The room that Count Kurtain [or Kurzsan, as Sila realised when they passed a block of text on the wall referencing the name] led him to did, as advertised, have a lit fire, though it seemed unlikely that the warmth of its flames would reach any of the walls.
The sheer size of the place; if Sila had counted out the time it took from the door to the fireplace, he was sure it would’ve been at least half a minute.
But he’d been distracted, mainly by the deep purple cloak of his host, the bottom part of it caught on the top of his left boot.
Kurzsan neither noticed nor cared as he sat down on the rug by the poker and stared into the flames.
Due to the lack of chairs, Sila did the same.
To some people, this may have been something meaningful, but to Sila it was vacant, the flames being far too alive, flickering erratically, tracing the madcap ley lines of his own mind instead of giving something steady to anchor onto.
A black square.
Uranus from a distance.
Green hospital walls.
The Garden of Earthly Delights.
That’s what he liked to peer into.
Sensing this on some level perhaps, Kurzsan left the flames and stared at the far wall past Sila. His beard was ragged, but the rest of his face, especially the long nose, reflected the heat nicely. He did not appear at all to be seven hundred years old. And the fact that his hand was now on Sila’s forearm meant he couldn’t be a ghost either.
Pushing his fingertips down to Sila’s bone, he confirmed it, his voice even softer than before.
‘Ghosts, as far as I’m aware, do not converse. If that’s what you think I am.’
‘Yet there are some concessions I could make to the theory. Certain limits to my existence here. That, however, is for another day.’ He released Sila’s arm and picked up the poker, stoking the fire without strategy. ‘It has been so long since I’ve had visitors. So very long.’
‘I didn’t think you were a ghost,’ replied Sila, watching sparks leap off the coal and vanish into the smoke.
‘Tell me, young man, how is the movie industry progressing? Did they make a sequel to Fletch? How about Beverly Hills Cop?’
‘And literature. Is Lem still writing? Did Tanith Lee manage to finish her alien leopard series? Is there a new genre conjured up that includes both computers and flying skateboards?’
Sila stared at Kurzsan’s beard, then switched to the paintings above the fireplace when the Count caught him.
‘By the puzzled expression on your face, I deduce that I am at least a hundred years out of date.’
‘More like forty, or fifty,’ answered Sila, following the hem of the dress on the glum medieval woman above. Possibly Kurzsan’s mother. Or wife. Or one of those kidnapped lovers the plaques had talked about.
‘Ah, not so poor then. It merely means I have more digging to do. Stitching a new costume from the materials you can give me. Other metaphors I can’t think of right now.’ He yawned, looking up at the same painting as Sila. ‘Ah, I see you have honed in on Veronika. A difficult courtship that one.’
‘She was your wife?’
He laughed, jabbing the wall with the poker. ‘No, no. She was far too low on the scale for that kind of arrangement. Lover was the appropriate position, eventually. At first, she would not even see me. Then her father objected when I hosted her here in this castle. Had to deal with him. After that, she locked her room, complained about the leery nature of my façade or some such drivel. Poor girl had no idea about the secret tunnel I’d built. Of course, fucking her soon became tedious, even in the dungeons and, typically, I would’ve dunked her in the river nearby and moved on yet…there was a brother of hers…a young man with the smoothest hair you’d ever seen…’ He stopped the poker, analysing the fragments of chipped stone he’d dislodged from the wall. ‘Those were different times back then.’
During the monologue, Sila’s hand had shifted back into his jacket pocket, getting a tighter and tighter grip around the handle of his knife as the Count detailed his previous exploits.
At first, there had been some level of fear, trepidation, but that had passed when he realised how depressed the count looked. Now he just felt disgust. And, on a deeper level, desire. An atavistic urge to find that secret tunnel, burst into his room and see how the anomalous fucker liked it when the sock was on the other dick.
He blinked, realising that Kurzsan was looking at his jacket pocket.
‘I’m not certain you can harm me, young man,’ he said, his voice a little harsher. ‘If that is your intention.’
‘My name is Sila.’
‘I assume it is a small blade you are concealing.’
‘Not that small.’
Kurzsan nodded and looked back at Veronika, then the other paintings of long dead men and women and wolfmen surrounding it.
