Read The Golden Online

Authors: Lucius Shepard

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

The Golden (7 page)

BOOK: The Golden
7.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“I once
had a dog who could stand on his hind legs and bark,” Kostolec
said. “A clever little fellow. Most entertaining.”

“I’m
pleased to have awakened your nostalgia,” said Beheim.

“But mere
cleverness can achieve nothing, and that is precisely what you have
achieved by discerning the subject of my study. What relation could
there be between my bookish pursuits and the murder of the Golden?”

“None that
I can see,” said Beheim. “And yet this question of our
migration is a color that tints the entire investigation. At least I
have a sense that it does. Few of our interrelations are simple
affairs. Whatever the sequence of events, whatever the superficial
justification for those events, the actions we take seem to resonate
on many levels, to draw together a variety of concerns into the
mechanisms of a single passion. I believe it would be foolish to take
a simplistic view of the crime, to attempt to separate it, in my
consideration, from its backdrop. Thus your political involvement
intrigues me. As far as I can determine, you have until lately held
yourself apart from this sort of issue. Certainly there has never
been any love lost between you and Agenor, and yet now you are his
ally. A political alliance founded on mutual self-interest? Perhaps.
However, I would be a fool if I did not examine the possibility that
there is more to it than that.”

“I cannot
think how this leads you to suspect me of murder.”

“ ‘Suspect’
is too strong a word. I have no real suspects. Because of limitations
imposed upon me by time and circumstance, I must concentrate my
energies on those who display what strikes me as uncharacteristic
behavior. As yours strikes me. It may appear that I am grasping at
straws, and indeed I am. But investigations of this sort rarely
proceed along logical lines. A slip is made, a secret is whispered,
an accident of fate occurs. And suddenly the whole thing is revealed.
As for my part in things, I’m casting my net in murky waters,
hoping that a shark will see my legs and seek to take a bite,
thinking I am merely clever.”

Alexandra gave a
soft, pleased laugh, and Kostolec’s eyes cut toward her; for an
instant his features were concentrated into a venomous mask. Then he,
too, laughed. He nodded to Beheim. A civil nod. “Will you
pardon me?” he said, and with a prodigious leap that carried
him to the foot of the stairs, he then raced up to the landing
directly above them. Beheim heard a cry, sounds of a brief struggle.
Seconds later Kostolec reappeared, dragging behind him a terrified
young man dressed all in black, with ragged brown hair and a thin,
long-jawed face; a fresh crop of pimples straggled across his
forehead.

“Who is
this?” Alexandra asked, and Kostolec said, “A creature of
the Vandelores. Aren’t you?” He lifted the man up by the
collar, holding his head close to the lantern, and swung him so that
his knees smacked against the railing. “This disgusting wretch
is the third spy they’ve set on me since my arrival.”

“My lord,
have pity!” said the man, clutching at Kostolec’s wrist
to prevent himself from swaying back and forth. “I meant you no
harm.”

“Thank
God!” said Kostolec mockingly. “I was afraid for my
life.” His stare was as unwavering and black as that of an old
reptile. “Who sent you?”

The man wet his
lips; his eyes darted to Alexandra, then to Beheim. “Marko,”
he said. “It was Marko. Lord, I did not willingly—”

“Be
silent!” said Kostolec; he glanced at Beheim. “Do you
understand now why I react with such enmity to your questions? Day
and night, I am beset by the Vandelores. How can I tolerate this
constant interference in my affairs?”

“What
could the Vandelores want of you?” Beheim asked, watching the
man trying to swallow, half-choked by his tightened collar.

“They
want,” Kostolec said, enunciating each word with studied
precision, as if aiming and firing them at Beheim, “to know my
secrets.”

He forced the
man’s face close to his and kissed him on the lips. The sight
of the two faces pressed together, the smooth skin of one being
nuzzled and sucked by a pale, wrinkled beast in a fan of ruddy light
in the midst of an immense darkness, bred a strange distance in
Beheim, as if he were peering into a dimension in which every
constant had been rearranged, where animals walked about in men’s
forms, and true men were handled like sheep, where the physical world
was a cave filled with gilded symbols and dust, and life was a
sinister, wasted value, death an exalted goal.

