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Authors: Lucius Shepard

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The Golden (6 page)

BOOK: The Golden
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“Are you
suggesting that I do not know myself?”

“Is that
not a concern of yours? It was one of mine when I was new to the
Family.”

She released his
arm, but it seemed to Beheim that the connection between them
remained constant, the warm charge of her blood encircling his wrist.

“You
cannot pretend with me,” she said. “I have lived through
the turbulent time, the time of metamorphosis that you are now
entering. I know the conflicts within you, the storms that will beset
you, the decisions you will have to make.”

“Well,
then,” said Beheim, irritated by her pose of superiority,
“perhaps you’ll be kind enough to enlighten me as to how
these conflicts will be resolved.”

“You will
understand soon enough, and in your own way. It’s not my place
to influence you.” A wry smile. “Not in such intimate
questions, at any rate.” Suddenly brisk, she moved toward the
door. “I must go now. But I will give you all the help I can.
And . . . Ah! I nearly forgot.” She came back to
him and pressed something into his hand. “A key to Felipe’s
apartment.”

“Why
should I bother to search Felipe’s rooms? They’ve already
been searched.”

“By
servants,” she replied. “Surely you consider yourself a
more reliable functionary than they. What choice do you have? I
suppose you could retire from the case. Of course, then not only will
you be subject to Agenor’s displeasure, but also to that of the
Patriarch. Scarcely an enviable position.”

Beheim turned
the key between his fingers. “You seem very sure of how I’ll
act.”

“It’s
as I said: You have little choice. And not because it’s your
only hope of solving the murder. The risks of the game will compel
you. You are in some ways cautious, as are we all, yet it is also in
your nature to hazard everything on a single throw of the dice.”

Beheim’s
annoyance swelled into anger. “I’ve become rather weary
of people claiming to understand me better than I do myself.”

“Then you
must grow in understanding, mustn’t you?”

“Perhaps
you expect me to change my mind concerning Lord Agenor’s
proposals.”

She made a
gesture of dismissal. “You will be who you must, cousin. I
expect nothing of you . . . at least nothing you would
now be able to comprehend. Truly, I would be a fool to have
expectations of you, for it is not yet clear whether you will survive
your own investigation. You are quite out of your depth. And
yet . . .” Her voice dropped in pitch, becoming
heatedly familiar. “Listen, Michel. Perhaps I am being overbold
in saying this, but I have seen in you the promise of great substance
and great heart. I pray you will be able to avoid certain of the
difficulties that I encountered when I was new. You are laboring
under a number of misconceptions, many of which are likely to lead
you into folly. One in particular is dangerous in that it may retard
your development, and that is your affection for the thing you sent
to my apartments. I’ll wager that before this investigation is
through, if all goes well, you’ll discover how different is the
character of your relationship from what you now believe to be true.
And perhaps you will also discover uncommon worth where now you see
only menace.”

With a quick
step forward, she drew him into an embrace, her hands pressing
against the small of his back, and kissed him—a forceful kiss
upon the lips that stimulated him hardly at all, seeming more an
attempt to seal a bargain than to arouse; but just as he was about to
make a comment to this effect, he was overcome by a spell of vertigo
and a sudden dimming of his vision. Against a backdrop of undulating
green, as of some watery deep—the same color as her eyes—there
he saw the naked person of Lady Alexandra swaying with the gentle
grace of kelp in an ebb tide, her arms and hands inscribing hypnotic
figures, easing closer and closer, like a dream taking form before a
drowning man. He tried to fight off the vertigo, but his mind was
entangled in a soft, warm net, his thoughts cluttered and helpless
like silver fish in fine mesh, and instead of reacting in fear, he
marveled at the exotic character of her beauty and wondered how he
could ever have thought her other than beautiful. With her pear-sized
breasts and lovely legs, the long thighs delicately flexing, stems
supporting the bloom of her belly, she was a miracle to his eyes,
tinder to the fire of his senses. With every passing second, her
sensuality became more affecting. He could smell her sex. Her blood.
Her face was so near, he could no longer make out its shape. Her
crimson mouth opening, her pink tongue licking forth slowly like sea
life. And then it ended. All sensation, all feelings of intimacy and
wild blood sheared away. Stunned, unsteady, he found that she had
disengaged from the embrace and was standing several feet away,
watching him with an expression that while not devoid of calculation,
seemed also to embody a measure of both fondness and confusion.