‘Did you terrorise all of them?’ Sila asked, keeping his grip on the handle tight.
‘To the degree that my position afforded. Yes.’
‘With no punishment?’
‘Your consideration of ennui. The hold it has. Its powers.’
‘Therapy is a big industry now.’
‘A peculiar answer.’ The Count lifted up a finger and floated it through the air until settling on a painting on the far right; a man with a bowl cut that only people facing the black death could think was decent. ‘He was the one. Petr. Sehr mutig. Came to me as a fifteen year old, fresh as a coddled lamb. Walked through my castle gate as if it were his own front door. Stayed with me. Hunted at my side. Visited my bed. Created wounds for me to experiment on. Sucked droplets of blood from my lacerated shaft. Disappointed me. Irritated me. Died in the castle dungeon, alone, at twenty three. Ja, I confess, I truly did the blackest things to that boy. And yet…’
Kurzsan lowered his finger, making no effort to wipe away the tears streaming down his stone-like face.
Despite internal self-warnings, Sila removed his hand from his jacket pocket and did something he had the vague hope would confuse the count; he patted him on the shoulder.
Instantly, he felt Kurzsan’s muscles tense up, and then an arm swung backwards to knock him off. He swatted it away with surprising agility, even to himself, and cemented his grip.
There was no more resistance, but no acknowledgment either.
‘I don’t suppose you give much weight to the argument of historical relativism?’ Kurzsan asked, finally brushing away the tears from his face.
‘Then you believe I am evil, singularly?’
Kurzsan put his hand on top of Sila’s and gently guided it off his shoulder and down onto his thigh
then went back to the flames.
Due to a lack of clocks in the room, Sila had no idea how much time had passed, and it was only when he remembered the existence of his phone that he was able to find out it was almost three in the morning and he’d been there for almost two hours.
Weird that I forgot about my phone, he thought, putting it back in his non-knife pocket. Must be all this historicism surrounding me. And the serial killer projecting god knows what onto that fire.
Maybe he’s got the same thing in mind for me that he had for medieval Petr?
There’s no law to back him up here, no sword in hand and, based on his current state and mood, no certainty that he could take me in a fight.
Sila looked up at bleak Petr, settling on two lines: one, Kurzsan dominated cos he really was a great fighter and, two, Petr didn’t fight back cos of class distinction.
No, there was a third, too: Petr wilted cos he was in love.
And a fourth: Kurzsan would kill without batting an eyelid, others wouldn’t.
How many do I qualify for? Sila wondered.
A coughing noise ruptured the flickering sound of the flames, bringing Sila back down to ground level. Somehow, at some point, using some unseen portal, Kurzsan had left the room and come back with a pile of books with no front covers.
‘Reading time,’ he said, a whole new expression on his face. Glee, if Sila had to label it.
‘What language are they in?’
‘German, mostly. Though there are several translated into English, the lingua franca of this age. Unless that has changed too?’
‘Actually, yes. It’s Slovene now.’
The Count mouthed the word back to himself, looked at his paintings in confusion for almost a full minute, then finally leaned in close and slapped Sila on the thigh, adding a laugh like a faltering chainsaw. ‘Ah, your first play. Well done.’
‘I’m glad you can take a joke.’
‘Yes, in older times, I would’ve had you flayed. But now…it is a different matter.’
‘No one to do the flaying?’
Kurzsan didn’t laugh this time, but he did smile. Clamping his hand on a book with a crimson cover, he laid it down on Sila’s lap and said, ‘read.’
‘Okay…’ Sila opened up, skipped through the preamble, the introduction, the company line praise by other authors, the first paragraph of chapter one that was tedious description, and started reading.
After a few seconds, Kurzsan put a hand over the page and asked what he was doing.
‘To me, you dolt. Read out loud so I may relax.’
‘What, like a servant?’
‘Sehr mutig. No, there is no need to call yourself such. Besides, none of my servants could read, and even if they could, I never would’ve asked them to do such an intimate thing as to recite prose to me. No, this activity is strictly for confidantes.’