Kostolec broke
off the kiss, studied the man dangling limply from his hand. “Tell
Marko that if this ever happens again, I will pay him a visit.”
He appeared to be mulling something over; his owlish eyebrows hinged
in the middle, his lips pursed. “On second thought,” he
said, “I’ll tell him myself.” And looking straight
at Beheim, with a casual flick of his wrist he tossed the man over
the railing.

He seemed to
twist at the center of the well for an instant, his mouth agape, eyes
white with fear, as if held aloft by the rays of lantern light that
touched him redly, then—as Beheim made a futile lunge toward
the railing—he tumbled down head over heels into the darkness,
trailing an abandoned, throat-tearing scream. Beheim watched him
fall, watched him vanish, the sight conjuring a queasy chill in his
belly. He whirled about, ready with a violent question, but his
outrage was quelled by the sight of Alexandra and Kostolec standing
face-to-face, tense and furious, the tall, beautiful woman in her
nightdress and the predatory old man—like otherworldly raptors.
He expected them to run at each other, to tear and punch and bite.
But instead they relaxed from their aggressive poses, and Alexandra,
in a calm voice, said, “That was badly done!”

“Badly
done!” Beheim brought his fist down against the railing,
cracking it. “You might just as well call it a faux pas! What’s
next? Will you call genocide a discourtesy? Infanticide an act of
mischief?”

She did not look
at him, continuing to address herself to Kostolec. “If you must
teach a lesson,” she said, “there are more effective
ways.”

“Is that
what it was?” said Beheim. “A lesson? And what should I
have learned from it? Respect for my elders?”

“Caution,
I should hope,” Kostolec said. “Without it, you will not
be long among us.”

When Beheim
started to respond, Kostolec shouted, “No more! Try me no
more!”

He turned away,
facing outward into the well, the lantern light firing his wisps of
white hair, painting a shine along the back panel of his silk shirt.
“I’ve done no murder,” he said in a steely voice.
“Tipsy pleasures of the blood hold no attraction for me. I am
in every way the Patriarch’s man and would never violate his
traditions. But believe as you will.”

There was a
trilling vibration newly in the air, the sort of disturbance that
might derive from the far-off operation of a mighty engine, and
Beheim could not rid himself of the notion, however irrational, that
Kostolec was the source of this vibration. He thought that if
Kostolec were to turn, he would be much changed, his eyes aflame, his
wrinkled face transformed into a barbarous mask of bronze, his tongue
a black adder. Yet when he spoke, it was in a ruminative and not a
threatening tone.

“These are
difficult times,” he said. “We each must play our part in
them as best we can. However, you would do well to remember that my
part in all this has nothing to do with the world as you know it. I
bear you no ill will, but I will not permit further distractions.”
He heaved a sigh. “Do not trouble me again.”

Alexandra put a
hand on Beheim’s shoulder; she nodded toward the entrance
several levels above, and Beheim, his temper cooled by a sudden
anxiety, let himself be drawn away. But as they ascended the stair
leading to the next level, moved by some sense of wrongness, he
paused and stooped and peered back down through the railing.

The rays of
lantern light had grown sharply defined, blades of radiance that
spread to touch the ranks of books and folios on the opposite wall,
and as they brightened further Kostolec himself began to darken, his
flesh and his clothing losing detail and color as if he had fallen
under a deep shadow, until at last the light dimmed to its normal
brilliance, and what stood by the railing beneath it had itself
become no more than a shadow, a figure of absolute, unfractionated
black. This absence of a man stood without moving, but within a
matter of seconds the figure flew apart into papery-looking scraps of
black vitality, like bats and ashes, and these remnants fluttered off
into the darkness; then, like a seam of gleaming anthracite exposed
in midair, a shiny surface manifested at the center of the well,
seeming to pour both upward and downward, to be measuring in
reflection the passage of a light in motion. Beheim felt a shiver in
his flesh, as if some just-less-than-physical thing had passed
through him. And with that the gleam faded and everything was as
before, except that Kostolec was gone and in his stead were only a
few dust motes eddying slowly in the orange glow of the lantern,
glittering like the ghosts of nebulae and stars.

