Gideon Arnaud slipped off his other glove and moved towards one of the armchairs. It was impossibly rude not to offer him a seat, and so I gestured to the chairs and sat alongside him. Valentine was still in the room, but he seemed content to stay by the picture window, his back turned to us. Arnaud settled himself easily, his movements confident, his limbs graceful despite his size.
“I have caught you a little unawares, Fides, but you might guess that I enjoy that approach. I also guess that you like to know a little more about the men you do business with, and so I bring myself here tonight along with a sample of my goods for your … entertainment.” He paused, and I thought I heard Valentine shift gently, as if he listened more carefully than he appeared to. “Unless, of course, you are willing to accept my patronage and companionship without condition, and in the spirit in which it is offered?”
I wondered how many times Arnaud had asked that question and received his preferred answer. I suspected that other business associates had been both happy and grateful to answer ‘yes, indeed.’ I knew instinctively he was a man who expected attention and would usually receive it in full, but no, I was not ready to accept him on those terms. Instead, I stared back into eyes that expected obeisance, and I pursed my lips. Arnaud’s gaze was marked by dark-flecked irises, a kaleidoscope of passion channelling out through his eyes. I felt the full force of him — of a bold irrationality; of fervour and self-obsession; of an inherent danger. And all of it over laden with that vibrant, cynical charm.
“No,” I said. “I will not accept anything from you, Arnaud, without condition. I think that you might guess that of me.”
I definitely saw Valentine move this time. His face was in my view, over Arnaud’s shoulder, and he seemed to be smiling.
My visitor rose and moved to the table by the fireplace. He drew out a black velvet bag from inside his jacket, and in a single bold movement he spilled out a pile of jewels onto the linen tablecloth. A pile of luxurious size; of many-faceted cuts; of a vivid brightness that caught the licking flames of the firelight and reflected them back across our enraptured faces.
“Rubies,” I said, softly. I sounded shocked, even to my own ears.
“Yes, of course,” he murmured. “Rich, ruby jewels. Thick, velvet cloth …”
My eyes darted up to his face, the colour of the rubies staining my cheeks.
“The prizes of my collection,” he said, gently, raising an eyebrow as if to admonish me for a childish overreaction. “That’s all I describe, Master Fides.”
I stared. Valentine came around to stand at my shoulder and gazed down at the jewels. “Lucas, they’re magnificent, aren’t they? They would be such a spectacle. We could invite every jeweller in the city. Every woman would respond to them. Every man would buy them for a lover.”
“Allow me a modest involvement in the event, and they’re yours to handle,” Arnaud said, smoothly. “I just ask for your time. Your company. It’s not too much to grant me, is it, to be able to handle such treasure?” I felt Valentine’s excited breath on my neck, but it was Gideon Arnaud’s palm that I gazed at. The last, single ruby lay on the manicured skin, and winked its reflection at me.
“It’s all yours to handle,” he said, his voice much lower, as if he wished to exclude Valentine.
“The jewels …” I said, a little shakily.
“Of course,” he smiled. “That’s what I meant.” His gaze flickered to Valentine beside me, then back to me. “So should your young assistant take them now, to begin his cataloguing?”