The dining room had been prepared exactly as Jean-Gabriel ordered. The candles in the crystal chandeliers were lit and one place laid at the table. The gold-rimmed porcelain was the best Sèvres could manufacture, and the table linens had been woven by nuns from the Cistercian abbey on his Burgundian estate.
His chef, Pierre, filled the table with all the delicacies it could hold. Chicken blanquettes with cucumber, fillets of rabbit, turkey in consommé…and he could taste none of it. He wished he had known what would happen to him that long-ago night so he could have feasted like a king during his last meal. As it was, he had wasted it in pursuit of drink and an innkeeper’s daughter. A thin stew was the last thing he’d eaten. He could still recall the salty tang of the gravy coating the turnips and the stringy beef. Were he to eat the same thing now, it would be like eating paper or fabric.
Still, he could not stop hoping that one day he would taste food again, that his body would be tricked into accepting it. Once a year, he ordered his chef to create a feast worthy of the king, and each time so far, the night had ended in disappointment.
On this night, no servants were allowed in the dining room until he called for them. Pierre placed each dish on the table and departed without a word. Jean-Gabriel removed each dish’s cover and watched the hot food send wisps of vapor through the air.
He filled his plate with asparagus and rabbit filet drizzled with Pierre’s favorite lemon and dill dressing. The rabbit flesh accepted the golden tines of his fork without trouble, and he twirled it around in the melting butter and dill. He pressed his fork down into the meat, crushing it and letting the lemon sauce rise through the slats. Bringing the morsel near his nose, he tried to call forth the memory of what it should smell like. He remembered the richness of butter, but had forgotten whether it was salty or sweet. Tonight, he chose sweet, and forced the idea of a smell into his mind. Concentrating on the memory, he put the meat in his mouth and tried to force his tongue to participate in the memory of his mind. He chewed slowly, letting the lemon sauce splash over his taste buds, waiting for the burst of sweet flavor to register in his brain. It did not happen. Tonight was the same as all the other nights.
He spit out the meat and hurled his plate across the room. “Roland,” Jean-Gabriel yelled. His valet, waiting patiently outside the doorway, entered with a nod. “Take it all away,” he said. “Is my guest taken care of?”
“He awaits you in the east parterre.”
“When you have cleared all this away, you are dismissed. I shall not require your services until morning.”
“Yes, sir.” Roland shouldered the platter with the offending rabbit filets.
“I shall leave you some.”
“Thank you, sir.” Roland carried the platter out of the room.
Feeling tonight’s failure more than others, Jean-Gabriel clenched his fists at his sides. His veins felt twice as large as usual, bloated with air and nothing else. He stepped over to the window and looked down on the east parterre. He did not know what lie Roland had told the comte, but it must have been a good one—the stupid man skipped along happily in the maze.
He had built the maze four hundred years ago with the idea that stalking prey be a game rather than a chore. His gardener, Armagnac, kept it up beautifully. The comte stopped to sit on one of the maze’s stone benches. Jean-Gabriel watched the doomed man tighten the buckles on his shoes, preening like a girl.
He sighed. An immense weariness descended upon him at the thought of living in this fashion for another thousand years. Always it was the same. The fear, the panic, and then the loneliness of death. Were it not for the ease of the mark this time, he would have left this one well enough alone. But there was no choice. Let it be done, he thought.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish