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Authors: Lucius Shepard

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The Golden (5 page)

BOOK: The Golden
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Chapter
Five

T
he interior design of Castle Banat had been contrived not with
practical considerations of fortification or habitation in mind, but
according to a series of peculiar architectural fantasies created by
an Italian artist who had been one of the Patriarch’s lovers
some six hundred years before, and its insane enormity reflected the
scope and complexity of the problem that confronted Beheim. Vast
chambers as large as entire castles themselves were spanned by
bridges—some of them drawbridges—that led to doorless
walls; hundred-foot-wide stairways ended in midair, and there were
chambers that opened onto gulfs in whose murky depths stranger
edifices yet could be glimpsed. Windowed towers sprouted from the
most unexpected places and rose toward dim vaulted roofs, and here
and there were enormous wheels such as those used to raise and lower
a portcullis, only the majority of these had no purpose whatsoever.
At any point one could look up to see—in the light of the
wrought-iron lanterns that hung everywhere—seemingly infinite
perspectives of arches and stairways, with thick loops of chains
hanging down like vines, and pulleys and ropes with no apparent
function, and lofty stone porches embellished with nymphs in
bas-relief and bearded faces with great iron rings depending from
their mouths. On one level a body of black water spread from a shore
of bolted iron plate, horrid statuary rising from its depths, showing
frilled heads and taloned hands. Pigeons that had never flown under
the sun nested in crannies and on ledges, and soared through the
heights, fouling the surfaces beneath with their droppings, and there
were other beasts aside from the sculpted gargoyles and dragons that
stood guard over the supreme emptinesses of the bridges: rats,
centipedes, serpents, and, most notably, degenerate men and women who
had once served the Patriarch but had in the end been loath to accept
the risks of blood judgment and now, still too much in love with the
possibility of eternity to leave, lived like vermin in the depths of
the castle, fleeing at shadows, stealing garbage, traveling—it
was rumored—along secret ways that permitted them access to
even the most sacrosanct areas of the castle, and performing brutish
ceremonies that were gross imitations of those practiced by the
Family. The size of the place was such that it had its own weather.
Clouds could form in the heights; rain fell from time to time. A man
standing athwart one of the bridges would appear no more than a speck
to someone below. This insane scale, along with the bizarre design
and ornamentation, seemed redolent of a monumental conceit and folly.
Indeed, certain of the internal structures had been designed as
ruins: crumbling stone piers with ferns sprouting from their cracks;
shattered fountains in the shape of griffons’ heads and
gigantic infants and various other creatures, from which water
spilled into ponds or gutters or mere crevices in the floor; a spiral
staircase with a holed railing; faceless statues and iron beams
protruding from a gapped wall. Throughout could be felt the chill,
brooding presence of the Patriarch. It was as if he had built an
immense skull of grayish black stone to contain the bleak materials
of his personality, and while Beheim found the wealth of baroque
invention oppressive, he could not help but admire the grandiose
conception that underlay it.

Yet as the first
unrewarding results of the investigation became apparent, his
admiration was replaced by a profound frustration, and he wished he
could raze the enormous building, hammer it down into its constituent
stones, because, he thought, only by doing so, only by eliminating
the profusion of formal inessentials and blind alleys it emblemized,
would he ever unearth the vital fact necessary to a solution. Not one
of the Family had failed to account for their whereabouts during the
time of the murder, and though a number of their alibis were
certainly fraudulent, it would be impossible to discredit them in the
time available. No bloodstained clothing had been found, nor was
there evidence that any of the guests suffered from an affliction of
the eye. He had wasted most of an entire night, and he was near the
end of his rope, unable to think how to proceed, when Lady Alexandra
Conforti, perhaps the most powerful women of the Valea branch, burst
into his quarters, followed by a breathless and agitated Giselle.

“This
thing
of yours,” said Lady Alexandra coldly, indicating Giselle with
a toss of her long auburn hair, “has had the gall to invade my
rooms.”

Giselle flushed,
and her cheekbones appeared to sharpen; but she kept silent.

“I
apologize for whatever inconvenience you may have suffered, but you
must be aware of the exceptional circumstances,” said Beheim,
crossing the bedroom toward Lady Alexandra. “And I would be
grateful if you would refer to my servant either by her position or
by her name—Giselle.”