“What
now?” she said in a small voice, appearing to be speaking less
to him than to her inner self. Then her features were tightened by a
resolute look, and she said in a firmer tone, “I believe I will
stay with you awhile. To assist you. But you must send that—”
She broke off, paused a second. “You must send your servant
away. This Giselle. Put her to some other use. I will not tolerate
her company.”

Beheim, still
wobbly, muttered something to the effect that he needed no
assistance.

“That may
be,” Alexandra said. “But you do need to be convinced
that the key I have given you is your best hope in all this. I will
stay with you until you have matured in that conviction. At the very
least, my presence will afford you added protection while you
continue your interviews.”

He could not
deny that, but was troubled by this sudden shift in her intentions.
“Why do you want to help me?”

“As I told
you, it is in my interests.”

“And
there’s nothing more?”

“Oh,
cousin!” she said, giving a lilt to the words that made them
seem to have the resonance of a quiet, wistful laugh. “There is
always something more.”

Chapter
Six

T
he brooding quiet of Castle Banat had been overborne to some extent
by an atmosphere of emotional turbulence. Most of the Family were
keeping to their rooms, but a fair number had taken to prowling about
the upper levels and engaging in arguments, even brief scuffles;
their shouts and clatter echoed throughout, faint as the cries of
birds and the scuttlings of squirrels, but nonetheless startling to
hear in all that funereal hush. Among them were several men and women
whom Beheim intended to interview personally. He came to wonder if
their agitated movements might not disguise a desire to avoid being
interviewed, for had Alexandra not been with him, he would have had
the Devil’s own time in tracking them, and when he finally did
manage to beard them, they were none of them cooperative, but
presented either snarling or stony faces. Elaine Vandelore, whom they
found reading by candlelight in the servants’ pantry, hurled
her book at him and answered his questions in icy monosyllables.
Hermann Kuhl they discovered seated in an armchair in an abandoned
quarter of the castle; he responded to Beheim with haughty
indifference, interrupting his answers to give erotic instruction to
the female servant who knelt between his legs all the while. Georg
Mautner, occupied in a game room with Lupita Cascarin y Miron,
half-sister to the Lady Dolores, amused himself by skewering a mouse
with a dart and then favoring Beheim with a glance of hostile
significance. The only one whose behavior might be characterized as
in any way responsive was Ernst Kostolec, a political ally of
Agenor’s, though scarcely his friend, and an elusive sort whose
wizardly reputation caused even the most powerful of the Family to
tread lightly around him. They located him in the Patriarch’s
library, less a room than a great circular stair sunk through the
center of the castle, more than a mile in depth, its walls lined with
books, many so ancient that to open any one of them would be to
transform it into hundreds of scraps of yellow paper that would then
flutter down into that dark well like the brittle ghosts of a swarm
of butterflies. It was one of the few rooms in the castle, at least
of those in common use, where lanterns, not torches, provided the
illumination—it seemed the Patriarch cared more for his books
than he did for the safety of his children.

Kostolec, a man
of Agenor’s apparent age, but far more decrepit in aspect,
stooped and wrinkled and vulpine, with tufted eyebrows and a few
strands of fine white hair floating above his mottled scalp like
wispy clouds above the surface of a dead planet, was standing on one
of the landings, an octagonal space some twenty-five feet wide,
hunched over a lectern, peering through a magnifying glass at a large
leatherbound book open to a page covered in florid script. Rays of
orange light sprayed out into the center of the well from a lantern
with five panes suspended above the lectern, but they did not
illumine the opposite wall. A look of annoyance crossed his face when
he saw them on the landing directly above him, and he slammed his
book shut, expelling a puff of dust from between the covers; the gilt
inscription on the front of the volume was in Portuguese and beneath
that lay the ornament of a gilt palm surmounted by a crescent, and on
the spine was the symbol of a crown and a leaf. Beheim noticed that
the front of Kostolec’s gray silk shirt was thick with dust,
evidence—perhaps—that he had slammed shut other books not
so long before. A sign of frustration, possibly. But as they
approached he smiled in a pleasant manner. Pleasant, at least, in
contrast to the general run of smiles with which Beheim had met. And
so, for all his anxiety over questioning so formidable a figure,
Beheim was put somewhat at his ease.

