At some point, I should probably give a name to these things.
Nickolas followed behind the rippling flow of the Cardinal’s robe. He kept his eyes upon the fluttering red hem, the movement punctuated by the peculiar shuffling walk of the man, a heel occasionally flashing through. He did not like the look of the slippers. They were a bright, vivid red, and reminded him of footprints, made in blood, flickering at the edges of his vision.
“This place is like a maze!” The Cardinal called back, his tone jovial. “I helped to design it, but as my prestige and reputation grew, the building simply grew around me. Sometimes even I get lost, but I should imagine a younger, fitter brain than mine should learn the ins and outs of this old place far better than a doddery old fart ever could. Ah, here we go. Follow me.” He veered suddenly to the left. The corridor, an endless wave of teak doors, panelled walls, and geometric tapestries looked entirely the same to Nickolas; he had no idea how anyone found their way through the labyrinthine similarities of the chateau. It seemed to be made of an interlocking series of twisting corridors, all alike. A door was opened, seemingly at random, and he was ushered inside.
The chapel was like a small, wooden box. It was prettily decorated, he could not deny that, and it had the same gilded sheen as the Cardinal’s private office. There were many pews squeezed in the space; a richly carved stoop for holy water, with a large heraldic crest emblazoned upon the front; thick tapestries choking the walls and enclosing the space; and a suitably impressive golden –
Nickolas’s eyes and mind registered it before the pain burst in his head. The centre of his head, right between his eyes erupted into agony, as if something hot and sharp had been driven, lightning fast, into his brain. He staggered backwards, wrapping his hands about his face, curses and oaths fighting with each other for the chance to erupt from his throat.
The slippers deftly padded past him, pausing by the stoop, before walking down the aisle. Nickolas lifted his head slowly; sudden movements causes fresh paroxysm of pain. The Cardinal was in front of it, that thing, the… crucifix – to think the word sent a burning wire running along the inside of his skull – his head bowed in prayer. Nickolas inched forwards, shuffling his feet over the patterned tiles, getting as close as he dared.
“Does it not hurt?” he croaked, curling a hand around a smoothed arm of a pew, pulling himself down into a seat.
The Cardinal raised his head, his shoulders sloping back as if a weight had been pulled from them. “Yes,” he said shortly. He turned towards Nickolas, padding across to join him in the pew.
“If it hurts so much, then why are you in the Church Your Eminence? Would it not be easier to take some other – “ Nickolas asked, trying to shield his eyes with one hand.
The Cardinal just shook his head. “I can but live my life in the manner to which Lord God has decreed to me. He chose me for this life, as he has chosen you.”
Nickolas snorted and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I do not think that any divine utterances have any role in my life.”
“Can you really think so?” The Cardinal asked softly, steepling his fingers together in his lap. “You have been lost, Nickolas, abandoned by the creature who inducted you into the blood. But do not think that your true creator has abandoned you so easily. What you are, what I am… what we truly are is witness to a miracle of nature, a miracle that passes from progenitor to progenitor, each new generation inheriting this wonder of being.”
“You are hardly a biased man in such matters.” Nickolas interjected. “It is in your best interest for me to sit here, feeling like my head has been staved in.”
“I would have thought that the survival of your now immortal soul would be in your best interests, but we shall leave that aside for now,” the Cardinal broke into a wide smile that was almost impish in nature. He seemed to spend his time flipping from dour seriousness to being full of laughter that was difficult to contain. Nickolas did not quite understand how to deal with it and felt distinctly ill at ease. He had no idea if he was behaving correctly or not, and what the punishment would be when he erred.
“What do you want from me, Your Eminence?”
“You may be able to help me, Nickolas,” the Cardinal paused to gather his words together. The pair sat together in silence. The scent of pungent incense, worked into the walls through decades of burning, began to seep through, enveloping them and forcing its way down Nickolas’s throat. It had a putrid sickly sweet odour that made him feel slightly ill. He should have to get used to it, he reasoned, if he were to stay here for any length of time.
“A man in my standing has to be away from home for long periods of time,” the Cardinal finally said, and he began to mechanically twist the large ring of state he wore around his finger. “I leave the chateau for such long amounts of time, and it worries me greatly. I do not want her to be left alone, with no chaperone to guide her.”
“Her?” Nickolas frowned. He thought back to the portrait, the secret portrait hidden from the whole world. The Cardinal had said he took it with him everywhere. A wife, or perhaps a daughter, he had lost before entering the Church. Maybe that had been his inspiration for becoming a cleric. Maybe he had killed her when he had been remade, and that had led him to remaking himself as a servant of God. Either way, the man was delusional. He appeared to be asking Nickolas to watch over a memory. Although, that would not be a bad way to live. It did not involve ditches at least.
“Yes, my daughter, Erzsébet. I obviously cannot take her with me outside of my estates. She is left her alone for many months at a time. She has her women, of course,” the Cardinal said, with a distinct after effect of distaste, “but she is confined here and is becoming dreadfully resentful of it all. Oh, I do so hate to argue with her, it always makes our limited time together so bitter. She has been wanting to go visiting for some time, but there is no gentleman of standing that could accompany her.” The Cardinal’s grin widened, his teeth very white and shiny in his face. He seemed to have more of them than were strictly necessary. “How do you feel about becoming a gentleman?”