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Authors: Lucius Shepard

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The Golden (8 page)

BOOK: The Golden
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“Do you
recognize anyone?” he asked Alexandra.

She studied them
a moment longer. “Not at this distance. The man in the red
tunic, though. That might be—” She broke off, peered at
them again. “I can’t tell.”

Once again the
woman beckoned.

“Come on.
Let’s leave them to it,” said Beheim.

“Don’t
you want to interview them?” Alexandra asked.

“A group
this large, they’d only support one another’s lies.”

His sense of
uneasiness grew stronger. He took Alexandra’s hand and began
trotting along the corridor, half-dragging her along, glancing back
over his shoulder.

Alexandra looked
startled, but she did not try to pull free, nor did she object when
Beheim began to run, leading them on a crooked course through a maze
of corridors; but once they had stopped running, she asked him what
was wrong.

“I had a
premonition,” he told her. “A feeling that they might
be . . . I don’t know. That they posed a trap of
some sort.”

They had emerged
from a corridor into a cavern, a place carved from marble to resemble
a cave, whose nether end was submerged beneath a smallish lake, with
roughly hewn blocks of marble scattered about its shoreline; a
bleached, bluish white light was provided by the cavern walls, or
more particularly, by the luminescent moss that embroidered almost
every square inch of stone and floated in crusts upon the black water
like miniature glowing islands. One of the walls was pierced by a
sizable round hole, large enough to permit a man to walk through
without stooping; it offered a view of some complex iron machinery,
enormous gears and driving rods and other unfamiliar parts; through
gaps in the machinery could be seen sections of a marble plain that
sloped steeply upward, thus giving the appearance of an intricate
puzzle laid out on a white backdrop with several pieces missing.
Overall, the place had a look of fey enchantment, and when Alexandra
perched on a marble block, drawing up her knees, resting her chin
thereon, she seemed to acquire an aura of unreality, to become a
creature of that place, a nymph or one of the Lorelei.

“A
premonition,” she said thoughtfully. “In other words, a
feeling in which you placed your trust.”

“I would
have been a fool not to trust it.”

“Yet you
apparently don’t trust certain other of your feelings. Or have
you had a premonition concerning me?”

“Hardly.
It’s just I don’t feel on solid ground with you.”
He sat next to her; deeper in the cavern, where the ceiling came down
low and the walls narrowed, something big and quick was swimming just
beneath the surface, making a rippling bulge in the shining black
water, but showing no portion of itself. “In any case, it
doesn’t matter.”

“What
doesn’t?”

She tried to
conceal a coy smile by lowering her head.

“You’re
playing with me,” he said.

She shrugged.
“I’m trying to persuade you to tell me what you were
thinking, but I’m not having a great deal of success.”

“I’m
certain you know what I was thinking,” he said impatiently. “I
was thinking about you and me. I was wondering how it might be with
us.”

“That’s
candid enough,” she said.

“Of
course,” Beheim went on, put off by her neutral tone, “as
I said before, it doesn’t really matter, one way or another.”

“And why
is that?”

“Among
other reasons, in a few days we will be leaving Banat. I will be
returning to Paris, you to your home.”

“I don’t
understand.”

“What’s
the point of initiating a relationship when there’s so little
time to explore it?”

She shot him a
searching glance, then gazed off toward the hole in the wall,
twisting a strand of her auburn hair about a finger. “A
relationship,” she said. “What a strange thing to want. I
want whatever I want without condition. I don’t worry what will
happen after I have it.” She glanced at him again. “Usually,
anyway.”

His dignity
wounded, he said, “It’s probably just a symptom of my,
uh . . . what did you call it? My ‘time of
metamorphosis.’ ”

“No, I
don’t think so,” she said, refitting her gaze to the hole
in the wall and the mechanical puzzle beyond. “Agenor said you
might be remarkable. It may be that he was right.”

She seemed truly
confounded by him, or by something she felt that was somehow related
to him. He had the sense that he could influence her now, so long as
he did not overstate his case. “I can’t believe it’s
remarkable to want something good to last,” he said.

“I don’t
expect it is. But I haven’t thought in those terms for a long
time.”

There was a
silence during which he heard the lapping of water and saw something
small and black moving rapidly on the marble plain that lay beyond
the hole in the wall, coursing back and forth, becoming visible now
and again through the gaps in the machinery. He closed his eyes and
could feel her beside him, feel her warmth, the rhythms of her breath
and heart. The scents of orange water, her natural musk and sweet,
hot blood mingled in a heady perfume.

“I’d
like to ask you a question,” he said. “One that may anger
you.”

“I’ll
try not to be angry.”

