Chapter 16 : Bavaria
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Once, when I was younger, I stood in the shadow of Neuschwanstein Castle, my father by my side, and looked up, gaping and adoring, as the sunlight glittered off slate-grey roofs, setting the limestone walls ablaze with light, almost mirror-like. On every side, deep green trees nodded and swayed in the wind; the castle itself was still, silent – abandoned, in a sense – nothing living within it, and we the only living things beyond it.
There had been something perfect about it, then, something dreamlike and enthralling: as I stared at it, drinking in every feature, from the high gates set in the outermost wall, to the tall spires inside, each one reaching higher than the last, pointed tips like arrows to heaven – and I imagined it could touch the sky, touch beyond the sky, up into the realms of angels, blessed somehow with peace, with tranquillity, with a beauty I was sure could not have been made by man.
It seemed remarkable to think, then, that a muggle king – lost inside his own mind, and alone outside it – had managed to dream such a masterpiece.
Ah, but dreams are always masterpieces, are they not? It is their nature, to be perfect, and so we are disappointed whenever we wake, for life is ugly in comparison.
As with life, though only ever more cruelly, dreams shatter – they break under the truth reality brings, under their own impossibility, their own perfection, somewhere beyond the moon, beyond reach of any magic known to man – and it is then, only ever then, that life sighs and smiles and deigns to retell them, to replay them to others, to yourself, in memories and stories, half-lies both.
You must be careful, dear Albus, not to remember too much or too hard: it is so easy for lies, for wanted images, believed words and feelings, to turn, gently and simply, into truth in your mind.
In that castle, a fairy-tale palace for a man who longed to rid himself of the world, dreams crumbled bit by bit, even as the walls held strong, and the soul of Neuschwanstein – the beauty, the romanticism, the endless, sighing dreaming – faded away, replaced by the curiosity of thousands, their minds and their hearts stirred by his story, but not quite the same, not quite enough to repair it.
It is what happens to all things, all people, is it not? The endless march of time, leaving history in his wake – stripping away the present, those who saw the past, until there is only fiction and supposed truths left.
It is what will happen to you and I, soon enough, for we failed in our dreams.
History will cast upon us shade to rival the glow our dreams once held, and we will vanish into it, consumed entirely, our minds and our hearts and our souls lost to speculation, to the constant guessing and questioning and supposing of historians as they read every letter for a hint of a scandal, something more than the façade they feel they see.
We will live again, Albus, though we will not be the same. Perhaps, perhaps, we will never have met to them – or perhaps they will pluck out of the depths of the swamp our lives have been the romance of it only, the tenderness and the passion, the sweetness of our Spring.
They will never fully understand it, though, our motives assumed and presumed, the words we said invented by others, placed in our mouths because they might have been, they must have been.
History will not be kind, not to either of us – we have too many crosses on our shoulders, my friend, too many scars in our souls for that.
In Bavaria, in Neuschwanstein Castle, I saw history be born, when a king died and people flocked with legends and rumours flooding their eyes, their tongues, their hands, as they went round. They would talk, things they had heard from others becoming facts, becoming known things, and so it is that rumours spin and spin and spin, until heads fly and sense is forgotten in favour of sensation.
What sensation do you think they will make of us? I hope, some days, that they will think of us as we were: young, clever and so very enamoured; on others, I want to hear them speak of how you failed, of how I could have, how I should have… ah, but it will not be either, no?
Nein, you will be the victor, righteous and blazing, with fire and strength and purity enough to match the heroes of old – you tried, they will say; it was all for love, they will claim, as though love wipes the slate clean.
I, I will slip, a wraith of a man, no more and no less than the Dark Lord they call me, down corridors, through rooms swathed in velvet and silk but bare, bare and so cold, out onto balconies and round, round endless stairs of limestone, the grey slate gleaming in the sky; forever trapped in the wrecks of my own dreams, a creature of hate and anguish, a hole in my chest where my heart should be, for I am a Dark Lord, and Dark Lords do not love, do they?
17th January, 1916; Lindau, Kingdom of Bavaria
When despair comes, it comes swiftly, silent and deadly, striking like a viper in the night. Men go to bed in the evening, determined and resilient, full of the promise of the morrow, of the truth that life goes on, and wake in the morning, red-eyed and defeated, their voices thick with sorrow, their hands trembling as the future stares at them from round every corner.