“Ah,
excellent! Our little policeman,” said Kostolec, wiping his
hands on his trousers, which were also gray; the emptiness around
them caused his voice to carry a slight reverberation, and his words
seemed to stir a little something in the central darkness of the
well. “How droll! I feel I’ve been transported into the
midst of a traveling theatrical company.” He cast an arch
glance toward Alexandra. “And what part are you playing this
day, my dear? Not the fluttering ingénue, I trust.”

“For
purposes of this scene,” she said dryly, “you’d do
best to consider me a spear carrier.”

“Such nice
menace. I approve.” Then, to Beheim, who was shuffling through
the loose pieces of paper on which he had made his notes: “Be
wary of her, Mister Policeman. She has a talent for self-delusion
which serves all the better to obscure her actual motives.”

Beheim ignored
this. “Your servant Jules,” he said, “has stated
that he was with you in the library on the night of the murder. You
were both here the entire night?”

“Did not
Jules so state?”

“Yes, but
I—”

“Then I
would not doubt him. He is a gentleman of exceptional character.”
Kostolec leaned against the lectern, not the stiff movement of an old
man, but giving an impression of supple strength. “He hunts
books for me. It saves time to have him run them down.”

“And why
is he not assisting you now?”

Kostolec
laughed. “Something more important has come up. He is at
present scurrying about Banat, asking questions and running fool’s
errands. On behalf of some policeman, I believe.”

“For that,
my apologies,” Beheim said, and again shuffled through his
notes. “Jules has also indicated that you are embarked upon a
lengthy study. Might I ask what is the subject of your researches?”

“That is
irrelevant to your investigation.”

“It may
well be,” Beheim said. “But I’m afraid I must be
the judge of that.”

“Your
imperatives are not mine,” said Kostolec, anger edging into his
voice.

“True, I
cannot force you to answer. I can only note that you do not. However,
it’s possible that your researches have some relevance of which
you are unaware. And even if they are irrelevant, why not settle the
matter?”

Kostolec was
silent for a long moment; nothing about his posture or expression
gave a clue to his mood. Beheim gazed down over the railing at the
corkscrewing stairway beneath. Beams of light struck into the center
of the well from a number of lower landings, given distinct form by
the dust suspended in the air; bindings gleamed in the shadows like
seams of ore. Far below, a glowing orange dot bobbled like a firefly
in the grainy darkness. Probably another scholar ascending with a
lantern. A faint creaking noise came from the landing above, but
Beheim saw no one there. The structure settling, he supposed.

Finally Kostolec
said, “I’m certain you have taken into account the insult
implicit in your questioning.”

“Obviously
I regret the necessity—” Beheim began, but Kostolec cut
him off.

“On the
other hand,” he went on, “
I
must take into account
your inexperience and the impossible position in which you have been
placed. Therefore I will answer your question.”

A bland smile
etched the lines deeper on his withered face, and Beheim, shocked by
this display of rationality, murmured his thanks.

“I am
studying the future,” Kostolec said.

Beheim waited
for a further explanation, but none was forthcoming. He glanced at
Alexandra; she lifted one shoulder in an almost imperceptible shrug.
Kostolec continued to smile.

“Would you
care to be more specific?” Beheim asked.

“No, I
would not.”

“Very
well.” Beheim paced to the edge of the landing, glanced down
again into the well. Another faint creaking noise came to his ears.
“It seems that the future, at least your conception of it, is
somehow related to the records of the Royal Portuguese Botanical
Society. The book you were examining appears to contain some of their
colonial journals. The palm tree on the cover indicates to me that
the work concerns a tropical land. The crescent”—he
spread his hands—“perhaps refers to Islam. A tropical
Portuguese colony with an Islamic population? I am not familiar with
the history of the Portuguese expansion. However, certain sections of
Africa spring to mind. Or perhaps a colony farther east. What do you
think? Since the Orient is the focus of a discussion that has
recently occupied our attention, I would hazard a guess that you may
be searching for a site in the Far East that would be suitable for
our relocation.”

BOOK: The Golden
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ads

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