular features of a biracial prince, and his perfectly manicured hands.
The man drew a breath that was tinged with embarrassment, then he hung Arianne’s empty glass between his fingers, took the bottle from the waiter, and poured.
“In this bar, angels are only allowed to be alone for their first two drinks.”
Arianne gazed with a blank expression. He was dressed in a black Italian suit slim cut for his swimmer’s physique, and a rumpled and thoughtlessly unbuttoned shirt that revealed a collarbone the color of antique copper. She’d already noticed his Ferragamo loafers, and the Glashütte watch peeking out of his cuff, but only now could she fully identify the remnants of a rakish beauty, that kind most prized by teenage girls, which had been reshaped into a timeless charm on the doorstep of middle age.
“I’m afraid the mistake is yours,” Arianne said, gracefully receiving the glass. “The prostitutes are in the lobby bar.”
The man could only laugh as Arianne immediately went back to her tablet. Perched on the edge of the taut leather sofa, with her equestrienne’s back geometrically straight and her chestnut hair in a frame about her face, she projected the aura of disaffected nun certifying a ledger book of sins. Yet to her surprise, the man didn’t leave. Instead, he stood waiting with a smile of bemusement as Arianne ignored him in favor of her work. He coughed. She sighed. Time dawdled in the candles. Yet, in the next instant, Arianne received an encrypted message that read Delivery confirmed, and amid a surge of delicious self-assurance, she gulped down her wine, formed an image of emeralds behind her chanteuse’s eyes, then turned to the man still standing aside and said, “Well?”
“I can’t possibly go to bed with a man who doesn’t drink.”
The man’s full mouth assembled slowly, surprised by the ease with which he’d embarked on a journey of perilous love. “What makes you think I’m that easy?” he said, spinning his fingers at the waiter to bring another glass, then drawing out a chair.
“What man in the world isn’t so?” she said, then, “Who are you again?” But the man refused to respond. He only watched, savoring without shame her tomboy’s features, her tongue on her teeth, and the pale, serene lines of her legs. When at last the waiter finished pouring two glasses, the man raised his into the air and spoke.
“Alexander Lihong Li...chin chin.”
Their glasses clinked. Alexander Lihong Li held her gaze.
“American?” she said.
“That obvious, is it?”
“I hate Americans.”
“But they’re so delicious.”
“Are they?” Arianne Belmont de Comtois said as she sipped at her wine.
The charming man waved away a trio of accomplices seated at the bar, and in the diaphanous minutes that followed, Arianne rewarded herself by ignoring her mobile phone, her early morning flight back to Paris, and the pragmatism of spending the night alone. She listened without caring as Alexander Li described how his immigrant Taiwanese parents had moved to Boston for medical school, how he wasn’t, in fact, biracial at all, though his finely cut nose and dark opal eyes indicated some alchemy of blood in his past, and how he’d attended a lofty private college where he majored in Art with an undeclared minor in “Amor and Metaphor in French.” For a time he’d lived on the Rue Carpeaux among painters and heroin addicts, and now was a sculptor ashamed by the recent exhibition of his work in a gallery on Hollywood Road. “For nothing is more cliché,” he said, “than an artist ashamed of his success.” Arianne agreed, licking her lips as he thumbed the stem of his glass.
“A successful sculptor should have rough hands, no?”
For a moment Alexander looked surprised, curling his fingers to his palms. Yet then his expression lapsed slowly to a smile and he said, “I suppose I haven’t worked much lately.”
“No work...all play?”
“Just waiting on a muse.”
Arianne smiled, then uncrossed and recrossed her legs.
Despite telling herself that she was only interested in a feast of throwaway love, the truth of the wine and her perpetual loneliness soon made Arianne a willing victim to Alexander’s unhurried charm, and from that point on, their conversation flowed uninterrupted. By the time a second bottle was opened, she’d almost forgotten the emerald necklace which had haunted her dreams for so long, and instead found herself enchanted by the languid artist before her, if only for the way he refused to speak poorly of the garish investors who profited from his work. She grew embarrassed upon realizing that through some witchery of patience and listening, he’d enticed her to tell the story of the morning, in the flowering of youth, when she’d withheld tears as her father spanked her for dancing to Bach in the nude. And when next she described, without innuendo, her love for bareback gallops in the woods, and Alexander only smiled at his glass and allowed the candlelight to flicker in his eyes, Arianne Belmont de Comtois realized she was drunk on more than the wine. It was only then, much later than expected, that Alexander asked what she did.