“The man
Kostolec killed. How do you reconcile something like that, the
acceptance of that sort of callousness and cruelty, with the
sensitivity—or should I say the humanity—you’re
displaying now?”

He could not see
her face; she had turned her head a bit, and her hair fell across her
cheek, obscuring her profile; but he could see the question strike
her—the ligature of her neck cabling, a general tightness
affecting her posture. But when she answered him, there was no anger
in her voice, just a touch of hesitancy.

“Naturally
I find it difficult,” she said. “You have killed to feed.
You understand the hypocrisy involved in considering those upon whom
we feed in an emotional frame. And yet many of us do exactly that. I
have done so myself. The guilt that eventually results from these
futile associations, I believe, influences us to treat all mortals as
animals, to reject them so that they cannot grow close to us.”
She brushed back her hair from her face and looked soberly at Beheim.
“When I came to visit you earlier tonight, my treatment of your
servant was, I would suppose, to some extent a defensive reaction.
And, too”—she darted her eyes toward him—“I
suppose I was a bit jealous of her. I’ve been attracted to you
for quite a while. But at the same time she disgusted me. Perhaps my
disgust was compensatory. Perhaps we only learn to despise them
because we must. Or it may be that we change too drastically to
respect them in any fashion. Yet sometimes I think we are not so
different from mortals, that the one true difference between us is
that we are stronger, and our cruelties are but vivid exaggerations
of their cruelties. Even the worst of us has his rival in evil among
humankind. So”—she clasped her hands, held them to her
breast—“when you ask me about Kostolec, I am forced to
say, we do what we must to live. What he did may seem evil or a
waste, however you wish to characterize it. But he is old, of another
generation. He has forgotten what once he was, and he lives only
partially in the world that you and I inhabit.” She made a
plaintive noise. “That’s all I know to say. That’s . . .”
She shook her head ruefully. “That’s all.”

He had expected
to argue with her, to attempt some proof, but her answer was so
succinct and clear, so poignant in its honesty, so free of the
bombast with which most of his questions had been greeted, that he
was utterly persuaded by it and could think of nothing to say. What
she had said roused a feeling of sadness in him, and he tended to
equate truth and sadness. Like most good Frenchmen, he thought, he
did not believe in happiness, or rather he believed that nothing
happy could be truly profound.

“What’s
that? I wonder,” she said, pointing toward the hole in the
wall, at the black, swiftly moving thing that appeared now and again
on the marble plain.

“I’ve
no idea.”

“I want to
see.”

She hopped down
from the block of marble and set out around the lake toward the hole
in the wall. Reluctantly he followed. He had, he realized, been
hoping to kiss her, and now that eventuality seemed remote.

The machinery
that lay without the cavern was functionless, loose gears and
frameworks, cogs and rods, much of it tumbled about like the
discarded toys of a gigantic child, but some pieces were joined by
bolts with heads the size of serving platters, thus creating simple
mechanical sculptures. Overhead, an immense, slanted mirror reflected
silvery light downward from some invisible source. Like moonlight,
Beheim thought, and he wondered if there might not be a system of
mirrors channeling moonlight down from the battlements of the castle.
Beyond the machinery, the plain of white marble sloped up for several
hundred feet toward a wall pierced by a dozen arched doorways, and
clattering across it, lowering its head and charging at some
imaginary playmate, then cantering off, stopping to stare at
Alexandra and Beheim as they approached, was a black stallion. A
two-year-old, perhaps. Fully mature, but still coltish in its
behavior.

“It’s
beautiful!” Alexandra said as the stallion trotted away,
rolling its eyes at them. Its skin looked oiled. Gleams outlined the
play of its muscles. It was perfect in its energy and sexual power, a
living engine of blood and satiny skin and bone. At a distance,
standing stock-still with the slope behind it, it might have been an
emblem stamped into the white marble.

“What
could it be doing here?” Alexandra asked.

Beheim said,
“Maybe it’s not really a horse.”

“What else
could it be?”

“Old
Kostolec, perhaps. Or an enemy on whom he’s cast a spell. In
this place, it might be anything.”

But the horse
was exactly what it appeared to be, for—like a true horse—it
refused to allow them to come close and touch it, sensing their
strangeness, displaying extreme fear each time they tried, whinnying
and moving farther away. Beheim considered the possibility that it
might be, as had been the death of the young man at Kostolec’s
hands, a kind of lesson, set here to remind them of their unnatural
life, of their predator’s natures, and so ruin any illusion of
normalcy they might wish to inhabit. That, at least, seemed the
measure of its effect on Alexandra. She grew morose, silent, and when
Beheim tried to kiss her, when he put his hands on her waist and
fitted his mouth to hers, she responded to him for a split second,
but then slipped from his grasp and told him that she was no longer
sure of what she wanted.