It is, in its way, both comfort and helplessness: the idea that there is nothing you can do, that fate alone is left to decide how it ends. Even as it destroys, it soothes; pressing soft, tender kisses into hair and onto foreheads, holding hands, and murmuring in ears, it is not your fault, you are not to blame.
It is, of course, a liar on both counts.
Even so, liar or no, it is always visible: in the way hands tremble when they grip the back of a chair, the way a voice speaks desperate words in desperate times, trying to appeal to a sentiment already lost, in the way eyes are that much wilder, that much quicker, that much more afraid. A shadow of it, sly and grim, always slips out somehow, and so it passes on, from man to man, a disease of the mind, leaving paranoia and heartbreak in its wake.
With it, before it, after it, but always there, a brother horseman, is chaos, in any of his manifestations: absolute confusion, terror, fear, anxiety… ah, in this, there is opportunity, potential for roses to bloom from ashes, for the phoenix to learn how to take flight once more.
A cycle, as nearly all things are.
(Even us, Albus, we were something of a cycle, in our own way. We existed, one moment, then the next we did not, but somehow, some way, we would end up together again, in any definition you care to suggest, and then, in the end, we would part once more.
Such a tiresome journey, spinning helplessly through the motions time after time, do you not think?
Perhaps, though, perhaps you do not – perhaps you never thought it was. Perhaps to you the repetition of it was pleasing, perhaps my submission to the pattern, admittance that even I could not break it, no matter what I promised myself at each parting, amused you, perhaps – perhaps anything, truly, for how can I know now what I never knew before?
Prison and school are equal cages, and so I will simply wait for the day when you come back to me, when the cycle restarts.)
In this turn of the cycle, at this juncture, when the world around me crumbled – as people quaked and shook and prayed for salvation; as a wave of anger and hate, thick and bitter and so very heavy as it crept into lungs, surged up and through the country, drowning men and women alike in its wake – when the world needed hope, a single cabin to stand against the force of the tempest which battered at the land, I held the phoenix, tiny and fragile though he was, in my hands.
Soon enough, our child (for you fathered him as much as I: shaped him, formed him, named him even as he lay, dormant and still, buried somewhere in between you and I) would stretch his wings, shuffle forwards, ungainly and unsteady, and take flight.
Then, ah, then he would soar, a blaze of red and gold above, the sun would shine, and the world would be reborn.
Utopia realised, the world’s injustices righted, and harmony – harmony between all peoples, across all factions and divides, forged in a bond that will never break; tell me, Albus, was I wrong to dream of this, to crave it, to dedicate myself to building it?
I can never regret that, no matter how long you leave me here.
(People blame it on me, I know, as though I was the only one, as though it was all me, just me… ah, but one man is not a revolution, is he?
You should know this, Albus, stuck in your England with no one to compete with you, challenge you; all those ideas fizzing and bubbling around in your head – plans and schemes, a thousand and one better futures.
Benign, they call you in the papers – do you know this? I laugh when I see it and the guards mutter to one another about seclusion and insanity, but words linger these days, linger on behind my eyelids long after the ink-and-parchment they were once is gone.
Of all things, Albus, you have never been benign.)
Before our child could fly, though, first the wind must be made, enough of it blossoming so that it can grow, breathe and sigh on its own, puffing up and up until eventually it sweeps away without help, pressing against small, infantile wings and lifting delicately towards the sun.
As with all things, such a feat requires men – requires minds and bodies and souls to do it; I merely had to gather them.
There was something romantic about Lindau, even more so than the rest of Bavaria, soaked in rustic charm and an earthly beauty with the lake surrounding the town on the island, the sound of the tide a constant tick in the background – nature’s clock – and the mountains rising out of the water in the distance, wreathed with clouds. It spoke of smoke, of early mornings with the dew still falling, not yet risen, and of a world trapped inside a bubble, joined only to the rest of life by force.
I stood there, on the edge of the pier, gazing out across the lake, watching the boats rowing slowly out to the centre, fishing nets tied to either side; off to one side, where the trees lined the water’s edge, a pair of herons waded, beaks flashing down to spear a fish, large legs making tiny ripples on the surface.
For a moment, I was weak. For a moment, I almost forgot myself, all that I had worked for and all I had gained. For a moment, you see, I looked and I smiled, and I thought that you would have liked it, would have murmured something sentimental even as you curled a hand around the railing, your fingers brushing mine, slow and deliberate – all we could have in public, we creatures of the night.