“I bury the dead,” she said, pleased by the cryptic response.
“Well then,” he calmly replied, his gaze never wavering as he clinked her glass. “Let’s bury them together.”
And so they did, falling through the door of her hotel room like apostates shedding their robes. By some strange miracle, he tasted like cinnamon, and Arianne found herself laughing as she smeared lipstick across his mouth with her fingers. When his perfect hands pinned her up against the mirror, she amazed herself by licking the glass. Then livid with the effects of the fierce Rhônish wine which is known to halt time in its tracks, Arianne shoved Alexander on the bed and made him watch as she removed her dress with a painfully deliberate slowness. The silk tulle skirt pooled around her ankles, revealing a body as pale as the moon but all the more astonishing for its well-preserved youth. Serenely, she leaned on the credenza and removed her ankle strap heels, and Alexander breathed in her naked form with the childish awe of a poet, and Arianne laughed. She began to chide him as she fell on her knees to unburden him of his clothes, but then, all at once, she found herself amazed. “Putain, even your erection is charming!” Eagerly, then, Arianne began her slow act of benefaction, but soon realized with a touch of anger that Alexander Li was distracted.
“What is it?” she scolded, following the path of his startled gaze.
“What...is that?” he stammered.
Through the graveyard darkness of the hotel room, the wardrobe emitted a green witchlight from its hinges and the seams between its doors. On the glass partition of the shower stall, the glow began to ripple and pulse. Alexander’s gaze flitted back and forth, from the eerie light to Arianne, who thanks to the wine and against her better judgment, sat back on her heels with a knowing and malevolent smile.
“It belonged to the last queen of Italy.”
She rose to her feet and drifted through the darkness. She opened the heavy wardrobe doors, and the safe contained inside. Then as the light flowed out into the room in the fullness of its splendor, Arianne’s naked, coltish body appeared to be submerged in mossy lake water, and she knew that her lucid eyes were flaring in the exact same emerald hue.
She dangled the necklace from her finger.
Alexander’s mouth was agape.
“Where’d you get it?”
“It’s been in my family...for generations.”
“Are you a princess?”
“Perhaps,” she grinned.
Alexander licked his lips.
“Put it on.”
And so she did, fastening the clasps behind her neck, then reclining on the bed to display the timeless exquisiteness of her middle-aged body. Her green eyes followed Alexander’s every move as the artist, unwilling to look away, reached behind him for the bottle of wine sitting open on the desk, then emptied it over Arianne’s stomach and the necklace and her upturned mouth. She gasped. He grabbed her by the throat. And then with an utter disregard for safety, they lost themselves to a devastating love that, in Arianne’s mind, unwrote the past and absolved her of all her sin.
Before she woke, Arianne dreamed. She found herself alone in the garden of her youth, strolling amid a cloud of butterflies whose wings were glossy and white. She was wearing the necklace, but its size had been diminished, so as to suit perfectly an eight-year-old girl on the day of her coronation. Bach’s second Passion for violin drifted past the curtains of the parlor, and in the distance, the valley thundered with the hooves of a stampede of horses. Arianne attempted to catch the butterflies, but each and every one turned to tiny pearls that slipped through her delicate hands. Feeling disappointed that no one had come to congratulate her, she tromped across the lilacs and past the dovecote, then narrowed her eyes as she came to the pasture and saw the bay silvers running savagely away. A tremendous sadness washed over her then, even as she refused to cry, for amid the lilting of the violin, the alpine pasture was burning to ash, lit by a white and violent sun that filled the entire sky.