Chapter
Seven

A
s they proceeded along the corridor that led away from the
Patriarch’s library, Beheim began to consider Alexandra in a
new light. It did not seem reasonable that she would stand ready to
defend him against someone of Kostolec’s power simply to
achieve a political goal, and yet it appeared that she had. He
recalled her moment of confusion after their embrace. Was it
possible, he asked himself, that she had developed some infant
attraction for him? He did not think this likely, but neither would
he have thought it likely that his attraction for her would have
grown as particularized and consuming as it had. He found himself
watching her on the sly, noticing her ways. Her habit of gnawing on
the edge of the nail of a forefinger when she was perplexed. How
shadows appeared to shift about in her green eyes whenever she grew
discontent. Her walk, so careful, almost somnambulistic in its
cautious energy, contained to the point of repression, except when
she became excited, and then she would twist to look at him while she
walked, put half-skips into her stride and go bouncing along like a
gawky schoolgirl. The solemnity she displayed when listening to him,
head down, eyes lidded, all her features in repose, like a nun at
prayer. She laughed easily, but when she did, it was if she were not
laughing with her whole being, as if the place inside her where vivid
responses were manufactured remained blank and gray and dull, and
this gave her an eerily inconsistent vitality, like someone under a
spell. He wondered how he could ever have thought her extreme height
grotesque, for now her body struck him as elegantly slim, exquisitely
formed, a miracle of aesthetic proportion, and when he pictured them
together, it was not, as previously, in some weird Gordian
entanglement, but joined in a sleek and perfectly coordinated union.
To entertain such thoughts was ridiculous, he told himself; they were
accomplices in some as yet undetermined political action, nothing
more. Yet he could not keep from entertaining them, nor could he keep
from interpreting her sidelong glances as being other than the
articles of a freshly waked affection. He believed that she was
affording him glimpses of her true self, now and then dropping the
glibly aggressive style that she had affected when she came to his
apartments, and letting him see the personality behind the façade,
one capable of anger and joy, petulance and sadness, all the usual
components, yet tempered by an underlying seriousness and charged by
a kind of ardent composure. He still suspected her, he still doubted
the character of her intentions; but he felt that he was not entirely
deluded in thinking that she had changed toward him, that whatever
she had wanted from him in the beginning, she wanted more now.

They turned into
a side corridor, long and lantern-lit, roofed with whitewashed
stones, broken by arches that led off into tunnels, open spaces,
other corridors, and at a moment when they caught one another
staring, Alexandra looked quickly away and asked what he was
thinking.

“Not an
easy question to answer,” Beheim said.

“I
disagree,” she said. “It’s the easiest of all
questions to answer, unless one has something to hide.”

“I don’t
wish to appear foolish,” he said, after walking a few paces in
silence.

“I believe
we have come far enough along this path to be gentle in our
judgments.”

“Very
well, then. I was thinking about you.”

They were just
passing a lantern mounted in a niche, and her shadow, which had been
trailing behind her on the floor, suddenly leaped up onto the wall
and stalked along at her side, a leaner, sharper self, as if the
huntress within her had been put on the alert.

“Oh?”
she said, and laughed nervously. “And how am I?”

“Fascinating.
Troubling.” He tried to catch her eye. “Beautiful.”

“And how
exactly am I troubling?” Another laugh. “You see, I
accept without complaint the unconditional virtues.”

“Perhaps
it’s not you that troubles me,” he said. “Perhaps
it’s a lack of faith in my own discrimination.”

“That’s
only a kind way of saying you’re not sure of me.”

“I
suppose.”

They came to an
arch that opened onto a large unfurnished chamber, where three men
and a woman—Family members by their rich clothing—were
standing a hundred feet away or more in an oblong island of light
cast by two lanterns. The woman was half-naked, the bodice of her
gown down about her waist, and the men were all partially disrobed.
There was an air of ominous stasis to the tableau, Beheim thought, as
if it had been contrived for their benefit and was not a sexual
incident that they had interrupted. It made him very uneasy. The
woman beckoned to them, but he was not in the least tempted to accept
the invitation.

BOOK: The Golden
7.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Dragons and Destiny by Candy Rae
Royal Bachelor by Torres, Trudi
Messy by Cocks, Heather, Morgan, Jessica
Darkest Day by Gayle, Emi
The Final Minute by Simon Kernick
Across The Hall by Facile, NM
Skylark by Jenny Pattrick
Within Arm's Reach by Ann Napolitano