My hand is doing a lot better, and Anita updates will resume tomorrow! But enjoy the Sunday update – which has a character you may recognise…
The meat steamed a little, spirals of scent trailing into the air before him. Pools of fat had leaked from the pork, curling around the gilt plate in greasy puddles. He grabbed it with both hands, and tore it apart with his teeth. His stomach, empty for so long, gave a low growl, as if to warn him of the dangers of gluttony. He couldn’t stop himself. He was just so hungry.
There was a dish of sautéed turnips and onions, and a big fat bowl of some kind of creamy dessert, glistening with sweetened fruit in the flickering candlelight. He stopped, and reconsidered. The room had a roaring fire, and the dessert might not last long. He grabbed the bowl, and began stuffing handfuls of whatever it was into his mouth. On his fifth mouthful, he had the vague idea it might be poisoned. He had been abducted in the middle of the night, by God’s blood, and dragged behind a carriage for who knew how many miles. Those were not the actions of normal men.
But he was hungry, and his feet hurt. He had no drive to abandon the meal provided for him. The room was comfortable and warm. He would stay, and see what would happen to him. He had the desperate survival instincts of a creature that has lived alone and in the cold for far too long.
He finished the bowl, and reached for the glass decanter. There was good, thick red wine provided for him, and after filling his cup, he stood up to examine the room he had been placed in. He had been taken from the stables swiftly, brought up through the silent and echoing house by Funar, who had not said a word. The food had been waiting for him. He had been left in this room, trusted to sit content in the splendour.
From every surface came the gleam of gold.
A man like him would never, in any usual circumstance, be permitted to step one inch inside a room like this. This was the hallowed sanctuary of a powerful and private man. The floor was thick with turkey rugs, richly patterned and brightly coloured. The fire was built high with thick logs, the fireplace made of a shining red marble, close to the colour of blood, illuminated by the glow of candles. White candles, made of real wax, not tallow, stood proud in golden braziers, making light dance around the wooden panelling. Tapestries, shining with silver and gold thread, surrounded him. They all seemed to depict rather gory Biblical scenes, all lovingly made in glorious colours. He examined them closely and found, that despite the nauseatingly full feeling inside his belly, that even the stitched detail of blood drops made him hungry. He turned away, shuddering at his own weakness, and found himself transfixed.
In an alcove, close to the cedar-wood desk, was the portrait of a young woman. She was hidden away, kept in solitude, candles lighting her image as if she were a religious icon. She could have been a Madonna, with her sweeping blue gown, but there was a something in her eyes, a look that was all too knowing to ever be described as virginal.
Predatory. With her dark eyes and vivid red lips, she looked as if she were ready to step from the canvas and devour him.
“Ah, you have found my Erzsébet. You are lucky to have the privilege to see it; she is my most constant companion when I am travelling. I always have her by my side, and while I was at table, the servants were able to replace her.” It was the voice, the voice from the coach. He turned, and found a rather unimposing man stood in the doorway. He was of a middling height and of a middling age; his face was rather lined, but there was a jovial light in his small blue eyes, and a broad smile upon his lips. He was dressed head to toe in deepest crimson, and held out a hand with a thick ring, as if expecting a kiss.
He stared at it blankly. The man who had ordered his abduction gave a little tut and shook his head.
“The manners in this region are rather wanting, I have found. I suppose it is understandable that you are unsure of the correct procedures of greeting and addressing me. Please, sit down. I would like to ask you questions.” The man crossed the roof in quick, little steps that did not match his body, and sat down at the desk. He poured himself a glass of the wine, and sniffed it elegantly. He took a sip, the liquid staining his lips and teeth. “It is only polite to let you know who I am, before I demand any information from you. Please, sit down.” That request came with a sharp edge that told him that this was a man who was not used to his requests being ignored – and that those who did not listen would receive quick and sharp punishments.
He sank down into his chair, the slightly spoiled and gnawed food in front of him turning his stomach.
“My name is Cardinal Augustin S. Cæciliæ trans Tiberim and – “ The Cardinal paused, “You are a true believer, I hope? I don’t allow heretics under my house, and if I find any whiff of the Lutheran heresy about you, I shall have you whipped and thrown from my charity.”
“I – I am a true adherent of the Church, Your Em – Eminence,” he said, remembering what the driver had called him.
The Cardinal gave him a hard look, then an odd bark of a laugh. “But of course, you would say anything to stay here, no doubt. However afraid you are, your hunger will out. Why go back outside? Why do back to sleeping in ditches and waiting for lone pedlars, travelling on country roads?”
“I am no thief, sir.” He said, hurriedly. The Cardinal might be in charge of justice in the local area, for want of a magistrate, and this might be a cruel prelude to a short drop in the morning. “I have no knowledge of the crime you are accusing me of. I am a honest man, travelling to find work in – “
The Cardinal gave more of his strange barks that passed as laughter. “Oh, I think you have every knowledge of what I am accusing you of. I know exactly what you are, and I am curious as to why you have come here. It is well-known in our little community that my lands are completely out-of-bounds, and I want to know why you are hunting amongst my flock.”
“I – “ He could not find the words to explain himself. He reached, instead, for one of the pork joints before him. He gnawed on the bone like an animal, not knowing how he could possibly explain himself. He was not a man who was skilled with words, and what words could possibly describe the monster he was without horrifying a man of God, like the Cardinal? There was no means of describing the creature he had become, the filthy murderer that preyed and ravaged and thirsted like he did. “I did not have anywhere else to go,” he said, finally, his mouth spraying greasy crumbs of pork.
“What do you mean?”
“The one… the one who made me left me in a tavern, some twenty miles hence. I have been on my own since then. That was a year ago. I do not know where I am, or what to do with myself.” He paused, biting on the end of the bone. “Are you the same as me?” He asked hesitantly.
The Cardinal looked at him with those bright little eyes. “There are more of us than you think. You are not the only one in God’s creation. I have a soft heart for those who are abandoned and lost. I may have a role for you, in my household.” Standing up, he drained his cup and moved around the desk. The Cardinal placed a hand upon his head. “My son, do you even remember your name?”
He could not remember the last time anyone had taken his name upon their lips. He had been alone, in mind, body and soul, for so long now, and his name was but a fleeting memory to himself. The word was stricken from his memory, until it appeared upon his tongue. “Nickolas. My name is Nickolas.”
The Cardinal’s hand cupped Nickolas’s face. “We forget, how difficult it is, when you are young. It is a burden too heavy to be carried upon singular shoulders. How cruel, to be abandoned in a world full of temptation. How easy it is to succumb.” He sighed, pulling his hand away. The Cardinal fidgeted with his ring, twisting it about the finger. He took a short, lingering look at the portrait in its hidden alcove and gave a shrug. “My weakness is the neglected and the shunned. I cannot leave a desperate soul, not one as piteous and lost as you.” The smile returned to his face, the lines spreading like webs around his eyes and mouth. His story was one of joy and lightness, it was written clearly upon his face. “I find this room so dreadfully dreary. Shall we talk in the chapel? I find it more conducive for business.”
“What business? What do you want with me?” Nickolas asked.
“You can either hear my proposition, or I can have you killed for poaching on my lands. You are an intelligent man, I believe you can make the right choice for yourself.” The Cardinal spread his hands. “It is up to you entirely.”