Arianne wrenched her face from the window and the translucent drapes aflame in the coastal morning. Her head was aching. Her body throbbed in unfamiliar places. But even so, as she lay on the bed in the fetal position, Arianne felt a strange and formless peace. Blinking her eyes in the white gauze of dawn, she saw that she was alone in bed, then heard the sound of running water behind the foggy glass partition. “Alexander?” she yawned, wishing that the artist had possessed the good sense to sneak away. Arching her back and stretching her limbs, Arianne realized that a knotted bed sheet dangled from her wrist, and then she began to remember all the movements of the night’s surprising and rarefied opus of love. Suppressing a smile, she placed a fingertip against her temple as if to dispel the aching within, then searched the disarrayed room for a bottle of water. Finding nothing, she rose from the bed, and it was only then that Arianne noticed her mobile phone, which shook on the nightstand with five missed calls and a cascade of angry texts.
Arianne, are you awake?
The necklace is a fake.
Arianne it’s a counterfeit!
Madame Belmont de Comtois! If you value your career I suggest you call at once!
For a moment then, Arianne grinned. She remembered how she’d plotted her alibi, then seduced Alexander with her emerald eyes so as to make the fiction real. Then as she untied the sheet from her wrist, and savored the invincible feeling of her secret triumph, Arianne Belmont de Comtois realized that her story, when finally she picked up the phone, would only be strengthened by the presence of her lover in the room. Thus, she strolled to the hissing shower to entice him to linger for awhile.
But to her surprise, the bathroom was empty. Water poured from stone ceiling panels in a torrent of burning rain, and the walls were dripping and the mirrors obscured by billowing clouds of steam. “Putain,” said Arianne, not surprised that after all, he had been smart enough to sneak away before she woke. Shaking her head, she slid past the scalding streams of water, turned off the flow, then stepped back out onto a towel. For a moment she considered washing off herself, but it was getting late and Paris would expect her to have already called. So instead, she only wiped the mirror clean and began to examine the state of her exhausted body. A sticky residue of wine stained her skin, and her hair was a barbaric mess. She had bite marks strewn across her limbs, though none anywhere, she realized, relieved, that couldn’t be easily concealed. Then as she examined all the other hidden places on the long, white vales of her body, Arianne noticed her pale, bare neck, and was struck by a troubling realization: She couldn’t remember returning the necklace to the safe.
Slowly, she turned to peer at the door with its Do Not Disturb light aglow. The throbbing redoubled in her head. “Alexander?” But still, there was no response. “Alexander Li?” The only sounds were the creaking of the maid’s cart trundling in the hall, a plunk of water on shower tiles, and the faint din of car horns braying on the harbor road. With a rising feeling of desperation, she approached the wardrobe and opened the safe, but inside found only her passport, and then grew sick. With fanatical urgency, she tore apart the room, flinging the blankets from their heaps on the floor, pulling out drawers and upending her suitcase and scattering the faint dust underneath the chairs, but despite her efforts, the emerald necklace was nowhere to be found. Uttering then a wild, desperate sob, Arianne heaved herself upon the bed which was stained absolutely with wine. The morning light in the window was savage. The throbbing in her head synchronized with the buzzing of her phone. Then smeared with crimson and stinking of sweat, as a hundred terrifying possibilities fought with each other in her mind, Arianne Belmont de Comtois discovered a handwritten note tucked underneath her pillow, and thus experienced the desolate abandonment of one who has just been raped.
Dear Madame Belmont de Comtois,
Thank you for a night I’ll never forget. My blind uncle, the jeweler, sends his regards.
With all due love,
Alexander Lihong Li
p.s. Good little girls shouldn’t play such unsavory games, or didn’t you know?
She stared at the crisp stationery for a measure of time that had no end. She stared at the ornamental, feminine script, even as the words grew mottled by her tears, and eventually had to admit to herself that the calligraphic hand belonged not to a sculptor, but a beautiful thief. In this way, Arianne Belmont de Comtois let herself succumb to the bitterness and sorrow of four generations, and in so doing, finally learned to weep for all she’d ever lost. In the bright white glare of the chastising sun, she wept through the ringing of the telephone, through the cries of the maid, and even through the beating of her own tortured heart as policemen pounded on the door. When they charged into the room with their handguns drawn, and discovered her lying on a bed of wine-stained tears, even then, Arianne Belmont de Comtois wept, not as a woman in a foreign hotel but as a child with her face in her hands, in a faded, lace dress spilled among dewy weeds, listening to the sounds of a madwoman’s frail, dying fingers on an antique violin, and their echoes of Bach which would linger through the centuries, ever and again rewriting the past indelibly in the lines of her name.