Lady Alexandra
turned a deaf ear to this. She looked away from Beheim, offering him
a view of her graceful neck and stunning profile. She was so extreme
in proportion, it was impossible to deem her beautiful in any
ordinary sense of the word. Though her suitors tended to describe her
as “willowy,” as far as Beheim was concerned she gave new
and eccentric meaning to the word, being freakishly tall, nearly four
inches over six feet. Her limbs, particularly her legs, had an alien
elongation. Her heart-shaped face, with its porcelain skin and
lustrous, widely set green eyes, arched eyebrows, and full crimson
mouth, verged upon an erotic caricature. Yet due to the cautious
grace with which her every movement was invested, making a balletic
act out of even the simplest gesture—likely a conscious
compensation for a fear of clumsiness resulting from her unusual
height—and because of the sexual confidence that rose from her
like steam, she nonetheless conveyed an impression of great beauty.
Giselle had apparently caught the lady at her toilette, for she was
wearing a robe of pale blue silk worked with gilt thread, its loose
fit allowing Beheim a glimpse of the freckled upper slopes of her
breasts, cupped in shells of white lace. But from what he knew of the
Valeas, and of Alexandra in particular, who had flirted with him on
several previous occasions, he understood that no matter how
compelling her anger, she would never have visited him dressed in
this fashion unless she had desired her appearance to have an effect,
and this caused him to doubt the depth of her mood, and to wonder
toward what end she wanted to manipulate him.

“I take it
as an insult that you would send a thing to question me,” she
said, showing him her back. “Send it from the room.”

Beheim made
silent speech with his eyes to Giselle, at once offering an apology
and asking her to do the lady’s bidding. After she had gone, he
stepped to the lady’s shoulder, an intimate proximity from
which she did not withdraw, and asked in what way he could assist
her.

With a languid
gesture, keeping her back to him, she held up her right hand, showing
him the antique silver bottle cap that he had discovered on the
turret.

“I believe
it is
I
who can help you.”

“Ah!”
said Beheim, touching the cap with his forefinger. “Then can
you tell me who owns this?”

Her long fingers
closed over the cap, making him think of the petals of a carnivorous
flower folding about its prey. She moved away and glanced at him over
her shoulder.

“Perhaps.”

“Lady,”
he said, “the Patriarch has charged me to catch a murderer, and
I’m afraid I must forgo the amenities in seeking information. I
have no time for coyness. If you have something for me, you must tell
me now. Otherwise I’ll be . . .”

“Otherwise
you’ll do nothing.” She moved farther away, peering down
at the carpet, placing her feet carefully as if fitting them into old
tracks. “You have no promising line of inquiry. All you do have
at the moment is the hope that I may help you. And without my help,
you will continue to sit here and contemplate your failure. Do you
know why that is?”

“I’m
certain you’re bursting to enlighten me.”

“Don’t
take that tone,” she said, facing him. “You have no power
over me, except to ask questions that I may or may not choose to
answer. Of course you are beautiful, and that is a characteristic
that lends one a certain kind of power, it is true. But my power over
you is unqualified. Undeniable.”

“So you
say.”

“Yes, so I
say.” She sauntered back toward him, brushing against his
sleeve, sending a static charge across the skin of his arm.

Beheim repressed
an urge to catch up her hand, partly because he was not sure what she
might do once he had hold of her, whether she would attack or attempt
to seduce. Like all women of the Family, she was infuriating in the
manner in which she employed her sex. Though she did not accord with
his ideal image of feminine beauty, he could not deny that he was
attracted to her; but the nature of the attraction was perverse, an
anticipation of shivery delights, the sort of fascination one might
have for a serpent with breasts. He imagined that should they ever
lie down together, a tangle of limbs far more complicated than that
achieved by any ordinary coupling would result—a Gordian knot
of living white ropes whose contorted heaving would resemble the
writhing of a nest of worms.

“The
Patriarch did not appoint you to investigate the murder because of
your skill at detection,” she went on. “He is wiser than
that. Surely even you must understand that given the time allotted
for a solution and the character of those you must investigate, you
have little hope of success. The Patriarch understands this, too. Yet
he also knows what a marvelous pawn you make, weak and new as you
are. And he is aware of what an excellent game your investigation
offers. He knows how dearly we love intrigues, how deeply our
passions run. And he knows, too, that various of our number will be
unable to resist the temptation to turn the game to our own purposes.
Whether for gain, revenge, or some more obscure motive; that is
irrelevant to the Patriarch’s scheme. It is his belief that by
taking part in the game, we will solve the crime, or else
inadvertently set you upon a course that will lead to a solution.”