Chapter
Eight

O
ther rooms of the upper levels, like the cavern and the marble plain,
came complete with occupants whose presence seemed a function of
design, or who at least appeared to be on display. In one of these
they encountered a pitiful old man chained to a wall, surrounded by
scraps of gristly meat and piles of feces, who would break into a
merry nonsense song whenever they came within ten feet of him, and
would abruptly cease his singing when they moved farther away than
ten feet, as if an internal alarm were triggered by this exact
proximity. In another they found a black mastiff with a medallion of
red gold about its neck who stared at them and panted; in another a
lion slept beneath a rose tree whose petals were green glass and
whose blooms were carved of carnelian. In a room with a long
rectangular pool filled with bright water and murals on the wall
depicting pale violet skies and distant snow peaks and graceful
buildings with Doric columns and peristyles, there were three
beautiful women so involved in a Sapphic tryst that not even Beheim’s
shouts could gain their attention. In a small chapel, its ceiling
decorated with frescoes in the style—if not by the hand—of
Michelangelo, a bearded man lashed to a cross spoke in a lectoral
tone in a language that Alexandra identified as archaic Hebrew; now
and then he would burst out laughing. In what had once been an
aviary, a room littered with broken screens and rusted cages and
birdlime, thousands of carrion beetles were feasting on the carcass
of a huge and unidentifiable animal. In a room whose walls and
ceiling were tented with black silk, a grossly fat woman lay naked on
a canopied black bed, playing a game whose counters were tiny bones
with ornate silver inlays; her opponent was a swarthy, emaciated man
no more than eighteen inches tall, who sat on the edge of the bed,
for the most part gazing in horror at the pack of little yapping
white dogs that stood on their hind legs and pawed at the coverlet,
trying to get at him.

There were,
Alexandra said, dozens of such rooms, perhaps hundreds. Beheim would
have liked to investigate them all, for he thought they might yield
clues that would illuminate hitherto uncataloged facets of the
Patriarch’s character and thus serve to increase his
comprehension of the Family; however, time was short, and they
proceeded on past these rooms toward one in which Alexandra believed
they would find Mikolas de Czege, the younger brother of Buka de
Czege, who was patriarch of that branch. As the Valeas and the de
Czeges were feuding, she was leery of confronting Mikolas, not
because she feared him—she claimed she did not—but
because she did not want to exacerbate the feud. “Don’t
let him bait you into anger,” she cautioned him. “You’ll
never learn anything that way.” Given the reputation of the de
Czeges, Beheim himself was none too eager to interview Mikolas; but
once he had passed this test, he thought, the worst would be behind
him, and so he went forward with, if not confidence, then something
of a hopeful frame of mind.

One wall of the
long, narrow room where they found Mikolas was gray, with strips of
peeling wallpaper hanging down and set with tall, narrow windows;
behind the glass of each were powerful lanterns from which chutes of
chalky counterfeit sunlight spilled onto the rough wooden floor. Like
winter light, it pointed up the general disrepair and made the space
it lit seem emptier, more desolate. Three children, two boys and a
girl dressed in rags, all with dirty blond hair, listless and pale,
all approximately eleven or twelve years old, were sitting beneath
the window farthest from the door, staring into nowhere; beside them
was a solitary straight-backed chair upon which some clothing and a
towel were heaped. The other walls, also peeling and gray, were
windowless, and from pegs thereon were suspended a variety of
weapons: swords, whips, maces, spears, daggers. At the center of the
room was a black pole with two buttons mounted on it that ran up into
a box of white metal on the ceiling, and a man-sized dummy of pale,
heavily grained wood with a saber bolted to its hand. Its head was a
long faceless oval, pointed at each end, something insectile about
the shape, and it attached to a thinnish neck; its body was scarred
and nicked; a red heart was painted on its chest, and wires ran from
its limbs to a complex arrangement of cables and tracks that
converged upon the box on the ceiling and permitted the dummy to move
about the room, even into its farthest corners. Whenever Mikolas
attacked, the dummy would parry and then make a rickety-looking yet
effective counterattack. After watching from the doorway for a while,
studying the box and the wires, Beheim could not determine how the
mechanism worked. There must be, he concluded, a device within the
metal box that translated Mikolas’s thrusts and parries into
appropriate reactions on the dummy’s part, but such a device
would needs be of unheard-of sophistication, and he could not begin
to imagine its essentials.

BOOK: The Golden
13.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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