УHe knew that some faces were more beautiful, intelligent and purer, yet he also knew that there was no other face in the world that had such power over him. And wasnТt he the one to endow it with such power?Ф
ЧErich Maria Remarque
Three days later, the EmperorТs carriage was once again racing towards the village where Daniel Adamson lived and worked.
LaraТs legs could barely hold her up because of the onerous worries. As soon as she entered the physicianТs cabinet, she nearly collapsed onto the chair.
The Emperor stood behind JuТs back, and both had their eyes fixed on Daniel.
Finally, the young man shrugged and announced with a smile, УThe tests have positively shown that the madam is in good health.Ф
Lara jumped up from the chair and turned around to look at her lover. They were afraid to rejoice, but the joy was simply bursting out of them.
УReally?! Could it be?! God! IТm healthy, Daniel?!Ф
УAre you sure?Ф Antonio kept double-checking.
It turned out that all these years, Lara has been tormented by fear in vain.
УFrom now on, you should always listen to the voices of two СorgansТ,Ф the physician advised her, УYour heart and your intuition.Ф
УIntuition is an organ?Ф Lara asked, laughing.
УIt is!Ф Daniel smiled. He put his hand on his chest, УAlthough invisible, intuition is the second most powerful organ, surpassed only by the heart.Ф
The happy couple couldnТt wait to celebrate the Уrecovery.Ф They rushed to their secret castle and as soon as they flung open the doors of the bedroom, they forgot about everythingЧthe worries, the jealousy, and the grudges. Antonio ravaged his lover like a sea captain who has just returned from a long voyage, starved for a womanТs affection, while she laughed, showing off her even, shining teeth. The Emperor tore off her clothes until reaching the ill-fated birthmark.
УYou silly thing, why on earth did you hide this marvelous velvet treasure?Ф he asked, kissing JuТs back all over. УI adore every little crack, every rough surface and every uneven speck on you. My love, I am crazy about your СflawsТ just as much as your charms. Do you believe me? Really, do you?! ThatТs what true love isЕФ Antonio kept muttering, as if delirious.
Lara removed the remains of her clothing herself and contentedly stretched her entire body out on the bed sheet.
УKiss me, AntonioЕ Kiss all of meЕФ
Once they had their fill of lovemaking, the lovers fell fast asleep, wearing sweet smiles of two people who have just experienced a miracle.
They slept till evening. Antonio opened his eyes when the sun was about to begin its descent. The last scarlet rays made their way inside through the cracks between the curtains. Lara breathed heavily, her face buried into the pillow. Her sleep was careless and sound, like a childТs. She was no longer embarrassed of anything and lay on the bed in the position she loved mostЧon her stomach. The bunched up blanket barely covered her.
AntonioТs eyes found her velvety mark. In the sunlight, the tiny golden hairs opalized as if they were nacreous. Feasting his eyes on the discovery, the manТs eyes moved to the scattered birthmarks under her left shoulder blade, and then to her delicate white wristsЕ LaraТs fingers were thin, but not as long as ElizabethТs.
Antonio suddenly trembled, wondering why he was constantly followed by his wifeТs image. He gently put his lips on JuТs soft hair. This was probably the first time he was looking at her so closely and for so long. The usually unnoticeable details now seemed magnified.
Antonio noticed a broken nail on her pinky finger, which was tiny and not as oval as his wifeТs. Her face was slightly squished from being buried in the pillow, and a line of wrinkles stretched towards her ear. The observer suddenly realized that her auricle reminded him of an embryo, and the ear lobeЕ He winced. LaraТs ear lobe was large, even somewhat deformed.
УDamnnn! What is going on with me? Devil, donТt do this to me! DonТt gnaw at my imagination! Let me enjoy my quietude!Ф the Emperor entreated himself. УStop looking at the things that repel you! No beauty in the world can be perfect!Ф Antonio forced himself to turn away from LaraТs ear, but now he had an urge to see something ugly and repulsive in her.
In the morning he once again noticed some barely perceptible signs of deformity in LaraТs beauty. This shocking revelation weighed down on the Emperor, never easing its grip. Yesterday his attention was drawn to LaraТs oversized ear lobe, and now her white foot soles invitingly beckoned him from under the blanket, although devoid of the aristocratic delicacy that ElizabethТs petite feet possessed.