Still, I cannot say why, only that I did. It is a puzzle I suspect I will not solve.
(Answers do not explain; and I long for explanations, to pick apart the fabric of life and reassemble it, to know how and why it fits together. What else are questions for if not for that?)
I waited until the sun had peeked her head out of the clouds, until I was certain that he would be there – knowing him as I did, how punctuality was his gift from the German curse – and then, only then, I went, pushing the door to the coffee shop open, the little silver bell above my head tinkling gently to announce me.
He was in the corner, tucked in the outermost seat – no doubt so he could flee should I threaten his honour, tarnished as it was.
A statement, and one at which I could only curl my lip, that cold, vicious other in me creeping up in my stomach to my chest, clawing at my ribs and liver to get further, higher, to wrest control. It flooded me entirely, tightening muscles and thoughts, sending friendship, such as I could offer – as I had been willing to offer – out of the window.
“Mathaus,” I smiled, sharp and a little brittle, as I slipped into the other seat; backed into the very corner of the café, with only the table separating us. It was the closest he and I had been since that night in Württemberg, so many years ago.
A kiss returned, and then denied, shamed and twisted; I do not forget these things, and forgiveness does not come easily to me.
“Gellert,” he returned, stiff and formal, the syllables of my name clicking on his tongue, sounding disjointed. He was off-balance, and we had not even begun, not truly. “I see you are well.”
“Very much so,” I assured him, holding his gaze perfectly steady and adding for good measure, “I have many very good friends.”
It was a little like prodding an old scar, testing the stretch of the skin, white against pink, and feeling the cells slotted together dry and crack. He did not wince, not yet, did not flinch or object – merely thinned his lips and locked his jaw, even as something flickered in his eyes, something which spoke of more than simple disgust for a lifestyle he labelled perverse.
Do not think me so arrogant – he was never in love with me, never even in lust with me, and I did not want him to be, but when he kissed me that night, inhibitions wiped away, the laws of God forgotten, he felt more than he wanted to, wanted more than he should have done. The shame was his alone; all I had to bear was the sting of the knowledge that once again, I would be denied. Once again, I would not have what I wanted.
They say in Hungary, that Eiferwein unmakes men; that she takes their souls and turns them inside out, all the demons kept locked deep within allowed to run along the skin, tug on heartstrings and limbs, savage puppeteers.
It is bottled bacchanalia; your secret heart displayed, your body and mind running wild.
It is glorious, in its fashion: the freedom of excess.
“I will not pretend – not now, when so many things are in motion – that those plans you made never existed, or that I never saw them,” I began slowly, spinning my coffee cup round in gentle, solemn circles, passing the handle from fingertip to fingertip. “Nor will I pretend that I do not still believe in them. They can be realised; they will, God help me, be realised.”
“You are planning something,” he deduced, as though saying the words out loud would make them any less true, as though he expected, perhaps, that I would deny it. “You would not have bothered before, but now you are planning something, and you need me for it, don’t you?”
“No,” I replied simply, draining the last of my coffee in the pause, watching as his face tinted pink with anger, a flush rising in his cheeks. “I do not need you; I want you – or rather, your mind. A mind like yours is not for this world, and you know it.”
“Perhaps,” he mused, seemingly most to himself, staring at the wood of the table, mapping out the whorls buried in it with his eyes. “Perhaps…”
Now would be when I would claim him for my own. Now would be when, after so long, I secured him for the future – for utopia.
“If I told you that I could build that world, that I could give it to you, what would you say?” I pressed, keeping my voice low, mindful of other patrons; this was not the idle chatter of schoolboys, or the inane ramblings of madmen – it was not for eavesdroppers to know.
He looked at me then, long and deep (and dear god, how it reminded me of you, do you know, making my stomach clench and my heart thud painfully in my chest), and I remembered in that instant just why I had wanted him with me so much, why his name had been on my list from so early on.
Why I had considered he could replace you in more ways than one; that I could simply swap you in every way, and be done with the memories.
I do not like feeling trapped, Albus, feeling bound to things where I did not seal the cords myself; control has ever been my ally, and with you… ah, what control is there with you?
We have always been equals – unnervingly, frustratingly, thrillingly equal – and the discovery of you, the discovery that I could be matched, that potentially I could be bettered, pushed and challenged in ways I had become convinced were impossible, slipped a noose around my neck and the string around your wrist. Every time I scoffed and left, I would walk so far, only for you to tug, gently, on the rope and remind me, through the sting of humiliation, that I was not alone; a king I may be, but there was another on the board, opposing and defeating.