Sila breathed out with theatrical weight and went back to the start of Chapter One. ‘Beyond the citrine reeds of the lush, blanketed fields, the slanted house stood as a solemn refinery to all that was malevolently modern.’
‘No, no…start on the praise.’
‘The first pages, the praise. Other authors detailing what they like about this story.’
‘You wanna hear all that?’
‘Certainly. It is often the most lyrical part.’
‘Okay…’ Sila flicked back a few pages, took in the first quote and stifled a laugh, then read out loud. ‘Not since the feverish quill of Rabelais has a text enraptured so vociferously. At points, an affectionate tirade, by the end, a searing treatise on all that is insidious about this enervating age in which we currently toil.’
‘And the next,’ said Kurzsan, fixing his eyes again on the painting of Veronika.
Sila coughed, trying not to picture the lump of shit that came up with the thing he was about to recite. ‘Bravo, Sir! A hit, a palpable hit. Daring prose, yet unerringly prescriptive in its diagnosis of our current ills. It will be a fair few seasons before I read a novel of this elk again.’
Checking the line, Sila laughed. Either a typo or this clown had truly fucked up.
Or maybe it was a pun connected to the novel?
Did the story involve elks?
He checked the back of the book, but it was one of those very old ones that had no blurb, just more praise for the author.
Looking left, he opened his mouth to ask Kurzsan what he thought, but the Count was faraway now, his eyes completely unresponsive to the fact that Sila was staring right at him.
A trance of some kind?
Sila followed the Count’s line of sight and came to Petr, the poor fifteen year old who’d wandered through the worst of all world’s castle gate.
Was this regret, or erotic recall?
Based on Kurzsan’s vacant gaze, it was hard to tell. No drool either, or tears, or lump within his loose under gown. He had been in this castle a long time, at least seven hundred years in linear time, perhaps longer in the felt variety. Or perhaps shorter. Without visitors, did he just blink out of existence temporarily? Until called on again?
Which one was more likely to prod regret? Guilt?
Running his eyes across the parade of misery hanging above the fireplace, Sila could make a case for both. Loneliness grows longing grows tension grows a psycho-sexual scream. Or loneliness grows thought grows sadness grows a new found desire to connect with someone on an equal footing.
Was that what was happening here?
He blinked, catching a particularly loud crackle from the fireplace.
‘Sorry, I blanked out there a bit…’ he started, but cut off the rest of his excuse when he saw that Kurzsan was no longer sitting next to him. Instead, he was on his feet, moving towards a different door, purple cloak free and flowing out behind him.
Throwing the book perilously close to the fire, Sila pulled himself up and followed the trail of the Count, shouting forward for him to slow down a bit.
Kurzsan didn’t respond and
after two smaller passageways that had to have been used by the servants in older times, and a claustrophobic spiral staircase,
Sila found himself in a compact room, kind of like a film set,
with a four poster bed,
turquoise curtains poorly covering the window/balcony
a second painting of glum Veronika
zero sign of Count Kurzsan.
Where the fuck did he go? Sila asked himself, walking out onto the balcony and shivering a little as he looked over the side of the stone railings.
There was nothing below, no rope or ladder, and apparently no other rooms on either side.
In the distance: mountains, snow, wild beasts, the cousin of that fucker who’d slashed at his neck.
Ah, not again, he thought, forcing his hand back down from the obvious thematic symmetry.
Pushing the curtain aside, Sila moved over to the bed and sat down. It was impressively soft, almost sucking him into a makeshift hole, and lying down seemed to be not the worst thing he could do.
So he did it.
Give it five minutes and I’ll go and look for him, Sila told himself as he shuffled up the bed to the giant pillows with loose feathers sneaking out.
Probably went into one of those secret tunnels. Like he did with Veronika. When they were courting.
Sila breathed in through one nostril, the other blocked, and stretched his neck back so he could see the painting on the wall.
No, that wasn’t it.
Kurzsan had used the secret tunnel to come in here.
To rape her.
Sila closed his eyes then pressganged them open again, letting out a gigantic yawn.
He’d raped her here, on this same bed.
Cos he was a rapist.
A terrible man.
Not even hum…
His eyelids gave up and the image of the rigid Veronika looming above narrowed until everything was dark and deep and formless again.