Despite the fact
that her summary of the situation was so at odds with Agenor’s,
Beheim heard a ring of truth in her words and absorbed them with a
minimum of resentment. It might be, he thought, that Lady Alexandra’s
intervention was the product of the mysterious alliance of which
Agenor had spoken.

“So,”
Beheim said, “you have come to make the first move.”

She returned a
deferential shrug and strolled across the room to the tapestry and
made a show of examining it; then she leaned against it, gazing at
Beheim with undisguised amusement. Her white face and reddish hair
stood out sharply against the black tangle of the evil forest,
looking as if one of the mysterious denizens hiding among the
branches had been recently retouched. She held up the bottle cap
between thumb and forefinger. “This belongs to one of my
cousins.” She paused—for dramatic effect, or so Beheim
assumed. “To Felipe Aruzzi de Valea.”

Beheim seized
upon the name. Felipe Aruzzi de Valea: the patriarch of the Valeas; a
colleague and ally of Roland Agenor’s; a blood scientist of the
highest reputation; considered a moderate in the debates now raging.
And yet of late he had become the lover of Lady Dolores Cascarin y
Ribera. It was rumored that the Lady Alexandra was no longer Felipe’s
supporter, that she had aligned herself with Lady Dolores and other
reactionaries against Agenor and his friends, and that she sought to
unseat Felipe as the head of the Valeas. He was not sure he believed
that Alexandra had become a reactionary; it was more likely she was
pretending to be one in order to consolidate her power and effect
some ambition, be it the unseating of Felipe or something else. He
did not doubt that she was telling the truth about the ownership of
the bottle cap—a lie would be too easily detected. But when he
considered the complex ties of the situation, the variety of plots
that might be at work, plots of political significance to both the
Valeas and the Family as a whole, he was visited by a new depth of
understanding concerning the murder, elevated to a height from which
he could see clearly and with great detail the maze of potential
intrigues surrounding the crime. What if Alexandra was attempting to
ruin Felipe by supplying false evidence that appeared to incriminate
him? And had she or one of her lovers done the murder? Or had Felipe
actually been the perpetrator? Or could this be another blind alley,
another waste of precious time? In their statements, Felipe and
Dolores had used one another to establish their whereabouts during
the time of the murder. Might not this mean that they had both been
present on the turret? Or was their affair an element of a larger
scheme, a tactic on the part of Lady Dolores to neutralize a potent
adversary? Or was Agenor himself playing a game? More and more Beheim
began to discern Agenor’s fine hand at work in all this dubious
matter, and this caused him to believe that the answers to his
questions would be of little moment. Knowing the identity of the
owner of the bottle cap might serve no more to illuminate the black
field of the crime than did Lady Alexandra’s head illuminate
the murky foreground of the tapestry against which she was leaning.
It was a beginning, true enough. Yet by supplying a single answer,
she had only increased the number of questions he would be forced to
ask; thus, in essence, he was at a greater loss than before.

He glanced up at
Lady Alexandra, who was smiling broadly.

“Now do
you see?” she said, and laughed—a melodic trill as
precise as a piano exercise. “You have no choice but to allow
yourself to be moved from square to square, to hope that our
passionate errors will direct you to a successful end.” She
walked slowly toward him, as graceful in her approach as a wend in a
river channeling bright water; the eerie formality of her white face
seemed both artful and vital, like a face painted on a flower come to
life. “One more thing. Felipe and Dolores are creatures of
habit. Several hours before dawn, they will lock themselves away in
Felipe’s bedchamber, and there they will remain for the day.
His servants are among those currently assisting your investigation.
It will not be difficult to make sure that they are kept busy. If you
intend to search his apartments, you may do so at that time. It will
not be so great a risk. The bedchamber is separated from the other
rooms, and Felipe will not hear you so long as Dolores occupies him.”
Another delicate laugh, a springtime laugh of lacy dew on cobwebs and
joyous green energies. The Lady Alexandra, Beheim realized, was
enjoying herself immensely. “That, and not my revelation, is
the first move,” she continued. “Once you take it, you
will be inextricably mired in the game, without control or direction.
And you must take the move or else give up the charade of this
investigation.” She stopped beside him and rested a hand on his
forearm. “I know you cannot trust me, and I will not claim to
have other than my own interests at heart. But I am your ally in
this. However, to begin with, you must learn to trust yourself, and
to do that you must enter the game. Only in the game will you
discover who exactly it is that you can trust.”

BOOK: The Golden
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