Yes, these were trivial details, but Antonio had always valued precisely the details. He loved to find aesthetic beauty in them. His particular fetishes were toes, slender ankles and sharp hipbones.
Antonio noticed long ago that LaraТs hip bones protruded excessively, although there was something attractive and touching about her sickly thin figure. But the soles of her feetЕ These were far from perfectЕ
УNo, no!Ф The Emperor rebuked himself. УThis nonsense shouldnТt get in loveТs way!Ф He curbed his qualms and then immediately concluded that if he were to start seeing Lara every day, the trivial details would definitely unnerve him, УdisenchantingФ his love once and for all. Besides, Ju will start aging soon and her face will be covered in unsparing wrinkles just like any other.
Elizabeth already had the first fine lines around her eyes, although all the details that Antonio cared about remained unchanged. Nevertheless, Antonio lost the feeling of attraction to his wife. She was no longer a sweet treat to him, becoming reduced to a mere friend and the mother of his children.
УAntonio,Ф the Emperor said to himself, УDonТt make this fateful mistake. If youТre going to replace the Empress, then replace her with a young beauty.Ф As soon as he thought this, he reproached himself for the treacherous idea. УNo, no!
I am in love! I love Lara! I love Eliz! Oh, God!Ф
Tormented by pangs of conscience, Antonio kissed the sleeping womanТs shoulders, neck and hair.
Lara slightly opened her puffy eyes, gently smiled and yawned.
Antonio forced himself to admire her the way one admires a child, yet he kept seeing repugnant images, which obtrusively came to the fore. He struggled to keep his imagination at bay and decided to take his pills before bedtime no matter what.
Lara was wearing a childish, open smile, УDarling, I know the perfect way for us to start this wonderful dayЕФ she murmured lazily.
УHow, sweetheart?Ф Antonio asked, feeling alarmed for some reason.
УTake me to the azure lake. LetТs go and enjoy the beauty of that heavenly placeЕ How do you like my idea?Ф She asked with a na;ve smile, not even suspecting what was brewing in AntonioТs soul.
УYouТveЕ seen the crystal lake?Ф
Without lifting her head from the pillow, Lara wound her arms around his neck and laughed like a little girl.
УYou wonТt believe it, honey! Last week I was driving down a forest road when I took a turn towards a meadow, and suddenly, I sawЧoh, such splendor! A castle, hidden away beyond the treetops. It was nothing short of a miracle. I immediately knew that this was the gift I had turned down till now. Silly me. LetТs go there and see it! I donТt want to refuse a gift of such beauty! You certainly know how to give a gift, my loveЕФ
She pulled the EmperorТs head close and started smothering it with tender kisses, letting her lips go wherever they pleased, which always made Antonio roar with laughter. Now, however, he cringed and even recoiled an inch.
УWhat?Ф Lara asked, bewildered. УWhatТs wrong? ArenТt you glad? I have just agreed to spend the rest of my life with youЕ To live together with youЕФ Scared of hearing his response, she continued affectionately assuring him, УI have no more reason to fear death. I am happy and want to make you happy as well, my loveЕ Does that tickle you? Let me kiss you with all that I haveЕФ
Antonio felt his heart growing cold. It lay heavily inside his chest like a stone, its sharp edges bearing against the living flesh. For several days now, the phantom of ElizabethТs would-be happiness has been lingering in the castle.
Antonio personally made a visit to this phantom in the gallery with the painting on the makeshift easel. He had his craftsmen prepare a golden easel, yet decided to save this one, which had been concocted by Elizabeth out of branches, as a relic. His wife would surely appreciate the surprise. No, he would never, ever give that castle to Lara now!
The Emperor fervently kissed his loverТs insatiable, open lips, УIТm sorry, dear, but thatТs impossible. I am distraught. I need to visit home.Ф
УWhat? What for?Ф
My dog is terribly sick. It wonТt eat unless IТm there. I have to make sure itТs all right. IТm sorry, but I canТt enjoy anything until I see JackieЕФ
УAnd the children?Ф Lara surmised.
The Emperor lowered his eyes.
УAnd the children.Ф