Fascination is such a scheming goddess; with every gift she showers you with, every delight laid at your feet, it binds you to her, tying you ever closer, until you are nothing more than a slave to the twitches and flicks of her wrist, sending shivering, rippling signals down the strings happiness has crafted around your limbs.
A spider, of sorts, hanging drops of dew like lanterns from her web, and always, always an invitation you cannot refuse.
Now, now I sit here, and I think back and I do not know if the world is shaded that way only to me, or if the colours are lessened elsewhere, lightening beyond my sight – sometimes I go to ask you, to demand the truth, and I remember that it has been so long.
How long? Years, I know, but I cannot keep count with the days any more. There have been too many.
With Mathaus’ signature inked onto the line – impossible to take back now, if it ever had been – obstacles were vanishing from in front of me, the path clearing to the finish line, gleaming bright against the horizon. Like a puzzle, I had slotted together a team for the future, for a new age and a new world, and Mathaus had completed it, the last link in the chain.
I could move forward, then, start in earnest to build our dream, Albus, moulding it carefully out of the ashes of today, brick by brick by brick.
Flitting through my house in Württemberg, too big for one person alone in truth – but simple has never been my dream, no? – wrapped in crushed crimson velvet which slid so smooth against my skin, I lingered awhile in the drawing room: the walls covered with paintings, with books, a map of the stars which swirled and twirled through the seasons. It was a cold room, perhaps, stately and barren, save for the two dozen camellias in the corner, their petals only just beginning to pucker at the tip, in the first throes of blooming.
The note that had come with them was safe, locked away in a drawer: my name inscribed upon it in thin, slanted handwriting I recognised quicker than my own.
A gift – though for what purpose I was uncertain; uncertain and yet so very charmed.
(You had ensnared me once again – though I suspect now that you had never let me go. I am both precious and dangerous in your eyes, and so I am an obsession, as all the most truly wonderful things are.
In the end, you were more dangerous to me than I to you, yes?
Ah, nobility; the eternal leveller of kings, keeping tongues bound even as their legs are cut from underneath them.)
I was, however, certain that in this gift, seemingly so simple and so harmless, there was something else: a message, a note, unspoken and unheard – and so, lost to the rest of the world. Opportunity sang in white domes, petals fanning out and up, small and identical, even as I remembered books my grandmother had showed me, which spoke of lovers’ languages, silent and secret and spun from yearning, obvious simplicity.
Adoration, perfection, loveliness; a trio for the poets, ja?
Ah, in that time, there in the drawing room, my fingers gliding over stems and leaves, the faint hum of magic woven over them, I looked at my surroundings, at the paintings and maps and books, and saw only the future. I saw revolution, built at last, beginning the long, slow journey which would bring her to me, to my Germany.
To you and I, and the memory of your dear, broken sister.
So many possibilities, when the world is seen in hues of gleaming gold and silver, Victory herself heading the procession, and where there are possibilities, there is foolishness and nostalgia, and, on occasion, a plea to the past, to memories you do not want to lose.
Next to the camellias sat my messengers – a single sprig of peach blossoms, pink and fragrant, plucked and trapped in the very beginning of Spring, at the height of their beauty. Every now and then, a petal would drift to the table, another appearing in its place; they would never wither, never grow old, only ever renew themselves.
A message in so many ways; I half-wondered if you would ever find them all, those little hidden treasures, or if you would stop, struck, at the first.
Sometimes, my mind wandering back over the length of my life, I wonder if you have them still, in a vase in your Hogwarts, on the windowsill next to Fawkes, perhaps? A memento of a time where neither of us won anything, but neither of us lost, and that, for us, is something of a victory, I think.
Then, though, then I merely smiled and sighed – and hoped, secretly and silently – and waited, anticipation creeping slowly through my body, drawing up my muscles and along nerves, pulling me taut; an arrow on a bow, held still in the seconds before it flies.
Then, there, I hung on the edge of a precipice, Albus, about to jump, and oh, the fall would be glorious!
A/N: I do not own Neuschwanstein Castle (the King referred to is Ludwig IV, called 'the Mad' hence Gellert's story ;)), nor do I own any references to Victory as a goddess (meaning Nike).
Nein - no
Ja - yes
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